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Early Brain Development Supports a Lifetime of Learning

Whether or not a child arrives at kindergarten ready to learn and thrive profoundly influences his or her prospects for success in school and life. While much debate currently centers on the benefits of preschool participation for four-year-olds, we cannot afford to wait until children are about to enter kindergarten to prepare them to thrive in the K-12 system. Everything we know about brain development and skill formation confirms that the first three years are a critical and unique opportunity to set children--especially those most at risk--on the path to success in school and beyond.

Early Experiences Shape the Brain's Core Circuitry

Every human being carries a genetic blueprint that sets the sequence and timetable for brain development from the first days of life. In the earliest years, the brain forms as many as one million new synaptic connections each second. The process begins with simple neural connections associated with senses like vision and hearing, followed by more complex circuitry that supports children's emerging language mastery and a wide range of higher cognitive functions.

This period also marks the time when children's neural circuitry is most flexible and receptive to their earliest interactions and environments. Consistently stimulating, nurturing early experiences create robust, efficient pathways throughout regions of the brain controlling memory, language, reasoning, impulse control and other competencies.

Neural Development After Age 3

Around age 3, the rapid growth of new, highly receptive synapses begins to slow dramatically. The brain's genetic blueprint instructs it to prune away excess or under-utilized neural connections so it can operate more efficiently, leaving behind the core wiring that will support all future learning and skills formation. Well before children arrive at their first day of kindergarten, it requires increasing amounts of effort to build synaptic pathways that will enable them to absorb new information, master new skills, or change existing habits and behaviors.

Even though the human brain never ceases to change as we learn and grow, the first three years are a critical and unique opportunity to lay a strong neural foundation to last a lifetime.

It is far easier to help children build healthy neural architecture in the first three years of life than to correct or mitigate problems in that architecture later in the K-12 system and beyond.


Additional Resources

Synapses and Skills: The Science of Lifelong Success [PDF - First Five Nebraska]

The Science of Early Childhood Development (InBrief) [Weblink: Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University]



Children's best chances for success in school and life begin with a foundation of healthy brain architecture laid down in the infant and toddler years.

During these years, the brain's emerging neural circuitry is highly receptive to children's earliest interactions and environments.

Without safe, stimulating and supportive early experiences in the first three years, children are more likely to enter kindergarten developmentally behind their peers—and stay behind throughout the K-12 system and beyond.