From the time they are born, children are not just “ready to learn” but already actively learning. Their minds are active and inquisitive, and early thinking is insightful and complex. From the beginning, children’s learning is constituted by interactions among and growth in several key domains: cognitive development, including cognitive skills and the acquisition of specific content knowledge and skills; general learning competencies; socioemotional development; and health and physical well-being. Success in learning across all of these domains relates to and is supported by the security of consistent, stable, nurturing, and protective interactions with adults that enable children to engage fully in learning opportunities. Support for interactions among these domains of learning through high-quality, positive learning environments and sustained positive relationships with adults is foundational for the healthy development of young children.
The capacity for learning is grounded in the development of the brain and brain circuitry. The brain architecture that underlies this capacity is developed not from a static “blueprint,” but through continuous, dynamic, adaptive interaction between biology and environment that begins at conception and continues throughout life. This interaction accounts for how early experiences (including both stressors and supports) affect gene expression and how the brain develops, and it also accounts for how the effects of environmental factors on a child’s development may vary depending on underlying individual genetic characteristics. The adaptations that occur as a result of the interaction between “nature” and “nurture” mean that early experiences and early learning environments critically shape all domains of human development.
Many of the foundations of sophisticated forms of learning, including those important to academic success, are established in the earliest years of life. Development and early learning can be supported continuously as a child ages, and early knowledge and skills inform and influence future learning. Growth is fostered by active engagement with new experiences supported through responsive, secure, and sustained relationships with adults who provide developmentally appropriate stimulation of new learning. Part of developmentally appropriate support for learning is expecting some individual variation in the trajectories of children’s progress and development across the various domains of learning. For this reason, it is important for adults to be able to support development and learning in ways that recognize and are responsive to individual progress, not just a child’s age. In many cases, differences in children’s trajectories reflect one or more of the many underlying factors in a child’s environment or learning experiences that can—positively or negatively—affect development. Thus when a child is, for example, not as far along as might be expected, this does not reflect an innate, unchangeable reason to lower expectations for progress in the child’s development and learning, and recognizing individual differences calls for responding actively, not passively waiting until a child “catches up.”
Intervention in early childhood from birth through age 8 offers opportunities to have a positive effect on children and to build a foundation for later success through policies, services, interventions, and high-quality learning experiences designed to promote and sustain healthy growth, development, and learning; to prevent and mitigate harm; and to remediate lags in early achievement. The effectiveness of such intervention relies in large part on the quality practices of adults who have professional responsibilities for young children. A concerted effort focused on these adults represents one of the most important opportunities available for improving the quality of the care and education received by young children, and ultimately improving their outcomes.
Thus, the science of child development and early learning presented in this part of the report is important not just for what it tells us about children, but also for its implications for the professionals who contribute to the development and early learning of children during this period. In this way, the science discussed here provides the foundation for the rest of this report. Its implications apply to the knowledge and competencies that these professionals need, the infrastructure and systems in which they work, their systems for professional learning, and other supports that contribute to improving the quality of professional practice and developing an excellent, robust, and stable workforce across the many professional roles that relate to children from birth through age 8.