How research reinforces the importance of high-quality early childhood education.

The vitality of Houston depends, in part, on the aptitude of the next generation to achieve success.  Houston needs a capable workforce that can handle the challenges of an ever-changing global economy, and the factors that shape the capacity of our future workforce depend on the decisions we make now as a region.

Decades of science demonstrate that the ability of an individual to achieve success is strongly influenced by how the brain develops during the first few years of life. From birth to age three, the brain makes over one million neuronal connections per second. These neuronal connections are vital to building a strong, healthy brain structure. The brain is responsible for every human function, from breathing to executive function, and how the brain develops during the first few years of life influences a person’s potential for learning, problem-solving, motor skills, emotional and behavioral function, and essentially every other aspect of human life. Yet, not all children have the same opportunities for the experiences and interactions necessary for healthy brain development.

An inequitable start for too many children

While the biological process of one neuron connecting to another is driven partly by genetics, environmental factors play a significant role in the quantity and quality of those connections. Whether connections are maintained, wither, or die depends on the input a child’s brain receives from his or her environment and relationships with caregivers. “Serve and return” is a phrase coined by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University that describes the types of interactions necessary for optimal brain development. 

Serve and return interactions are those that occur between caretaker and child and involve responding to a child’s non-verbal and verbal cues with kindness, affection, physical touch, language and other forms of communication.  While this seems fairly simple, the brain requires consistent, frequent serve and return interactions, which can be difficult for many working families, especially the working poor who often have multiple jobs. Moreover, many children spend the majority of their time in childcare centers where engagement with young children is limited to diaper changes and feeding. 

Most caregivers want to give their children as many opportunities as possible, yet there are many social, economic, political and environmental factors that create barriers to caregivers’ ability to optimize brain development. For example, poverty, food insecurity, and neighborhood violence significantly increases the risk of parental stress and depression, which impedes caregiver-child interactions. Poor housing conditions, such as the presence of lead paint, can directly impact the brain development of a child, as lead deposits can cause neuronal cell death in the brain. Lastly, adverse childhood experiences and unrelenting, sustained stress have substantial and lasting impacts on both caregiver and child.

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An investment gap that must be filled

The complex and large-scale nature of all the factors that can influence brain development during childhood has led to a gap in investment from birth to age three because the task can seem insurmountable. Also, access to families with children age three and younger can be difficult if they are not in a childcare system. Thus, philanthropy and advocacy organizations often steer their efforts to a more manageable goal of increasing access to pre-kindergarten.  Increasing opportunities for early learning is very important and research has shown improved academic and economic gains from pre-K, especially for children from low-income families. However, these outcomes depend on how aligned the pre-K program is with developmental science. 

The part of the brain primarily responsible for learning and memory is called the hippocampus, which unlike most of the other parts of the brain, continuously forms new neuronal connections throughout a lifetime. That is why adults can be life-long learners. However, the critical window of brain development during the first three years of life occurs in the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for intelligence, personality, “soft skills,” and many other vital human functions. Optimal cerebral function is required for individuals to be successful in the workplace and have healthy relationships. Yet, the cerebral cortex is not adequately stimulated by all pre-K programs. Moreover, most pre-K programs begin at age four, which is after the majority of brain architecture has already been developed.

Two-generational, whole family approaches hold tremendous promise 

Early Head Start (EHS) is an excellent example of how policymakers developed a two-generation intervention based on science. EHS provides parental support to improve caregiver brain-building skills, and services start during pregnancy and continue through age three. EHS intentionally goes beyond a traditional “educational” framework to include components that stimulate the intellectual, social, and emotional aspects of a child’s development. This creates neuronal connections in other parts of a child’s brain, not just the hippocampus. EHS also addresses the social and economic needs of the parents, which, as described above, can be barriers to optimal caregiver-child interactions. This “two-generation” approach is an important aspect of the EHS program and is worthy of emulation.

National efforts are well underway to catalyze a resurgence of this approach. Simply put, two-generational approaches acknowledge an obvious truth: different children’s outcomes are largely dependent on the vitality of the families and neighborhoods in which they live. Hence, two-generation approaches intentionally focus on addressing the needs of the whole family and the factors that keep them from prospering, with the goal of optimizing conditions for both parents and their children.  

In Houston, we have several opportunities to support or create holistic, two-generation interventions that facilitate early childhood development. The Mayor’s Complete Communities initiative provides an opportunity to leverage current neighborhood investments to reduce many adverse factors that affect families and create a caregiver educational program that increases caregiver brain-building skills. In partnership with the Children’s Museum of Houston, the City of Houston Health Department has launched Houston Basics, which is a public health campaign designed to increase caregiver serve and return with young children. Houston Basics can be leveraged to launch more intensive brain-building training for caregivers, as well as connect families to social support resources. Other cities, such as St. Paul, Minnesota, have increased the brain-building skills of childcare workers, and have standardized and improved childcare centers while also providing education and job training to help parents move out of poverty.

The opportunity for a focused, data-driven investment strategy

If we want improved outcomes for Houston’s children, we have to align our priorities, policies, and investments with science. Rather than divide our funding priorities and advocacy efforts in early childhood into education, childcare, and parenting program silos, we need to have a comprehensive and integrated approach that provides support for children and their families from pregnancy through Kindergarten. We should follow the child, rather than the sector. We also need to develop multi-sector interventions that can address some of the economic and social challenges many families experience, while also building their capacity to be brain builders despite these challenges.  Lastly, we need to understand there are significant opportunity costs when we do not prioritize solutions that focus on the first few years of life. As we wait longer to intervene, the cost of intervention increases and the return on investment decreases. 

Understanding Houston is a great step towards using data and science to inform decision-making. It also provides a platform for a variety of stakeholders to receive information, which hopefully will spur dialogue and challenge beliefs amongst a variety of interested parties. Houston is a strong, resilient region. The task of ensuring every child has the same opportunity for optimal brain development is large, but if we allow developmental science to shape our policies, practices and investments, we can ensure a bright, prosperous future for Houston’s children and prospective workforce.

Quianta Moore, M.D., J.D., is the Fellow in Child Health Policy at the Baker Institute for Public Policy. Her research focuses on developing empirically informed policies to advance the health and equitable future of children and their communities. Read more.

Published by Quianta Moore, M.D., J.D.

Fellow in Child Health Policy, Baker Institute for Public Policy

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