Why Early Childhood Matters

With the passage of Proposition 10 in 1998, the state of California made a clear commitment to prioritize the health and well-being of young children, prenatal through age five, and their families through a dedicated funding stream. New developments in neuroscience and neuroimaging technology were providing visible evidence of the effects of both positive and negative early childhood experiences on brain development, confirming the critical importance of the first five years of life. However, the programs, practices, and policies that directly affect the lives of young children and their families had not yet caught up to reflect the science.
Over the past two decades, local First 5 Commissions across the state have joined with fellow advocates to increase awareness of the importance of supporting young children and their families during this critical period of rapid and foundational brain development in early childhood. Through a combination of research, professional expertise, and families’ lived experiences, it is now commonly understood that a child’s relationships and experiences in the earliest years of life shape the architecture of their developing brain. Safe, nurturing relationships and experiences build healthy brains, creating a strong foundation for positive outcomes in health, learning, and behavior across the life course.
We also have a far deeper understanding of how trauma, or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as chronic toxic stress, physical and/or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, a caregiver experiencing mental illness, substance use or incarceration, exposure to family violence, and the accumulated effects of poverty – can disrupt children’s developing brains, weakening the foundation on which all other health, development, and learning occurs.
In addition, there is a growing evidence and recognition that institutionalized discrimination and segregation based on race are detrimental to early childhood development and that policies and practices that create systemic barriers to opportunities and resources are the true root causes of most disparities in children’s health, well-being and readiness to succeed in kindergarten.

The good news is that multiple research studies have confirmed that investing in developmentally-appropriate and culturally responsive early childhood programs and systems that support optimal development, early learning, behavioral health and resilient families produce tangible benefits. Nobel prize winning economist, James Heckman and his colleagues, found that investing in high-quality early childhood development programs combined with support for parents, particularly for low-income children, can deliver up to $14 for every $1 invested by improving long-term outcomes related to health, education, employment, and social behaviors.1 Heckman states, “The highest rate of return…comes from investing as early as possible”.