Why early childhood programs and supports are essential to healthy brain development

By: Nancy Cambria
Communications Manager, For the Sake of All

In the snap of a finger about one million neural connections are created in the developing brains of individual newborns, infants, and toddlers. Think of each second as adding on to an amazingly intricate web of wiring that helps the brain manage the body and interact with itself and the world outside of it.

At no other time in life does the human brain experience such incredible growth than in these first three years of life. Research highlighted at Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child  demonstrates this critical brain development does not happen in a vacuum. Positive or negative human interaction shapes this developing brain architecture in profound ways.

Positive nurturing and attachments – holding children in infancy, attending lovingly to their physical and emotional needs, softly reading picture books, guiding children through imaginative play and other nurturing activities – form essential bonds between young children and adults. Those connections influence the wiring of a young child’s brain to enhance communication, learning, and positive social and emotional skills that can set a child on the right track for life.

The research also shows the brains of very young children who lack nurturing and strong adult attachments develop different wiring to deal with stress and basic survival. They may be prone to classic “fight-or-flight” responses in situations that other children find routine. It can be harder for them to focus and learn. It can impair their ability to work through a task or take mental steps to solve a problem. Their brains are wired to be on guard, so it’s just harder to trust others, like teachers and other children.

Think of the wiring of a young brain as a tree trying to branch out. Trees exposed to sunlight with ample water and nutrients without other trees blocking their sunlight develop spectacular crowns of branches and leaves. These trees can live for more than a century. But trees competing to grow in a dense forest adapt by twisting their branches to reach that one bit of sunlight to survive. They show great grit to survive. But being lopsided in shape makes them more prone to falling down in storms.

This is why For the Sake of All developed a Discussion Guide and Action Toolkit on improving early childhood development in St. Louis, particularly for children in neighborhoods and households experiencing high levels of trauma and stress from poverty. Sometimes it’s just harder for families to provide key nurturing for newborns and toddlers if they are dealing with the extreme stresses of everyday survival to sustain housing, food, and transportation.

Quality early childhood programs help develop healthier brains in babies and young children, particularly for children growing up in poverty. A network of strong prenatal care programs, home visiting programs, parenting supports and quality child care and preschool programming are valuable investments in the health of our community’s children.

Even the U.S. Federal Reserve agrees. Investing in early childhood programs for low-income children has the best return on investment in human capital than at any other time in life: $4 to $9 for every dollar spent.

Check out a recent video by The Atlantic on child brain development and stress. It refers to the early 1990s when George H.W. Bush declared “The Decade of the Brain” to prompt investment in early childhood programs. Though there’s been an increasing call for universal pre-kindergarten funding, overall progress on funding a full array of programs has been slow. Though landmark research on child development and neuroscience continues, the policies and programs to support what we know about optimal brain development in young children is still lacking – particularly for children most in need.

To learn more about how toxic stress and trauma are particularly affecting St. Louis children living in poorer, segregated neighborhoods, read the St. Louis Post-Dispatch report, “The Crisis Within: How toxic stress and trauma endanger our children.” The report features solutions and a graphic that explains how early stress can adversely affect child development and health through a lifetime.

On equitable housing: impoverished neighborhoods deeply influence future health, wealth, and happiness

The legacy of America’s long history of housing segregation has resulted in “two divergent Americas, one with money and one without – and the one without is largely black,” according to this VOX report, “Living in a Poor Neighborhood Changes Everything About Your Life.”

Presented through a series of graphics, it’s a concise way to look at the highly disproportionate percentage of African Americans living in impoverished neighborhoods nationwide with slim odds for upward mobility.

The report addresses the adverse effects of long-term poverty on health, IQ, mental well-being, and educational outcomes. It cites research demonstrating low-income families with the opportunity to live in middle class neighborhoods have better outcomes regarding school performance, income, and health.

It’s similar to For the Sake of All’s video, “The Two Lives of Jasmine,” created in partnership with the Nine Network. The video illustrates the trajectory of children living in neighborhoods of opportunity versus those living in places without key resources like quality child care and schools.

Regardless of how it’s illustrated, it’s clear where families live deeply influences their future health, wealth, and sense of well-being.

For the Sake of All has created an important Discussion Guide on investing in quality neighborhoods for all in St. Louis. One of the guide’s recommendations is to develop an action plan to ensure equitable housing for all residents regardless of race or income.

This month, St. Louis experts in affordable and inclusive housing will convene to develop that regional plan. They will assess the impact of housing segregation in St. Louis and work together to facilitate better affordable housing policies and practices that stop isolating families in poverty.

Stay tuned for updates on this dynamic group as their work progresses in 2017.