The capacity for learning is grounded in early brain development.
Human development is a continuous,
dynamic interplay between biology and environment. There are critical
periods where the developing brain is especially responsive to early
Early experiences affect how the
brain develops. They also affect gene expression, which means that they affect
a gene’s instructions for creating proteins or other products that lead to
growth and development. Environmental factors may affect child development
differently depending on underlying individual genetic characteristics.
may lead to more stress-related disruptions in the development of brain areas
associated with important self-regulatory and cognitive functions, impairing the
capacity to deal with other disadvantages or social difficulties children may
Some children are more responsive
to the social environment and are affected by both negative and positive
During early brain
development, new neurons and synapses form and differentiate into specialized
cells and brain regions that perform specific functions, laying the foundation
for cognitive and social
and emotional development. The developing brain is easily molded, making it
highly responsive to experience and stimulation. Enriching environments will
support healthy brain development, but exposure to stress and adverse childhood
experiences (ACEs) can result in changes to the brain that can impact behavior
and the capacity for learning.
development is guided by continuous, bidirectional interactions between human
biology and social environment. Both normative and maladaptive development are
dependent upon the interaction of genes and environment. Gene-environment
interplay consists of three interactive processes: gene-environment
interaction (GxE), gene-environment
correlation (rGE), and epigenetics.
periods of development, such as early childhood, the brain is especially
responsive to the effects of physical and social environmental exposures. This
is when exposures can result in irreversible changes in brain circuitry. Early
learning experiences and environments influence long-term developmental and
adversities during the prenatal period and early life have biological
consequences. Examples of active stressors include chronic threat or danger,
but a lack of nurturing and supportive relationships create significant stress
as well, especially for young children. Early adversity
(adverse childhood experiences) has lasting effects on brain development,
stress response systems, coping mechanisms, and learning, and has been linked
to problems in physical and mental health in adulthood. New studies also show
that prenatal exposure to chronic
stress also influences the developing brain because fetal development is
affected by maternal stress.
Children living in poverty may experience multiple
stressors, such as lack of food and exposure to violence, making them more
susceptible to disruptions in brain development, especially with cognitive and
self-regulatory functions. These changes may manifest as academic and social
problems when the children enter early childhood programs or school. However,
children are not all equally sensitive to negative and positive environmental
factors. Some are more responsive to social environment, showing more negative
or positive outcomes depending on the environment in which they grow up. Highly
susceptible children are not just affected by unsupportive conditions; they may
also benefit disproportionately from positive environments. Understanding the
interplay between environmental and genetic factors in relation to individual
differences in brain development is important for designing early
“Given the foundational and rapid processes of brain development during foundational periods of early development, this is a window of both great risk of vulnerability to developmental disruption and great potential for receptivity to positive developmental influences and interventions.” (pg. 60)
Questions for Policymakers, Higher Education, and the Workforce
Does your state provide resources
or encourage research-based interventions or other types of support to help
reduce prenatal exposure to stress?
How does your state provide these
resources to help children and their parents through adverse situations? Where
are these services provided?
preparation programs include coursework about the impacts of adversity on
preparation programs adequately teach the science of brain development to
future educators, those who will work with young children as well as those
teaching older children?
What information do you have about
the backgrounds of young children in your care?
Do you have the opportunity to sit
down with each family and discuss life stressors family members are facing as
well as set goals for their children?
This is a multimedia guidebook inspired by and drawn from the Transforming the Workforce for Children From Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation (National Academies Press, 2015). This guidebook adds to that volume with key takeaways, videos, interactive tools, a glossary, and more. We have designed it with three doorways for three different but overlapping audiences: educators who work directly with children, educators in higher education who prepare those educators, and policymakers interested in improving early learning settings for children from B–8.