When it Comes to School Readiness, Early Experiences Are Everything

Researchers describe the process of early brain development in terms of strengthening and pruning. The more that a particular section of the developing brain is called into action, the stronger its synaptic connections become. A greater number of synaptic connections indicates a higher level of development in certain areas of the brain. 

Meanwhile, sections of the brain that are used rarely will develop much weaker and less tightly-knit webs of synaptic connections. Inactivity leads these areas of the brain to fail to develop dense synaptic networks. The greatest opportunity to develop vital areas of the brain, those associated with thinking, learning, and feeling, occurs during the first three or four years after birth.  This is why we say that the first years are the most important for establishing a strong foundation for brain development.

A brain reacts to input from the environment it consistently encounters – whether that input is good or bad.  This is the reason that early experiences make such a difference when it comes to brain development,1,2 and why a child’s first years are said to last a lifetime.3,4

Research indicates that positive experiences during the first three years of life support optimal brain development. For newborns and young children, positive environments include feelings of safety, stability, constancy, nurture, support and love.

Early environments characterized by high levels of stress, turmoil, and uncertainty, lead the developing brain to focus on areas of the brain associated with basic survival, at the expense of the development of other areas of the brain, including areas associated with language development, self-control, and good decision-making.5 These differences in patterns of early development are evident in brain areas associated with language, memory, and other cognitive abilities.6,7

These development deficits often translate into gaps in school readiness.  The direct effects of poverty, including poor nutrition and residential transience, along with more indirect effects, including high levels of toxic stress, punitive and coercive parenting practices, and an absence of language at home are associated with lower levels of kindergarten readiness.8  The result is that children from families in poverty are more likely to arrive at kindergarten less well-prepared for school than their peers from more affluent backgrounds. Scholars suggest that as much as half of the achievement gap between low and middle income students that is present in high school is due to factors that were present in the lives of these kids before they ever crossed the threshold of kindergarten.

The good news in the story is that demographics are not destiny, and poverty, by itself, is a poor predictor of later life outcomes. As Professor Joel Brown and his colleagues at Berkeley demonstrate, at least half of children from families living in poverty do much better in life than their early life risk profile would suggest.9 This is where caring adults can make all the difference. When parents and care providers understand the importance of early childhood brain development, and when they understand the powerful difference that simple acts of nurturing can make, children are much more likely to develop to their full potential.

To learn more about simple and free ways that families and care providers can support the optimal brain development of young children, visit Talk, Touch, Read & Play at TUCI.org.

  1. Huttenlocher, Peter. 2002. Neural Plasticity: The Effects of the Environment on the Development of the Cerebral Cortex. Harvard University Press.
  2. Shaw, Philip et al. 2008. Neurodevelopmental trajectories of the human cerebral cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience 28:14, 3586-3594.
  3. Duncan, G, Magnuson, K, Boyce, T, & LaShonkoffst, J. (2010). The Long reach of early childhood poverty: pathways and impacts. Center on the Developing Child.
  4. Campbell, Frances A.; Pungello, Elizabeth P.; Burchinal, Margaret; Kainz, Kirsten; Pan, Yi; Wasik, Barbara H.; Barbarin, Oscar A.; Sparling, Joseph J.; Ramey, Craig T. Adult outcomes as a function of an early childhood educational program: An Abecedarian Project follow-up.  Developmental Psychology, Vol 48(4), Jul 2012, 1033-1043. doi: 10.1037/a0026644.
  5. Liu, WF et al. 2007. The development of potentially better practices to support the neurodevelopment of infants in the NICU. Journal of Perinatology 27, S48-S74.
  6. Farah MJ, Shera DM, Savage JH, et al. 2006. Childhood poverty: specific associations with neurocognitive development. Brain Research. 1110(1): 166-174.
  7. Kishiyama M, Boyce W. 2008. Socioeconomic disparities affect prefrontal function in children. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 2008; 21(6): 1106-1125.
  8. Isaacs, Julia. 2012. Starting School at a Disadvantage: The School Readiness of Poor Children.  Center on Children and Families at Brookings. Brookings Institution. Available here
  9. Brown, J., Castone, M., Benard, B.  2001. Resilience Education. Corwin Press, Inc.