Development in the First Years of Life

an article from “The Future of Children” Volume 11, Number 1

by Ross A. Thompson

Excerpts from the article; paraphrased notes by JFR


Body - size, coordination, health


Mind - language, problem solving

Children employ intuitive rules for understanding the meanings of words they overhear

Early word learning is built on a toddler’s interest in the intentions of an adult speaker

Young children do not learn about the world by themselves


Person - emotions, social mastery

“…the most important intellectual catalysts [caregivers] provide are uncoached and arise naturally from their unhurried, untroubled, sensitive encounters with the children they love.”

“Nothing focuses a young child’s attention on what other people are thinking or feeling more than the realization that a conflict must be resolved.”

Close attachments ensure species survival by keeping infants protected and nurtured.

For infants, secure attachments provide a sense of security that enables confident exploration and offers reassurance in the face of stress.

Secure attachments arise from sensitive, responsive care.

A secure attachment early in life does not guarantee healthy psychological outcomes, however, any more more than an insecure early attachment ensures later difficulty. … Sensitive, responsive care thus remains a continuing need of young children throughout the early years at home and in child care.

Young children become much more competent at exercising self-regulation, especially when this skill is enlisted for achieving personally meaningful goals.

Compliance and asserting preferences: conflict as well as warmth and security becomes part of the parent-child relationship.

The caregiver-child interaction is a laboratory for exploring the differences and consequences upon awareness that others’ feelings and desires can be different from one’s own.

Inborn characteristics like mood, soothability, adaptability affect:

As infants mature into young children, they begin to learn strategies for managing their emotions because doing so contributes to social competence, self-confidence, and feelings of well-being. [Their simple strategies] begin the lifelong process of learning to regulate emotions consistently with one’s temperamental qualities.

Conflicted family environments, chaotic child care settings, and unpredictable challenges in daily experience can quickly tax a child’s capacities for managing their emotions.

Emotion-related disorders like depression, conduct problems, anxiety disorders, and social withdrawal often have their origins early in life.

Relationships with caregivers who are emotionally neglectful, physically abusive, or psychologically inconsistent can predispose young children to psychopathology.

When caregivers are depressed, stressed, absent, or otherwise have neither time nor energy to devote to caring for young children … attachment relationships become insecure, conflict negotiation results in coercion, self-concept is shaped by denigrating evaluations of the child, and young children do not develop a sense of secure self-confidence.


Brain - neurons and synapses

Developmental scientists know considerably more about cognitive, socioemotional, and personality growth than they know about brain development.

Time-limited windows of opportunity [for brain development] are exceptional rather than typical, consistent with the gradual course of most features of early development.

Brian development begins within the first month after conception; by the 6th month, nearly all neurons have been created, at an average rate of more than 250,000 per minute.

Both before and after birth, an initial “blooming” of brain connections occurs: neurons create far more synapses with other neurons than will ever be retained in the mature brain. This proliferation … creates great potential … but it also makes the young brain inefficient and noisy with redundant and unnecessary neural connections. [This is] soon followed by a stage of “pruning” when little-used synapses are gradually eliminated.

Synapses are selected for retention/elimination through “use it or lose it” stimulation.

Newborns can discriminate universal speech sounds but over time their speech perception becomes limited to the sounds of their native language.

Vision is especially sensitive as newborns with congenital cataracts will never organize their visual pathways (no stimulation).

It was recently discovered that mature adult brain does generate new neurons.

Brain development:

The immature brain is vulnerable, beginning at conception and continuing after birth


“The irreducible core of the environment during early develoment is people.”

Society’s commitment to ensuring the healthy development of each child requires that all the relationships that young children rely upon are valued and supported.