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Brain matter matters: Should we intervene well before preschool?

August 22, 2017
Sarah Paterson, Andres S. Bustamante, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff

The case is clear: Investments in young children have enormous payoffs for society. This global movement in the early education sector has already influenced one of the targets for U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 4, to “ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and preprimary education so that they are ready for primary education.” 

The question is not whether we should invest in young children, but when and how. The answer has often been increased interest in high-quality preschool education—a mandate that has universal appeal—with preschool investments reshaping the education landscape in GhanaSweden, and many others. In the U.S. alone, cities and states (e.g., Boston, Tulsa, New Jersey, and Tennessee) have rolled out extensive “universal” preschool initiatives such that today, 75 percent of the nation’s 4-year-olds, and 65 percent of those 4-year-olds living in poverty, have access to at least some preschool education. The emphasis has turned to whether the deliverables can move beyond access to child care to access to high-quality child care—a subject of a recent report by Brookings and the Duke University Center for Child and Family Policy.

Amidst these initiatives, new research on early brain development suggests that preschool, while important, may not be enough. Laura Betancourt and Hallam Hurt from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that one-year-olds growing up in poverty are already lagging behind their middle-income peers on tests of language and cognitive ability. The researchers previously noted evidence of differences in brain size as early as 5 weeks old—differences that are unlikely to be explained by exposure to language and environmental stimulation. In their study of 44 infants, newborns from low-income families had less grey matter (i.e., the part of the brain where information is processed) than their middle-income peers. This suggests that differences in prenatal environments may be at play.