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The Science of Early Childhood Development: Closing the Gap Between What We Know and What We Do

Susan Notes: This paper presents a set of core developmental concepts that have emerged from decades of rigorous research in neurobiology, developmental psychology, and the economics of human capital formation, and considers their implications for a range of issues in policy and practice.

by National Scientific Council
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University


Executive Summary

The future of any society depends on its ability to foster the health and well-being of the next generation. Stated simply, todayâs children will become tomorrowâs citizens, workers, and parents.

When we invest wisely in children and families, the next generation will pay that back through a lifetime of productivity and responsible citizenship. When we fail to provide children
with what they need to build a strong foundation for healthy and productive lives, we put our future prosperity and security at risk.

Two recent developments have stimulated growing public discussion about the right balance between individual and shared responsibility for that strong foundation. The first is the explosion of research in neurobiology that clarifies the extent to which the interaction between genetics and early experience literally shapes brain architecture. The second is the increasingly recognized need for a highly skilled workforce and healthy adult population to confront the growing challenges of global economic competition and the rising costs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid for the aging baby boomers.

In an effort to identify those aspects of development that are accepted broadly
by the scientific community, the National Scientific Council, based at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, brought together several of the nationâs leading neuroscientists, developmental psychologists, pediatricians, and economists. This document presents their critical review of the existing literatures in their fields and a consensus about what we now know about development in the early childhood years. The objective of the Council is to move beyond the publicâs fascination with âthe latest studyâ and focus on the cumulative knowledge of decades of research
that has been subjected to rigorous and continuous peer review. The goal of this document is to help the public and its policy makers understand the core principles of that body of work that are now sufficiently accepted across the scientific community to warrant public action.

It is our hope and belief that better public understanding of the rapidly growing science of early childhood and early brain development can provide a powerful impetus for the design and implementation of policies and programs that could make a significant difference in the lives of all children. Without that understanding, investments that could generate significant returns for all of society stand the risk of being rejected or undermined. Thus, there is a compelling need for scientists to share with the public and its representatives an objective basis for choosing wisely among competing demands on limited resources.

This paper is designed to provide a framework within which this complex challenge can be addressed most effectively. Its goal is to promote an understanding of the basic science of early childhood development, including its underlying neurobiology, to inform both public and private sector investment in young children and their families. To this end, the paper presents a set of core developmental concepts that have emerged from decades of rigorous research in neurobiology, developmental psychology, and the economics of human capital formation, and considers their implications for a range of issues in policy and practice.

Core Concepts of Development

⢠Child development is a foundation for community development and economic development, as capable children become the foundation of a prosperous and sustainable society.

⢠Brains are built over time.

⢠The interactive influences of genes and experience literally shape the architecture of the developing brain, and the active ingredient is the âserve and returnâ nature of childrenâs engagement in relationships with their parents and other caregivers in their family or community.

Both brain architecture and developing abilities are built âfrom the bottom up,â with simple circuits and skills providing the scaffolding for more advanced circuits and skills over time.

⢠Toxic stress in early childhood is associated with persistent effects on the nervous system and stress hormone systems that can damage developing brain architecture and lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health.

⢠Creating the right conditions for early childhood development is likely to be more effective and less costly than addressing problems at a later age.

Implications for Policy and Practice

⢠Policy initiatives that promote supportive relationships and rich learning opportunities for young children create a strong foundation
for higher school achievement followed by greater productivity in the workplace and solid citizenship in the community.

⢠Substantial progress toward this goal can be achieved by assuring growth-promoting experiences both at home and in community-based settings, through a range of parent education, family support, early care and education, preschool, and intervention services.

⢠When parents, informal community programs, and professionally staffed early childhood services pay attention to young childrenâs emotional and social needs, as well as to their mastery of literacy and cognitive skills, they have maximum impact on the development of sturdy brain architecture and preparation for success in school.

⢠When basic health and early childhood programs monitor the development of all children, problems that require attention can be identified in a timely fashion and intervention can be provided.

⢠The basic principles of neuroscience and the technology of human skill formation indicate that later remediation for highly vulnerable
children will produce less favorable outcomes and cost more than appropriate intervention at a younger age.

⢠The essence of quality in early childhood services is embodied in the expertise and skills of the staff and in their capacity to build positive relationships with young children. The striking shortage of well-trained personnel in the field today indicates that substantial investments in training, recruiting, compensating, and retaining a high quality workforce must be a top priority.

⢠Responsible investments in services for young children and their families focus on benefits relative to cost. Inexpensive services that do not meet quality standards are a waste of money. Stated simply, sound policies seek maximum value rather than minimal cost.

The need to address significant inequalities in opportunity, beginning in the earliest years of life, is both a fundamental moral responsibility and a critical investment in our nationâs social and economic future.

Thus, the time has come to close the gap between what we know (from systematic scientific inquiry across a broad range of disciplines) and what we do (through both public and private sector policies and practices) to promote the healthy development of all young children. The science of early childhood development can provide a powerful framework for informing sound choices among alternative priorities and for building consensus around a shared plan of action. The well-being of our nationâs children and the security of its future would be well-served by such wise choices and concerted commitment.

The full report is available at the url below.

— National Scientific Council/Center on the Developing Child at Harvard Unive



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