Brain development research—
What it means for young children and families
New insights into brain development affirm what many parents and caregivers have
known for years, 1)good prenatal care, 2)warm and loving attachments between young
children and adults, and 3)positive stimulation from the time of birth, really do
make a difference in children's development for a lifetime.
In June 1996, Families and Work Institute held a conference at the University of
Chicago entitled "Brain Development in Young Children: New Frontiers for Research,
Policy and Practice." Convening professionals from the neurosciences, medicine,
education, human services, the media, business, and public policy, the conference focused
on what we know about the developing brain and how that knowledge can and should inform
efforts to improve results for children and their families. The following is taken from
Rethinking the Brain: New Insights into Early Development by Families and Work
What have we learned?
- Human development hinges on the interplay between nature and nurture.
The impact of environmental factors on the young child's brain development is
dramatic and specific, not merely influencing the general direction of development,
but actually affecting how the intricate circuitry of the human brain is "wired."
How humans develop and learn depends critically and continually on the interplay
between an individual's genetic endowment and the nutrition, surroundings, care,
stimulation, and teaching that are provided or withheld.
- Early care has decisive and long-lasting effects on how people develop and learn,
how they cope with stress, and how they regulate their own emotions.
Warm and responsive early care helps babies thrive and plays a vital role in healthy
development. A child's capacity to control her own emotional state appears to hinge on
biological systems shaped by her early experiences and attachments. A strong, secure
attachment to a nurturing adult can have a protective biological function, helping a
growing child withstand the ordinary stress of daily life.
- The human brain has a remarkable capacity to change, but timing is crucial.
The brain itself can be alteredóor helped to compensate for problemsówith appropriately
timed, intensive intervention. In the first decade of life, the brain's ability to change
and compensate is especially remarkable.
There are optimal periods of opportunity -- "prime times" during which the brain is
particularly efficient at specific types of learning.
- The brain's plasticity also means that there are times when negative experiences or
the absence of appropriate stimulation are more likely to have serious and sustained
Early exposure to nicotine, alcohol, and drugs may have even more harmful and long
lasting effects on young children than was previously suspected.
These risk factors frequently are associated with or exacerbated by poverty. For
children growing up in poverty, economic deprivation affects their nutrition, access
to medical care, the safety and predictability of their physical environment, the level
of family stress, and the quality and continuity of their day-to-day care.
- Evidence amassed by neuroscientists and child development experts over the last decade
point to the wisdom and efficacy of prevention and early intervention.
Well designed programs created to promote healthy cognitive, emotional, and social
development can improve the prospects - and the quality of life - of many children.
The efficacy of early intervention has been demonstrated and replicated in diverse
communities across the nation.
Where do we go from here?
- First do no harm
- The principle that guides medical practice should also apply to policies and
practices that affect children.
- Allow parents to fulfill their all-important role in providing and arranging
for sensitive, predictable care for their children.
- Parents need more information about how the kind of care they provide affects
their children's capacities.
- Implement policies that support parents in forming strong, secure attachments
with their infants in the early months, and make a concentrated effort to improve
the quality of early care and education.
- Prevention is best, but when a child needs help, intervene quickly and intensively.
- Warm, responsive care cushions children from the occasional bumps and bruises that
are inevitable in everyday life.
- If children are given timely, intensive help, many can overcome a wide range of
- To have greatest impact, interventions must be timely and must be followed up with
appropriate, sustained services and support.
- Promote the healthy development and learning of every child of every age, every
demographic description, and every risk category.
- If we miss opportunities to promote healthy development and learning, later
remediation may be more difficult and expensive, and may be less effective.
Implications for policy and practice
- Improve health and protection by providing health care coverage for new and expectant
parents and their young children.
Preventive health screenings,well-baby care, timely immunizations and attention to
children's emotional and physcal development is cost-effective and provides a solid
foundation for good health and development.
- Promote responsible parenthood by expanding proven approaches.
All parents can benefit from solid information and support as they raise their children.
Parent education/family support programs that promote the healthy development of
children and improve the well-being of parents are cost effective.
- Safeguard children in early care and education from harm and promote their learning
The nation's youngest children are the most likely to be in unsafe, substandard
More than one third are in situations that can be detrimental to their development,
while most of the rest are in settings where minimal learning is taking place.
- Enable communities to have the flexibility and the resources they need to mobilize
on behalf of young children and their families.
Support efforts to create the kind of community you and your children want to be a
part of, develop goals and strategies for achieving this vision, determine how to finance
your efforts, and make provisions for measuring your results.
Research taken from Rethinking the Brain -- New Insights into Early Development; Conference
Report -- Brain Development in Young Children: New Frontiers for Research, Policy and Practice,
organized by the Families and Work Institute, June 1996.
For more information, contact:
Families and Work Institute
330 Seventh Ave.
New York, NY 10001