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Early Childhood: A World of Relationships

“… one of the things that we know is that literally from the time they’re born, infants have capacities to empathise with the emotions and internal states of other people, and by the time they’re 18 months old, perhaps even a bit younger, children show signs of altruism. So that they’ll actively act to help another person achieve their ends or achieve their goals. By the time they’re 2-1/2, a really striking set of studies, young children seem to be able to discriminate between purely conventional roles and genuinely moral ones.”

Professor Alison Gopnik from the University of California, Berkeley introducing her discussion with Dr Alan Saunders of the ABC Radio National Program The Philosophers Zone in January 2011.[1]

Professor Gopnik went on to say, “By the time they’re 2-1/2 … young children seem to be able to discriminate between purely conventional roles and genuinely moral ones.” In fact Gopnik says, we now know that, in many ways, “young children are actually smarter, more imaginative, more caring and even more conscious than adults“. This is a radical change from the view once held that babies and young children were irrational, egocentric and amoral with limited thinking.


The earliest years of a child’s life are of critical importance: the social and economic environment in which they grow up influences the relationships they form and their capacity to pursue life’s choices later. Whilst we all ooh and aah about small children and – with some specific exceptions – celebrate their birth we don’t actually match our words with actions. Specifically in much of the debate about education we focus on the school, some of it on the university or other tertiary institutions. Meanwhile, the increasingly large literature flowing from important scientific research on early childhood remains largely ignored. This early period in life is so critical that later interventions, such as at school or later, most often take a great deal more effort to achieve results. Parental leave and preschool are cast as addendums to work when they are in fact critical to every child’s and therefore society’s future!

Life in the earliest months

Relationships of the child with the mother from the earliest hours of life in the outside world are vitally important. Cognitive ability, once considered to be accurately measured by IQ and fixed at birth through inheritance, in fact varies significantly with variations in the environment and brain architecture and function are open to very significant influence in early years with major impacts obvious by year 5. Thus provision of substantial and varied stimulation of the young child through reading, games, creative activities such as art and music, and dance, languages and much else contributes significantly to the individual’s eventual ability as an older child and adult. Educational experiences in later life amplify the gains made in early childhood. Above all it is clear that development of relationships and of social and emotional skills for cooperating with others is essential.

The basics of early childhood neurophysiology and behaviour are summarised in numerous articles and books including a special report in 1999 by the U.S National Academy’s Commission on Behavioural and Social Sciences and Education led by Professor John D. Bransford at the University of Washington in Seattle.[2] “Children are born with certain biological capacities for learning. They can recognize human sounds, distinguish animate from inanimate objects, and they have an inherent sense of space, motion, number, and causality. These raw capacities of the human infant are actualized by the environment surrounding a newborn. The environment supplies information, and equally important, provides structure to the information, as when parents draw an infant’s attention to the sounds of her or his native language.

“Thus, developmental processes involve interactions between children’s early competencies and their environmental and interpersonal supports. These supports serve to strengthen the capacities that are relevant to a child’s surroundings and to prune those that are not. Learning is promoted and regulated by the children’s biology and their environments. The brain of a developing child is a product, at the molecular level, of interactions between biological and ecological factors. Mind is created in this process.

“The term ”development” is critical to understanding the changes in children’s conceptual growth. Cognitive changes do not result from mere accretion of information, but are due to processes involved in conceptual reorganization. Research from many fields has supplied the key findings about how early cognitive abilities relate to learning.”

Children actively engage in making sense of their worlds and they can reason with the knowledge they understand. Children are problem solvers, generating questions, attempting to solve problems and seeking novel challenges. They also develop knowledge of their own learning capacities. “Children’s early capacities are dependent on catalysts and mediation. Adults play a critical role in promoting children’s curiosity and persistence by directing children’s attention, structuring their experiences, supporting their learning attempts, and regulating the complexity and difficulty of levels of information for them.”

As Professor of Applied Psychology and Public Policy at New York University Laurence Aber[3] notes it is incontrovertible: the infant brain is hard-wired for relationships and the optimal growth and development of the human brain in the early years is largely dependent on the nature and quality of a child’s few and most important human relationships.

“…Infants from families in the top income quintile are born healthier, stay healthier, develop language skills faster, and experience fewer serious problems of self-regulation and social-emotional development than infants from families in the bottom income quintile.”

Pioneer studies of early childhood

The two best known studies of intervention in early childhood are the Perry Preschool Program and the Abededarian study: both dealt with poor children.

The High/Scope Perry Preschool Project assessed whether high quality preschool programs could provide short and long-term benefits to children living in poverty and at risk of failing in school.[4] The study followed 123 such children from African American families living in Ypsilanti Michigan; they were randomly divided into two groups, one providing a high quality active learning preschool program and the other receiving no program at all. The status of the two groups was assessed annual at ages 3 through 11, then at age 14-15 and 18-19 and age 27.

At age 27 those in the group given the preschool program differed significantly from the other group in level of schooling completed, monthly earnings and home and second car ownership and had significantly fewer arrests and receipt of social services. “Over the lifetimes of the participants, the preschool program returns to the public an estimated $7.16 for every dollar invested.” Amongst other findings for the pre-school group intellectual performance at age 7 was higher, school achievement at age 14 was higher and general literacy at age 19 was higher.

The study concluded that participation in high quality active learning preschool programs creates a framework for adult success, seemingly through experiences which allowed positive interaction with other people and tasks. There were some differences between males and females. The differences concern the groups and are not absolute for every individual in the study. Organised in-service training for preschool staff and an efficient workable method of parent inclusion and involvement were amongst the defining aspects of the high quality preschool experience as was good administration, valid and reliable developmentally appropriate assessment and monitoring and reasonable adult to child ratio.

The Abecedarian Project was initiated in 1972.[5] It “provided educational child care and high-quality preschool from age 0-5 to children from very disadvantaged backgrounds (most raised by single mothers with less than a high school education, reporting no earned income, 98% of whom were African-American). The child care and preschool were provided on a full-day, year-round basis; had a low teacher-child ratio (ranging from 1:3 for infants to 1:6 for 5-year-olds); and used a systematic curriculum of “educational games” emphasizing language development and cognitive skills.”

A total of 111 children participated and were randomly assigned to four groups, one of which involved no ‘treatment’; one involved child care only/preschool, one school-age only and one both preschool and school-age ‘treatment’. At age 21 children receiving only school-age attention differed from those receiving no special treatment only marginally. Those receiving child care/preschool ‘treatment’ differed significantly from those receiving no ‘treatment’: an increase in reading achievement of 1.8 grade levels and in math achievement of 1.3 grade levels. There were modest increases in IQ. Impact on adult life was similar to that for thePerryPreSchoolstudy in respect of school and college education and employment.

An important though less often cited study was conducted by Margaret McCain and Fraser Mustard for the government of Ontario in Canada. “The Early Years Study: Reversing the Real Brain Drain” brought together neurophysiology, developmental psychology and education and many other disciplines. McCain and Mustard focused on children starting from the time of birth. Their research showed how much IQ was influenced by the amount of stimulation the child received in the first 24 months of life, particularly the first 12 months.[6]

Recommendations from the research focused on the goal of improving outcomes for all young children and therefore, by extension the whole population of Ontario. These goals could best be achieved by increasing the funding available to families with young children, through enhanced parent education and support programs, the implementation of better and more equitable services, supports and programs for all young children and their families and by an increased emphasis on universal access

While the report identified some excellent and effective programs in place in some parts of Ontario, it condemned the patchwork of programming, the mismatch between opportunity and investment and the lack of consistency and accountability for the ways in which existing programs are evaluated and tracked. Because Ontario programs lagged way behind in meeting the needs of young children and their families, Ontario’s children were not doing as well as children in other countries or even in some of Canada’s other provinces: they were experiencing learning and/or behavioural difficulties.

The report contains certain comments and recommendations that single out children with special needs. Numerous observations and data reinforce the importance of early identification and intervention for children at risk, including children with learning disabilities. For example:

“Children whose cognitive and behavioural characteristics are poorly developed in their early years have difficulty succeeding in the school system, which can lead to higher levels of anti-social behaviour, delinquency and crime as teenagers and young adults. Studies have found that boys who…tended to exhibit anti-social behaviour in kindergarten and disruptive behaviour later in school classrooms…were more likely to drop out of school early. A study that followed boys through adolescence found about 28 per cent of them who demonstrated anti-social behaviour in kindergarten were delinquent by age 13.”

Part 2 of the Early Years Study was published in 2007.[7] The Council on Early Childhood Development ceased operation late 2010!


[1] Professor Gopnik is the author of The Philosophical Baby – What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2009.

[2]How People Learn: Mind Experience and School, Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning (John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, editors) with additional material from the Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice (M. Suzanne Donovan, John D.Bransford, and James W. Pellegrino, editors), National Academy Press, 1999.

[3] ‘Changing the Climate on Early Childhood’, American Prospect  November 19, 2007

[4] The High/Scope Perry Preschool Project is available here  

[5] The Abecedarian Project is discussed here and here 

[6] Margaret Norrie McCain and J. Fraser Mustard, Reversing the Real Brain Drain: Early Years Study Final Report, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, Toronto 1999,  available at ; Kirsten Garrett (producer), ‘Reversing the Real Brain Drain’, ABC Radio National Background Briefing, 3 October 1999.

[7] McCain M, Mustard J, and Shanker S, (2007), The Early Years Study 2: Putting Science into Action. Toronto: Council of Early Childhood Development.