Archive for Monday, March 15, 1999


March 15, 1999


The window of opportunity is a special time for a baby's learning.

Researchers have now discovered that 90 percent of brain development occurs during the first three years of life. They have also discovered that there are "windows of opportunity" when children learn in ways that they will never be able to learn in later life.

When children take advantage of these windows of opportunity, they arrive at school at age 5 or 6 ready to learn and able to take advantage of all the schools offer.

Unfortunately, some children have not gained competencies in these early years and later they show more school failure, behavioral problems and involvement in illegal activities.

For example, at 10 months, a baby begins to form words in the language the the baby has contact with. That 10-month-old has the capacity to speak any and all languages that he or she has heard. However, by 10 years of age, it will be almost impossible to learn a new language and to speak it without an accent. This is a very special "window of opportunity" which occurs from birth through the early years.

The good news for parents and children is that only vision and language have such hard-and-fast windows of opportunity, which, if missed, can never be fully regained. All other social, emotional and cognitive skills have windows that are more like "sensitive times." If missed, the skill can probably still be learned later in life unless the deprivation was severe and prolonged.

So what do these new research findings tell parents as they are raising their young children? Stimuli experienced during the early years literally shape the way the brain is structured so parents have a powerful influence over what the child will become in later years.

Early relationships with people are the major sources of development of the areas of the brain that control emotional and social functions. Warm, responsive relationships with adults are crucial to healthy emotional development.

Similarly, speaking to a child from birth, reading to a child at very early ages, engaging the child in cognitive games and many other experiences can help make brain connections, which will lead to higher intellectual capacities and success in school. We used to think that a child was born with a certain level of "smarts," but now know that isn't true. Early experiences can shape intelligence.

The researchers have also found that quality childhood programs involve the parents. When parents are engaged as partners in the educational process, the child is likely to learn and to develop social skills and to have a strong foundation for long-term parental involvement throughout the school years. In turn, such involvement by the parents in the school system has significant impact on achievement and high school completion.

The windows of opportunity are dramatic: A good start in life can do more to promote learning and prevent damage than we ever imagined.

The message to parents is simple:

  • Read to your baby.
  • Sing to your baby and play music in the nursery.
  • Talk to your baby.
  • Place interesting works of art or stimulating visuals near the crib.
  • Choose games and toys that also teach.

-- Sidney Karr is executive director of the Lawrence Partnership for Children and Youth.

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