This report was prepared by a rapporteur and does not represent findings or recommendations that can be attributed to the planning committee. Indeed, the report summarizes views expressed by workshop participants, and the committee is responsible only for its overall quality and accuracy as a record of what transpired at the workshop. Also, the workshop was not designed to generate consensus conclusions or recommendations but focused instead on the identification of ideas, themes, and considerations that contribute to the understanding of the topic.

Theme 1: All children are born wired for feelings and ready to learn.

From the time of conception to the first day of kindergarten, development proceeds at a pace exceeding that of any subsequent stage of life. Efforts to understand this process have revealed the myriad and remarkable accomplishments of the early childhood period, as well as the serious problems that confront some young children and their families long before school entry. A fundamental paradox exists and is unavoidable: development in the early years is both highly robust and highly vulnerable. Although there have been long-standing debates about how much the early years really matter in the larger scheme of lifelong development, our conclusion is unequivocal: What happens during the first months and years of life matters a lot, not because this period of development provides an indelible blueprint for adult well-being, but because it sets either a sturdy or fragile stage for what follows. (NRC and IOM, 2000, p. 4)

The observation that babies come into the world with emotions and the ability to learn raises the question of whether early childhood development actually starts at birth. In addition, an emphasis on the period immediately after birth can be detrimental if it is assumed that this period is a strict determinant of later development. Although the first few years of life can be critical for initiating trajectories, they do not determine them. Development is a continuum from the prenatal to the postnatal periods, with a particular influence from maternal nutrition, stress, and health. In that sense, starting with “birth” can be both too late and too early.

The word “wired” also can be problematic if incorrectly interpreted. That term can connote too much permanence, as if the brain were hard wired. But there is a diversity of wiring in the brain. Furthermore, this wiring constantly changes in response to biological and environmental influences. Again, trajectories provide a better way of thinking about development. The farther out in time, the greater the divergence among individuals. These differences can be reduced, although there are limits to plasticity.

The differences between individuals are not all positive or all negative. A difference can lead to advantages in one context and disadvantages in another. Differences sometimes are interpreted in terms of “atypicality”—

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement