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Early Childhood Research and Practice. Why The Huge Disconnect? Who Does This Affect?

The beginning of life is a time for rapid brain development. Even though I've been in the field of early care and education for 40+ years, I didn't realize exactly how rapid until I came across this research from the Harvard Center For The Developing Brain.

In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second. After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, which allows brain circuits to become more efficient. In light of these findings, focussing on early childhood only makes sense. -Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University-

So that means if you're a parent of or a provider for very young children, you matter more than we ever knew. And we need to start treating you a whole lot better than we have been.

That's because the brain in its infancy isn't wired to develop the ability to do things like memorize the periodic table of elements, identify alphabet letters by sight or even pick out colors by name. (Shore, 1997)

Instead, the foundations for attention, focus, self-regulation, interactions with the world, attitudes, and approaches to learning are formed. (Greenspan, 1998)) This growth begins in the amygdala and reaches forth to all other areas of the brain through synaptic connections. Those connections that are used most often get strengthened and those that do not end up getting pruned.

If an electrical signal passes down an axon, its tip releases chemicals called neurotransmitters into the synapse. These neurotransmitters tell the receiver cell to either activate its own electrical charge, which sends the signal to the next neuron in the chain, or tell the receiver cell to stay quiet. -UC Davis-

During this period of time, the brain is essentially learning to learn and associating feelings with that learning. The quality of the interactions children engage in during this time is

crucial to their ability to learn throughout their lifespan.

The real question may be not whether or not to focus on early childhood but how to do so the most efficiently. However, looking at what's actually happening in early childhood as opposed to what should be happening is a dismal undertaking.

In 2006, NICHD published a comprehensive study on the quality of childcare in the US. The NICHD Study of Early Child and Youth Development should have caused a revolution demanding change in the field of early childhood. It seems that although the standards are in place for early education, the reality of paints a different picture altogether. Here are a few stats from the publication.

TABLE 3 Percentage of Child Care Center Classes Observed in the NICHD Study Meeting Recommended Guidelines at Age 6 Months to 3 Years

adult-to-child ratio

6 Months 1½ Years 36%

2 Years 3 Years 20%

observed group size

6 Months 1½ Years 35%

2 Years 3 Years 20%

caregiver training

6 mos 1 1/2 years 56%

2 years 3 years 60%

caregiver education

6 mos-1 1/2 years 65%

2-3 years 69%

Since the figures above are from 2006, I can only imagine how much worse thse stats will look after COVID. Overall, only 10-15% of childcare in the US was considered high-quality in 2006. The was before the teacher shortage.

Because of the research being done in brain development, the talk is all about improvement in early childhood. But that's just talk. In reality the standards are currently being lowered all over the field of education, especially early childhood, just to get warm bodies in the classrooms. Not good news for children.

Acorrding to the study, the education level of the teachers is better than the conditions they work in as far as ratios and group sizes. Yet, according to stats on the internet today, early childhood teachers still make around17. per hour as opposed to the 33. we pay dog groomers and the 50. we pay dog trainers!

The elephant that walked into the room and has been standing here for the last 20 years, begs us to answer this key question:

If science says one thing about the developing brain and the types of things we need to do in order to support that development, why do we practice another? (Gramling, Jones1998)

Good question. My best guess is that the problem stems from systematic sexism and racism but who am I to say? I'll tell you, however, in no uncertain terms what I do know.

There are answers. I've seen the best practices in the field and some of the worst. We need to look closely at the experiences our youngest children receive in the upper 10% of the childcare and education world. Then from there, we can figure out ways to replicate those best practices.

It's been proven that low ratios and small group sizes relate to quality in early childhood. So does the presence of lots of positive interactions throughout the day.

In reality, many well-trained and educated teachers in the field feel like they can't give the children in their care what they need because poor ratios and high teacher turnover cause them to operate as if they're "putting out fires" instead of nurturing children. Each day they go home spent, and try to prepare for the next day of struggle. This is bad for the teachers and even worse for the children they care for.

So here's another question to think about. What next?

Early childhood professionals know that we can produce positive change through our work in early chldhood education. We can fight the 3 bad B's, blame, bias, and bullying with nonviolent communication and positive assertiveness. The time is now and we need to join together to make it happen. If you're a parent or a provider, we need each other's support.

Exciting news! I'm presenting at the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association Virtual Conference with music educator Junko Yamauchi. Here's the link to the info.

Since We're presenting on Antibias Musical Experiences for Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers, I'm including links to 11 activity-oriented blogs I've posted in the last couple of years. Stuff you can actually do in your classrooms and your homes! Enjoy.


“Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.” Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 4 Dec. 2017,

Gramling, Michael. Great Disconnect in Early Childhood Education. Redleaf Press, 2015.

Greenspan, Stanley I., and Nancy Breslau Lewis. Building Healthy Minds: The Six Experiences That Create Intelligence and Emotional Growth in Babies and Young Children. Perseus Pub., 2000.

“NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD) Historical/for Reference Only.” Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,

Shore, Rima. Rethinking the Brain: New Insights into Early Development. Families and Work Institute, 2003.

Tgeer. “Making and Breaking Connections in the Brain.” UC Davis Center for Neuroscience, 13 Apr. 2021,

Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human dev from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI and is the founder of early childhood rocks, a non-profit org dedicated to creating change through early childhood education.

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