The Science of Early Childhood Development

From Best Practices to Breakthrough Impacts

A science-based approach to building a more promising future for young children and families
“Early childhood is a time of great promise and rapid change, when the architecture of the developing brain is most open to the influences of relationships and experiences. Yet significant disadvantages in the life circumstances of young children can undermine their development… A remarkable expansion of new knowledge about brain development in the early years of life, linked to advances in the behavioral and social sciences, is now giving us deeper insights into how early experiences are built into our bodies, with lasting impacts on learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health. Decades of research offer insights into the best practices that we know can make a difference for children, but to reach greater impacts, we must apply today’s knowledge from science and practice to fuel new ideas for tomorrow. Only then can we truly capitalize on the promise of the early years and achieve breakthrough solutions to some of the most complex challenges facing parents, communities, and nations.”
Center On The Developing Child at Harvard University


Core Concepts

Responsive Relationships and Positive Experiences Build Strong Brain Architecture
  • The foundations of brain architecture are constructed early in life. The neural connections that comprise the structure of the developing brain are formed through an ongoing process that begins before birth, continues into adulthood, and establishes either a sturdy or weak foundation for all the health, learning, and behavior that follow.
  • The interaction of genes and experiences shapes the circuitry of the developing brain. The experiences children have early in life not only influence their developing brain architecture, but also affect how genes are turned on and off and even whether some are expressed at all.
  • Children develop within an environment of relationships that begins in the family but also involves other adults who play important roles in their lives. This can include extended family members, providers of early care and education, nurses, social workers, coaches, and neighbors.
  • Skill begets skill as brains are built from the bottom up, with increasingly complex circuits building on simpler circuits. The gradual acquisition of higher-level skills, including the ability to focus and sustain attention, set goals, follow rules, solve problems, and control impulses, is driven by the development of the prefrontal cortex (the large part of the brain behind the forehead) from infancy into early adulthood.
  • The brain’s many functions operate in a richly coordinated fashion with multiple systems throughout the body. Cognitive, emotional, and social capacities are highly interrelated, and the circuitry that affects learning and behavior is interconnected with physiological systems that affect physical and mental health.

Adversity Disrupts the Foundations of Learning, Behavior, and Health
  • Toxic stress responses can impair development, with lifelong consequences. Learning how to cope with adversity is an important part of healthy child development, and short-lived activation of a young child’s stress response systems helps build adaptive responses while supportive relationships help restore the physiological reactions to baseline. If buffering protection from a caring adult is not available and stress responses are extreme and long-lasting, excessive activation can have a toxic effect on developing brain architecture and other maturing biological systems.
  • Any child who experiences prolonged adversity is at risk for physical and mental health problems, and individuals who are more vulnerable to stress are even more likely to experience long-term impacts. Early exposure to child abuse or neglect, family turmoil, neighborhood violence, extreme poverty, racial discrimination, or other hardships can prime biological systems to become hyper-responsive to adversity. Stress-inducing experiences such as these early in life, particularly for children who are genetically more vulnerable to adverse environments, are associated with increased risk of lifelong physical and mental health problems, including major depression, addictions, heart disease, and diabetes.
Protective Factors in the Early Years Strengthen Resilience
  • Providing the right ingredients for healthy development from the start produces better outcomes than trying to fix problems later. Scientists use the term “plasticity” to refer to the capacity of the brain to learn from experience, which is greatest early in life and decreases with age. Although windows of opportunity remain open for many years, trying to change behavior or build new skills on a foundation of brain circuits that were not wired properly from the beginning requires more effort— for both individuals and society.
  • Positive early experiences, support from adults, and the development of adaptive skills can counterbalance the lifelong consequences of adversity. Children who have overcome hardships almost always have had at least one stable and responsive relationship with a parent, caregiver, or other adult who provided vital support and helped them build effective coping skills.
  • Both children and adults need a set of core capabilities to respond to or avoid adversity, and these capacities can be strengthened through coaching and practice. Self-regulation helps us to draw on the right skills at the right time, respond effectively to the world around us, and resist inappropriate responses. Executive function includes the ability to focus and sustain attention, set goals, follow rules, solve problems, and delay gratification. Overcoming the effects of adversity on the development and use of these capabilities requires attention to both reducing sources of significant stress and actively building skills.

Excerpt from Harvard University’s Center on The Developing Child: From Best Practices to Breakthrough Impacts. A science-based approach to building a more promising future for young children and families KEY FINDINGS FROM THE REPORT

For the full From Best Practices to Breakthrough Impacts report, visit:

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