Child Development and Early Learning

Adapted from Transforming the Workforce Chapter 4

Key Takeaways

  • Young children are actively observing their world and learning from it from the moment of birth.

  • Although development and learning are often categorized in separate domains—such as social and emotional development, cognitive development, physical development and health, and general learning competencies—they are not isolated competencies. Instead, they each contribute to each other, they are not easily separable, and different organizations have different labels and ways of categorizing these domains.

  • Without an understanding of how young children learn, adults may underestimate children’s cognitive abilities and therefore miss opportunities to support their growth.

  • Children advance in specific subject areas when their experiences are guided along a learning trajectory through increasingly higher levels of conceptual understanding.

  • The oral language and vocabulary young children learn through interactions with parents and caregivers sets the stage for future academic success.

  • Math skills are core components for thinking and learning; even before first grade, children can learn the skills and concepts that support more complex mathematics understanding later.

  • The development of social and emotional skills, such as the ability to manage emotions and behavior and establish positive relationships with peers, are critical for academic success at the pre-K and K–12 levels. The development of these skills can be encouraged by skilled educators who have developmentally appropriate expectations for the self-control of students and provide predictable routines during the school day.

  • Adequate amounts of nutrition and physical activity are also important for ensuring successful early learning and academic achievement.

  • Children who experience chronic stress and adverse childhood experiences as a result of factors such as poverty, family conflict, or exposure to violence are placed at a learning disadvantage that has a cumulative effect over time.

Chapter Summary

Children are actively learning from the moment they are born. Many of the foundations of learning that are critical to later academic success are established in the first few years of life. For example, the development of secure attachments with supportive parents and caregivers during the first years of life helps children to develop socially and emotionally. 

See this video for one school's way of supporting those relationships using the Lotus Bloom model: 

New studies show that at a young age, children begin developing the background knowledge that will enable them to better understand concepts in specific subject areas, such as math and literacy. Because of this fact, it is crucial that early educators have some knowledge of how children develop at various ages and stages across multiple domains and have the skills necessary to support that growth in the first few years of life.

An Organizational Approach for the Domains of Child Development and Early Learning
Source: Transforming the Workforce for Children from Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation, Figure 4-1, page 86.

Take the case of language and literacy development. Children are learning the building blocks of language from their very earliest days. Parents’ and caregivers’ talk with infants helps to stimulate language comprehension before children begin speaking their first words. The oral language and vocabulary young children learn through interactions with parents and caregivers can set the stage for future academic success. By the age of two a link exists between vocabulary size and reading comprehension, which lasts through fifth grade. Research also shows that young children who develop strong oral language skills are more likely to later develop strong reading skills. Oral language skills can be improved by engaging in authentic conversations (instead of “repeat after me” or one-word answers) with adults and other children. One of the best methods for building language and literacy skills is through interactive storybook reading in which the book stimulates conversations between children and caregivers. Engaging young children in extended discourse about a story by asking open-ended questions is an effective method for building literacy and language. 

With mathematics, researchers are also uncovering important information about young children’s capacities and the benefits of exposing them to developmentally informed teaching. Early knowledge of math strongly predicts later success in the subject; skills in math are also closely entwined with language ability. If guided and provided with opportunities to learn and explore, young children can gain an understanding of mathematics that is broader and more sophisticated than counting and recognizing simple shapes. For example, among the mathematical abilities young children need to develop is the ability to discriminate between large and small sets, known as subitizing. Research is pointing to subitizing capabilities as necessary for forming a foundation for eventually understanding number words, the number word sequence, and the development of exact and extended number concepts and skills. Other more complex math skills include the use of mathematical language, which can be enhanced through discussions about how to solve narrative story problems.

The development of social and emotional skills, such as the ability to work collaboratively, learn from peers, and manage emotions and behavior, are critical for children’s long-term success. A secure parent-child attachment sets the foundation for the healthy development of these skills. They can also be encouraged by knowledgeable educators who set developmentally appropriate expectations, provide predictable routines, and guide children in developing skills of self-management.

Physical development and health are also critical for young children to thrive. Proper nutrition, a physically safe environment, and opportunities for physical activity are all linked to improved academic performance throughout a child’s life. Care and education settings can encourage healthy physical development in children by promoting healthy eating, offering opportunities for physical activity, and providing developmental screenings and connecting families to follow-up care and services.

Cognitive development can be hindered by exposure to chronic stress and adversity that arise from sources such as poverty, family conflict, parental depression, abuse, and neglect. Two-generation interventions can be effective in reducing the levels of stress faced by children by providing resources, such as job placement services, to parents while also caring for children in the family. Chronic stress and adversity can negatively affect fundamental cognitive skills, decrease self-regulation, and imperil mental and physical health. Early care and education professionals must be trained to recognize the effects of chronic stress and assist children in developing the skills necessary for coping with adverse experiences, such as persistence and emotional awareness. 

Key Quotes from Chapter

“The secure attachments that young children develop with educators contribute to an expectation of adult support that enables young children to approach learning opportunities more positively and confidently.” (pg. 103)  
 “Children’s early knowledge of mathematics is surprisingly important, and it strongly predicts later success in mathematics. Mathematics knowledge in preschool predicts mathematics achievement even into high school. Mathematics ability and language ability also are interrelated as mutually reinforcing skills.” (pg. 118)  

 “What matters is not just how much language young children are exposed to but the social and emotional context of language shared with an adult.” (pg. 150)

Questions for Policymakers, Higher Education, and Workforce


  • Are policies in place that aim to support children and also give their parents access to workforce training or programs to reduce their stress levels?
  • What is the state doing to help parents better understand the importance of talking with children starting as soon as they are born?
  • Are the latest findings from social and cognitive science reflected in state, district, or institutional guidelines for young children’s growth and development?
  • Do the guidelines for the routines in children’s classrooms allow for cross-domain learning and interplay between subject areas, such as using the teaching of early mathematics to also build oral language development?

 Higher Education:

  • Since interactive storybook reading is one of the best ways to build the language and literacy skills of young children, is adequate time spent training future educators in best practices for interactive reading?
  • What kind of training on early literacy and early math is offered in early childhood and elementary preparation programs? Do faculty teach across these programs and/or collaborate on content?

 B–8 Workforce: