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Early Developmental Hazards

The brain's heightened neural flexibility and sensitivity in the first three years leave it open to highly stimulating, developmentally positive experiences— and extremely vulnerable to sub-optimal or damaging ones. Alarmingly, far too many infants and toddlers in Nebraska begin their lives facing a broad array of circumstances that may represent serious hazards to their prospects of leading productive, fulfilling lives.

Effects of Low-Quality Early Experiences

During the first three years of life, the brain is physiologically prepared for the kinds of early experiences that result in strong brain architecture and skill formation. Unless these experiences are consistently dynamic, engaging and emotionally supportive to result in neural circuitry that is optimized for ongoing learning and development. Mediocre, under-stimulating and inconsistent interactions, relationships or environments are in no way developmentally "adequate" — in fact, they can have profoundly negative effects on children's school readiness and life outcomes even if they are not overtly harmful or traumatic. Early experiences that do little more than address children's basic needs for health and safety represent serious liabilities to lifelong achievement. 

Infants and toddlers who lack relationships with caregivers who talk, read, sing or play with them on a regular basis are more likely to struggle with emerging language and communications skills. The absence of frequent, dynamic face-to-face interactions with responsive adults undermine basic social and emotional competencies and the ability to form healthy attachments with others. Similarly, a lack of safe, stimulating home and child care environments that invite exploration and discovery can suppress children's  self-confidence and motivation for learning.

Very often, children do not only encounter one, but multiple developmental hazards at a time, with cumulative effects that rapidly stack the odds of success against them well before they even approach the age of school entry.

What is Toxic Stress?

Stress is a common—indeed, necessary—aspect of human development. Infants and toddlers often experience routine distress when they are startled or frightened, hungry, or otherwise physically or emotionally uncomfortable. The reliable presence of responsive, comforting adults helps young children manage mild, intermittent stress, building the physiological and psychological resilience they need to cope with more significant pressures as they mature.

But even ordinary, non-traumatic stress can have a toxic effect on children's neural and physiological development if it is ongoing and unrelieved by comforting, stable relationships with responsive parents and caregivers. Persistently high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can physically degrade synaptic circuitry in the first three years and calibrate the brain to remain in a continuous state of threat-response. Not only does this alter brain structure and function, but also triggers chronic behavioral and medical problems across a child's lifespan.

Some cases of profound trauma—including familial instability, parents with mental illness, or ongoing neglect—can actually interfere with the proper expression of a child's genetic blueprint, leading to highly damaging or even catastrophic developmental outcomes.

Individual and Societal Outcomes

The effects of low-quality early care and learning experiences become increasingly evident as children enter kindergarten developmentally behind their peers and fall further and further behind as they progress through the K-12 system. But poor academic performance is only the first indicator of a broader range of liabilities to children's long-term social competence, productivity, self-sufficiency, health and overall quality of life.

Research shows that inadequate and negative early childhood experiences are predictive of a broad array of individual and societal outcomes, including:

  • Incidence of substance abuse
  • Criminal behavior, arrest and incarceration
  • Unemployment or under-employment
  • Lower lifelong earning potential
  • Chronic health problems such as depression, auto-immune disorders, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease


Additional Resources

 I'm the Guy You Pay Later: Sheriffs, Chiefs and Prosecutors Urge America to Cut Crime by Investing Now in High-Quality Early Education and Care [PDF 6.0 MB |©2017 Fight Crime Invest in Kids]

Can Early Childhood Interventions Decrease Inequality of Economic Opportunity? [©2016 Academic Pediatric Association | Clancy Blair, PhD, MPH, C. Cybele Raver, PhD | Web Link]

The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress [©2012 American Academy of Pediatrics | Jack P. Shonkoff, Andrew S. Garner, et. al. | Web Link]


Obstacles to children's early development do not need to be highly traumatic to seriously threaten their prospects for success in school and life.

Inconsistent, mediocre or under-stimulating early experiences can undermine neural circuitry and skill formation, leaving children developmentally unprepared for kindergarten.

Very severe developmental threats can have cumulative, toxic effects on children's lifelong health and well-being with implications felt at the societal level.