Skip navigation

How do we know it works?

The effects of disadvantage or adversity in early life can be negative, but they are by no means universal or irreversible. An extensive body of evidence, built around rigorous testing of specific programmes, shows that early intervention can improve outcomes for children and families by targeting the circumstances that make supporting children’s development difficult.

While early intervention cannot solve every problem, it can substantially improve children’s lives if it is delivered to a high standard to the families who need it the most.

Evidence-based early intervention

Rigorous evaluation and testing of early intervention programmes and approaches tells us which forms of support have been effective at improving child outcomes, and provides invaluable information for future decisions about early intervention policy, funding and service design.

Because not all early intervention is effective. Some things are evaluated and shown to have no effect. And there is another, much wider set of activities that have not yet been evaluated, and so little is known about their impact. Developing evidence of impact takes time.

The EIF Guidebook provides a wealth of information about early intervention programmes that have been shown to improve child outcomes. Every year, EIF assesses dozens of programmes, reviewing the strength of their evidence for improving child outcomes. This in-depth research results in an evidence rating, cost rating, and other important information about the programme, including the child outcomes it has been shown to improve, the target population, and the skills and qualifications required by the practitioners who deliver it. According to the EIF evidence standards, a programme is considered to be ‘evidence-based’ if it receives at least a level 3 evidence rating, and programmes are added to the EIF Guidebook if they receive at least a level 2 rating.

This is what we mean when we talk about the importance of effective early intervention: on balance, families and children who receive interventions shown through rigorous testing to have improved outcomes in the past are more likely to benefit and to a greater degree than those who receive other services.

Early intervention in action: the implementation challenge

All of this research and testing supports early intervention as the right approach for helping children and young people. But we also know that effective implementation of early intervention approaches is not straightforward. It is not always easy to identify the right interventions to suit local needs or the skills and capacity of the local workforce. Interventions will only improve outcomes if they are carefully targeted at the children and families who are most likely to benefit. And in order to be effective, early intervention approaches often need to be reinforced by other parts of the wider system in which they are being provided.

For more information, see our growing collection of reports and resources on some key stages in implementing early intervention, including making the case for early intervention as a priority, understanding local needs, commissioning programmes and services, evaluation, workforce training, and developing effective systems and partnerships.

See: How to make early intervention work