Beginning before birth, then extending through the early elementary years, the human brain is in a condition called “developmental plasticity.” Feelings of emotional security and experiences of back-and-forth interactions with other people affect how dense the brain connections become that help us think and learn for the rest of our lives.
Nationally, as well as in our home state of Massachusetts, activists and policy makers are listening to the to the early-childhood scientists. There’s an explosion of interest in expanding preschool opportunities for three- and four-year olds.
But the brain grows to 80 percent of its adult size by the third birthday, before preschool starts. Even earlier, brain density in a two-year old looks more like an adult’s than a one-year old’s.
Science shows that the quantity and quality of early brain development depends on human interaction.
In 2017, MIT researchers did MRI brain scans on four-to-six-year-olds while they were being read to in the laboratory, after they’d worn listening devices at home to measure the amount of conversation. Scans showed more brain activity in kids who registered more conversation on the devices.
A study by Stanford University researchers found that average language processing speed among two-years old from highly-advantaged households can be six months ahead, on average, compared to same-aged peers from disadvantaged households.
Disparities like these, and their longer-term consequences, are not set in stone. We can narrow achievement gaps and raise life prospects for children from all backgrounds, if we help parents make the most of what science is teaching us.
Several years ago, as faculty chair of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, I convened a national advisory group to distil from science five principles of parenting and caregiving for children aged zero to three:
First, Maximize Love, Manage Stress. Science shows that feelings of emotional security during early childhood are foundations for development of self-control, which is more formally known as executive-function skill.
Second, Talk, Sing, and Point. It turns out that babies can hear at least three months before birth and start learning the patterns of human language. To build on the patterns they’re familiar with by the time they’re born, we should use real words instead gibberish, even with infants. Also, pointing helps babies learn that words correspond to objects.
Third, Count, Group, and Compare. Babies are born wired to learn math: an infant notices when the number of objects in a group changes. And it is an intellectual breakthrough for a toddler to realize that numbers correspond to groups; that five is five of something, not just what you say after four. Games that involve grouping and regrouping between four and ten objects helps a toddler reach this epiphany.
Fourth, Explore through Movement and Play. Play can involve exploration and discovery. Paying attention to what an infant or toddler seems to be curious about, then letting them know that you welcome their curiosity and want to be a learning partner, can have life-long benefits.
Fifth, Read and Discuss Stories. Actually, it doesn’t really matter if you read what’s on the page. Just get cozy together, enjoy the bright pictures, and speak with lots of expression. But also discuss, for example, by encouraging a child to express ideas about what’s going to happen next or why a character made a certain choice. That builds comprehension skills.
These principles are the focus of The Basics campaign that I founded a few years ago in Boston in partnership with The Black Philanthropy Fund.
The campaign is building a movement in Boston and beyond to help every family with an infant or toddler learn about the five principles and receive wrap-around support for using them. We aim for “socioecological saturation,” which means saturating a parent or caregiver’s social connections—their social ecology—with support for using the principles.
That’s where you come in! Visit the website at www.BostonBasics.org. Watch the videos with members of your family who have young children. Encourage medical professionals, librarians, faith leaders and others to include the principles in routine interactions with parents and caregivers. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about our dissemination tools and how to get involved.
None of us can do alone what all of us can all do together: transform early childhood for Boston area children; shift the trajectory of school readiness for entire communities and close achievement gaps; and set children on track for becoming their best possible selves, with the social, emotional, and cognitive abilities to thrive throughout their lives.
Please click on this link or go online to bit.ly/BostonParents if you have a child who is younger than three-years old and would like to receive free twice-weekly text messages on ways to blend The Basic principles to everyday routines.
Welcome to The Basics movement!
Ron Ferguson has taught at Harvard Kennedy School for over three decades and is a recipient of the Eastern Bank Social Justice Award. His most recent book, coauthored with Tatsha Robertson, is The Formula: Unlocking the Secrets to Raising Highly Successful Children (BenBella Books, 2019). Available from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.