Is First Grade Too Late? Education Policy
and the Brain’s Windows of Opportunity

by Frank Newman, President
Education Commission of the States

A five-year-old entering school for the first time, on the threshold of a lifelong education, may already have missed some crucial opportunities for learning that can never be recaptured.

From the standpoint of their developing brains, children start school relatively late in life. Long before youngsters master their ABCs, their brains have passed many developmental milestones. Yet education policy has not addressed how children learn before they arrive at school. Nor has policy focused on helping parents enrich the home environment so their children will be ready to learn when they reach school age. Now, research in brain development suggests it’s time to rethink early childhood education policy.

A growing body of research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology indicates that the first three years of life are especially critical to laying the groundwork for future learning. At a recent workshop sponsored by the Education Commission of the States and the Charles A. Dana Foundation, researchers confirmed what many educators have known intuitively about early childhood development: the infant brain requires almost nonstop stimulation from birth to age three—well before a child starts school.

Scientists have learned that early in pregnancy, the fetal brain begins to form the trillions of brain cell connections it will use throughout a lifetime. The connection-building process continues at breakneck speed through the first few years of life, then tapers off until age 11 or so as cells go through a normal attrition process. But without a healthy prenatal environment followed by appropriate sensory input starting at birth, countless connections will never form at all.

Many neuroscientists believe those early losses are irreversible, while others contend the brain forms new connections throughout a lifetime in response to learning. Whoever is right, neuroscientists generally agree that nature presents developmental time slots when primary cognitive functions like vision and speech are acquired naturally and rapidly. To miss those windows of opportunity is to hinder a child’s capacity to learn in first grade and all the years beyond.

Here’s a poignant example: with the best of intentions, parents sometimes withhold vital stimuli from their infants during the brain’s most receptive periods. Recently an educator told me that many immigrant parents speak or read very little to their children, thinking the children will learn English more easily if they don’t hear their parents’ native tongue. Sadly, the opposite is true: children can readily become fluent in several languages if exposed to speech in early infancy, when their brains are primed to acquire language. Children whose parents do not talk, read or sing to them will fall behind in verbal and comprehension skills and will struggle to catch up in school, even in bilingual education programs. Many may require costly and largely ineffective special education programs. And too many will become discouraged and never catch up at all.

Moreover, it is imperative to develop policies that address the pre- and postnatal education of parents as well, because maternal tobacco, drug and alcohol use affect fetal brain development in ways that no amount of early stimulation can overcome.

Parents must be given more information to help them foster their infants’ brain development through play, talk, stories, toys and other everyday activities. Even modest efforts can help. Georgia governor Zell Miller distributed 60,000 copies of “The Little Engine that Could” to encourage parents to read to their young children. On a larger scale, St. Louis-based Parents as Teachers, a nationwide program that teaches effective child-rearing practices to disadvantaged young families, is collaborating with Washington University on a pilot program focusing on learning in the early developmental period.

Policies are also needed to raise the education requirements for day care workers. Millions of infants and toddlers wait out some pivotal brain growth stages in day care centers. Typically overworked and underpaid, day care workers attend to the children’s physical needs but have neither the time nor the training to nourish their charges’ voracious brains.

Evidence is mounting that high-quality early intervention improves results and reduces costs. Texas and Montana reported sharp drops in special education placements after putting early intervention programs in place.

Other states that have invested in high-quality early intervention have not only
benefitted children but racked up impressive cost reductions as well. For example, Montana saved twice as much as it spent on early intervention by the time a child reached age 7 and Massachusetts netted more than $2,700 per child in a single year after deducting the cost of providing early intervention services.

We can no longer wait until children enter grade school or even pre-school programs like Head Start to set the stage for later learning. Early intervention makes sense from a scientific, societal, and economic perspective, so let’s re-examine our early childhood education priorities now.

Before it’s too late.



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