Connecting the Science of Early Learning to Policy

On November 16, 2011, nearly 20 members of the Washington State legislature visited I-LABS in a program jointly developed with the Early Learning Action Alliance. Legislators were updated on key findings and themes in current research on early learning, and how they relate to the decisions being faced by policy-makers. Critical topics included describing new evidence that links infants’ family interaction patterns, brain development, and outcomes that relate to school readiness.

There is a growing synergy between advances in developmental neuroscience and the formulation of innovative and effective policies to improve the lives of all children, starting in the critical first 2,000 days from birth to Kindergarten.

Compelling data exist to connect specific brain mechanisms with key environmental factors that drive child development – providing explanations for exactly why investing in early childhood has such powerful social and economic value.

The quality, high or not, of early experiences sets a trajectory of lifelong learning. The human brain physically changes in response to experience most efficiently during the first three years of life, compared to any other three-year period. Because brain architecture is more difficult to alter in later childhood, policies need to reflect current best evidence on how to ensure all children have access to high quality environments from before birth.










Discussion highlighted the need for evidence-based decision-making to preserve programs that not only prevent risk-factors, but also support high-quality early learning environments.

Key Themes Highlighted During Visit:

1. Connecting the science and practice of early childhood: Remarks by Dr. Andrew Meltzoff

The basis for the science is that humans are born learning. From the earliest forms of social imitation while a person is minutes old, to how they use the emotions and actions of others to inform what they themselves do, infants are learning every minute, in every interaction. Do our family policies leave room to support ways to get this information to all parents through programming, education, and services? Parents are our first and most important teachers.

Infants learn from eavesdropping. They will alter their actions based on the emotions that they observe between other people. For example, an infant is less likely to engage with a fun toy if they have previously observed an adult expressing even mild displeasure toward someone else playing with the same fun toy. Laboratory observations like these are an indicator of just how sensitive young children are. These data help explain why children who are in environments where chronic negative emotions are present within other family members, experience severe disruption of their learning. Do our social support policies do enough to minimize the risk of this chronic stress? If parents are stressed, their children will be too, both biologically preventing learning and minimizing more positive experiences.

Cultural stereotypes are absorbed early in life. Because young children are such astute learners from observation, they are sensitive to nuances within the culture that unnecessarily stifle learning and achievement capacity. One example is math-gender stereotypes, where in American culture, females are less strongly associated with math and science than are males. By 8 years of age, before mere multiplication tables, both boys and girls have cleanly divided their perception of the world into a framework that influences their self-perception, interests and aspiration. For young girls, this generalizes to the concept of “Girls don’t do math, I’m a girl, therefore I don’t do math.” Ongoing studies are exploring this across cultures, in an effort to better understand how stereotypes develop and how negative ones can be prevented. Do education policies include access to raised awareness to the mechanisms of stereotypes? If teachers aren’t aware, they cannot prevent.

Innovation will require tighter collaboration between scientists, policy-makers, practitioners, and the business community. The emerging infrastructure for early learning in our state and in our country depends on strong relationships between these four key stakeholders. While partnership between any two of them is more common, it is critical that all four are equal partners in proposing, evaluating, and effecting change. Do policies include incentives to increase participation by philanthropists and business leaders to support early learning initiatives in the most vulnerable communities? Private support is needed where public funds cannot extend.

2. Current opportunities in developmental cognitive neuroscience: Remarks by Gina Lebedeva and Patricia Kuhl

Science can now explicitly link how environmental factors influence brain development, which sets the basis for the behaviors we observe. Nutritional science has made explicit how vitamins embedded in foods relates to certain body structures and functions, which is the basis for health. In much the same way, studies have uncovered specific features of human input and interaction that relate to brain structure and function, from infancy, which predict the learning, cognition and behavior that a child is likely to exhibit.

The most powerful learning takes place through everyday interactions with important people in their life. Critically, this experience-dependant learning is dependent on the quality of input and interactions. Through the first year of life, infants become increasingly attuned to patterns in the input they experience. Science is now able to delineate and quantify precisely what “high quality” interactions look like during everyday interactions: what kind of speech input is most powerful for learning, when eye contact is necessary, what children can and cannot learn from screen media, how bilingual environments affect learning, how optimize the timing of responses to infants, and what observations to make for infants earliest communication, for example.

Brain imaging tools have advanced to the next level, where deeper questions are now being addressed in studies. Data are converging on evidence that both behavior and brain responses taken in infancy, well before words, can predict later outcomes. For instance, neural sensitivity to speech sounds in the first year relates to vocabulary development in toddlerhood, which in turn strongly relates to language skills at the entrance of Kindergarten. New Neuroimaging techniques are beginning to outline exactly how early experiences shape brain structure and function.

Key advances in methodology are now allowing research to examine:

a. Top left: How white matter development is influenced by environment. Increased mylenation (like electrical insulation) optimizes neural current flow, and its efficiency in growth can be linked to quality of learned experiences early in life.

b. Bottom left: How neural tracts that connect brain regions develop. Tractography techniques that can track bundles of fibers can be mapped onto structural images to create more complex maps about how the brain functions in cognitive tasks. The brain works through a series of networks, but networks are formed through learned experience, not through simply a matter of time.

c. Right: Real-time synchrony. With MEG technology that can both localize and provide precise timing information about brain activity, development of synchrony between brain regions can be studied. Relationships between emotion regulation and language, or between speaking and listening, or between experience and memory, can begin to be related to environmental factors in the child’s life. Further, there is emerging possibility of connecting “face to face” neuroimaging, where the synchrony between a parent and a child during an interaction can be quantified with biological measures.

Examples of new findings that are of immediate use for educators, parents, and program:

o Quality of parent language used in book sharing relates to maturity rate of child’s brain specialization, especially for families with socioeconomic risk.

o Quantity of language exposure in infancy relates to brain sensitivity for language in bilingual children, and for their vocabulary development.

o Live interaction stimulates infants’ optimal brain responses compared to televised interactions.

o How much an infant follows an adult’s eye gaze and uses gestures predicts their language as a toddler.


All learning happens in relationships, and first relationships matter. Because every moment is a learning moment in the first three years, policies need to reflect how infants and toddlers need a healthy family and community system in place for optimal development. When families have the mental and physical health services, the job training and education and childcare support, and strong communities, they can make the time necessary to develop quality relationships with their infants to prepare them for life. Long-term development is a process of individual interactions, where science has shown us the details.

Innovation in policy. Washington is leader in having start foundations for a strong infrastructure. Ideas brought up by the legislators today included refreshed approaches to family leave policies, high school science curricula to include early human learning, and more centralized data-keeping across programs and agencies to unify the evidence base.

What makes strong children? The whole network

In each of these sub-areas, policy-makers, scientists, practitioners, and funders should contribute to analyze and reflect on the following questions:

1. What Does the State and National Picture Look Like?

2. What Does Success Look Like?

3. How Well Are We Doing?

4. What Services and Supports Make a Difference?

5. How Available Is This Support?

6. Who Are Some Key Players?

7. What Infrastructure Must Be In Place?

8. What Are Some Opportunities to Connect Efforts and Build Momentum?

9. What Are Some Examples of Current Models?

Pyramid complied from information by Thrive by Five Washington
Learn more about the Early Learning Action Alliance
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