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Early Childhood

School Readiness

The issues we are facing today add up to a crisis that threatens not only the healthy development of children themselves but also our nation's well-being.  The National Educational Goals Panel identified four key dimensions of school readiness, our nation's first education goal: physical well-being and motor development, social andBoy looking down emotional development, language usage, and the mastering of learning styles that allow children to approach new tasks and challenges effectively. Currently too many children are entering school not ready to learn, jeopardizing later academic achievement. If left unattended, this crisis will ultimately compromise our nation's economic strength and competitiveness.

The problems are many, and massive; not one lends itself to a single solution. Our nation can formulate and implement social policy that responds, over time, to the most urgent needs of our youngest children and their families. They need our compassion and our help, and we, as a nation, have an incalculable stake in their well-being.

The Critical Importance of the First Three Years
The first three years of life appear to be a crucial "starting point"--a period particularly sensitive to the protective mechanisms of parental and family support.  Parents and Boy playing in leavesexperts have long known that how individuals function from the preschool years all the way through adolescence and even adulthood hinges, to a significant extent, on the experiences children have in their first three years. Babies raised by caring, attentive adults in safe, predictable environments are better learners than those raised with less attention in less secure settings. Recent scientific findings corroborate these observations. With the help of powerful new research tools, including sophisticated brain scans, scientists have studied the developing brain in greater detail than ever before.

This research points to five key findings that should inform our nation's efforts to provide our youngest children with a healthy start:

  • The brain development that takes place during the prenatal period and in the first year of life is more rapid and extensive than we previously realized.

  • Brain development is much more vulnerable to environmental influence than we ever suspected.

  • The influence of early environment on brain development is long lasting.

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

  • We have new scientific evidence for the negative impact of early stress on brain function.

The risks are clearer than ever before: an adverse environment can compromise a young child's brain function and overall development, placing him or her at greater risk of developing a variety of cognitive, behavioral, and physical difficulties. In some cases these effects may be irreversible. But the opportunities are equally dramatic: a good start in life can do more to promote learning and prevent damage than we ever imagined.

Starting Points
Meeting the Needs of Our Youngest Children
Carnegie Corporation of New York