Improving Systems, Practices and Outcomes

Brain Development in Early Childhood

Topic Editor: Sonya Detwiler

Most recent additions to this page:

Poverty and Childhood Risk of Neurological Impairment (December 2015) - Findings from a study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and partners suggest that children growing up in poverty have a higher risk of neurological impairment than those from more economically secure circumstances, and the level of impairment could increase the risk for childhood learning difficulties, attention deficit disorders and psychological conditions such as anxiety disorders and schizophrenia.

A substantial body of research shows that a child's environment, experiences and relationships during the first years of life impact the architecture (structure, neural connections, and chemical activity) of the developing brain. Positive early experiences, responsive relationships with caring adults and healthy environments help build resilience and "sturdy" brain architecture. Adverse experiences, poverty, maltreatment and exposure to toxic substances can disrupt this process and result in long-term negative effects on learning, behavior and health.

Major Research Findings on Brain Development

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University synthesizes research findings on healthy brain development, how brain development can get disrupted by adverse early life experiences, how to put development back on track through scientifically informed interventions, and the factors that contribute to resilience. The Center translates these findings into clear, simple language and presents them in multiple formats.

  • Reports and Working Papers - Syntheses of major research findings on the science of early brain development, the effects of "toxic stress," and how to build resilience.
  • InBrief Summaries - One page summaries of essential findings from reports, working papers, scientific publications, and presentations.
  • Multimedia - A collection of short videos, interactive modules, and presentations that explain key concepts in the science of early development and advance public understanding of how to promote healthy brain development.

From Neurons to Neighborhoods: An Update: Workshop (2012). This report from the National Academies Press is based on the original landmark report, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development (2000), which presents key findings from the Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development about the effects of genetics, environment, and early stress on brain architecture, and the costs and benefits of intervention. The conclusions and recommendations are grounded in four overarching themes:

  • All children are born wired for feelings and ready to learn;
  • Early environments matter, and nurturing relationships are essential;
  • Society is changing, and the needs of young children are not being addressed; and
  • Interactions among early childhood science, policy, and practice are problematic and demand dramatic rethinking.

Toxic Stress and the Developing Brain

Key Concepts: Toxic Stress (updated regularly) Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University - Prolonged activation of a child's stress response systems, often referred to as "toxic stress," can disrupt the development of the brain and increase the risk for long-term, stress-related disease and cognitive impairment. This webpage provides an overview of key concepts of toxic stress, a section Q&As, and stories from the field.

Toxic Stress Derails Healthy Development (Runtime 1:52 minutes)


This video from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University describes how strong, ongoing activation of the body's stress management system in the absence of caring adult support can disrupt early child development. It is part of the video series Three Core Concepts in Early Development.

Understanding the Effects of Maltreatment on Brain Development (2015) Child Welfare Information Gateway - This brief provides basic information on the effects of abuse and neglect on brain development. It is intended to help professionals understand the emotional, mental, and behavioral impact of early abuse and neglect in children who come to the attention of the child welfare system.

Poverty and Childhood Risk of Neurological Impairment (December 2015) - Findings from a study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and partners suggest that children growing up in poverty have a higher risk of neurological impairment than those from more economically secure circumstances, and the level of impairment could increase the risk for childhood learning difficulties, attention deficit disorders and psychological conditions such as anxiety disorders and schizophrenia.

Promoting Resilience

Resilience: Key Concepts (updated regularly) Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University - This webpage provides an overview of key concepts from the science on resilience and explains why understanding how some children develop the ability to overcome significant adversity can help us design policies and programs that enable more children to reach their full potential. It provides links to a series of videos, a one-page summary and a related working paper.

Services for Families of Infants and Toddlers Experiencing Trauma (2015) Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services - Discusses intervention strategies that could potentially protect infants and toddlers from the adverse consequences of traumatic experiences, such as supporting parents to provide stable and nurturing caregiving that promotes children's sense of safety and security. Includes a summary of evidence-based interventions for infants and toddlers exposed to trauma and looks at how child care, Early Head Start, home visitation, and child welfare can become trauma-informed infant/toddler service delivery systems.

Resilience Booster: Parent Tip Tool (2015) American Psychological Association (APA) - This parent tip tool was created by the APA to help parents build their children's resilience.

Effectiveness of Infant and Early Childhood Programs (updated regularly) ECTA Center - This compilation of resources provides links to a variety of initiatives and research studies that address the effectiveness of early childhood interventions on improving outcomes for children, families and communities.

Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center

  • CB 8040
  • Chapel Hill, NC 27599-8040
  • phone: 919.962.2001
  • fax: 919.966.7463
  • email: ectacenter@unc.edu

The ECTA Center is a program of the FPG Child Development Institute of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, funded through cooperative agreement number H326P120002 from the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the Department of Education's position or policy.

  • FPG Child Development Institute
  • IDEAs that Work