Shaping the Brains of Tomorrow

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Shaping the Brains of Tomorrow



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What developmental science teaches about the
importance of investing early in children.

style='font-size:16.0pt;mso-bidi-font-size:6.5pt;font-family:Arial;
color:#333333'>By href="http://www.prospect.org/web/%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20/web/page.ww?name=View+Author&section=root&id=1164">Ross
A. Thompson

From “The American Prospect Online,” Nov 1, 2004. style='mso-bidi-font-size:6.5pt;font-family:Arial;color:#333333'> Issue
Date: 11.02.04

What would happen if the best minds in the country concluded
that investments in early-childhood development are necessary and
cost-effective? That the early years present an opportunity, unequaled later
in life, to enhance inborn potential and avert harm? What if they could
identify the “active ingredients” of healthy psychological development, and
how to enhance these in young children growing up in deprived conditions?
Wouldn’t society become mobilized to do its best for young children?

We are in this situation today, and the arguments for
investing in early-childhood development are scientific, not political. As
the result of several blue-ribbon studies of the forces shaping young
children’s growth, developmental scientists today agree on some basic
conclusions: The early years are important. Early relationships matter. All
children are born ready to learn, both intellectually and socially. Even in
infancy, children are active participants in their own development,
together with the adults who care for them. Early experience can elucidate,
or diminish, inborn potential. The early years are a period of considerable
opportunity for growth and vulnerability to harm.

What we do with this knowledge will shape the lives of the
next generation.

Development in the Early Years style='mso-bidi-font-size:6.5pt;color:#333333'>

Developmental psychologists and neurobiologists agree that the developing
mind is astonishingly active and self-organizing, creating new knowledge
from everyday experiences. Newborns crave novelty and become bored with
familiarity, so their eyes, ears, and other sensory organs are attuned to
events from which they can learn. A few months later, the infant mentally
clusters objects together that are similar in shape, texture, or density, and
explores gravity and causality as crackers are dropped from the high chair.
A toddler categorizes faces, animals, and birds according to their
properties, and by age 3 or 4, children make logical inferences about new
members of a group, such as appreciating that a dolphin breathes like the
mammal it is rather than the fish it resembles. Just as the developing
brain is expanding its interconnections, the developing mind is making
connections between the new knowledge it discovers and creates.

The remarkable intellectual accomplishments of the early
years extend to language development. Newborns have an innate capacity to
differentiate speech sounds that are used in all the world’s languages,
even those they have never heard and which their parents cannot discriminate.
But later in the first year they lose this ability as they become
perceptually attuned to the language they will learn. By age 3, a child is
forming simple sentences, mastering grammar, and experiencing a “vocabulary
explosion” that will result, by age 6, in a lexicon of more than 10,000
words. Equally important, language will enable the child to put developing
ideas and concepts into words that he or she can share with another, revolutionizing his or her thought by gaining access to the concepts,
ideas, and values of others.

Sensitive caregiving -- not educational toys or Mozart CDs
-- provides the most essential catalysts for these feats of intellectual
growth. People are critical to the development of the mind: Newborns attend
in a special way to human faces and voices, toddlers learn new words based
on their interest in the intentions of adult speakers, and memory develops
through the shared recounting of everyday events. Relationships stimulate
the mind and provide the emotional incentives to new learning as young
children share their discoveries with another. This is why promoting school
readiness is not simply a matter of encouraging literacy and number skills.
It must also ensure the secure, unhurried, focused attention from sensitive
caregivers that contributes to the growth of curiosity, the eagerness to
discover, self-confidence, and cooperation.

Healthy brain development relies on people to provide the
stimulation that organizes connections in the cortex for language and
complex thought. It also relies on people to protect the baby from
overwhelming stress, manage the child’s emotions, and promote security.
This is why strong attachments between infants and their caregivers are as biologically basic as learning to crawl and walk. Throughout evolution,
attachment relationships have ensured human survival by keeping infants
protected and nurtured. By their first birthday, infants have developed
deep attachments to those who care for them. And these attachments, in
turn, provide a foundation for positive relationships with peers and
teachers, healthy self-concept, and emotional and moral understanding.

In the absence of nurturing relationships, things can go
wrong. It isn’t surprising to find that insecure attachments develop more frequently
in homes where parents are stressed or depressed, or in chaotic child-care
settings. Even more disturbing is research demonstrating how early children
show signs of depression, conduct problems, social withdrawal, and anxiety
disorders, and how closely these problems are tied to the quality of the
parent-child relationship. These studies show that relationships with
caregivers who are neglectful, physically abusive, or emotionally troubled
can predispose young children to psychopathology. So the importance of
these earliest relationships is a double-edged sword: Sensitive caregiving
underpins healthy development, while markedly inadequate care renders young
children vulnerable to harm.

Relationships also influence the growth of social and
emotional understanding. Far from being egocentric, young children are
fascinated by what goes on in others’ minds, and social experiences are the
laboratory in which these discoveries emerge. A 2-year-old whose hand
inches closer to the forbidden VCR while carefully watching her parent’s
face, for example, is testing the adult’s expected reaction. And a
3-year-old whose roughhousing has resulted in a crying younger sibling
learns from an adult about the connections between exuberant running and
inadvertent collisions, enhancing his or her emotional understanding and
empathy.

From Mind to Brain -- and Back Again style='mso-bidi-font-size:6.5pt;color:#333333'>

Whether we are concerned with the growth of the mind or the person, all of
these remarkable early achievements take place in the developing brain.
Brain development begins within the first month after conception, and by
the sixth prenatal month, nearly all of the billions of neurons that
populate the mature brain have been created. This means that the quality of
prenatal care, particularly the mother’s nutrition, health, and exposure to
dangerous viruses and drugs, can have a profound effect on the developing
brain of her fetus. Health, nutrition, and drug exposure continue to
influence brain development after birth.

Both before and after birth, there is an initial “blooming”
of connections between neurons, creating a brain densely packed with many
more neural pathways than it needs. This proliferation is followed by a
period of “pruning” in which little-used connections gradually erode to
reach the number required for optimal efficiency. Experience is the central
determinant of which neural pathways are retained or disappear. The early
experiences that sculpt the developing brain can be stimulating or
neglectful, supportive or traumatic, secure or stressful. Through a “use it
or lose it” principle, those neurons that aren’t activated through
experience progressively wither. Language exposure, for example, helps to
account for the transition from the newborn’s capacity to perceive
universal speech sounds to the 1-year-old’s language-specific speech
perception. Developmental neuroscientists offer similar accounts to explain
the early development of vision, memory ability, early categorization and
thinking skills, and emotional development.

Brain development is an extended process -- not limited to a
narrow “window of opportunity” between zero and three, as conventional
wisdom sometimes suggests. Neural connections in areas of the brain guiding
higher forms of thinking and reasoning grow and atrophy into early adolescence,
for example, and the adult brain even creates new neurons in certain
regions governing memory. Brain architecture continues to be subtly refined
throughout life in ways that reflect the individualized, everyday
experiences of the person. The brain of a musician who plays a stringed
instrument, for example, differs from the brain of a poet who works with
words and abstract ideas because they have exercised different brain
regions throughout life.

Despite these exciting discoveries, neuroscientists are
still at the early stages of understanding how experience refines the
brain. They are concerned with how early deprivation (such as that
experienced by orphans from Romania and the former Soviet Union), abuse,
and trauma influence early brain growth, and whether these effects can be
altered. They are also studying how relational problems, such as the
challenges faced by an infant of a depressed mother, influence brain
development.

Investing in Young Children style='mso-bidi-font-size:6.5pt;color:#333333'>

These and other conclusions from a landmark study of the National Academy
of Sciences, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, underscore the importance of early experiences
for development throughout life.

What about children, then, who live in deprived or high-risk
conditions? Considerable research shows that many of them will lag
intellectually from infancy and will suffer deficiencies in various facets
of healthy psychological development. Poverty significantly compromises
healthy intellectual and socioemotional development, for example, and
poverty during early childhood is more powerfully predictive of later
achievement than is poverty at any later stage. The reasons include
stressed caregivers, troubled parent-child relationships, dangerous
neighborhoods, and inadequate schools and community supports.

Can early interventions improve the odds of healthy
development for children at risk? The answer offered by the committee of
scientists that wrote From Neurons to Neighborhoods is both
optimistic and challenging. The good news is that there are successful
strategies, especially programs that emphasize child-focused educational
activities and parent-child interaction, and are governed by specific
practices matched to clear goals. But the most effective interventions are
rarely simple, inexpensive, or easy to implement. Changing the rarely simple, inexpensive, or easy to implement. Changing the
developmental trajectory of a young child growing up in deprived
circumstances requires determination, persistence, and patience.

Are such interventions cost-effective? Determining the
cost-effectiveness of programs for at-risk young children requires putting
price tags on the innumerable human consequences of early deprivation. Yet
several studies of comprehensive early-intervention efforts have found that
program costs are more than compensated by averted costs of educational
remediation, juvenile or adult crime, and diminished job earnings.

While expensive, large-scale public efforts have been
skeptically regarded by policy-makers most concerned about their costs,
important new voices are emerging in support of these investments. One is
that of James Heckman, Nobel laureate and University of Chicago economist,
who argues that the varied benefits of early-childhood interventions -- in
cognitive learning, motivation, and socialization -- are likely to have
long-term advantages in the labor market because of the cumulative effects
of early improvements in ability. Another is that of Art Rolnick of the
Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, who (along with colleague Rob
Grunewald) estimates that public investments in programs to assist poor
children yield a 16-percent real rate of return. This, he argues, compares very favorably to other public investments with more popular appeal, such
as building sports coliseums, which typically have little or no return on
public investment. Although much more research is needed, it appears that
society’s investment in improving the chances for young children at risk is
economically worthwhile.

The views of economists like these shift the debate about
public efforts to support healthy early development. And they join the
chorus of scientists whose work has consistently shown how much
early-childhood experiences and relationships matter. It is now reasonable
to ask why public policy lags so significantly behind the science and
economics of early-childhood development.

The public policies that would support healthy
early-childhood development are child-friendly and family-friendly. They
include:

  • child-care
    policies that ensure widespread access to affordable, high-quality child care;

  • welfare-reform
    policies that enable parents to integrate work and family
    responsibilities constructively in children’s interests;

  • prenatal
    and postnatal health care that screens children for developmental
    difficulties before they become severe, guarantees adequate nutrition,
    provides early visual and auditory screening, and protects young
    children from debilitating diseases and hazardous exposure to
    environmental toxins.

In the end, because children are society’s most
valuable asset, they are also a social responsibility and investment.
Because the science of early-childhood development converges with the
economics of public policy to confirm that investments in early-childhood
development are both necessary and worthwhile, it is long past time for
society to catch up.

Ross A. Thompson
is a developmental psychologist at the University of California, Davis and
a member of the National
Scientific Council on the Developing Child
.
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Copyright © 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Ross A. Thompson, "Shaping the Brains of Tomorrow", The American Prospect Online, Nov 1, 2004. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@prospect.org.