Date: Oct. 3, 2000
Contacts: Vanee Vines, Media Relations Associate
Mark Chesnek, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <>

Policies, Programs That Affect Young Children Fail to Keep Pace With Scientific Advances, Changing Society

WASHINGTON -- Given the explosion in scientific knowledge about development from birth to age 5, coupled with dramatic social and economic changes in recent decades, the nation should thoroughly re-examine policies that affect young children and bolster its investments in their well-being, says a new report from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

"As a nation, we're simply not taking advantage of how much we have learned about early development over the past 40 years," said Jack P. Shonkoff, chair of the committee that wrote the report and dean of the Florence Heller Graduate School, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass. "Work and family life are changing dramatically yet children's needs are not being addressed. This is not about blaming parents, the workplace, communities, or government. This is about sharing responsibility, separating fact from fiction, and using scientific knowledge to promote the well-being of babies and young children."

Although society tends to focus on children's academic advancement, their social and emotional development are just as important, the report emphasizes. And their needs in these areas should receive investments and attention similar to those devoted to the three R's. For example, scientific evidence shows that even very young children are capable of experiencing deep anguish and grief in response to trauma, loss, and personal rejection. But many early childhood education and child-care programs have failed to apply such findings to everyday dealings with children, and the severe shortage of professionals with training in children's mental-health issues exacerbates the situation.

In the past several decades, significant advances in neuroscience and the behavioral and social sciences have shed new light on early development and what kids need to thrive. Research indicates that early relationships are especially critical, and that cultural values and practices provide the context for these bonds. Youngsters who lack at least one loving and consistent caregiver, such as a parent or attentive child-care provider, may suffer from severe and long-lasting developmental problems, the report says. However, what currently exists in the United States is a mixed bag of policies and practices that often are based on little or no evidence that they actually promote children's well-being.

As a first step to tackle the problem, the president should establish a task force to review the entire portfolio of public investments in child care and early childhood education -- with the goal of making the most of scientific knowledge. The final product should be a 10-year plan that focuses on ways to foster sustained relationships between preschoolers and qualified caregivers; addresses the special needs of children with developmental disabilities or chronic health conditions; and ensures that all child-care settings are safe, stimulating, and responsive to families' individual concerns, the report says.

In addition, Congress and the president's Council of Economic Advisers should scrutinize the nation's tax, wage, and income-support policies with an eye toward ensuring that working families with children are not in poverty and that no family suffers from deep and persistent poverty -- regardless of employment status. Poverty during a child's early development is more harmful than at any other time because it often limits access to enriching experiences and qualified child-care providers, the committee noted.

The report also calls for larger investments in children's mental-health care, a neglected policy area. Rather than confronting this issue thoughtfully, the nation has sought quick fixes, including allowing the extensive use of drugs such as Ritalin on preschoolers with behavioral problems. Instead, changes are needed across-the-board to focus on distinguishing between youngsters with serious emotional disorders and those who are simply immature or experiencing short-term developmental delays, the committee said. More incentives also should be offered to professionals with expertise in children's mental-health issues to work in child-care settings. And to identify and address problems before they worsen, state and local authorities should automatically conduct developmental and behavioral screenings of all children who are referred to child-welfare agencies because of suspected abuse or neglect.

Left in the Lurch?

The lack of focused attention to early childhood development -- between birth and age 5 -- could not have come at a worse time. America is experiencing a period of tremendous social and economic change, the committee noted. Despite the nation's economic upswing and higher levels of maternal education, financial hardship is not uncommon. In fact, preschoolers today are more likely to be from poor families than they were 25 years ago. Many parents work more hours out of economic necessity, and often outside the typical 9-to-5 time frame -- an increased workload that has left some parents straining to balance making a living with family time. Record numbers of women with young children also work outside the home, resulting in a rapid growth in reliance on child care for infants and toddlers.

Challenges stemming from such circumstances reflect some of the most complex problems of modern society. Rather than offer recommendations for specific action -- many of which have been made before and gone unheeded -- the committee underscored the compelling need for a comprehensive reassessment of the nation's child-care and income-support policies. The persistence and pervasiveness of substandard child care and dearth of high-quality services are particularly indefensible, the report says.

Federal policy-makers should recognize the importance of strong early relationships between young children and their caregivers by expanding coverage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to all working parents, the committee said. Currently, employees must meet several criteria to receive unpaid time off under this law. According to some estimates, the FMLA does not cover 40 percent of private-sector employees. Policy-makers also should explore ways to financially support low-income parents who take family leave, since even a temporary loss of earnings can be a hardship. To further promote family ties early on, government leaders should extend the amount of time that welfare recipients with infant children are excused from meeting work requirements of welfare-reform plans.

The time also has come for society to recognize the significance of those who care for children when their parents are not available, and the importance of stability and quality in these relationships, the committee added. The major funding sources for child care and early education should set aside money to support initiatives aimed at increasing the qualifications, pay, and benefits of child-care professionals. These initiatives can be built on the successful experience of the U.S. Department of Defense, which invested in better training and pay for child-care providers serving military families. The department's efforts, spurred by a 1989 federal law, cut the provider turnover rate from 48 percent to 24 percent in four years.

Separating Fact From Fiction

The committee's comprehensive study debunked many popular myths about the early childhood period. For starters, although there is considerable evidence that early experiences influence brain development, the neurological window of opportunity does not slam shut at age 3 or 5. Such development begins before birth, continues throughout life, and is influenced by both genetics and the surrounding environment, the report says. The long-standing debate about the importance of nature vs. nurture, considered as independent influences, is overly simplistic and scientifically obsolete.

Plus, there are no special programs that are guaranteed to accelerate early learning during infancy, the report says. Most children thrive naturally when adults routinely talk, read, and play with them in a safe and encouraging environment. Despite the proliferation of materials that claim to raise babies' IQs, there is a lack of hard scientific data on how enrichment activities affect early brain development. For example, the so-called "Mozart Effect," a theory that suggests that exposing youngsters to classical music may boost their brainpower, has never been studied in young children.

But well-designed intervention programs to help disadvantaged youngsters or children with serious health conditions can indeed make a difference, the report says. And such programs should be more accessible to parents who work full time, particularly during nonstandard hours. Furthermore, the prevalence of serious family problems -- such as substance abuse, maternal depression, and family violence -- makes clear the need for specialized expertise that typically is not available in traditional intervention programs, which tend to focus on children.

Additional evaluation research is needed to determine how different types of interventions affect children and families from a wide variety of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, the report says. Also needed are more rigorous evaluations of intervention efforts, and greater collaboration among child-development researchers, neuroscientists, and molecular geneticists who want to learn more about how biogenetic and environmental factors jointly influence early development.

The study was sponsored by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Education, Commonwealth Fund, Irving B. Harris Foundation, Heinz Endowments, and Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Research Council -- the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering -- and Institute of Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science and health policy advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).

Board on Children, Youth, and Families

Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development

Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D.1 (chair)
Florence Heller Graduate School, and
Samuel F. and Rose B. Gingold Professor of Human Development
Brandeis University
Waltham, Mass.

Deborah L. Coates, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology
Department of Psychology
City University of New York
New York City

Greg J. Duncan, Ph.D.
Professor of Education and Social Policy
School of Education and Social Policy, and
Faculty Associate
Institute for Policy Research
Northwestern University
Evanston, Ill.

Felton J. Earls, M.D.1
Professor of Psychiatry
Department of Child Psychology
Harvard Medical School, and
Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods
Harvard University School of Public Health
Cambridge, Mass.

Robert N. Emde, M.D.
Professor of Psychiatry
Department of Psychiatry
Health Sciences Center
University of Colorado

Yolanda Garcia, M.A.
Director of Children's Services
Santa Clara County Office of Education
Santa Clara, Calif.

Susan Gelman, Ph.D.
Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of Psychology
Department of Psychology
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Susan J. Goldin-Meadow, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology
University of Chicago

William T. Greenough, Ph.D.2
Swanlund Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Cell and Structural Biology
Departments of Psychology and Cell and Structural Biology, and
Center for Advanced Study
University of Illinois

Ruth T. Gross, M.D.1
Professor Emerita of Pediatrics
Department of Pediatrics
Stanford University Medical School
Longboat Key, Fla.

Megan Gunnar, Ph.D.
McKnight University Professor
Institute of Child Development
University of Minnesota

Michael Guralnick, Ph.D.
Center on Human Development and Disability, and
Departments of Psychology and Pediatrics
University of Washington

Alicia F. Lieberman, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology
Department of Psychiatry
University of California
San Francisco

Betsy Lozoff, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics
Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases
Medical School, and
Center for Human Growth and Development
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Ruth Massinga, M.S.
Chief Executive Officer
Casey Family Program

Stephen W. Raudenbush, Ed.D.
Professor of Research Design and Statistics
Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology, and Special Education
School of Education
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Ross A. Thompson, Ph.D.
Carl A. Happold Distinguished Professor of Psychology
Department of Psychology
University of Nebraska


Deborah A. Phillips, Ph.D.
Study Director

1 Member, Institute of Medicine
2 Member, National Academy of Sciences