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Early Brain Development and Public Policy:. What Have We Learned? What Should We Do?. Ross A. Thompson, Ph.D. Department of Psychology University of California, Davis [email protected]

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what have we learned what should we do
Early Brain Development and Public Policy:

What Have We Learned?What Should We Do?

Ross A. Thompson, Ph.D.

Department of Psychology

University of California, Davis

[email protected]

“On a purely economic basis, it makes a lot of sense to invest in the young. . . . Early learning begets later learning and early success breeds later success.” -- James J. Heckman, Ph.D. Nobel Prize laureate and University of Chicago economist


“Skill begets skill” (self-productivity): early abilities provide a foundation on which later capabilities are constructed

Later remediation of early achievement failures is difficult and costly; prevention of these difficulties is more cost-effective

Both cognitive and noncognitive skills are essential foundations to adult workforce productivity

Early investments have a multiplier effect: they facilitate the productivity of later investments

Developmental neuroscience, developmental psychology,and the economics of human capital formation are yielding a common focus on development in the early years
psychobiological development
brain development nutrition

developmental behavioral & molecular genetics

Psychobiological development

Psychobehavioral development

emotions memory

cognition language attachment

Thompson, R. A., & Nelson, C. A. (2001). Developmental science and the media: Early brain development. American Psychologist,56(1), 5-15.
brain architecture is built over time
Brain Architecture is Built Over Time
  • The early years matter because the interaction between early experience and gene expression shapes the maturing architecture of the brain
  • The development of the brain incorporates experience, whether positive or negative, that shapes the brain’s capacities
  • Brain development is built in a hierarchical, “bottom-up” sequence, with advanced skills built on more basic capabilities
  • As it develops, the quality of brain architecture establishes a sturdy or weak foundation for learning and behavior
brain architecture is integrated
Brain Architecture is Integrated
  • Brain development occurs through the brain’s active engagement in everyday experience
  • Social, emotional, and cognitive development are integrated in brain development because each draws on common, interrelated neural functions
  • Emotional health and social competence provide a strong foundation for emerging cognitive abilities, but early mental health problems can impair learning along with emotional well-being
the plasticity of brain architecture decreases over time
The Plasticity of Brain Architecture Decreases Over Time
  • Brain circuits consolidate with increasing age, making them more difficult to rewire
  • The timetable of brain plasticity varies: it is narrow for basic sensory abilities, wider for language, and broadest for cognitive and social-emotional skills
  • Early plasticity makes the young brain both more vulnerable to harm and more capable of recovery
  • At all ages it is more efficient – biologically and economically – to prevent later difficulty than to try to remedy problems that emerge
Thompson, R. A., & Nelson, C. A. (2001). Developmental science and the media: Early brain development. American Psychologist,56(1), 5-15.
early childhood stress influences developing brain architecture

Early Childhood Stress Influences Developing Brain Architecture

Research on the biology of stress responding shows that chronic, severe, and/or uncontrollable stressful experiences disrupt developing brain architecture and can lead to stress management systems that respond at lower thresholds

positive stress

Positive Stress

  • Moderate, short-lived stress responses, such as brief increases in heart rate or mild changes in stress hormone levels.
  • Precipitants include the challenges of meeting new people, dealing with frustration, getting an immunization, or adult limit-setting.
  • An important and necessary aspect of healthy development, especially when it occurs in the context of stable and supportive relationships.
tolerable stress

Tolerable Stress

  • Stress responses that could disrupt brain architecture, but are buffered by supportive relationships that facilitate adaptive coping.
  • Precipitants include death or serious illness of a loved one, a frightening injury, or parent divorce.
  • Generally occurs within a time-limited period, which gives the brain an opportunity to recover from potentially damaging effects.
toxic stress

Toxic Stress

  • Strong and prolonged activation of the body’s stress management systems in the absence of the buffering protection of adult support.
  • Precipitants include extreme poverty, physical or emotional abuse, chronic and serious neglect, enduring maternal depression, family violence.
  • Disrupts brain architecture and leads to stress management systems that respond at relatively lower thresholds, thereby increasing the risk of stress-related physical and mental illness.
relationships are the active ingredients of healthy brain development
Relationships are the “Active Ingredients” of Healthy Brain Development
  • Supportive early relationships offer protection from the effects of stress, and the absence of such relationships can imperil the brain’s capacities for managing stress and/or its recovery
  • Early relationships also protect against biological hazards to healthy brain growth -- nutritional inadequacy, physical illness, sensory impairment, dangerous exposures -- beginning prenatally
  • The intersection of brain maturation and relational experience also helps to explain fundamental aspects of healthy psychological development
what have we learned
What Have We Learned?
  • respect and support the relationships on which infants and toddlers rely - within and outside the home
  • help to promote the integrated development of minds and hearts in early learning experiences
  • foster a strong foundation of brain architecture by stimulating, protecting, and supporting developing capacities
  • strengthen the security of family life
  • protect infants and toddlers against chronic, severe, or uncontrollable stress, and help to ensure relational support for managing stress
  • enable sustained supportive assistance for young children in difficulty, particularly by enlisting nested relational networks
early relationships are the active ingredients of healthy development
Early Relationships are the “Active Ingredients” of Healthy Development

If we truly believe that early, close relationships are crucial to mental and emotional growth . . .

then we must reexamine:

  • parental leave policies,
  • income support and antipoverty programs,
  • parental access to substance abuse, mental health, and domestic violence programs,
  • and other policies that address the obstacles that exist to reliable, supportive family relationships on which infants and toddlers rely
relationships outside the family are developmentally important
Relationships Outside the Family are Developmentally Important

If we truly want to support the relationships of care on which infants and toddlers rely . . .

then we must support high quality child care programs that promote:

  • reliable relationships with well-qualified caregivers,
  • developmentally appropriate practices,
  • an individualized, child-centered curriculum,
  • a language-rich environment,
  • a safe environment for children,
  • and a supportive context for families
multiple strategies are needed to support healthy brain development
Multiple Strategies are Needed to Support Healthy Brain Development

If we truly believe that healthy brain development is a foundation to competence and well-being . . .

then in addition to encouraging parents to talk and read to their infants, we must also urge:

  • national attention to environmental protection,
  • affordable access to prenatal care and well-baby care,
  • early nutritional support,
  • early vision and hearing screening,
  • programs of accident prevention,
  • and parents to prioritize relaxed, responsive, child-centered social play
school readiness requires a balanced approach
School Readiness Requires a Balanced Approach

If we really want to build a strong foundation for healthy development and effective learning for infants and toddlers . . .

then we must begin early, and we must devote as much attention to children’s emotional well-being, motivation, and social capacities as we do to their cognitive and academic skills

early prevention is better than later remediation
Early prevention is better than later remediation

If we truly believe that early intervention is crucial to preventing the development of serious later problems . . .

then we must:

  • enhance parental education about young children’s emotional lives,
  • create screening and referral networks in pediatric health care, child care, home visitation, and other systems of family support,
  • develop a national cohort of well-trained practitioners in early childhood mental health,
  • and provide targeted family-based interventions for young children experiencing toxic stress
supporting early mental health requires enlisting nested relational networks
Supporting Early Mental Health Requires Enlisting Nested Relational Networks

If we really want to provide developmentally-relevant screening, pre-ventive, and treatment services to support early mental health . . .

then we must:

  • create consultancies with child care providers who are often the first to become aware of early behavioral and emotional problems,
  • create liaisons with child protection, welfare, primary health care, education, and other agencies,
  • enlist multigenerational sources of family support, and
  • support professional development of ECMH practitioners
sustained high quality interventions can make a difference
Sustained, High Quality Interventions Can Make a Difference

If we want to assist vulnerable, troubled young children in a manner that improves behavioral and brain functioning and future capability . . .

then we must make a sustained investment in evidence-based interventions staffed by reliable, well-trained personnel in the context of family-based supports, and with reliable funding streams

  • Investing in early childhood development is warranted by preventing later difficulty as well as enhancing developing potential
  • The young brain develops rapidly, with the potential for remarkable growth but also vulnerability to harm and stress
  • Early learning involves the mind, the emotions, and social capacities in an integrated fashion
  • Relationships provide the central catalysts to healthy cognitive and socio-emotional growth
  • Programs and policies for infants and toddlers must better incorporate our expanding knowledge of early childhood development