Latest Brain Research Supports Obama Early Childhood Plan

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Patricia KuhlWASHINGTON – Sixteen years ago, then-first lady Hillary Clinton convened a White House conference on the latest research on brain development in babies, emphasizing that a person’s earliest years affected how the brain wired itself to respond to future experiences. 

Since that 1997 conference, scientists’ understanding of early brain development has deepened tremendously. But federal policies on early childhood learning programs have largely remained unchanged, child advocates said this week at a Capitol Hill briefing on the latest brain research.

They’re hoping a number of new legislative proposals by Congress and President Barack Obama on early childhood programs will finally bring public policy in line with scientific evidence, reducing racial and economic inequalities and boosting parental productivity.

“This is not a partisan issue. This is an economic issue for the future of the United States,” said Matthew Melmed, executive director of Zero to Three, a national research center on early learning.

The most visible of the new proposals is President Obama’s plan, first mentioned in his State of the Union speech in January, to expand early learning and care opportunities from birth to the age of 5.

Children from low-income families are less likely to receive the same kind of learning opportunities in their early years as their higher-income counterparts, setting up inequalities that can grow over time, researchers from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences said.

“This is not a level playing field. This is not fair to the children,” said Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the institute.

An alarming number of children in the United States are at an economic disadvantage when it comes to early learning. Seventy-five percent of infants and toddlers who have a single parent live in a low-income household, according to Zero to Three. And nearly half of all children under the age of 3 in the United States belong to low-income families, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.

A family’s socioeconomic status affects all aspects of a child’s learning environment, from the types of books lying around the home to the amount a parent reads to the child, from the conversations over dinner to the complexity of the vocabulary a child hears, Kuhl said.

In particular, research shows that stress, especially stress due to poverty, abuse or neglect, “makes it very, very difficult for all this brain development and learning to take place,” Kuhl said.

Teaching parents about their child’s developmental needs and training them in more effective parenting techniques can reap enormous rewards, said Laurie Miller Brotman, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the New York University Child Study Center.

She described a study involving a New York City program called ParentCorps, which provided mainly immigrant and low-income parents of preschoolers with support and training in effective parenting over three years. In those three years, indicators for classroom behavior management and classroom productivity ticked steadily upward, while a control group showed declines in both areas. The ParentCorps children’s academic achievement levels also rose, while obesity levels fell.

New research also shows that parenting interventions in early childhood can lower a child’s cortisol levels, which signal his or her response to stress, Brotman said.

“We think that has enormous implications for policy,” she said. “If we can’t prevent the toxic stress from happening in the first place, we can certainly support the caregivers -- the parents, the teachers -- to help children cope with those stresses.”

President Obama’s proposal for early childhood programs includes parental support measures like voluntary home visits and child care, pre-K education, as well as full-day kindergarten, “a very comprehensive and well-thought-out initiative,” said Melmed of Zero to Three. Although media reports were casting it as a pre-K program, Obama’s proposal went far beyond that, he said.

“The initiative that the president is offering is one that is really groundbreaking and innovative, and one that we are hoping that both sides of the aisle here on the Hill will listen to and understand,” Melmed said.

There was evidence that funds spent on such programs were a good investment because they developed better citizens for the country, said Philip Peterson, co-chair of ReadyNation, a partnership of businesses that support early childhood learning.

Changing public policy on this issue would affect us all, Melmed said.

“Babies are not Republicans. Babies are not Democrats,” Melmed said. “Babies are our future, and if we invest in them the way that the science is telling us we should, we will be the leading nation in the world once again.”

Photo credit: Kaukab Jhumra Smith