After analyzing what is known about the brain, early experiences, and child development, the Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development from the National Research Council Institute of Medicine (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000) proposed that 10 core concepts frame our current understanding of early development. These core concepts of human development are based on clinical and research findings from 1925 to 2000 and “help to organize what is known about infants and families and to suggest what is yet to be discovered or understood”. These concepts provide a framework for thinking about what is important for infants and toddlers to develop optimally, how and when infants and toddlers best learn, and how problems in development can be prevented. As we enter the new millennium, parents and professionals have these useful core concepts as guides for interacting with very young children; for developing quality programs that support infant development and families; and for creating systems, laws, and public policies that value the amazing early years. These concepts are briefly introduced here and they will be revisited numerous times throughout the text. The titles of the core concepts have been rewritten to capture the primary meaning expressed in the concept.

1.Both Nature and Nurture Affect Children’s Development

It has often been asked which has more effect on a child’s development: nature (Genetic influences on the growth and development of a child.) or nurture (The influences of the environment, experiences, and education on the growth and development of the child.)  This is no longer a controversy in the early childhood field. There is a complex interplay between these two in the development of an infant (Gottlieb, 1992). Both play their parts in shaping who the infant will become. The impact of the child’s experiences is dramatic and specific; it actually affects how the brain is wired for future learning (nurture). The quality of early care has a decisive and long lasting impact on how people develop, their ability to learn, and their capacity to regulate (control) their own emotions. On the other hand, scientists are making remarkable discoveries about the genes that govern the color of our eyes, the shape of our nose, and the susceptibility to certain diseases (nature). Those discoveries will further enhance our understanding of the interaction effects of environment and heredity (Collins, Maccoby, Steinberg, Hetherington, & Bornstein, 2000; Olson, Vernon, Harris, & Jang, 2001).

2.Culture Influences Development and Child-Rearing Beliefs and Practices

All families and cultures have different backgrounds, experiences, dreams for their children, habits, and customs that guide their thinking about raising children (Coll & Magnuson, 2000). Everyone sees the world through the lens of their own culture (Small, 1998), and these beliefs about development, child-rearing practices, and family and community customs and routines continually influence the child and the family’s thinking and feeling. A rich and valuable array of beliefs and practices define who children and families are, how they interact and care for others, their traditions, and their way of life.

3.Self-Regulation Is an Important Indicator of Development

When infants begin to recognize when they are hungry or sleepy, focus on what is important, and tune out extraneous noise, for example, they are regulating their reactions to the world. When toddlers begin to express sadness or happiness without falling apart, attend without often becoming distracted, wait a few minutes for lunch, touch a flower gently, and process information without becoming overwhelmed, they are demonstrating self-regulation  The process of adapting reactions to sensory experiences, feelings, the environment, and people.

One can see how these behaviors provide the foundation for all further learning. The ability to self-regulate is the backdrop of capabilities that allow the child to concentrate on a task, focus on another person’s feedback in a social situation, and control emotions in positive ways (Bronson, 2000a, 2000b; Kopp, 2000).

4.Children Contribute to Their Own Development Through Active Exploration

Infants don’t need lessons to learn to walk, or drill practice to learn to talk. Rather, babies desire to walk and talk; they practice on their own and with responsive peers and adults. They act on their environment: They put objects in containers to figure out where they go. They shake, bang, roll, and stack objects to see what will happen. They make all kinds of funny sounds to get a response from a laughing sibling. They have goals, such as getting a favorite adult to look at them or opening a door, and they experiment with different strategies to make these events happen. When all is going well, infants and toddlers are curious, energetic, and motivated to figure things out. They are communication partners who need to take a turn in a conversation, even if the communication turn is a sneeze or a soft cooing sound. When given the opportunity (and this is how they learn best), they follow their interests with adults who keep them safe, talk to them, nurture them, and support their learning. They are motivated to learn about themselves, others, and the world in which they live.

5.Human Relationships, and the Effects of Relationships on Relationships, Are the Building Blocks of Healthy Development

Relationships have an effect on relationships (Hinde & Stevenson-Hinde, 1987). This concept means that what infants learn in their first relationships is how to be in relationships. If the initial relationships are satisfying and enjoyable, then young children learn to trust, communicate, negotiate, show empathy, and cooperate with parents, peers, and others they meet—the building blocks of satisfying relationships. How they are cared for in these first relationships influences their sense of self-worth and whether they view themselves as lovable. How infants and toddlers experience their first relationships influences not only the quality of future relationships but also their ability to learn. When relationships are comfortable, stable, and constant rather than anxiety producing, confusing or frightening, then babies have the emotional energy and feelings of safety to focus on exploring and investigating—important aspects of learning.

6.There Is a Broad Range of Individual Differences

One infant walks at 8 months of age and another at 14 months. One infant begins to say words on his first birthday and another is babbling “Dada” when he turns 1 year old. A toddler learns to use the toilet on her second birthday, while another waits until she is 3 years old. These are all normal variations in motor, language, and adaptive development. However, while some children who aren’t saying clear words by 2 years of age may eventually start to talk, others may have a hearing impairment or auditory disorder that must be diagnosed early in the infant’s life so that appropriate intervention can occur. Because of the broad range of individual differences, it is sometimes difficult to determine the difference between an individual difference in development and what might be a developmental delay that requires intervention.

7.The Development of Children Is Both Continuous and Discontinuous

Terri, 4 months old, likes to learn about the shape and texture of a safe, soft rattle by sucking and chewing on it. By 9 months she is trying different ways to learn about the object. She shakes, bangs, switches hands, turns the rattle over to inspect the other side, tries to roll it and sit on it, and throws it many times, only to retrieve it by crawling very quickly across the floor. This trajectory or path of development is continuous, as Terri seems to progress forward in her acquisition of skills that help her learn about objects such as rattles. Discontinuity may also occur at significant points of development when the child’s behavior seems very different from the age before. For example, 7-month-olds (as opposed to 2-month-olds) have a cluster of skills that propel them to be social partners who “act as if they understand that their thoughts, feelings, and actions can be understood by another person” (Zeanah, Boris, & Larrieu, 1997, p. 166). A toddler also seems worlds apart from an infant and has developed a whole constellation of skills that contribute to the 2-year-old’s emerging independence, a marked contrast to only a year before. These points of rapidly increasing skills in development are considered transition points, as they have effects on both how the baby views the world and how the teachers and caregivers interact with the infant or toddler.

8.Infants and Toddlers Are Both Vulnerable and Resilient

Shana, a 1-year-old, has experienced much anguish in her short life: excessive hunger, hours of crying for someone to come to her crib to take her out, and bouts of severe diarrhea. She feels vulnerable  (The state of being helpless, defenseless, or open to criticism or danger.) and open to further trauma. What are her sources of vulnerability? They may be parent alcoholism, mental illness, criminality, poverty that contributes to overwhelming stress in the family, or maternal/paternal abuse. These are just a few of the risk factors that increase the likelihood that something negative will happen to Shana’s well-being in the future—her own drug abuse, dropping out of school, or social problems. Yet, there are sources of resilience (ability to thrive despite risk factors) in Shana’s and in many children’s lives that contribute to positive turnarounds
positive turnarounds:  Refers to the resilience of a person to recover from challenging life experiences.  (Werner, 2000). The source of resilience may be within the child—an easygoing, engaging temperament, for example, or a curious mind. Resilience may come from the child’s family—a loving grandfather or a mother who is at first neglectful of her child but then goes to school or gains support for new, positive ways of interacting with her baby. The source of competence for Shana could come later in life in the form of a caring circle of friends, counseling, or an adult mentor. Every person has sources of vulnerability and sources of resilience (Poulsen, 1993; Rouse, 1998; Werner, 1993, 2000).

Let’s explore the topic further. “Risks to development can come both from direct threats and from the absence of normal, expectable opportunities” (Garbarino & Ganzel, 2000, p. 77). Risk conditions can influence current and later outcomes for children in learning, language, social, and emotional development. The most serious detrimental effects occur when multiple risk factors are present in a child’s life (Garbarino & Ganzel, 2000; Sameroff & Chandler, 1975). There are, however, personal and environmental characteristics that contribute to resilience in children who are experiencing risk factors. 

“Resilience is the ability to thrive, mature, and increase competence in the face of adverse circumstances” (Rouse, 1998, p. 47).  Resilient children have aspects within themselves or their environment that help them to withstand more stress and cope better than many other children. Breslin, 2005, notes that it is not helpful to label a child “at risk,” but rather to focus on the strengths and competencies in each child that can help them thrive—the resiliency factors  or features that contribute to the resiliency in the child, can be divided into three groups: personal, environmental, and relationship-based. 

Just as many threads woven tightly together hold up well against outside forces, the more threads of resiliency there are for a child the more likely that they will create a durable tapestry that resonates strength and transformation despite risk and adversity. Werner (2000) demonstrated the importance of protective factors (Shield the child from harmful effects of the environment or relationships and that support the child’s development.) in forming resiliency in a study of 698 multiethnic children born into high-risk environments in 1955. In a follow-up report when those children were 45 years old, Werner found that primarily positive caregiving during the first years of life is a protective factor that results in better adjusted adults. Also, the emotional support of close friends, spouses, adult mentors, and parent education classes contributed to the resiliency of the adults. Werner’s work inspires us to think about the importance of personal, environmental, and relationship factors when planning policy and redesigning programs for infants, toddlers, and their families. When adults recognize risk and resilience factors for young children and their families, then they can make important decisions in community and business practices that recognize the significance of loving, responsive adults for infants and toddlers.

9.  The Timing of Early Experiences Can Matter and Children Are Open to Change

The importance of a responsive, caring environment during the first 3 years of life cannot be disputed. However, a wonderful infancy is not a magical immunization, like a polio shot, against later troubles in life. A 3-year-old may be bright, full of zip, caring, and engaging and yet face unbelievable trauma as a 4-year-old or as a teenager. Due to stress and trauma, there could be an erosion of the child’s trust in others and her own sense of self-worth. The developing child remains vulnerable to risks at all ages. Conversely, a child is still open to protective factors after 3 years of age. For example, a child who has an emotionally difficult first 3 years and has challenging behaviors may respond beautifully to a loving adult who sincerely believes in the child’s positive characteristics and supports the child through several years of learning new, more productive behaviors (Zeanah, Boris, & Larrieu, 1997).

10.Early Intervention Can Make a Difference

Early intervention includes services and programs for children at risk and children with disabilities and their families. We will discuss these types of programs later in the chapter. Early intervention with children and support for families can reduce the risk factors, ameliorate vulnerabilities, and increase protection factors and resiliency (Shonkoff & Meisels, 2000).

Conclusion of the 10 Core Concepts

Clearly, the main ideas represented in these 10 core concepts are that positive, responsive, mutual, and protective adult-infant and adult-toddler relationships promote a child’s development and have sustaining effects on the young child’s ability to be in a relationship.

Very young children need adults to protect them, build their sense of self-worth, help them become an important part of their community and culture, and support them in learning how to become healthy, caring, and constructive members of society. When the vulnerabilities and the protective factors for infants, toddlers, and families are understood, then the prenatal and infancy period will become—much more than it is now—a focus of care and concern by families, professionals, communities and nations far and wide.