Jon Cohn has an eye-opening piece in The New Republic, “The Two Year Window,” about advances in the science of early childhood development. It opens with a description of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, a study that removed infants from warehouse-style orphanages in Romania and adopted them out:
It was ten years after the fall of the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceau?escu, whose scheme for increasing the country’s population through bans on birth control and abortion had filled state-run institutions with children their parents couldn’t support…. The new government remained convinced that the institutions were a good idea—and was still warehousing at least 60,000 kids, some of them born after the old regime’s fall, in facilities where many received almost no meaningful human interaction. [Neuroscientist Charles Nelson] prevailed upon the government to allow them to remove some of the children from the orphanages and place them with foster families. Then, the researchers would observe how they fared over time in comparison with the children still in the orphanages.
…Prior to the project, investigators had observed that the orphans had a high frequency of serious developmental problems, from diminished IQs to extreme difficulty forming emotional attachments. Meanwhile, imaging and other tests revealed that some of the orphans had reduced activity in their brains. The Bucharest project confirmed that these findings were more than random observations. It also uncovered a striking pattern: Orphans who went to foster homes before their second birthdays often recovered some of their abilities. Those who went to foster homes after that point rarely did.
This past May, a team led by Stacy Drury of Tulane reported a similar finding—with an intriguing twist. The researchers found that telomeres, which are protective caps that sit on the ends of chromosomes, were shorter in children who had spent more time in the Romanian orphanages….It was the clearest signal yet that neglect of very young children does not merely stunt their emotional development. It changes the architecture of their brains.
…You can see more of the evidence for the importance of early childhood in the chart on the right, which I posted earlier this year. It comes from James Heckman, probably the preeminent researcher in this area, and it shows average achievement test scores for different classes of children. All show the exact same dynamic: Gaps show up as early as age three and persist pretty much forever. Some of this is due to genetic differences, but not all of it. It’s also due to differences in children’s early environments.
The lesson is simple: If you want to have a real impact on how kids do in school, you have to get to them early.