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.