The path to a nation that is strong and prosperous, with healthy, well-educated citizens and vibrant communities, begins with our youngest children. Thanks to a remarkable convergence of new scientific knowledge about the developing brain, the human genome, and the long-term impact of early experiences, you have an exceptional opportunity to secure our country’s future by improving the life prospects of all our young children. We have the knowledge. Now we need the leadership.
Science can now say with credibility that the early childhood years—from birth to age 5—lay the foundation for economic productivity, responsible citizenship, and a lifetime of sound physical and mental health. Conversely, deep poverty, abuse, neglect, and exposure to violence in early childhood can lead to toxic stress, which weakens the architecture of the developing brain. The result? A far greater likelihood of anti-social behavior, lower achievement in school and at work, and poor health—all of which society must address at great cost.
No “magic bullet” can solve these complex challenges, but long-term strategies that promote the healthy development of all young children offer a dramatic return on investment for years to come. Policies and programs that promote quality learning experiences and positive relationships—at home and through early care and education as well as targeted interventions—can be successful, as long as they are based on solid evidence and matched to the specific needs they are expected to address.
Science points toward three things we can do to level the playing field for our nation’s children:
- Make basic health services and early care and education accessible to all young children;
- Provide stronger financial support and enriched learning opportunities for children living in poverty; and
- Offer specialized services for young children experiencing toxic stress from difficult life circumstances.
The scientific principles of early childhood development do not vary by family income, program type, or funding source. Programs that screen for adversity and respond to specific child and family needs, be they mental health services, substance abuse treatment, or home visits by trained nurses, yield benefits to children—and to society—that far exceed the costs. Early and effective interventions for children facing the greatest stresses generate the highest returns on investment. The findings of neuroscience, child development, and human capital formation all point to the same conclusion: creating the right conditions for early childhood development is far more effective than trying to fix problems later.