Science of Early Learning for Decision-Makers

Parents, policymakers and foundation leaders often ask the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences what qualities create the best early childhood experiences. 

People ask us: What does the science say makes for preschool programs that will not only ensure school readiness but also set children up for the greatest chance at success in life – no matter their circumstances.

"We've created a rich knowledge base about the developing minds of infants and young children – a roadmap for nurturing children as curious, lifelong learners," said Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of I-LABS. "We want to help create a society in which every child, regardless of circumstances, has a chance to reach their full potential. Early learning is key for helping kids get the best start in life."

Based at the University of Washington in Seattle, I-LABS is the world's leading interdisciplinary research center on early learning and brain development. Through a combination of powerful research and engaging outreach, I-LABS bridges new discoveries with real-world applications and contributes to the growing global movement to help children succeed in school and life.

Here's a snapshot of the Institute's most recent findings that can be used by caregivers, teachers and others involved in creating quality early learning environments for children:

Speaking style

"Hiiiii, babeeee. How are youuuu?" That's "parentese" and I-LABS has evidence showing that it helps children learn to talk. We're leading the national discussion of the importance of speech quality, not just quantity, in developing children's language skills.

In one study, for example, we found that speaking to infants in parentese in one-on-one settings is linked to greater vocabulary when the children are toddlers.

In another study, which was named a top scientific finding of the year by Discover, we revealed that the brains of 7- and 11-month-old babies rehearse how to produce language, even though the babies were still months away from saying their first words.

Eye Gaze

In our youngest learners, eye gaze serves as a powerful teaching tool and a building block for social cognition. Like a shining spotlight on an object or learning opportunity, a caregiver's direction of eye gaze gives a baby clues as to what is interesting in the world. It is one of the earliest social interactions we engage in, and I-LABS research is showing that eye gaze opens the door to language growth and other cognitive skills during childhood.


Babies are born with the ability to tell the difference between each of the 800 sounds ("phonemes") of all the languages in the world. This skill enables them to readily learn any language – that's why we like to call them "linguistic geniuses."

But by their first birthdays, as they hear the spoken sounds around them, their brains hone in on the 40 or so phonemes that make up their culture's language. They lose the ability to readily and easily distinguish sounds in a foreign language. This means that the best time to teach a second language is from the beginning of life.

And if you need another reason to support dual language learning, I-LABS research also shows that bilingualism is the best workout for the brain – giving a boost to non-language skills such as problem solving.

Social-emotional learning

How do children learn to pick up on social cues, cope with emotions, and adjust to the inevitable ups and downs in life? Our work traces the roots of these skills – often referred to as social-emotional learning and believed to be a way to help children build resiliency.

For instance, one of our studies (which went viral when it was released last fall) revealed that toddlers as young at 15 months show a sophisticated understanding of the emotions of others and could regulate their behavior in accordance with the emotions of the adults they interact with.

I-LABS research demonstrates that social-emotional learning is just as important as cognitive learning – we even brought this argument to a recent White House summit on early learning. This study suggests that social-emotional skills such as self-control emerge earlier in childhood than previously believed.

This research opens the door to earlier interventions to help kids develop social-emotional skills essential for school readiness – and for life in general.


In later childhood, I-LABS has mounting evidence for how social expectations and stereotypes guide children's views about whether they belong. For instance, as early as second grade, girls begin to take the view that math isn't for them – even though their math test scores show they're performing well in the subject.

We have additional evidence showing straightforward strategies to disrupting stereotypes and keeping girls engaged in STEM subjects. Broadening stereotypes by showing a diversity of people in STEM fields and even tweaking the design of classrooms will help.             

From Science to Society

As the data roll in, trends emerge in how to use I-LABS science to create high quality early learning programs. Through presentations at the White House, briefings on Capitol Hill, meetings with the Dalai Lama, and in other high-profile venues around the globe, I-LABS researchers have a strong history of helping decision-makers apply science to the real world.

Responding to recent inquiries from parents, educators and policymakers, I-LABS increased its outreach efforts to more rapidly transfer the latest scientific knowledge to early learning practices.

"It's part of our mission to translate and disseminate the latest science on child development," said Sarah Roseberry Lytle, I-LABS outreach director. "We work with a wide range of partners to empower parents, educators, caregivers and policymakers to make the best possible decisions about how to use science in everyday interactions with children."

Lytle and the outreach team are in the midst of a series of keynote presentations around the country at Early Head Start conferences. And, the team's growing library of free, online resources make the latest science of child development available to early learning professionals, parents and other caregivers who have daily interactions with children.

The expanded outreach and communications efforts are part of the Institute's "The Ready Mind Project," a campaign that began last year with the goal of raising funds for the discovery and dissemination of groundbreaking insights into children's learning and development. Donations are matched dollar-for-dollar through a generous challenge grant from the Bezos Family Foundation.

"The science shows that the baby thrives on you – the caregiver," said Patricia Kuhl, I-LABS co-director. "We want to be sure that people working with children have the science-based resources they need to ignite the spirit of learning in every child."