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Brain research and implications for early childhood education.

In this article, Gail Lindsey discusses new scientific research on brain development in very young children. The latest neurological findings are providing hard, quantifiable evidence of the significance of the early years in the development of the mind. The author highlights five pivotal discoveries in brain research that should guide the care and education of young children. In addition, she presents information regarding the stages of brain wiring, critical periods for brain development, and the role a nurturing and stimulating environment plays in brain development. Lindsey notes recommendations for broad policy changes that would help parents, child care providers, and preschool teachers put into practice the recent findings of neuroscientists. As the author states, we "must heed the implications of the recent brain development research as it relates to the windows of opportunity, parents, and quality child care for America's youngest children." - S.J.S.

With the turn of the century, America hopes to complete the revolution of the education system that began in 1989. The Goals 2000: Educate America Act defined the hopes and demands of Americans for a revamped education system (U.S. Department of Education [USDOE], 1994). With more than 15 million American children under the age of 4 (Kantrowitz, 1997), one of the Act's most important goals is that "All children in America will start school ready to learn" (USDOE, 1994). Unfortunately, as things stand today, kindergarten teachers report that one in three students is not equipped with the fundamental skills necessary for learning (Carnegie Corporation, 1994). Researchers report that half of a child's critical brain development is completed by the time he begins kindergarten (Simmons & Sheehan, 1997). Furthermore, reports Sharon Begley (1996), "Children whose neural circuits are not stimulated before kindergarten are never going to be what they could have been" (p. 56).

Therefore, in order to ensure that each child starts school ready to learn, Americans will have to pay close attention to the recent research about the importance of the first three years of life. According to Simmons and Sheehan (1997), "A child's potential is determined in the early years - from the first moments of life to countless hours spent in day care. These are the years when we create the promise of a child's future" (p. 1).

Unfortunately, according to the 1993 report of the National Education Goals Panel, at least 50 percent of America's infants and toddlers begin life encumbered with insurmountable obstacles and without the crucial assistance needed for later school success (Carnegie Corporation, 1994). In addition, the National Education Goals Panel reported that a grave number of children under 3 are challenged by one or more of the following major risk factors: "a) inadequate prenatal care, b) isolated parents, c) substandard child care, d) poverty, and e) insufficient attention" (Carnegie Corporation, 1994, p. 1). These alarming statistics symbolize the adversity that endangers the development of America's children (Carnegie Corporation, 1994). Each year, as a result of these staggering statistics, the "American taxpayers reach deep into their pocket[s] to meet the costs, both direct and indirect, of policies that are based on remediation rather than prevention" (Carnegie Corporation, 1994, p. 9).

Consequently, Americans can no longer ignore the significance of the early years of development (Carnegie Corporation, 1994). According to Nash (1997), psychiatrists and educators long have acknowledged the significance of children's early experiences; until recently, however, their realizations have been largely anecdotal. Matthew Melmed, Executive Director of Zero to Three, a nonprofit organization devoted to highlighting the importance of the first three years of life, comments that "modern neuroscience is providing the hard, quantifiable evidence that was missing earlier. . . . because you can see the results under a microscope or in a PET [positron emission tomography] scan" (Nash, 1997, p. 56).

A 1997 White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning, hosted by President and Mrs. Clinton (National PTA, 1997), emphasized new scientific research on brain development in very young children, and underscored how critical children's positive early experiences are to ensuring successful beginnings. The conference was a wake-up call to all Americans - families, government officials, child care providers, and business leaders - stressing the need to use the recent findings to enhance the future of children and America's families (National PTA, 1997). According to the Education Commission of the States (1996), the recent research on brain development has the potential to provide much-needed insight for strengthening the education of young children. According to Carnegie Corporation, the following are five pivotal discoveries that should strengthen America's efforts to equip and prepare young children to start school ready to learn:

* Brain development that takes place prenatally, and in the first years of life, is more rapid and extensive than previously realized

* Brain development is much more vulnerable to environmental influence than ever before suspected

* The influence of early environment on brain development is long-lasting

* The environment affects not only the number of brain cells and the number of connections among them, but also the way these connections are "wired"

* New scientific evidence exists concerning the negative impact of early stress on brain function. (Carnegie Corporation, 1994, p. 2)

The findings of brain development research are astounding. In fact, "the discoveries are so profound that many researchers say we will surely look back on the 1990s as the 'Decade of the Brain'" (Simmons & Sheehan, 1997, p. 1). Moreover, the brain development research findings have serious implications for parents and policymakers (Nash, 1997).

According to Carla Shatz of the University of California, Berkeley, "There are two broad stages of brain wiring; an early period [prenatal], when experience is not required, and a later one, when it is" (Begley, 1996). She continues:

In the beginning, the brain-to-be consists of only a few advance scouts breaking trail: within a week of conception they march out of the embryo's "neural tube," a cylinder of cells extending from head to tail. Multiplying as they go (the brain adds an astonishing 250,000 neurons per minute during gestation), the neurons clump into the brain stem, which commands heartbeat and breathing, build the little cerebellum at the back of the head, which controls posture and movement, and form the grooved and rumpled cortex wherein thought and perception originate. (p. 61)

This hardwiring, which begins as early as a week after conception, provides the basic foundation of brain development, which in turn controls respiration, reflexes, and heartbeat (Begley, 1996; Begley, 1997; Lach, 1997).

While the brain connections developed before birth are crucial, their primary purpose is biological (Simmons & Sheehan, 1997). It is during the child's first months and years of growth and development that nature and nurture mesh, until they become "intertwined and inseparable" (Simmons & Sheehan, 1997, p. 6). When a child is born, his brain has 100 billion neurons, which in turn make over 50 trillion synapses (Begley, 1997). Afterwards, especially within the first three years of life, the brain undergoes a series of phenomenal changes. During this period, many more connections among neurons are created - literally trillions more than the brain can possibly use. Over time, those connections that are seldom or never used are eliminated (Nash, 1997). Researchers report that the eliminated connections are not predetermined, as was once thought. Rather, the manner in which a child is raised affects how the brain chooses to wire itself for life (Simmons & Sheehan, 1997).

The concept of "critical periods" for brain development was only a hypothesis prior to a series of innovative experiments conducted in the 1960s and early 1970s. Two researchers, David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, conducted investigations on how cats' brains were wired for sight. They discovered that by withholding stimuli to a kitten's eyes during a critical period, they blocked the development of connections between the eye and the visual cortex, connections that are necessary for sight. The researchers also discovered that after the critical period had passed, attempts to produce the connections were useless (Begley, 1996; Simmons & Sheehan, 1997). Consequently, according to Dr. Carla Shatz, a neurobiologist at the University of California at Berkeley, "It [the Hubel and Wiesel research discovery] forever changed the way we thought about brain development" (Simmons & Sheehan, 1997, p. 5). Referencing the critical period studies, Sharon Begley (1996) states:

[The studies] suggest that with the right input at the right time, almost anything is possible. But they imply, too, if you miss the window, you are playing with a handicap. [The studies] offer an explanation of why the gains a toddler makes in Head Start are so often evanescent: this intensive instruction begins too late to fundamentally rewire the brain. (p. 56)

Recognizing and taking advantage of the various windows of opportunity are paramount to young children's healthy development. A child's brain development suffers if the child is denied the opportunity to live in a stimulating environment (Nash, 1997). Nash reports, "Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine, for example, have found that children who don't play much or are rarely touched develop brains 20 percent to 30 percent smaller than normal for their age" (p. 51). Consequently, the research emphasizes the positive effects of hands-on parenting, which includes talking with and cuddling infants and toddlers, as well as providing them with stimulating experiences (Nash, 1997).

For centuries, parents have understood the newborn's basic need for safety, nourishment, warmth, and nurturing. Now, research offers remarkable insights about human development from birth to age 3, substantiating the view that parents and other adult caregivers are a vital component in the child's development (Carnegie Corporation, 1997).

Julie J. Newberger (1997), communication specialist of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, says:

Stimulated in part by growing concern about the overall well-being of children in America, the [brain research] findings affirm what many parents and caregivers have known for years: (a) good prenatal care, (b) warm and loving attachments between young children and adults, and (c) positive, age-appropriate stimulation from the time of birth really do make a difference in children's development for a lifetime. (p. 4)

Kantrowitz (1997) echoed this sentiment, stating "Cutting-edge science is confirming what wise parents have also known instinctively: Young children need lots of time and attention from the significant adults in their lives" (p. 7).

Clearly, "parents are the brain's first and most important teachers" (Nash, 1997, p. 54). Complicating the issue is the search for affordable, quality child care, a crucial factor considering the overwhelming number of women who have joined the work force in the last 25 years (Simmons & Sheehan, 1997). According to the results of a national study, many of the nation's nurseries and child care centers, which accommodate nearly half of the 15 million infants and toddlers of working parents, do not provide services that benefit a child's development (Hancock & Wingert, 1997). Moreover, "there's a mismatch between when the brain is most early influenced and when they're spending the money to do the influencing" (Kulman, 1997, p. 10).

Simmons and Sheehan (1997) state, "Day care is more than a service that holds daily schedules intact. It is a place where children build their brains" (p. 2). The current findings of the brain development research highlights what educators have known for quite some time: "Early social and emotional experiences are the seeds of human intelligence" (Hancock & Wingert, 1997, p. 36). Furthermore, as Hancock and Wingert suggest, "Teachers need to tune in to each child's daily experiences and needs, helping them feel safe and loved [,] while encouraging them to explore and experiment" (p. 36).

Consequently, the prescription for a quality preschool or child care program is one that reflects a child's experiences in a good home. "American educators agree on the simple elements that add up to quality: well-trained teachers; low teacher-student ratios; safe, stimulating surroundings; and strong ties between staff and families, so [that] children know there is loving continuity in their lives" (Hancock & Wingert, 1997, p. 36). Moreover, preschool is not for relating facts and administering rigid schedules, "it's about listening, guiding, and helping individual children to make sense of the real world" (Hancock & Wingert, 1997, p. 36). Furthermore, according to Margot Hammond, Director of the Bank Street Family Center, once these emotional faculties are strengthened, then children will be more ready to learn (Hancock & Wingert, 1997). Quality preschools may also be able to correct the neurological damage children sustain as a result of depressed, distracted, or abusive parents, especially since children's brains are so malleable at this age (Hancock & Wingert, 1997).

In conclusion, while researchers are continuing to find more and more empirical evidence supporting the importance of the first three years of life, parents and educators must begin to put into practice neuroscientists' astounding findings. The Education Commission of the States (1996) recommends some broad policy changes:

* A major national study should be undertaken to develop special-education policy recommendations based on what is known about how children learn

* State programs should address impediments to brain development, such as poor prenatal care, parental pre- and postnatal smoking, maternal diet and nutrition, and drug use

* Current education practices, such as how and when foreign languages are presented, should be reassessed

* Incentives and requirements for schools of education to understand, research, and expand their teaching of early childhood development should be created

* The quality of child care should be upgraded, and standards for professional development of child-care workers should be created. (p. 3)

Although parents are the child's first and most important teachers, many parents are unable to make the most of their child's critical periods of learning, because of significant changes in both American society and its work force. As more mothers work outside of the home, quality child care becomes a scarce commodity. Consequently, Americans can no longer afford to shift the blame and responsibility of educating their most precious and valuable resources - the children. As citizens, we must insist that our policy and lawmakers enact laws that are child- and family-friendly, and that promote opportunities for responsible parenthood. Also, we must demand quality child care that provides children with the adequate environment and instruction to assist in their healthy and strong development.


Begley, S. (1996, February 19). Your child's brain. Newsweek, 127(8), 55-61.

Begley, S. (Spring-Summer, 1997). How to build a baby's brain. [Special Issue] Newsweek, 129, 28-32. Carnegie Corporation. (1994). Starting points: Meeting the needs of our youngest children. [on-line]. Available:

Education Commission of the States. (1996). Brain research and education: Bridging the gap between neuroscience & education, (publication no. SI-96-7), [on-line]. Available:

Hancock, L., & Wingert, P. (Spring-Summer, 1997). The new preschool. [Special Issue] Newsweek, 129, 36-37.

Kantrowitz, B. (Spring-Summer, 1997). Off to a good start. Newsweek, (Special Edition), 129, 6-9.

Kulman, L. (1997, March 10). The prescription for smart kids. US News & World Report, 122(9), 10.

Lach, J. (Spring-Summer, 1997). Cultivating the mind. [Special Edition], Newsweek, 129, 38-39.

Nash, J. M. (1997, February 3). Fertile minds. Time, 149(5), 48-56.

National Parent Teacher Association. (1997). White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning: What new research on the brain tells us about our youngest children. [on-line] Available:

Newberger, J. J. (1997). New brain development research - A wonderful window of opportunity to build public support for early childhood education! Young Children, 52(4), 4-9.

Simmons, T., & Sheehan, R. (1997, February 16). Brain research manifests importance of first years. The News & Observer [on-line]. Available:

U.S. Department of Education. (1994). Strong families, strong schools: Building community partnerships for learning. Washington, DC: Author.


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Gail Lindsey is a Doctoral Student, Child Development Center, Mississippi State University, Mississippi State.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Association for Childhood Education International
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Lindsey, Gail
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Dec 22, 1998
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