What children experience during the first years of their life have a lasting impact on the development of their brain. We summarized 3 landmark research projects that show the importance of rich experience early in life.
But before we go into details, it’s important to understand the basics of how brain connections are built.
Understanding brain connections
While genes set the roadmap, experiences create the neural connections inside the brain that sets the foundations of our emotions, language, motor skills, vision, and memories. If one region gets additional stimulation, the neural pathways within that area and the connections to other areas grow stronger. This process is called synaptic pruning.
Imagine your child’s brain as a planet. There is Motor Skill Metropolis, Memory Mountain, and Vision Village. Through the years, popular cities grow bigger and the links between them get larger. Now, if one area was never developed, there can be traffic jams. This then slows down the development of the entire brain. Some neurotransmitters will be tired.
- The missing 30 million words
Betty Hart and Todd Risley studied children’s exposure to their language. In some families children were exposed to about 600 words per hour. In other families kids got to hear about 2,000 words. By the age of 3, the gap becomes 30 million words.
- The Perry Preschool Study
In a study that began in 1963, psychologist David Weikart and his team randomly divided 123 underprivileged kids into two groups. One group spent two years at a top preschool with excellent teachers. They made art, discussed problems, and received a lot of attention, respect, and love. For the other, life went on as usual, often without much attention from anyone. Forty years later, the Highscope Perry Preschool Study was published.
At age five, 67% of the children in the top preschool group had an IQ of over 90; they were school-ready. Of the others, only 28% achieved that. At fourteen, there was a big difference in basic classroom achievements. At twenty-seven, the top preschool group were more likely to own their own home. And at age forty, they earned more money and were less likely to ever be sentenced to jail.
The researchers concluded that the two years at preschool not only nourished the children intellectually but also gave them social skills, courage, and perseverance. This combination of character strength, also called Grit, was later responsible for their success in life. The 15,000 dollars invested in putting those kids into preschool, later benefited the entire society, mainly through a reduction in crime. The total return of investment was estimated to be at 195,000 dollars.
- The return of investments in education
In 2006, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman published what became known as the Heckman Curve. It shows the return of investments in education, which is the highest in the early years. Governments have since started to act. In Germany, parents get a lot of financial support to raise their kids. In Japan, mothers or fathers can take a full year of paid leave. In France, all children go to Kindergarten free of charge.
If you happen to be in charge, know that with every extra minute you spend encouraging and talking to that little troublemaker, you might be doing him a favor for life.
According to the University of Michigan: “Regular family dinners are a stronger predictor of good grades than doing homework.”
- 30 Million Word Gap, The American Federation of Teachers (http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/TheEarlyCatastrophe.pdf )
- Highscope Perry Research Project (http://www.highscope.org/file/research/paerryproject/specialsummary_rev2011_02_2.pdf)
- The Heckman Equation (https://heckmanequation.org/resource/the-heckman-curve/ )