The Science

Home visiting and other early childhood programs are supported by the science of early brain development. Established over decades of neuroscience and behavioral research, five basic concepts illustrate the importance of working with families with children age birth to five.

  • Brains are built over time, from the bottom up. The basic architecture of the brain is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth and continues through adulthood. Early experiences affect this architecture by establishing either a sturdy or fragile foundation for all of the learning, health and behavior that follow.
  • The interactive influences of genes and experience shape the developing brain. Scientists now know a major ingredient in this developmental process is the “serve and return” relationship between children and their parents and other caregivers in the family and community.
  • The brain’s capacity for change decreases with age. The brain is most flexible, or “plastic,” early in life to accommodate a wide range of environments and interactions. Early plasticity means it’s easier and more effective to influence a baby’s developing brain architecture than to rewire parts of its circuitry in the adult years.
  • Cognitive, emotional, and social capacities are inextricably intertwined throughout the life course. The emotional and physical health, social skills, and cognitive-linguistic capacities that emerge in the early years are all important prerequisites for success in school and later in the workplace and community.
  • Toxic stress damages developing brain architecture, which can lead to life-long problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health. Scientists now know that chronic, unrelenting stress in early childhood, caused by extreme poverty, repeated abuse, or severe maternal depression can be toxic to the developing brain.

Excerpted from: INBRIEF: The Science of Early Brain Development, Centering on the Developing Child, Harvard University (www.developingchild.harvard.edu).