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January/February 2001Vol. 2, No. 1Study Calls for Reexamining How We Treat Young Children

A reexamination of our treatment of young children is called for, in light of recent gains in scientific understanding, and changing social and economic conditions, according to a new study by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.

From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, summarizes 2 years of research into recent literature on early childhood research. The report, prepared by a committee of 17 academics and others, describes current problems and makes recommendations. The primary finding was a disconnection between how our society tries to meet the developmental needs of young children and the current state of scientific research in this field. "Over the course of our deliberations, the committee was frequently struck by the limited extent to which our nation's policies and practices capitalize on what science has to offer," said Jack P. Shonkoff, chair of the committee that wrote the report.

Focusing on the period from ages 0 to 5, the committee found that society tends to de-emphasize the importance of children's emotional and social development. In addition, policies and practices do not reflect the scientific knowledge about the importance of strong, early interpersonal relationships. Among the myths that the committee debunked were:

  • The neurological "window of opportunity" does not slam shut at age 3 or 5 but continues throughout life.
  • Commercial products that claim to boost babies' intelligence have no scientific basis and cannot take the place of adults routinely talking, reading, and playing with their children.

The committee makes the following 11 recommendations for how public policies and programs can be improved:

  • Dedication of resources towards translating early childhood development research into practice.
  • School readiness initiatives aimed at improved performance, as well as reduced disparities among young children of differing backgrounds.
  • Significant new governmental investment toward meeting young children's mental health needs.
  • Expanded coverage of the Family and Medical Leave Act and other policies that provide parents with choices for childcare during infancy.
  • Expanded environmental protection, reproductive health services, and early intervention efforts to reduce risks from prenatal/postnatal neurotoxic exposures and disrupted early relationships.
  • Investments in increasing the skills, pay, and benefits of childcare professionals.
  • Establishment of a governmental task force on childcare and early education to ensure that public policies and programs are in accord with current scientific knowledge.
  • A re-evaluation of the nation's tax, wage, and income-support policies by Congress and the Council of Economic Advisors to reduce the number of children living in poverty.
  • Evaluation research in early childhood should be used to advocate for effective interventions.
  • Design and implementation of coordinated, effective infrastructures by State and local policy makers to reduce the fragmentation of early childhood policies and programs.
  • A working group or commission to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the professional development challenges facing the early childhood field.

The authors of this report advocate that issues affecting the development of children must be a "shared agenda" between parents and the nation as a whole. They write, "... based on the evidence gleaned from a rich and rapidly growing knowledge base, we feel an urgent need to call for a new national dialogue focused on rethinking the meaning of both shared responsibility for children and strategic investment in their future."

From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development is available online at:

To order a print copy of the 425-page report, contact the National Academy Press at 1-800-624-6242 or order online at:

Related Items

For more information related to early brain development, see these articles in the current issue of the Children's Bureau Express:

  • "Pediatricians Advised About Enhancing Brain Development in Young Foster Children"
  • "Survey Shows Parents Confused About Child Development"

Search for more CB Express articles on early childhood development using the search feature on this website.

Visit the National Governors' Association Center for Best Practices new website, "The First Three Years: A Governor's Guide to Early Childhood," for tools to convey the importance of investing in a child's first three years to legislators, parents, businesses, and other community members at: