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High Quality Early Ed Leads to Changes in the Brain

A new study finds that high quality early childhood education leads to actual changes in the brain, but those changes don’t actually show up until middle age.

In part two of our report on early childhood education, Robbie Harris talks with co-author and Virginia Tech professor Craig Ramey.  

If you want to study change, and you want to study change in individuals or communities, or even countries, you have to follow the same unit over time and measure it in a consistent way.

Craig Ramey and his wife, Sharon Landesman Ramey, founded this longitudinal study on child development in 1971. Teams of researchers have been following two groups of people, from infancy, all the way to adulthood and middle age, to gauge the long-term impact of high-quality childcare.

It’s called the Abecedarian Project, that word refers to the early learning process.  It involved 2 sets of infants, from low-income backgrounds. All got high quality health care, plus nutrition, and family support services. But a second group got additional high quality educational support, five days a week, 50 weeks a year for five years.

And what they found is that the kids, now adults who got that extra intellectual stimulation, are actually showing growth in specific regions in the brain. It’s still too early to know all the implications, but Craig Ramey says "we're understanding more clearly, some of the mechanisms that are undergirding these changes that we've seen at a behavioral level, at an educational level, and at a lifestyle level and for the first time demonstrated scientifically, we're seeing that those changes reside within the brain.”

Brain scans showed four areas that appear to have grown larger in the treatment group, as opposed to the control group. “We’re identifying regions of the brain that seem to have been particularly affected. And I don't want to say that it's only those areas that have been affected because we're still working very hard to understand the connections among different areas of the brain. But at least we know that these four areas that we've identified are very important areas for us to understand in greater depth.”

This longitudinal study, perhaps the longest of its kind, is continuing to report study from its long-time pool of study participants. And for some of them, who got that extra intellectual stimulation, it turned out to be been life changing.

This is a clip from a documentary on the Abecedarian Project: “Some of my friends, they call me smart boy, nerdy boy, no, it starts way earlier than that. Nah. I’m just like you. I just like to learn. Wait til you get into public school, what have you; if I hadn’t  had that, who knows where I would have been.”

And that’s a vital question, because, to this day, there is still not enough high-quality early childhood education available.  Not in Virginia, not in the whole country. It’s estimated that only a quarter of kids in the U.S. get that kind of care. But Ramey, who suggests there are ways to be creative and compelling with kids even if you live in a childcare dessert.

Ramey says a major takeaway from this study is that  "all of the experiences that a young child has, turned out to be very important, and the child can get them in their own home, they can get them in the care of relatives. They can get them in early childhood education programs. It's the totality of the experiences that are particularly important."

Ramey says there are actually certain kinds of activities, that feed kids brains, he describes it as  that kind of back and forth, call and response, style of conversation and play. It’s a specific kind of deep engagement, that’s shown to be, not only effective but also, really fun.

Ramey likens it to a really great conversation “in which, one person says something the other person quickly grasps it and responds to it, and so it's this back-and-forth, kind of like people playing tennis or any other game that requires, an awareness of your partner.” And, he adds, this kind of engagement is “in great contrast to talking at someone, to lecturing them to, operating in some unilateral way, because in this back and forth exchange, you're not only learning that you can affect the world through what you do, but you're also learning that you can be affected by the way that the world responds.

And that understanding, says Ramey, really begins very early in life, in mid to late infancy, those first six weeks become a foundation for lifelong learning.

This latest report from the Abecedarian project has implications, not only for the basic study of brain science, but also for social policy, said University of Pennsylvania Neuroscientist, Martha Farah lead investigator on the stud, said lead investigator Martha Farah, Director of the Center for Neuroscience & Society at The University of Pennsylvania. It’s published in  the June edition of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.


Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.
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