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Why Early Intervention Matters: Insights on Early Brain Development

To truly appreciate why the first years of a child’s life are so crucial, it helps to understand a little bit about brain science and early brain development.

May 5, 2023
  • Health and Development
  • Research
  • Blog

Why is it so important to ensure that children have quality care and educational experiences in the earliest years of life? A nurturing and supportive environment during a child’s first years lays the foundation for future success in school and life. To truly appreciate why this time of life is so crucial, it helps to understand a little bit about brain science and early brain development.

The First Years of Life: What does science tell us?

During the first several years of a child’s life, the brain forms over one million neural connections every second.

Babies’ brains are quite literally wired to learn. This rapid absorption of information creates new neural connections and builds the architecture of a baby’s brain. For comparison, adult brains have thicker, but fewer, synaptic connections.

This makes adults more efficient at doing what they’ve done before (e.g., speaking, writing and reading) but less effective at learning new things, such as a foreign language.

Picture of number of synapses in a baby's brain in first months and years of life compared to as an adult

Original source: Adapted from Corel, JL. The postnatal development of the human cerebral cortex. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1975. Link source: Urban Child Institute

The above figure illustrates the rapid rate at which synapses are formed in the first few years of life. One can see that adults have thicker, but fewer synaptic connections.

Everything in a child’s environment — experiences, relationships with parents and caregivers and environmental factors — influences brain development and growth.

It is no surprise, then, that early experiences have a profound impact on a child’s future ability to succeed in school, work and life.

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The Importance of Early Interventions

Secure and nurturing early childhood experiences form strong neural connections, which enable children to acquire language and communication skills, learn how to interact with people and their surroundings, and develop the ability to regulate their emotions.

Sadly, too many children — especially those living in under-resourced communities — face chronic stress and adversity which hinder their ability to learn and increase their chances of falling behind developmentally and academically for years to come. Fortunately, there’s a wide body of research that demonstrates that interventions, particularly in the first years of life, make a difference.

Studies on high-quality, comprehensive early childhood programs, such as the Carolina Abecedarian Project, the Perry Preschool Project, the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, as well as Educare schools, demonstrate that early childhood interventions promote positive results in emotional development, school readiness, academic achievement and family life.

As part of our effort to become the country’s most trusted resource for early childhood knowledge Start Early conducts research with the overarching goal of generating new knowledge and contributing to the field’s understanding of how to improve the quality of programs and systems, promote positive outcomes, and transform practices and policies at scale.

Amanda Stein, director of research & evaluation
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How does the science on brain development influence our research on early interventions?

The research conducted at Start Early is anchored by science. Building upon decades of studies on brain development and early childhood education, we conduct high-quality research and help translate this research into practice — with the goal of improving outcomes for children and families early in life.

One example of how our research comes to life is demonstrated by the work of Educare schools. Start Early opened the first Educare school in 2000 on Chicago’s South Side using a research-based curriculum and serving low-income infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families. Now part of a nationwide network of 25 schools, known as the Educare Learning Network, these schools are prime examples of the positive outcomes stemming from high-quality early education programs.

After just one year at an Educare school, children show improved language skills, fewer problem behaviors, and more positive interactions with parents. Children who enrolled in Educare schools earlier, and stayed until they entered kindergarten, also displayed stronger vocabulary skills — just one of many positive indicators of effective early intervention. Years of rigorous evaluations of Educare programs indicate these outcomes.

Yet, Educare is just one example of how existing science and our own rigorous research join to create and promote high-quality early learning experiences. Ultimately, our research aims to reinforce the existing evidence supporting the importance of early education, while also informing and advancing improvements in the field as a whole.

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