New research and technologies have illuminated our understanding of brain development and how children learn. Yet, with all the information available to us, we - as a country - seem to know more than we do.
Our knowledge about how the brain grows and develops has grown exponentially in the past five years. This is due in part to technologies such as position-emission tomography (PET) scans. Unlike the skeletal system, the child's brain wiring is not fully determined before birth. It develops in direct response to environmental input. Brain growth occurs most quickly and easily in the first three years of life, and affects speech, movement, and social relationships. While it may be more difficult to make neural connections after the age of 9, the brain continues to have the potential to grow and change.

The pathways for emotional development-how the child feels and behaves-grow in the limbic area of the brain. This is the brain's emotional center. Consistent nurturing is essential. Stress, fear, and insecurity, for example, may actually prevent learning as the limbic system responds by secreting cortisol into the bloodstream. This secretion washes over the neural cortex, preventing neural connections from being formed and strengthened. Early, effective intervention-for both learning and emotional stability-promotes brain development and optimal child outcomes.

A series of substantial and careful reviews of high-- quality programs, including Head Start, reports benefits from these programs for children and their families in terms of school readiness, self-esteem, and motivation for achievement. In fact, research shows that children develop early literacy skills more readily when parents read to them regularly and when teachers are educated about how children acquire language and literacy skills. And when their teachers are educated about how children acquire language and literacy skills, they use that knowledge in the classroom.

Child development is best understood as a holistic process. Although public attention has mostly focused on academic development and cognition, both research and practice highlight the importance of culture, social-emotional development, and individual differences in how young children learn. And play is vital in stimulating children's imaginations, helping them gain an understanding of themselves and their relationships with others and developing their language and problem-solving skills.

As educators of young children, we play a critical role in supporting parents, programs, and public policies that improve children's quality of life. Traditionally, early childhood educators have prided themselves on their commitment to promote key values: respect for and inclusion of all children, working to correct inequities, and accountability for child outcomes according to continually evolving professional standards. Now, as advocates for what is best for children, we must also help others in our society realize that "school reform" begins at birth. We must use our brain research and best practices to ensure that every child is given an equal opportunity to develop his capabilities. The time is now-and it's up to us.