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Why Your Child's First 5 Years of Learning Matter for Adulthood

A black mom and a toddler reading a book

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that active childhood learning can impact brain development into adulthood.
  • Children participated in a comprehensive program that focused on promoting language, cognition, and interactive learning.
  • There are steps that parents can take to help their children reach developmental milestones starting when they are infants.

The first five years of life are an important time for your child's development. And now a new study finds that introducing children to an active learning environment during these formative years is crucial.

Researchers at Virginia Tech and the University of Pennsylvania found that active early learning during childhood can noticeably shape a person's brain well into adulthood.

The study followed 111 African American children who participated in the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina, a program that began in 1972 to study the effects of educational, social, health, and family support services on children from families facing economic challenges.

Both groups of children, those being studied and the control, received extra health care, nutrition, and family support services. But starting at six weeks of age, one group also received five years of educational support.

Those that received educational programming, ended up showing structural differences in the brain when followed through middle age.

“Most doctors knew all along that children who get good intervention early on in their life had a better outcome in the future,” Sri Halthore, MD, a pediatric neurologist at Neurology Specialists, who was not involved with the study, tells Verywell. “To actually demonstrate on an MRI of the brain [an] increase in the size of certain areas of [the] brain in African American children with good early intervention is very interesting.”

How Did the Program Work?

Children participated in a comprehensive program that focused on promoting language, cognition, and interactive learning. Positive encouragement was also an important aspect of the experience. It lasted six to eight hours per day, five days a week, for 50 weeks.

Participants were then given intelligent quotient (IQ) and different academic tests through their adolescent years. When they were between 38 and 44 years old, 78 participants participated in a follow-up. About half of them completed brain scans. The researchers determined that those in the early education treatment group experienced an increase in the size of the whole brain, including the cortex.

"It really highlights the role of education early on, cognitive training and enrichment for kids, and how that can affect later brain development," Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD, the director of neuro-oncology at Providence Saint John’s Health Center and chair of the department of translational neurosciences and neurotherapeutics at Saint John’s Cancer Institute, tells Verywell. 

While the study found that active early learning can help with cognition, some of the advantages relative to the control group declined over the years. Halthore says, “based on this study I did not see whether the increase in volume of certain areas of the brain was necessarily associated with better IQ and achievement later in life.”

However, the intervention group was likely to complete more years of education and more likely to graduate from college. They were also more likely to have steady employment and less likely to require public assistance.

What This Means For You

You can take steps to improve your child's development by reading to them, praising and giving them positive reinforcement, and talking to them.

How Parents Can Help Their Children Develop

Parents can take many steps to improve their child's brain development, including being an active presence in their lives and encouraging them to try new things.

"Spending time with children, teaching and exposing them to different childhood activities [can all help]," Halthore says. "Also challenging them cognitively and using positive reinforcement."

Kesari also believes that it is important that children from lower-income families are taught at an early age that their family's background does not hinder what they can accomplish. "Training that can be done to again bridge that gap [to encourage] positive future thinking, 'Here's the potential for you in the future, regardless of your current environment."

He suggests that some technologies, like phone apps that focus on practicing skills associated with cognitive development, could help kids from lower-income families. "Through these technologies for lower socio-economic communities, I think it is much more cost-effective and could potentially as much change the game in terms of the inequalities of education and outcomes," Kesari says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends that parents do the following to help their children reach important development milestones:

  • Talk to your baby. They will find your voice calming.
  • Answer when your baby makes sounds by repeating the sounds and adding words. This will help him learn to use language.
  • Read to your baby. This will help her develop and understand language and sounds.
  • Sing to your baby and play music. This will help your baby develop a love for music and will help his brain development.
  • Praise your baby and give her lots of loving attention.
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Article Sources
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  1. Farah MJ, Sternberg S, Nichols TA, et al. Randomized manipulation of early cognitive experience impacts adult brain structure. J Cogn Neurosci. 2021;33(6):1197-1209. doi:10.1162/jocn_a_01709

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infants (0-1 year of age). Updated February 22, 2021.