The Influence of Neuroscience on Early Childhood Education


It is only within very recent history — the past 25 to 30 years — that neuroscience has become a force in child development and educational research, as the tools to study the brain in action have improved and become more readily available. A notable moment in this history was the publication of Starting Points: Meeting the Needs of Our Youngest Children in 1994 by the Carnegie Corporation of New York (Carnegie Task Force, 1994). In that report, the authors wrote:

With the help of powerful new research tools, including sophisticated brain scans, scientists have studied the developing brain in greater detail than ever before.

Research on brain development has progressed considerably since 1994, but even at that time, the following conclusions were drawn:

  • • First, the brain development that takes place during the prenatal period and in the first year of life is more rapid and extensive than we previously realized.
  • • Second, brain development is much more vulnerable to environmental influence than we ever suspected.
  • • Third, the influence of early environment on brain development is long lasting.
  • • Fourth, the environment affects not only the number of brain cells and number of connections among them, but also the way these connections are “wired.”
  • • And fifth, we have new scientific evidence for the negative impact of early stress on brain function.

Although there was only one other time that the word “brain” appeared in the entire 41-page Starting Points report, brain research dominated the extensive media coverage of the report following its release, prompting the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Families and Work Institute to convene a conference at the University of Chicago in 1996 called “Brain Development in Young Children: New Frontiers for Research, Policy and Practice.” That conference brought together leading researchers in neuroscience and in child development because, for the most part, they didn’t know each other’s research. Its purpose was to determine where the findings of neuroscience and child development research converged and where they differed and to set a research and policy agenda for the future.

The findings of the Chicago Conference were written up in a report called Rethinking the Brain: New Insights into Early Development (Shore, 1997), published by the Families and Work Institute and released by President and Mrs. Clinton at a conference in April 1997 entitled, “The White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning.” The wide dissemination of Rethinking the Brain as well as the White House conference (which was broadcast to nearly 100 locations), and a 1997 special edition of Newsweek Magazine on “Your Child - From Birth to Three” launched the subject of the brain development of young children into educational circles as well as to the general public. Three years later, the 2000 publication of Neurons to Neighborhoods by the National Research Council and the subsequent important work of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University made knowledge of children’s brain development a fundamental and complementary part of understanding the development and learning of young children.

A Historical Perspective: The Work of Montessori, Vygotsky, and Luria

Before contemporary brain scanning tools - like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or magnetoencephalography (MEG) - there were a number of leading educators and psychologists whose work foreshadowed the findings of contemporary developmental neuroscience and their implications for education and growth. Key among them were Maria Montessori, Lev Vygotsky, and Alexander Luria.

In her seminal book, Die Montessori Method, Montessori (1912) noted that children have an inherent motivation to explore their environments and learn from them, and she recognized in this motivation children’s inherent drive to develop and grow. In contrast to more didactic pedagogical approaches, Montessori took a more autonomy-supportive approach, and designed an environment filled with opportunities that supported and stimulated children’s perceptual, motor, cognitive, social, and emotional development, and encouraged children’s autonomy and sense of agency by allowing them to select their own learning challenges based on their interests. Contemporary research on the impact of Montessori education has revealed the extent to which it promotes the healthy development not only of autonomy and agency but of the self-regulatory, executive function skills that underlie them (e.g., Lillard & Else-Quest, 2006).

Vygotsky (1929) also recognized the key role that the environment, especially the cultural context, plays in the development of children’s self-regulation. Together with Luria, and building on Pavlov’s notion of a second signal system that allowed signs (e.g., words) to signal (or control) a primary signal system, Vygotsky outlined a socio-cultural model of development in which children become more self-regulated based on interpersonal interaction and the internalization of cultural practices, such as speech. According to Vygotsky (1934/1962), the internalization of cultural tools, particularly speech, provided the impetus for qualitative changes in the structure of thought. Whereas speech initially serves a communicative purpose, it subsequently acquires a directive or self-regulatory function that allows children to organize and plan their behavior, essentially rendering them capable of intentional, goal-directed thought and action. A key finding from their research is that, with age, children are able to use increasingly complex verbal plans to guide their behavior (Luria, 1961). The work of Vygotsky and Luria provided an important foundation for contemporary research on the development of executive function skills and their dependence on brain networks involving prefrontal cortex.

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