Young children Develop in an environment of relationships

working paper



housed at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Alfred E. chair Julius B.D. Children’s Hospital Boston. Young children develop in an environment of relationships.D. University of Pittsburgh. 1. Oregon National Primate Research Center.S. Public Policy Institute. and Cell and Developmental Biology. Swanlund Professor of Psychology. Working Paper No. gunnar. Harvard University w. and sound physical and mental health for all young children. ph. Graduate Studies and Medicine. Please note: The content of this paper is the sole responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the funders or partners. rolnick. Richard David Scott Chair in Pediatric Developmental Medicine Research. shonkoff. Oregon Health and Science University greg J. fox. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child.D. Co-Director. Mirsky Professor. Professor of Pediatrics and Neuroscience. Yale School of Medicine bruce s. Regents Professor and Distinguished McKnight University Professor.. thomas boyce. Retrieved from http://www. Psychiatry and Pharmacy Chair. Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute. University of Minnesota pat levitt. Research Professor. Senior Scientist. Psychiatry. Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California linda c.D. and catherine t.D.developingchild. Research Center on Children in the U. adapative behavior. Richmond FAMRI Professor of Child Health and Development. Distinguished Professor. nelson. Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience and Obstetrics & Gynecology. Sewall Professor of Neurobiology. Suggested citation: National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Irvine nathan a. Stanford University School of Medicine Deborah © 2004. Sunny Hill Health Centre/BC Leadership Chair in Child Development.D. Edward C. Director.developingchild. Director. Senior Vice President and Director of Research. For more information. The Rockefeller University charles a. Professor of Psychology. Institute of Child Development. Vancouver Judy cameron. thompson. mcewen. ph.D. Urbana-Champaign eric knudsen. Department of Cell and Neurobiology. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis former members betsy lozoff.D. Child Development Laboratory. University of California. Pediatrics.D. and Psychology. m. Professor of Psychiatry.D. (2004). ph. University of Maryland College Park megan r. go to http://www. Georgetown University arthur J.D. Arnold Gesell Professor of Child Psychiatry. m. University of British Columbia. Yale Child Study Center Special Advisor to the Dean. ph. ph. Center on the Developing Child. mayes. ph. and Amy H. Duncan. greenough. is a multidisciplinary collaboration designed to bring the science of early childhood and early brain development to bear on public Harvard Medical School ross a. ph. Provost Professor of Neuroscience. Established in 2003.D. ph. ph. Center for Human Growth and Development. Head. ph. Center for Advanced Study at University of Illinois.D. University of Michigan partners the frameworks institute the national governors association center for best practices the national conference of state legislatures sponsors the birth to five policy alliance the buffett early childhood fund the John D. ph. FrameWorks Institute william t. Distinguished Professor. Director. the Council is committed to synthesizing and communicating science to help inform policies that promote successful learning. University of California. Professor of Pediatrics.. University of Michigan Medical School. Department of Education.D.D. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University UpDaTeD & reprinTeD: oCToBer 2009 .members Jack p. ph. ph. Davis contributing members susan nall bales President. Professor. Director. Professor of Psychology and Associated Faculty. macarthur foundation the norlien foundation the pierre and pamela omidyar fund about the authors The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. m. Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology.

aunt. that shape the child’s self-awareness. coach. what they can become. a comfortable sense of oneself. that build on his or her own interests. and ultimately to be a successful parent oneself. 7. the ability to control aggressive impulses and resolve conflicts in nonviolent ways. First. positive social skills.neT Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships 1 . 10. last. They incorporate the qualities that best promote competence and well-being – individualized responsiveness. a child requires progressively more complex joint activity with one or more adults who have an irrational emotional relationship with the child. having the capacity to develop and sustain casual friendships and intimate relationships. multiple successful relationships at later ages. emotional. The quality and stability of a child’s human relationships in the early years lay the foundation for a wide range of later developmental outcomes that really matter – self-confidence and sound mental health. and initiative. Even the development of a child’s brain architecture depends on the establishment of these relationships. 16. 3. be it a parent. 15. morality. Relationships engage children in the human community in ways that help them define who they are. achievement in school and later in life. Somebody’s got to be crazy about that kid. including a love of learning.DevelopingChilD. Young children experience their world as an environment of relationships. ent. and that stimulate the growth of his or her heart and mind. and an emotional connection to another human being. uncle. social. physical. and always. behavioral.14. and other aspects of human relationships. and these relationships affect virtually all aspects of their development – intellectual. 12. That’s number one. 11.1. 8. 2. Stated simply. peer. Stated simply. 6 Growth-promoting relationships are based on the child’s continuous give-and-take (“serve and return” interaction) with a human partner who provides what nothing else in the world can offer – experiences that are individualized to the child’s unique personality style. secure attachments contribute to the growth of a broad range of competencies. 9. teacher. mutual action-and-interaction. 5. and moral. what science tells us nurturing and stable relationships with caring adults are essential to healthy human development beginning from birth. or any other person who has an important impact on the child’s early development. and how and why they are important to other people. neighbor. establishing successful relationships with adults and other children provides a foundation of capacities that children will use for a lifetime. grandpar- Young children experience their world as an environment of relationships. and these relationships affect virtually all aspects of their development. motivation to learn. capabilities. 13 In the words of the distinguished developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner: … in order to develop normally. 17 www. both within and outside the family.the issue healthy development depends on the quality and reliability of a young child’s relationships with the important people in his or her life. commitment. knowing the difference between right and wrong. Early. 4. and a sophisticated understanding of emotions. relationships are the “active ingredients” of the environment’s influence on healthy human development.

33 relationships are important to school adjustment. 24. some need time to “warm up. 37. and interactions within the family setting) also is strongly related to early cognitive and language development. Children who develop warm. and sustaining friendships over time are not always easy. 22. Young children benefit in relationships with their primary caregivers are more likely to develop insights into other people’s feelings. exposure to toxins. 23. Unfortunately. activities. 36. 22.27. 43 secure and stable relationships with caring adults assure that young children are adequately nourished. 41. positive relationships with their kindergarten teachers are more excited about learning. facial expressions. making friends.neT . positive relationships with their kindergarten teachers are more excited about learning.national scientific council on the Developing chilD the “serve and return” interaction between parent and baby – in which young children naturally reach out for interaction through babbling. more selfconfident. they learn how to share.39. and it is essential to differentiate among the many potential reasons (both biological and environmental) that a young child may have limited or difficult interactions with others. and hazards that 2 Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships www. 32. fewer behavior problems. and enhanced thinking and reasoning skills at school age. or inadequate preparation of staff. 26 Young children also learn a great deal from each other. 28 the warmth and support of the caregiver in a shy to get involved (although they want to). Any child with severely limited peer involvement is at considerable risk for significant adverse developmental consequences. and achieve more in the classroom. Children who experience greater peer acceptance and friendship tend to feel more positively about the school experience and perform better in the classroom. others are too ever. 42. Playing cooperatively. a foundation for cooperative interactions with others and an emerging conscience. 18. 20. how- these ways because of the secure relationships they develop in such settings. Some are gregarious. as children learn and play more competently in the rapport created with friends rather than when they are dealing with the social challenges of interacting with casual acquaintances or unfamiliar peers. 23. 35. needs.” and others are not as interested in being sociable. the generally poor quality of care provided in many child care arrangements in the United States does not support these benefits because of high caregiver turnover. protected from dangerous illnesses. All of these variations fall within a normal range. 21. which illustrates the connection between social/emotional development and intellectual growth. Relationships with peers also are important.. poorly designed programs. which form children who develop warm. and to manage their own impulses. 40. Children who have healthy child care setting also influence the development of important capabilities in children. and later achievement in school. and achieve more in the classroom.12. Just being around other children. and gestures and adults respond with the same kind of vocalizing and gesturing back at them – builds and strengthens brain architecture and creates a relationship in which the baby’s experiences are affirmed and new abilities are nurtured. to engage in reciprocal interactions (e. The broader quality of the home environment (including toys. The development of friendships is essential. more positive about coming to school. 38 children have different ways of interacting with their peers. giving and receiving). 31. Current research also suggests the additional risk that a greater amount of time in outof-home care during infancy may be associated with greater disobedience and aggression by the time children enter school. 34. Sensitive and responsive parent-child relationships also are associated with stronger cognitive skills in young children and enhanced social competence and work skills later in school.33.g. performance on IQ testing. more positive about coming to school. 29. taking turns. including greater social competence. to take the needs and desires of others into account. and thoughts. more self-confident. 19. and because of the ways in which the caregivers provide cognitively stimulating activities and support for developing positive relationships with other children. is not enough. 25. 30.DevelopingChilD.12.

the need for stable and predictable relationships in child care settings is acknowledged less frequently. science indicates that young children can benefit significantly from secure relationships with multiple caregivers (within or outside the family). 65 popular misrepresentations of science as the public’s appetite for scientific information about the development of young children is whetted by exciting new findings. 12.66. 59. 46. 49 also can produce a variety of positive outcomes. prolonged separations from familiar caregivers and repeated “detaching” and “re-attaching” to people who matter are emotionally distressing and can lead to enduring problems. interfere with the strength of the young child’s primary relationship with his or her parents. Young children who grow up in seriously troubled families. Although the importance of sustained. but the nature of those impacts does vary by age and developmental status. especially early in life. 51. scientific evidence shows that the influence of relationships on development continues throughout the lifespan. social sensitivity. although young children certainly can establish healthy relationships with more than one or two adults. 55. 56. it is essential that scientific fact be differentiated from popularly accepted fiction. 67 entific evidence to support the claim that close www. the risk of exaggerated or misleading messages grows. reliable relationships within the family is well understood. There is no scientific evidence to sup- more important at a particular stage of a child’s life compared to another.45. 44 Young children are highly vulnerable emotionally to the adverse influences of parental mental health problems and family violence. both physically and emotionally.15. Preventive interventions of the most extensively documented of these vulnerabilities is the negative impact of a mother’s clinical depression on her young children’s emotional development. and concept of themselves. especially those who are vulnerable temperamentally. depending on the extent to which the knowledge and skills of the staff and the quality of the implementation are matched to the magnitude of the challenges being addressed. 47. 50. 64. 60 science indicates that the quality of early parent-child relationships can be strengthened. protected from excessive stress. 62. and the disruptive impacts of the abrupt changes related to high caregiver turnover are too often disregarded.13 There is no credible sci- port the belief that frequently rotating relationships with large numbers of adult caregivers provide valuable learning opportunities in the early years of life.12. 58. provided preventive health check-ups. 57.DevelopingChilD. These relationships are not relationships with other nurturing and reliable adults who they trust. These influences contribute significantly to healthy brain development and depend upon the care and support provided by individuals in the community as well as in the family. but successful interventions are more difficult to achieve when relationships are significantly troubled or disturbed. are prone to the development of behavioral disorders and conduct problems. and afforded predictable daily routines that convey a sense of security.neT Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships 3 . 63. The nature of the relationship also can have long-term influences (into adulthood) on how the body copes with stress. Within this context. 54. contrary to common assumptions. while their attachments to their parents remain primary and central. 61. 52.4 in contrast to frequently cited concerns. effects that have been demonstrated in both developmental research and studies of brain functioning. 53. 48. One animal studies have shown that the quality of the mother-infant relationship can influence gene expression in areas of the brain that regulate social and emotional function and can even lead to changes in brain structure.what science tells us can lead to preventable injuries.

about half of the states do not exempt mothers of children less than 12 months of age.74. cognitively oriented curriculum. for example. and other adults and children in the community – is even newer. These policies seem highly 4 Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships www. and on improving the wages and benefits that affect staff turnover. 68. The importance of other family relationships (with fathers. federal rules require that states impose work requirements of 30 or more hours per week. and these policies cover only about half of American workers. But “quality” is perceived differently when we view child care as a prominent feature of the environment of relationships in which young children develop.71. “Quality” in early child care and education. 70 parental leave policies in the united states currently provide parents of young children with few options. 72. problematic when viewed in relation to extensive scientific evidence of the vital importance of establishing a strong and healthy mother-infant bond beginning in the early months of life.DevelopingChilD.national scientific council on the Developing chilD the science-policy gap the importance of mother-child relationships is old news. it reflects a wide gap between what we know about the importance of early family relationships and what we are doing to promote the health and well-being of our nation’s most vulnerable young children. and reliable leads to an emphasis on the skills and personal attributes of the caregivers. peers. A maximum of only three months of unpaid leave is assured for parents of newborns. And the important influence of relationships outside of the family – with child care providers. The importance of ensuring that relationships in child care are nurtur- Although modifications are permissible. 73 for mothers receiving welfare support under temporary assistance to needy families (tanf). They elicit even greater alarm when viewed in the context of concerns about the potential adverse effects on very young babies of early and extended experiences in out-of-home child care arrangements of highly variable quality. because these individuals are often valued more for what they do than for the meaning of their role in the life experience of very young children. physical facilities. is often defined in terms of adultchild ratios. and fewer than half of workers even have this option without risking loss of their jobs. 69. ing. 75 parental leave policies in the united states currently provide parents of young children with few options. and some states permit mandated maternal employment beginning a few weeks after a baby’s birth. only those who can get by without earned income can afford to take it. Of those who are eligible for leave. teachers. stimulating. But when examined from a child-oriented perspective. Greater understanding of what science tells us about the importance of a range of relationships for early childhood development leads us to think about many areas of policy and practice in a new light.neT . and. more recently.12. group size. TANF can be a subject for reasonable debate. neighbors. siblings. When viewed as an adult-oriented employment policy. and grandparents) is semi-old news. The impact of these relationships on the development of the brain is new news.

Five compelling messages are particularly worthy of thoughtful consideration: when considered within the context of a child’s environment of relationships.12. rather than follow an adult-determined agenda. and it should capitalize on children’s natural interests and intrinsic drive to learn.12 www. 77 when viewed as an important part of a child’s environment of relationships.neT Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships 5 . early care and education for the children of those who choose or are compelled to return to work. emerging data that child development lens. the concept of school readiness is not exclusively a matter of fostering literacy and number skills. It is time for society to weigh the evidence carefully and fashion a more thoughtful policy for parents in the workforce. Each raises serious concerns about the potential harm of mandated maternal employment and the limited availability of affordable. and develop the social and emotional skills for cooperating with others. evidence-based implications for those who develop and implement policies that affect the health and well-being of young children. Child abuse prevention strategies that emphasize both the developmental needs of children and the importance of community-based supports for families provide another clear example of how we can close the gap between science and practice for our most vulnerable young children. and affordable. and questions of child custody. the relative risk of recurrent harm. and concerns about the potential adverse impacts of extended out-of-home child care experiences on young children’s social development and stated simply. The regularized referral of suspected cases of child abuse or neglect from the child welfare system to the early intervention system would assure appropriate developmental and behavioral assessment and treatment as needed. Nevertheless. behavior. particularly for the already vulnerable babies of low-income women on public assistance. 76. require thoughtful public discussion. in conjunction with a criminal justice orientation. which requires sophisticated expertise in both early childhood and adult mental health. the abuse or neglect of young children should be evaluated and treated as a matter of child health and development within the context of a family relationship crisis. Stated sim- ply. children.66. 80 traditional child welfare approaches to maltreatment focus largely on physical injury. 78 in the absence of consistent evidence that maternal employment intrinsically helps or hurts most children. It must also suggest that maternal employment in the first six months of an infant’s life may be associated with later developmental problems. relational mode rather than through an education model that focuses on rote instruction.73. relational mode rather than through an education model that focuses on rote instruction. decent quality. early childhood education must strive to involve young children in reciprocal learning interactions with teachers and peers rather than isolated “pre-academic” work.DevelopingChilD. Much can be learned from other industrialized nations that promote greater parental choice and child well-being by providing subsidized parental leave for those who wish to stay at home with their babies. science has little to add to the ongoing political debate about whether paid work should be a mandated requirement for mothers on public assistance. young children learn best in an interactive.implications for policY anD programs implications for policy and programs the science of early childhood development is sufficiently mature to support a number of well-documented. when viewed through a include the capacity to form and sustain positive relationships with teachers. In contrast. high quality child care. particularly for those who earn low wages. young children learn best in an interactive. and other adults.78 extending the length and coverage of leave currently provided under the family and medical leave act would provide the critical necessities of time and economic security that are required for parents to develop the nurturing relationships with their children that are essential to healthy development. 79.

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net .496.harvard.council working paper series working paper #1 Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships (2004) working paper #2 Children’s Emotional Development is Built into the Architecture of their Brains (2004) working paper #3 Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain (2005) working paper #4 Early Exposure to Toxic Substances Damages Brain Architecture (2006) working paper #5 The Timing and Quality of Early Experiences Combine to Shape Brain Architecture (2007) working paper #6 Mental Health Problems in Early Childhood Can Impair Learning and Behavior for Life (2008) also from the council A Science-Based Framework for Early Childhood Policy: Using Evidence to Improve Outcomes in Learning. Cambridge. and Health for Vulnerable Children (2007) The Science of Early Childhood Development: Closing the Gap Between What We Know and What We Do (2007) 50 Church Street. Behavior. 4th www. MA 02138 617.0578 www.