Stanford’s new center addresses the forces that shape early childhood

Why are the early years so important for studying, separate from childhood in general?

Beginning in early childhood, one developmental period builds on another, and the developmental domains are strongly integrated. So what happens in those early years has lifelong effects on learning and behavior.

Young brains develop rapidly during the first eight years of life. Historically, we have done our best to invest resources in what we understood to facilitate children’s ability to learn – to read, to do calculations, to become productive members of society. Now we can be much more specific about how the brain develops, and we’re starting to really understand how learning happens.

But much research on child development has focused on specific internal processes – not on an integrated understanding of the whole child within their context, which often includes trauma, poverty and racism. We need to better understand how these contexts influence the course of development.

What do we know now about the impact of these experiences?

On the one hand, we know that structural inequalities based on factors such as income and race drive the disparities we see in health and learning. These disparities appear very early in life and increase during development, and they have widened in the United States in recent years.

Obviously, we are also coming out of a period where we had huge disruptions in children’s learning. It was a time of massive unpredictability and uncertainty. There is a lot of neuroscience and developmental psychology that shows that chronic unpredictability in the early years fundamentally alters human development.

The world continues to face conditions of uncertainty – not just the pandemic, but the climate, social upheaval, geopolitical conflict. This is the new normal that we are all facing. We have to take into account that this affects children and families.

How can research respond to these circumstances?

Here is an example from my own work: For many years my colleagues and I have studied brain activity in children from high adversity environments, particularly the foster care system. One thing we’ve found is that when these kids make mistakes while they’re doing a task and we give them feedback about those mistakes, we see a very limited neural response. Typically, there’s a burst of brain activity, but with these kids, it’s like the information just doesn’t get through.

It’s probably a very healthy and adaptive response to the unpredictable environments they were raised in, where it doesn’t make much sense to pay attention to incoming information. But this creates enormous challenges when these children enter the formal school system and they struggle, not only academically, but also in terms of social-emotional learning. Understanding that this behavior could be linked to a decrease in neural response has allowed us to specifically design programs that target these exact mechanisms.

What will it take to move interventions like these forward and see them more widely adopted?

One thing we need is greater alliances between communities, researchers and policy makers. It is not enough for science to simply document how things work – this knowledge needs to be deployed and we need to think about strategies that are geared towards impact and scale from the outset. It sounds simple, but it’s not necessarily common sense. It requires having people from many different disciplines around the table.

We hear a lot about integrating community voices into research and policy-making, but unfortunately many of these efforts end up feeling rather anemic and performative. We need to build relationships in a meaningful way – partnering fully with parents and caregivers, schools, pediatric clinics, advocacy groups and others responsible for providing opportunities for children – to identify , design, evaluate and accelerate new tools and strategies.

This is the key to the functioning of the center. First and foremost, it is about building place-based, science-based partnerships. Then we have all the active ingredients we need to build something new and transformative.

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