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The First Three Years and Beyond: Brain Development and Social Policy

The First Three Years and Beyond: Brain Development and Social Policy

by Edward F. Zigler

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How much do children’s early experiences affect their cognitive and social development? How important is the parent’s role in child development? Is it possible to ameliorate or reverse the consequences of early developmental deficits? This vitally important book draws on the latest research from the social sciences and studies on the brain to answer these


How much do children’s early experiences affect their cognitive and social development? How important is the parent’s role in child development? Is it possible to ameliorate or reverse the consequences of early developmental deficits? This vitally important book draws on the latest research from the social sciences and studies on the brain to answer these questions and to explore what they mean for social policy and child and family development.

The authors affirm that sound social policy providing for safe and appropriate early care, education, health care, and parent support is critical not only for the optimal development of children, but also for strengthening families, communities, and the nation as a whole. Offering a wealth of advice and recommendations, they explain:

• the benefits of family leave, child care, and home visitation programs;
• the damage that child abuse inflicts;
• the vital importance of nutrition (and breast feeding) for pregnant women and young children;
• the adverse effects that occur in misguided efforts to disseminate research too early;
• and more.

Written by experts in the field of early child development, care, and education, the book is essential reading for parents and policymakers alike.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The authors, all psychology professors at Yale, state that their goal is to "explore how new research and old can be integrated into a foundation on which we can build effective family policy." They then explain that the new neuroimaging techniques support the common wisdom on how to help endangered families. The latest high-tech research has found that good prenatal nutrition and medical care, paid family-leave policies, and good daycare help young children and their families. Although the book does much to demonstrate that the media often distort the conclusions of scientific research, not much new is offered here from the public policy perspective. Smaller public libraries that own Hillary Rodham Clinton's It Takes a Village don't need this title. For large academic and public libraries.-Mary Ann Hughes, Neill P.L., Pullman, WA

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Current Perspectives in Psychology
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Barnes & Noble
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The First Three Years & Beyond

Brain Development and Social Policy
By Edward F. Zigler

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2004 Edward F. Zigler
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0300103085

Chapter One

At the turn of the century, traditionally a time for reevaluation and setting priorities, the United States of America put children and parents in the spotlight, focusing media and policy efforts on the importance of giving families the supports they need to thrive. The public's attention was drawn to attempts, some more successful than others, to balance the needs of children, parents, and society as a whole with supportive programs in education, health care, and child welfare. To promote the most effective use of tax dollars, the latest research from child study, pediatrics, education, law, and other disciplines was offered. In this way programs could be built on a scientific understanding of what children and families need and with consideration of the consequences of ignoring those needs. Through these efforts was spawned a host of family support programs-some successful, some less so, some popular, others not at all. And controversy arose over the level-personal or governmental, whether federal, state, or local-at which responsibility for meeting the children's needs should be addressed and who should bear the associated costs of family-support programs.

The time period in question? The transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century.

Of course, these very statements might well be made today, in the early years of the twenty-first century. Child study embodies, as do few other fields, the maxim "The more things change, the more they remain the same." Since its inception in the late nineteenth century, the field of developmental psychology has been dominated by changing paradigms and pendulum swings over many issues-most prominently, perhaps, question of nature versus nurture, or the relative importance of children's innate nature, as opposed to their experiences, in shaping their lives.

During the later decades of the 1900s, many scholars began to focus on the intersection of child development study and its applications to social policy issues of child and family health, development, and welfare. The study of child development as it relates to social policy development-and vice versa-has become an important discipline, enriched by the contributions of scholars and practitioners from fields ranging from developmental and clinical psychology, pediatrics, and medicine, to law, sociology, anthropology, and education.

In the 1900s, another paradigm shift introduced the language of neurobiology and neurochemistry to the discussion. Spurred in large part by technological advances in neurological imaging, the notion that brain activity could be observed and brain development mapped gained near-instant prominence through widespread media coverage of high-visibility conferences devoted to the findings of brain research.

This focus has come at a time of growing concern about the health, well-being, and education of children, and it presents new opportunities for supporting policy responses to address children's and parents' needs. Brain research has caught the attention of scientists in such disciplines as developmental psychology who are finding that discoveries in neuroscience enhance our understanding of how children acquire the ability to think, understand, and use language.

One difference between how the field of child development has changed since early twentieth century and today (and we might well argue about its significance) concerns the nature of the research tools at our disposal. Then and now, most of what we know about child development comes from observational and behavioral studies. What variables support-or impede-healthy growth and development? What supports can legitimately enhance parents' ability to provide optimal environments for their children? The answers to questions like these have largely come, and will likely continue to come, from observing children and talking with parents; from conducting rigorously designed studies of the effects of interventions and prevention efforts; and by tracking over time and across groups of children the effects of demographic change and society's responses to them.

Even in 1900 it was true that increasing medical and technical understanding was boosting children's welfare. Advances in bacteriology slashed infant mortality rates in the early years of the twentieth century by improving the safety of the nation's milk supply and drinking water. Increasing sophistication in the medical care of children saved yet more lives through the development of vaccination programs, the introduction of antibiotics, and the treatment of cancers and other diseases. Radiologic developments enhanced our diagnostic skills and, not insignificantly, became an important tool in the detection of physical child abuse.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, advances in medical technology opened windows into the workings of the human brain. Research on the brain, often touted as "new," actually began several decades ago in an attempt to understand and treat neurological disorders. This research blossomed during the 1900s, spurred by the application of techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron-emission tomography (PET) to neuroscience. Just as remarkable as the introduction of the microscope and the development of X-ray technology, these techniques have tremendous potential to enhance our understanding of human development. Such technologies improve our ability to intervene effectively when disease, injury, or environmental or genetic insult damages the brain or central nervous system. And, not incidentally, the ability to take a relatively noninvasive, detailed look at human brain development over the lifespan fundamentally changes the way we view our children and ourselves (see box, "Neurological Imaging Techniques").

In the 1930s, behavioral scientist B. F. Skinner shocked us with his notion that we need not understand or even examine what takes place in "the black box" (the brain) in order to grasp the basics of, predict, or even control human behavior. Back then, of course, the point was largely moot, since none of the imaging technology extant allowed us access to the mysteries of the working brain anyway. Findings from neurobiology and neurochemistry suggest outcomes unimaginable to a scholar of childhood in 1900 (and no doubt will seem curiously primitive to the psychologist or child advocate of 2100).

Today, however, we know many things about how the brain works that we did not know in 1900 or even in Skinner's heyday. We know, for instance, that synaptic density (the number of neural connections that enable the brain to do its work) increases more rapidly in the first year of life than in any other period of human development. We also know that many of these dendritic connections-the ones, we presume to be less ingrained by experience and repetition-disappear, literally pruned away by our bodies during the second and third years of life. At the peak of brain development, between one and two years of age, these synaptic connections, which "define the limits of intellectual capacity" (Goldman-Rakic, Bourgeois, and Rakic 1997, 29), are 50 percent higher in the frontal cortex of the child than they are in an adult (Bruer 1999). After a period of relative stability, this rich connectivity declines until, at some point during adolescence, synaptic connections appear to settle into an adult level.

We now know that the brain is far more adaptable than ever believed possible and that this plasticity persists well beyond the childhood years. Studies indicate that adult brains, as well as those of young children, are capable of complex learning and even of dramatic adaptations in response to stress or injury. Brain development, therefore, does not cease after early childhood or even after we reach physical maturity.

Other issues, however, have been disputed as a result of the hubbub surrounding these developments in neurology. The mechanisms responsible for brain development are not fully understood, nor are the influences that optimize, impede, or otherwise mediate normal growth. For our present purposes, though, the most important questions asked in the wake of this focus on brain research concern early childhood, its significance in the life of a human being, and the role parents and others play during this period.

Social scientists and practitioners of "hard" sciences have not always understood one another's methods, nor have they made the effort to develop a framework encompassing a broader view of child development. The time is ripe to integrate brain-related physiological studies into the developmental science canon. Just as we have come to take for granted that neither a strict environmental nor a narrowly focused genetic position explains the course of individual development, we must make room for neurons in our lexicon, alongside nature and nurture, and in so doing so strengthen both our understanding and our ability to meet the needs of children and families.

Nature, Nurture, and Neurons

Most of us are inexperienced in the arts of masonry and bricklaying. Yet few of us would dispute the notion that a stone wall with a well-built, strong foundation will-except in the face of exceptional circumstances-stand straighter and stronger and last longer than a wall in which stones are piled willy-nilly on the ground without concern for the uniformity, breadth, or alignment of its first course. So it seems surprising as we enter this millennium that there is considerable controversy brewing over how best to lay the foundation of a human being's life, how to optimize the chance that an individual will grow and develop into a whole, healthy person capable of living a loving, productive life that might someday include raising other children into similarly socially and cognitively robust and vigorous individuals.

This controversy centers around the conflict between the theories of those who have been characterized as the "zero to three-ers" (for example, National Association for the Education of Young Children 1997; Ounce of Prevention Fund 1996; Zero to Three 1999) and a splinter group of scientists and science writers who emerged in the late 1900s to challenge what one educator has called the "myth of the first three years" (Bruer 1997, 1999; see also Gladwell 2000 and Holland 1998).

Parallel to the growth in our understanding of child development and family functioning have always been efforts to intervene in the lives of children on both an immediate level by offering help and support directly to individuals and families and by designing legislation and implementing programs intended to address their needs on a larger scale. Legislation promoting early intervention and developmentally appropriate early childhood education (Head Start, for example), adequate nutrition during the prenatal and early childhood period (WIC, the Women, Infants, and Children program), health care for children (for example, CHIP, the Children's Health Insurance Program, which expands health care coverage to low-income children ineligible for Medicaid), family cohesiveness and continuity of care in the first months of life (family and medical leave legislation), and other family-friendly programs, have been shown not only to benefit individual children but also to be cost-effective means of enhancing social competence in large groups of children while minimizing the need for future remedial services.

Those who promote a view of human development in which the prenatal period and first few years of life play a diminished role have made several important points, chiefly that zero-to-three-ers (among whom the authors count themselves) have been guilty, from time to time, of exaggerating the claims and implications of brain research for child development study and program development. The metaphor of a pendulum swinging between extreme points of view (chiefly between nature and nurture) could not be applied to this new research. For a year or two, debate raged over the importance of brain research and its implications for child development, then the field cleared somewhat as moderate and more integrative positions (many of which we discuss in this book) were developed.

These debates, however, fostered unease between policy makers and scientists who were divided over the implications of neurological research for infants and children. Scholars disagreed over the interpretation of dramatic findings related to rapid brain growth in early childhood and the subsequent pruning of certain neurological connections during toddlerhood and the preschool years. What did this apparent explosion and retooling in neural growth say about the first few years of life? Were the events of these years critical to future development? Was this period unique in its importance? What role did environmental input-especially from parents-play in development at this stage, and what consequences existed for those children deprived of rich environments?

Other scholars, often the neurochemists and neurobiologists around whose work this controversy centered, were uncomfortable with how their research was being interpreted. Neuroscience itself, they argued, was in its infancy, and brain research conducted on adults, on neurologically impaired patients, or even as a function of autopsy findings was not necessarily applicable to normally developing infants and young children. Many raised caveats regarding the extrapolation of the findings of animal-based studies to human beings.

Although much of this brain research remains in its early stages, the popular media widely disseminated the preliminary findings. In 1996, for example, Newsweek published a cover story entitled "Your Child's Brain" that detailed the growth of the brain during the early years and showed the remarkable sensory and other capabilities of infants. Another major newsweekly cover story in 1998, in U.S. News and World Report, focused on how, in light of brain research, we are reshaping our thinking about how children acquire language. The research and accompanying media exposure has also had a phenomenal impact in the policy arena. Several conferences, including one held at the White House in 1997, and related conference proceedings captured the interest of policy makers at all levels of government and resulted in policy initiatives that highlight the importance of the early years of life.

The policy focus on the early years derives from neuroscientific evidence that indicates, first, that there is a period, starting before birth and continuing for the first three years of life, during which there is rapid synapse formation, and second, that both brain size and brain function depend on environmental stimulation.



Excerpted from The First Three Years & Beyond by Edward F. Zigler Copyright © 2004 by Edward F. Zigler. Excerpted by permission.
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