Serve and Return: Early Childhood Education and the Developing Brain

We were not entirely surprised by the results of a recent study on income inequality and brain function, but the message is startling.

Harvard Center on the Developing Child tells us that in the first years of life, 700 neural connections are formed every second. Those connections work to make up who we are and how we interact with the world. The brain’s capacity for change slows as we age – this is why grown adults have to work harder to learn a new language – but during the early years, a “serve and return” model governs this rapid growth. Children require interaction with attentive caregivers, and seek it out through their actions (babbling, facial expressions, etc). If a caregiver responds appropriately, a positive connection is formed. If the child is reacted to in a negative way, or simply ignored, the connection is disrupted.

In families experiencing daily stress, such as stress related to living in poverty, children are at risk for developmental delays—delays that can manifest as early as 9 months of age and can impact academic achievement and behavior through adulthood. Since most of the human brain is formed during the first three years of life, high-quality care is a “must” from the very beginning of life, and we must do better to deliver it.


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