From Neurons to Neighborhoods:
The Science of Early Childhood Development
National Research Council and Institute of Medicine
October 3, 2000
Jack P. Shonkoff
Dean, Florence Heller Graduate School, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass.
Chair, Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development
Good morning. I would like to welcome everyone in the room and those listening on the Web to the National Academies. I'm pleased to be here today, with other members of our study committee, to publicly release a new report centered on child development from birth to age 5. This report is a product of the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.
This morning, we will concentrate on four main messages, all of which are drawn from our extensive review of science and child policy.
1. Early experiences affect the development of the brain and lay the foundation for intelligence, emotional health, and moral development, but the focus on the period from "zero-to-three" is too narrow.
2. Healthy early development depends on nurturing and dependable relationships.
3. How young children feel is as important as how they think, particularly with regard to school readiness.
4. And although society is changing, the needs of young children are not being met in the process.
In recent decades, two profound changes have altered the landscape for the policies and practices that address the needs of the nation's young children and their parents. The first is an explosion of research in neurobiology and in the behavioral and social sciences that has led to major advances in our understanding of the many factors that influence child health and development. The second is a significant change in the social and economic circumstances of working families in the United States, which has dramatically transformed their lives. Yet, at a time when important scientific advances could and should be used to strengthen our capacity to care for and protect our children, such knowledge is frequently dismissed or ignored. And our children are paying the price.
After two and a half years of intensive study, the committee concluded that there is a compelling need for a fundamental re-examination of our society's responses to the needs of young children. This is not about blaming parents, communities, the workplace, or government. This is about sharing responsibility and using scientific knowledge to promote the health and development of all young children.
Our committee was convened to evaluate and integrate a vast scientific literature about the nature of early development and the influence of early experiences on children's lives. The committee was composed of 17 members with backgrounds in neuroscience, psychology, child development, economics, education, pediatrics, psychiatry, and public policy. Our primary task was simple in concept yet challenging to execute: It involved separating fact from fiction and exploring how scientific advances could be used to inform early childhood policy, services, and research, as well as to provide reliable information to parents of young children.
The report that we are releasing today covers an extensive body of multidisciplinary research. It addresses the period from before birth until the first day of kindergarten. It includes efforts to understand how experience affects all aspects of development -- from the neural circuitry of the maturing brain, to the expanding network of a child's social relationships, and to both the enduring and the changing cultural values of the society in which parents raise their children.
The committee's focus ranged from single-parent, two-parent, and multigenerational households that struggle to make ends meet to affluent families who invest substantial resources in maximizing advantages for their children. We also recognized in our study the significant and growing cultural diversity of the United States.
Over the course of our deliberations, the committee was frequently struck by the limited extent to which our nation's policies and practices capitalize on what science has to offer.
For example, the social and emotional development of children are just as important as their intellectual advancement. Scientific evidence shows that very young children are capable of experiencing deep anguish and grief in response to trauma, loss, or personal rejection. And yet, many early child-care and education programs fail to apply such knowledge in their everyday dealings with children, and the shortage of professionals with expertise in early childhood mental health exacerbates the problem. We therefore recommend that children's social and emotional needs receive investments and attention comparable to those currently devoted to early literacy, and that incentives be offered to qualified mental-health professionals to work in early childhood settings.
The committee also found overwhelming scientific evidence of the central importance of early relationships for children's development. Indeed, young children who lack at least one loving and consistent adult often suffer severe and long-lasting developmental problems. But the reality of life in the United States today makes it difficult for many working parents to spend sufficient time with their children. The committee therefore recommends policies that ensure more time, greater financial security, and other supportive resources to help parents build close and stable relationships with their young children.
Our report also debunks many popular myths about the early childhood period. For example, 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. Stated simply, the disproportionate focus on "zero to three" begins too late and ends too soon. The development of the human brain begins well before birth, continues throughout life, and is influenced by both nature and nurture.
Early brain development is clearly promoted by nurturing adults. But there is also strong scientific evidence about how to protect the early development of the brain from harm, which directs our attention to the importance of preventing poor nutrition, specific infections, and exposure to environmental toxins and drugs, beginning early in the prenatal period. The committee therefore recommends that the nation mount an attack on the biological hazards to healthy brain development comparable to previous public health campaigns directed at smoking cessation and teen pregnancy reduction. It is also essential that sensory deficits be identified and treated early so that the brain receives the stimulation that it needs to thrive.
At the other end of the spectrum, contrary to the large and increasing number of commercial products on the market that claim to boost babies' intelligence, there are no special programs or materials that are guaranteed to do so. Young children thrive naturally when adults routinely talk, read, and play with them in a safe and encouraging environment. A theory that suggests that exposure to classical music may boost brainpower, the so-called "Mozart effect," has never even been studied in infants and toddlers. In contrast to the lack of evidence on special enrichment programs, the committee found convincing scientific evidence that well-designed early intervention programs can shift the odds in favor of children who live in high-risk environments or those with developmental disabilities.
Additionally, we believe that intervention programs should be more accessible to parents who work full time, particularly during hours outside the standard 9-to-5 schedule. Furthermore, the significant prevalence of serious family problems -- such as substance abuse, maternal depression, and family violence -- underscores the need for specialized expertise that typically is not available in traditional early intervention programs. Such programs, like Head Start, were first designed more than 35 years ago, before the impact of these problems on children's health and well-being was clearly recognized.
On the whole, the nation's early childhood offerings amount to a disjointed collection of highly diverse responses -- and the need for a more coherent and integrated set of policies is clear. Much of the responsibility lies with families, communities, and the workplace. There is also an important role for government, and the committee makes a number of recommendations for how public policies and practices can be improved.
The committee calls upon the next president to establish a task force of federal and state representatives to review the entire portfolio of public investments in child care and early childhood education. The goal of the task force should be to use scientific knowledge to develop a comprehensive 10-year strategic plan that focuses on three overarching goals:
Promoting close and consistent relationships between preschoolers and qualified caregivers;
Addressing the special needs of children with developmental disabilities or chronic health conditions; and
Ensuring that all early care and education settings are safe, stimulating, and compatible with the values and priorities of the families they serve.
The committee was struck by the growing number of young children being raised by hard-working parents whose earnings are inadequate to meet their families' needs. Despite the nation's current economic prosperity, children under the age of 5 are more likely to be living in poor families today than they were 25 years ago. This is a particularly pressing concern because recent research indicates that poverty during early childhood may be more damaging than poverty experienced at later ages -- especially in its impact on a child's school performance and ultimate academic attainment.
Therefore, 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 no child who is supported by a working adult will live under the poverty level, and that no children will suffer from deep and persistent poverty, regardless of their parents' or caregivers' employment status.
We believe that federal policy-makers should recognize the importance of strong, early relationships between young children and their parents by expanding coverage of the Family and Medical Leave Act to all working mothers and fathers. The current law, which provides three months of unpaid leave, includes several restrictive eligibility criteria that leave an estimated 40 percent of private-sector employees uncovered. Policy-makers also should explore financial supports for low-income parents who meet the eligibility requirements but do not take the unpaid leave because they cannot afford to forgo pay, even on a temporary basis. In keeping with our emphasis on supporting early family relationships, the committee also recommends that government leaders extend the amount of time that welfare recipients with very young children are excused from meeting the work requirements of recent welfare-reform policies.
Finally, the time has come for society to recognize the significance of those who care for children when their parents aren't available, and the importance of ensuring stability and quality in these relationships. Thus, the committee recommends investments in increasing the skills, pay, and benefits of child-care professionals, whose average wage is roughly $6 per hour or about $12,000 a year.
In summary, the committee calls upon the entire nation to rethink the balance between individual and shared responsibility for babies and young children. Families clearly are the best vehicle for providing loving and caring relationships. Communities are ideally situated to provide support through informal networks and voluntary associations. Businesses can create work environments that both promote productivity and enhance family well-being by offering flexible work schedules and important benefit packages. And government at all levels can make a significant difference through tax policies that alleviate economic hardship, minimum wage laws that help low-income workers, child-care standards that ensure safe and stimulating environments for young children, funding for early intervention services for children with special needs, and paid family-leave benefits and child-care subsidies that give parents a real choice about whether and when to go back to work.
My colleagues and I will now take your questions. We would like to begin by inviting comments from members of the press, and then we will open the floor to everyone, including those of you who are listening on the Web. Since this briefing is being recorded, please state your name and affiliation before asking a question. Thank you.
# # #