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The First 3 Years

Developmental Hazards

Early Developmental Hazards

The brain's sensitivity and ability to be shaped in the first three years leave it open to positive developmental experiences but also extremely vulnerable to damaging ones. Alarmingly, far too many infants and toddlers in Nebraska begin their lives facing circumstances that may represent serious hazards to their healthy development.




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




Effects of Low-Quality Early Experiences

During a child's first three years, the brain is prepared for early experiences that result in strong brain architecture and skills formation. These experiences need to be consistently engaging and emotionally supportive to optimize ongoing learning and development. Mediocre 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 can hinder their ability to achieve later in life. 


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



Infants and toddlers who lack relationships with caregivers that 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 undermines basic social and emotional skills 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.

Too often, children encounter not one but multiple developmental hazards, with cumulative effects that make success upon entering school much less likely.

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.



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



Individual and Societal Outcomes

The effects of low-quality early care and learning experiences become more evident as children enter kindergarten. They are often 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 long-term impacts on 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