Our brains shape and reshape themselves in ways that depend on what we use them for throughout our lives. Learning language is a nice example of how experiences contribute to each person’s unique pattern of brain development.
Language and Literacy in Early Childhood
How parents and caregivers speak to kids significantly affects I.Q., literacy, and academic success later in life, according to University of Kansas child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley.
Their study found that the number of words and encouragements and the breadth of vocabulary heard by a child during the first three years of life can dramatically affect language development and I.Q. Hart and Risley made close observations of 42 one- and two-year olds and their families for more than two years.
From those observations, the researchers estimated children in professional families hear approximately 11 million words per year; while children in working class families hear approximately 6 million, and children in families receiving public assistance hear approximately 3 million words annually.
For more information on the study, read: Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.
From Neurons to Neighborhoods
Young children who lack at least one loving and consistent caregiver in the earliest years may suffer severe and long-lasting development problems. This landmark study of scientific brain research shows environmental stress, even among infants and toddlers, can interfere with the proper development of neural connections inside the brain essential to a child’s proper social and emotional development. This report recommends that early childhood programs balance their focus on literacy and numerical skills with comparable attention to the emotional and social development of all children.
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development was published in 2000 by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
Joint attention refers to the shared focus that conversational partners – an infant and her caregiver – have on an object and topic. Infants and young children whose parents engage in more joint attention have larger vocabularies than children whose parents engage in less joint attention. High-quality child care environments, where caregivers practice joint attention and are responsive to the cues of infants and toddlers, have been shown to be tied to higher rates of language acquisition.
To learn more about the research behind joint attention, read Foundations: How States Can Plan and Fund Programs for Babies and Toddlers from the Ounce of Prevention Fund.
Secure Attachment and Continuity of Care
Attachment -– the security, confidence, and trust that infants and toddlers have with the adults responsible for their care -– is the framework within which babies develop their growing ability to regulate emotions and behavior. Babies thrive when they are securely attached to their mother, father, or primary caregiver who knows and responds consistently and reliably to their unique personalities. Infants and toddlers who are not securely attached are likely to become preschoolers unable to control their behaviors and kindergartners who have difficulty engaging in the process of learning. Recognizing the importance of secure attachment, the Ounce of Prevention Fund implements a continuity of care model at Educare. This model minimizes the disruptions that children experience by keeping infants and toddlers with the same classroom team of teachers until they transition to preschool.
To learn more about the research behind secure attachment and continuity of care, read Secure Attachment from the Ounce of Prevention Fund.
Link between Early Learning and Health
While much attention and effort has been directed at addressing the widening achievement gap in the United States, children growing up in poverty face an equally pervasive and related health gap. By and large, they have markedly worse health than their higher-income peers. This gap appears early in life and builds over time. Science suggests that adverse early life experiences and environments—prenatally and in a child’s first years—can contribute to the health gap, leaving biological imprints on the child’s developing body and brain that can have strong and lasting effects.
Fortunately, new and current research points us to a critical strategy in narrowing the health gap and giving all children a strong chance at good health over a lifetime. We can ensure that every child has access to high-quality early childhood programs, including early education and home visiting.
To learn more about the large body of evidence linking early learning and health, read Start Early to Build a Healthy Future from the Ounce of Prevention Fund.