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Spring 2004
Starting Out on the Right Path
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A growing body of scientific research links the quality of early-childhood experiences to school success, sparking a revolution
in both education policy and practice

Illustration of Children Playing Ball

WE HAVE IN THE PAST DECADE come to know a great deal more about the importance of the early years of an individual's life in determining his or her trajectory for lifelong learning, health and development. A converging body of research has highlighted the importance of children's physical, cognitive, language and social/emotional development and its impact on their ability to succeed in school.

This research has created a unifying message for parents and early-childhood professionals about the importance of risk prevention and promoting optimal child development. At the same time, subtle but significant shifts have taken place in health education and social policy that pertain to young children. New statewide, national and international initiatives are underway, focused on comprehensive healthy development and school readiness.

Beginning in the 1970s, increasing convergence in the fields of developmental neurobiology and developmental psychology began to document a set of important findings. The first of these discoveries was that the brain was not mature at birth and that significant amounts of structural and functional development took place in the postnatal years. While some would trumpet the importance of 0-to-3, this new research clearly demonstrated that focusing prevention and promotion efforts only on this narrow age span was starting too late and ending too early. The research documented that significant amounts of brain development not only took place prenatally, but also continued throughout the first decade of life — and much of the resculpting of the brain takes place during the second decade.

The second important finding was the growing recognition that experience not only modifies behavior, learning and skill development, but that patterns of experience can be linked to specific changes and nerve-cell connections. As conclusions from animal and human experiments converged, studies confirmed that children exposed to richer language environments and more positive verbal stimulation could have a four-fold greater vocabulary by age 3, and be on the pathway to earlier literacy and a more positive learning trajectory. This implied that there were fundamental changes happening in the neural architecture of these children's brains that were sensitive to their surrounding environments. The neural foundations that are created during early childhood serve as important bases for future learning abilities.


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