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 and 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
experts 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
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.
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.
Meeting the Needs of Our Youngest Children
Carnegie Corporation of New York
EARLY CHILDHOOD SYSTEM