The Harvard Center on the Developing Child (Part 1)

Posted January 2018

The Harvard Center on the Developing Child wants us to remember the following 8 things about early childhood development.  In this blog, I will discuss 4 of them:

1. Even infants and young children are affected adversely when significant stresses threaten their family and caregiving environments.

Adverse fetal and early childhood experiences can lead to physical and chemical disruptions in the brain that can last a lifetime. The biological changes associated with these experiences can affect multiple organ systems and increase the risk not only for impairments in future learning capacity and behavior, but also for poor physical and mental health outcomes.

2. Development is a highly interactive process, and life outcomes are not determined solely by genes.

The environment in which one develops before and soon after birth provides powerful experiences that chemically modify certain genes in ways that then define how much and when they are expressed. Thus, while genetic factors exert potent influences on human development, environmental factors have the ability to alter family inheritance. For example, children are born with the capacity to learn to control impulses, focus attention, and retain information in memory, but their experiences as early as the first year of life lay a foundation for how well these and other executive function skills develop.

3. While attachments to their parents are primary, young children can also benefit significantly from relationships with other responsive caregivers both within and outside the family.

Close relationships with other nurturing and reliably available adults do not interfere with the strength of a young child’s primary relationship with his or her parents. In fact, multiple caregivers can promote young children’s social and emotional development. That said, frequent disruptions in care and high staff turnover and poor-quality interactions in early childhood program settings can undermine children’s ability to establish secure expectations about whether and how their needs will be met.

4. A great deal of brain architectureis shaped during the first three years after birth, but the window of opportunity for its development does not close on a child’s third birthday.

Far from it! Basic aspects of brain function, such as the ability to see and hear effectively, do depend critically on very early experiences as do some aspects of emotional development. And, while the regions of the brain dedicated to higher-order functions—which involve most social, emotional, and cognitive capacities, including multiple aspects of executive functioning—are also affected powerfully by early influences, they continue to develop well into adolescence and early adulthood. So, although the basic principle that “earlier is better than later” generally applies, the window of opportunity for most domains of development remains open far beyond age 3, and we remain capable of learning ways to “work around” earlier impacts well into the adult years.

Bobbie Watson
Executive Director
The Early Childhood Council of Boulder County