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From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development
the literature, as discussed in the next chapter, calls attention to the myriad ways in which children's relationships with their parents (or those who otherwise serve as the child's primary caregivers), the parents' behavior toward their children, and the home environment in which children grow up profoundly affect what children learn and can do, what they expect and believe, and how they approach others during the early years and start them off along differing pathways as they move into the school-age years.
Arguably, young children now growing up in the United States are exposed to an unprecedented number and variety of out-of-home environments. School entry used to mark a major transition when the balance of a child's time spent at home and with parents was profoundly altered. Today this happens for the majority of children before the end of their first year, given trends in parental employment and early reliance on child care. It is certainly plausible that, as a result, adults other than parents, care settings other than the child's home, and peers and neighborhood settings are becoming increasingly influential sources of early developmental variation. We do not yet, however, have any evidence bearing on this speculation. In fact, studies of both child care settings and neighborhoods have reaffirmed the powerful influence of the family and studies of socioeconomic influences have emphasized the large extent to which they affect young children through effects on their caregivers.
While there has been a long-standing agreement among those who study children that development cannot be understood out of context—the so-called ecology of human development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1986) —concerted efforts to understand influences that derive from contexts other than the immediate family are relatively new. These efforts include studies of children as they grow up in families that occupy different socioeconomic niches, experience nonparental child care, and reside in communities and neighborhoods with widely differing characteristics and resources. Research that tracks the natural trajectories of young children, particularly longitudinal studies that follow the same children over time, tell us about how these environments affect the natural unfolding of development. Do these beyond-the-family contexts matter, and if so, how much do they matter in shaping the early direction of children's lives? We also learn about contextual influences from studies of efforts to change these environments, ranging from providing infants and toddlers with enriched child care to moving families out of dangerous neighborhoods. This research tells us about the malleability of early development. Can we change development by changing its contexts, and what does it take? We discuss both of these streams of research and argue for their integration.
Research on the context for early development that is provided by parents and other primary caregivers in the home (Chapter 9) provides the point of departure. We then summarize the research on socioeconomic