School success begins by investing in babies

09.23.14 | Learning on the EDge | 1 Comment


When school doors were opening across the U.S. this fall, there was a lot of talk about the short- and long-term benefits of investing early in a child’s education, specifically in preK. But what’s been mostly ignored is the significant long-term payoff of investing even earlier in a child’s life: in the experiences and environments a child is exposed to after birth and continuing through the third year of life.

If we really want success in school, we must start earlier, and a good way to do so is by revising social policy with regard to the nurturance, protection, and enrichment of the very young.
What we now know from both neuroscience and child development research is that crucial brain wiring occurs during a child’s first three years. It is the social interactions and experiences a baby has with primary caregivers and others during this time period that shape — positively or negatively — the foundational learning structures of an infant’s brain, the same brain they take with them to school. The healthy social-emotional relationships and rich language and intellectual exchanges that happen during infancy are truly what prepare a young child for success in preK and beyond. For a good number of children, starting enrichment services at age three or four years is simply starting too late.

Sadly, by the time some children reach age three, their brains have already been wired in ways that can cause them long-term social, intellectual, and communication difficulties.

What children need to thrive is continuing nurturance, protection, and enrichment starting at birth. When these supports are provided right from the start, the growing brain has the opportunity to flourish. What the American populous doesn’t seem to realize is that our babies, when compared to those in most other industrialized countries, are getting short-changed by not having social policies in place that lead to these types of supports. If we’re really aiming for success in school, we need to start earlier, and a good way to do so is by revising social policy with regard to the nurturance, protection, and enrichment of the very young. Three key policies would put the United States in line with most other industrialized nations:

Paid parental leave: Give parents at least nine months of paid leave after birth or adoption of a child with leave shareable between parents to allow for flexibility.

Home visiting: Provide regular, affordable, in-home visitation by child health and development professionals for the first two years of life.

High-quality infant toddler care: Develop and enforce state infant/toddler childcare regulations that ensure safe, engaging, and intimate settings. Strengthen state and federal regulations to ensure infant/toddler care providers are trained and credentialed and receive compensation and health benefits on par with K-12 schoolteachers. Create federal, state, and workplace subsidies for families or childcare providers to improve access to high‐quality care.

Implementing these policies would significantly affect the health and development of our babies, our nation as a whole, and lead to our children entering school doors better prepared to succeed in school and life. We must start to think and act earlier.



About J. Ronald Lally

J. RONALD LALLY is codirector of the Center for Child & Family Studies at WestEd, San Francisco, Calif. His last Kappan article was “School readiness begins in infancy,” Phi Delta Kappan, November 2010, Vol. 92, No. 3, 17-21.



Comments on School success begins by investing in babies

  1. David Graves says:

    In my community Plainfield New Jersey the education system touts it’s early childhood program as a national model example. which it may will be but what good is having a national model program. If all that very fine work with child is lost ignored not developed what’s the child gets into kindergarten, and first grade.
    It’s not always lack of funding it’s how and where you prioritize your funding.

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