All who work with young children develop, over time, intuitive understandings about the remarkable capabilities and astounding growth that occurs during the first years of life. As we continue to seek a deeper understanding of how relationships, interaction, and life experience impact developing children in all domains, thoughtful research has supported, and continues to illuminate, our intuition.

Over a half-century has passed since the groundbreaking creation of Head Start. In April 2014, The Atlantic published an excellent, brief and readable summary of the history of research in early childhood education and child development over the program’s initial 50-year period. As noted by the authors, Janell Ross and Amy Sullivan, “When President Johnson signed the bill authorizing Head Start back in 1965, he had some research to back up the idea of early childhood interventions—and a lot of hunches. Nearly half a century later, researchers have the benefit of long-term studies to give them more answers, although that hasn’t ended debates on the subject.”

Among other things, the article identifies two paths of research to which many aspects of our systems seem stubbornly resistant, and relate directly to the core of developmentally appropriate practice from birth through age 8 in particular. First, “assessments [need] to include noncognitive outcomes—the ability to self-motivate, exhibit self-control, and work toward long-term goals.” (The current term for these skills, among others, is “Executive Function”. ) Second, “children are only part of the equation…. the field of early childhood intervention evolved from its original focus on children to a growing appreciation of the extent to which family, community, and broader societal factors affect child health and development.” (Here the authors cite the influential National Academy of Sciences report From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development1, the findings of which served as the foundation of the work of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.)

This article cites and links to important basics of the learning underlying modern best practices and a research-based, developmentally sound approach to education:

  • the work of Jack Shonkoff and Deborah A. Phillips on From Neurons to Neighborhoods;
  • John Bowlby, the innovator behind Attachment Theory; and
  • Professor James J. Heckman’s economic research tying positive social/emotional outcomes to valuable benefits to the broader economy.2

Excellent, straightforward reading that is well worth the time.

Janell Ross and Amy Sullivan (2014). How Everything We Know About Early Childhood Has Changed Since Head Start Was Founded [Electronic version]. The Atlantic, April 22, 2014.


1 Shonkoff, Jack P. and Phillips, Deborah A., (eds.),(2000) From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Washington, National Academy Press.

2 Heckman, James J., (2008), The Case for Investing in Disadvantaged Young Children, CESifo DICE Report, 6, issue 2, p. 3-8.

This post appeared previously, in slightly different form, at The Beanstalk: Observations on child development, education policy, learning across boundaries and the joy of children, permalink at, © 2014 Patrick Webster, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s