Brain research clearly illustrates that early childhood experiences are critical to the developing brain. The brain develops rapidly in the earliest years of life and the environment in which it develops can either support or inhibit a child's emotional, social, and intellectual development.
Scientists once believed that when a baby was born, his or her brain was essentially complete. It was widely held that genetics determined brain capacity and that there was little anyone could do to change it. New brain research has disproved this theory. We now know with certainty that the environment in which a child is raised directly impacts the way the brain develops.
Many environmental and societal factors are known to negatively affect brain development. Environmental toxins, infection, malnutrition, prenatal exposure to drugs, and premature birth are all known to be harmful to the developing brain. Chronic stress caused by abuse or neglect is also known to impede normal brain development.
A child's brain is particularly susceptible to environmental influence in the first three years of life. In a deprived environment, a child born with a normal IQ may never develop to his potential. A child born with developmental delays who receives appropriate early intervention may actually catch up to his or her peers. This flexibility in the developing brain holds great promise for intervening with children with disabilities and emphasizes the importance of healthy, nurturing environments for all children.
Policymakers face the difficult task of translating brain research into beneficial policies for children. Currently, scientists know much more about the impediments to normal brain development than they do about how to accelerate or enhance brain development. This suggests that public policy should focus on mitigating or eliminating the biological and societal conditions known to hinder brain development.
Public policy must reflect scientific findings on the significance of early brain development. Policies should support young children by encouraging healthy, loving, and stimulating environments, both inside and outside the home, for all children. Particular attention must be paid to improving conditions for children who suffer abuse and neglect and to early intervention for children with sensory impairments and developmental delays.
Policymakers must be careful not to take too narrow a view of brain development. The years from zero to three are certainly important, but overemphasizing this period risks neglecting other important developmental periods. The prenatal brain, for example, is particularly vulnerable to the conditions of the mother's womb. Adolescence also is a period of significant growth and change in the human brain, and the brain continues to develop and change throughout a person's life.
National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development (2000). From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.
Thompson, Ross A. and Nelson, Charles A. (2001). "Developmental Science and the Media: Early Brain Development." American Psychologist, 56: 5-15.