Researchers know more
about the brain development of young children than ever before. What should
that mean for public policy?
facts: After birth, new connections are made across neurons in babies’ brains
at the rate of 700 to 1,000 per second.[i]
Three-quarters of young children who experience
five or more types trauma measured by the Adverse Childhood Experiences
test (ACEs) experience developmental delays.[ii]
One in four young children live at or below the federal poverty level.[iii]
Living in poverty can create biomechanical changes in the brain functioning of
both children and adults, negatively impacting physical and mental health and
Brain scientists know more now than ever before about what
happens inside the heads of children during their first years of life, as well
as what sorts of inputs help to facilitate desired outcomes. Still, translating
this new knowledge into effective public policy often proves to be challenging.
For example, early childhood education advocates are still abuzz
about findings first published in the 1990s showing a “word gap” between rich
and poor kids, with the children of professionals hearing 30 million more words
by the age of three than their less privileged peers. The number is
illuminating, but the statistic also creates the question of what to do with
it. While several cities around the country have indeed created programs that
attempt to give young kids greater exposure to language, the fact is that the word
gap is part a complex problem with no simple solution.
But Janice Gruendel, a senior fellow at the Institute for Child
Success, says that research on early brain development yields important
takeaways that should inform public policy.
“We know now that young children’s brain growth is absolutely
explosive in the first three to five years of life,” Gruendel
says. “We can look into children’s brains now, using non-invasive
technology, and watch the electrical circuits. And we know, in ways that we
didn’t know before, that adversity in the early lives of children can result in
a very high prevalence of developmental delays. And if it’s chronic and
significant, it can actually change the architecture and the functioning of a
young child’s brain.”
Given these realities, Gruendel suggests investments in programs
that either help to combat poverty, or help families to overcome the obstacles
that frequently accompany poverty. In particular, Gruendel stresses the
importance of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a federal tax credit for
low- and moderate-income working people. Because the credit is refundable –
meaning that families can claim it even without owing taxes – it puts money
directly in the hands of low-income earners.
“That’s one area where we have tons of research that says, this may
be the best anti-poverty policy we could have as a country,” Gruendel
says. She notes that, in 2014, North Carolina eliminated its state version of
the EITC. “The net effect of that, on a policy level, is to reduce the income
capacity of low-income families.”
Gruendel also touts home-visit programs and other initiatives
that give parents access to literacy resources. In one program called Reach Out
and Read, pediatricians give books to families during well-child visits and
encourage parents to read aloud to their young children. Another program,
called Family Connects, provides in-home visits from nurses, who connect parents
with resources like parenting classes, breastfeeding assistance, and financial
resources on an as-needed basis.
“We should invest in home visiting, because we know it works,”
Gruendel says. “It increases children’s well-being, it reduces parental stress,
it increases parents talking to their kids, and ultimately it increases kids’
Programs, Gruendel says, should be holistic, providing services
in a way that takes families’ overall situations – which may include challenges
around transportation, childcare, employment, and other factors – into account.
“In order to address the 30 million word gap, and in order for
children to be ready for kindergarten – physically healthy, socially and emotionally
healthy, able to self-regulate their behaviors, all the things that teachers
want them to know and be able to do – we have to work on family issues, with families
and in communities.”
“Family economic security and community economic security –
those are things that we can have an impact on,” Gruendel adds. “We know how to
do this. So the policy issue is, are we willing to make these investments?”
Gruendel, Ph.D., has 35 years of applied social science experience crafting
state and local policy and practice guidance focused on early childhood through
the young adulthood years. Currently, Dr. Gruendel works with the Center for
the Study of Social Policy, the Institute for Child Success, and several United
Ways. She serves as a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Child Success in Greenville,
SC, as a Fellow at the Edward Zigler Center at Yale University, and as a member
of the Harvard Center on the Developing Child’s Frontiers of Innovation
Dr. Gruendel worked as a Subject Matter Expert with PCG, assisting the Kate B.
Reynolds Charitable Trust in North Carolina to develop a strategic plan to
improve early childhood outcomes. She also served as lead author on a 2015
report by the Institute for Child Success and PCG: When Brain Science Meets Public Policy: Rethinking Young
Child “Neglect” from a Science-Informed Two-Generation Perspective.
Co-authored by Heather Baker, a Manager in PCG’s Human Services practice, and
Bobby Cagle, Director of the Georgia Department of Family and Children
Services, the report described how adopting science-based policies to combat
child neglect can increase wellbeing, boost opportunity, and curb costs of
At SXSWedu 2017, Dr.
Gruendel was an expert panelist during PCG’s Kidonomics: 2 + 2 = 6 session, which explored the need for cross-sectoral
collaboration to address the issues of early childhood development and to
exponentially increase future opportunities for our youth.