The Brain Science of Early Care

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Better Brains for Babies

It’s just after nap time in the infant room at the Sheltering Arms Model Teaching Center in Atlanta, one of 15 early learning centers open to all children, ages six weeks to five years, regardless of family income. And upon entering one of the cheerful classrooms, the first thing a visitor would notice is just how much talking is going on. In the infant room, all throughout the day, the two teachers in the room with seven infants, in between laughing and hugging, are talking, reading, talking, singing, and talking to the babies some more. Constantly.

Delane Wilkes, a teacher with 19 years of experience, gently carries a tiny baby just up from a nap to the changing table, and, looking deeply into the baby’s eyes, begins nonstop running commentary. “OK, Miss Peace, I’m going to get my gloves on and get you DRY,” she says in a high sing-songy voice as she gently lays the tiny baby on the table. “Oh! We’re really WET! Yeah! We’ve got to get you CLEAN, girl!” The teacher smiles as she swiftly changes the diaper. The baby smiles a gummy smile. “Oh! Are you going to SMILE for me?” The baby gurgles. “You’re SMILING! Yes you are!”

Like all the teachers at Sheltering Arms, Wilkes has been specially trained to talk this way to infants and toddlers—in a bright, high sing songy voice, called “parentese,” which draws out the sounds of different words, and interacting in a warm, sensitive, responsive style. That exchange with a child, even before they can say their first words, is what researchers call “serve and return.” And it is all the more meaningful because Wilkes, like all teachers at the center, really knows the child: To develop strong relationships that foster learning, teachers move with the children every year until they turn four. The exchange with a loving caregiver at the changing table has everything to do with brain science and building the brain architecture—the neural circuitry—that will lead to all future learning, health, and social, behavioral, and emotional growth.

A child is born with about 100 billion neurons, about as many stars as in the Milky Way, and about all the neurons the brain will ever have. By age three, the brain has produced twice as many connections between these neurons, and at a faster rate, than at any other time in life. This rapid growth lays the foundation not only for communication, thought, and social skills like the ability to “read” other people, but also for what researchers call the reading brain. Despite millennia of human evolution, the brain is still wired for visual and auditory learning, not the relatively more recently developed reading and writing, which emerged with the ancient Sumerians in 3500 BCE. Learning to read and write, which are critical for survival and success in the modern world, doesn’t come naturally for the brain. It requires careful nurturing in a language-rich environment.

Get what researchers call early “language nutrition” right, and children will be more likely to be good readers by third grade. That, in turn, is a predictor of high school graduation rates, which predict whether a child is more likely to go on to college and thrive, or to spiral on a downward trajectory toward unemployment, teen pregnancy, or jail.

Recent research has found that the strongest predictor of a child’s future academic success and wellbeing—more than a child’s socioeconomic status, parents’ education, income, or ethnicity—is the strong attachment to loving adults they have, and the quality and quantity of words those important people speak to them in their first three years.

That’s why, with so many families strapped for time, working and needing to rely on caregivers, the low quality of infant care throughout the country—is worrying. So much of academic and later income inequality starts right here: One study found that, by age three, children from impoverished backgrounds have been exposed to 13 million words, while those from more affluent backgrounds 45 million words—a 30 million word gap. A gap that persisted in language skills when the children studied were 9 and 10. In fact, researchers have found that a majority of the achievement gap at age 14 was already present years before, on the first day of kindergarten.

“Essentially, by age five, you’ve gone a long way toward deciding a child’s future,” said Comer Yates. Yates is part of a statewide effort to promote early language nutrition called “Talk with me Baby,” and is the executive director of the Atlanta Speech School, which offers free online training to parents, caregivers, and teachers around the world on the science behind why exposing children to language early is so critical, and how to do it. “The great news is, we know what the science says. The tragedy is, we just simply aren’t applying it. There are centers that are identified as having quality, yet the interactions between adults and children is deeply flawed. You can’t have quality without rich language and deep social and emotional bonds developed between adults and children,” he said. “So our work is focused on the radical change in adult behavior and engagement with children, birth to age eight, in order to construct the ‘reading brain,’ and develop vocabulary, executive function, self-regulation, critical thinking, and empathy.”

Even calling the work child care, rather than early childhood education, and workers “caregivers” rather than “teachers” is off base, he said. “These are people responsible for some of the most important work around brain construction.”

The work to transform the early care and learning workforce is urgent, Yates said. Because what matters is not only the number of words a child is exposed to, but the relationship the child has with the person speaking them. “Hearing words on TV or a car radio doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “It’s those words coming from a parent, a teacher, someone who deeply matters to you, on whom you are counting—that’s what maps that vocabulary onto your brain, because this memorable person is offering memorable words to you.”

Instead, so many caregivers, poorly paid and many poorly trained, inconsistent with the brain science, social-emotional development, and how children learn through play, have been charged with concentrating on behavior management, he said. Indeed, one study found that three and four-year-old preschoolers are expelled at three times the rate of students in kindergarten through twelfth grade. “If we go into an early learning center and we see adults telling children to be quiet, it is our very firm conviction that that’s a toxic place for children,” he said. “Focusing on having a compliant child fails to put a child on the path to having a ‘reading brain.’”

And a toxic environment at the youngest ages, especially if it’s coupled with poverty, neglect, trauma or other stressors, can have lasting effects. “It’s ironic, people think even today that if you can’t remember your early childhood, it doesn’t have an impact. But it’s the exact opposite,” said Jennifer Elkins, a professor of social work at the University of Georgia who studies the impact of toxic stress and trauma. “In that first year, everything is growing so exponentially that cumulative stressors and adversity can build up and change the brain and how it operates. It’s a domino effect that can impact you the rest of your life. But, the important thing is, we also know that early intervention can have just as powerful an effect. That’s why high quality child care is so vital.”

Yet in Georgia, one recent state study found that about 70 percent of all the licensed infant care was of poor quality.  And a comprehensive national study found that the majority of care in the United States is “fair,” with only 10 percent high quality, and 10 percent downright awful. Many policymakers, the ones who hold the purse strings and the power to remake the system, simply don’t “buy into” the idea that caregiving for infants and toddlers is really education, said Pam Tatum, head of Quality Care for Children, a Georgia nonprofit. “People ask me sarcastically, ‘How do you educate an infant? What do you do, put kids at little desks?’” she said, exasperated. “Birth to three is where the quality suffers the most. It’s the most expensive, the hardest to find, and yet it’s one of the most important times for a child’s development.”

Back at Sheltering Arms, the infant teachers keep up a constant stream of serve and return communication for the rest of the afternoon, talking to the cooing babies as they shake rattles, sing songs, listen to soft piano music, feed them, change them, and play with them. One child lays on a play mat, reaching for bright hanging toys overhead. Another makes a wobbly attempt to stand. “You’re standing UP!” lead teacher Lisa White says, waiting until the child smiles an enormous smile. “Are you going to DANCE now?” she asks the child. “YAY! You’re DANCING!”

White, who has 21 years of experience as a teacher, changed her entire approach once she learned about the brain science behind how children learn. Although she’d always been loving, she knows now how critical forming a strong attachment is to develop the kind of trust that facilitates language nutrition and healthy development. Now, she will get down on the floor and spend as much one-on-one time playing with each baby as she can. She also keeps a close eye on those she gives time to explore on their own. Although White used to read to babies, she now makes sure she shows them the books while she reads, too, and points to words and letters. And now, she talks. All the time. “The training really changed my mind,” she said.

But that kind of deep attachment and consistency in infant care is rare, said Shaneshia Roberson, a professional development specialist at Sheltering Arms and co-leader of another statewide effort to infuse brain science into early learning called “Better Brains for Babies.” At a time when science shows that what infants need most are strong relationships with teachers in order to develop healthy brains, to feel safe, to be willing to take risks, explore their environment, play and talk and listen, she said the meager pay and low quality in most infant and child care settings often chase teachers away. Which only perpetuates inequality. “We see so much turnover in early care and education,” she said, her eyes welling with tears. In Georgia, as in the rest of the country, more than one-third of all early care and learning teachers turnover every year.

Down the hall from the chatter in the infant room, the “serve and return” dialogue is more open-ended in the toddler classrooms. Colorful signs posted on the walls remind the teachers to get inside the child’s world, and to create an environment where they can begin to learn to make their own choices, which develops self-regulation and executive function skills. “How could we work together to solve this?” Reads one sign. “Can you describe what happened?” “What do you like best about it?”

In the carpeted play area, a little boy pulls out a bin of wooden blocks. A teacher who knows him well gets down on the floor with him.

“What are you making?” she asks.

“A house,” the child answers.

“Who lives in your house?”


“What do you do in your house? Tell me about it”

He makes a square of blocks on the floor and explains that it’s his garden.

“A garden! What do you grow in your garden? Collard greens? Spinach?”

“Apples!” the child says.

The two continue to talk as they imagine life in the house, planting orange trees, because oranges are delicious, building a roof, then putting  on a garage, and a room to play basketball. They muse about what other kind of fruit he can grow in his garden, who will come to visit, and what color the front door could be, the two building the conversation, and their connection, as the little house takes shape.