Understanding How Early Childhood Changes The Developing Brain

It cannot be understated how vital for the first 3-8 years of a child’s life are for their success academically, socially, emotionally, and even physically. Our brains grow the develop the fastest during this time period and the experiences, good and bad, add up and create the trajectory we follow. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention compiled research on health disparities in early childhood and found that “disparities in overall health and well-being are rooted in early childhood when stressors in early childhood can disrupt neurologic, metabolic, and immunologic systems, leading to poorer developmental outcomes.”

The Importance of Bonding and a Positive Environment

Humans, at our core, are social beings. We have survived for millennia primarily due to sticking together and creating strong bonds. When there is a lack of bonding or negative bonding (such as abuse and neglect) that is created in early childhood, it severely damages a child as the emotional well-being of the child is comprised at a pivotal time in their life. This can lead to a stunting of cognitive abilities as a child is not able to develop well or healthily; an issue that is compounded as time goes on and the child falls further behind. 

The Abecedarian Project

Conversely, positive bonding in a safe and engaging environment accelerates the growth of children. The University of North Carolina’s “Abecedarian Project,” led by Craig Ramey focused on the difference of giving children a high-quality full-time childcare setting for five years to low-income families with a control group only receiving free formula and diapers. Their progress was then measured with follow-up studies conducted at ages 12, 15, 21, 30, and 35. The difference between the two was staggering:

  •         I.Q. scores for the children who received the birth-to-age-5 Abecedarian intervention were higher than those of the randomly assigned control group.
  •         The program children were less likely to repeat a grade in school and demonstrated better achievement in reading and mathematics throughout elementary and high school
  •         At age 21, the treated group had maintained statistically significant advantages both in intellectual test performance and in scores on academic tests
  •         At age 30, the treated group was more likely to hold a bachelor’s degree, hold a job, and delay parenthood

Taking to Heart the Results

The Abecedarian Project is regarded as one of the pinnacle studies on the importance of early childhood education programs and one of the few extensive longitudinal studies on the matter. The results of it reinforces the importance of creating such environments for young children and the utmost need for intervention programs of lower-income families who, in many circumstances at no fault of their own, are unable to provide that for their children.

If we don’t create sustainable intervention programs that support groups like this then it creates a systemic problem. Exposing young children to a stressful environment without a consistent and strong positive figure to bond with has incredible detrimental short- and long-term effects on the brain’s development and the way the brain and body handle stress.

There is no ironclad answer to how such a problem can be fixed but the first step is creating awareness of the problem at hand.

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