Early Learning

Learning begins in the womb. And, from the moment they are born, children begin interacting with the world around them and building critical skills. What they learn in their first few years of life—and how they learn it—can have long-lasting effects on their health and on their later success in school and in work.

Early learning refers to the skills and concepts that children develop before they reach kindergarten. It is a crucial part of development and can set patterns for both school and adult learning.

By studying early learning, researchers can figure out the best ways for parents and caregivers to encourage children to develop these skills and concepts and to put children on a path to becoming lifetime learners.

NICHD early learning research studies:

  • Early social relationships with family, caretakers, teachers, and peers
  • How children’s environment, including exposure to stress and media, promotes or inhibits learning
  • Ways to improve learning
  • School readiness—effective ways to get children ready to participate and learn in a school classroom environment
  • Long-term impact of early intervention programs
  • How professional development of caretakers impacts learning

Early Learning: Condition Information

What is early learning?

Children begin learning in the womb. From the moment they’re born, interaction with the world around them helps them build crucial skills. For example:1

  • By 3 months of age, babies can recognize people they know.
  • By 8 to 12 months, babies can recognize themselves in the mirror.
  • From 18 months to preschool age, children can learn nine new words each day.

Children learn all kinds of basic skills and concepts from the people and world around them:

  • In the first few years of life, children start to become independent, learning how to act and how to control their emotions and behaviors.
  • They learn language; math skills such as shapes, numbers, and counting; pre-reading skills like how to hold a book and follow along as someone reads to them; and, with them, skills for lifelong learning.
  • They also start forming relationships of trust and develop ways to handle and resolve problems.

Making sure children have good learning experiences during their early years—whether at home, in childcare, or in preschool—will support their lifelong learning, health, and well-being.

Citations

  1. Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development. (2009). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early development. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Retrieved February 4, 2015, from http://www.nap.edu/catalog/9824/from-neurons-to-neighborhoods-the-science-of-early-childhood-development External Web Site Policy

Why is early learning important?

Early learning paves the way for learning at school and throughout life. What children learn in their first few years of life—and how they learn it—can have long-lasting effects on their success and health as children, teens, and adults.

Studies show that supporting children’s early learning can lead to:1, 2, 3

  • Higher test scores from preschool to age 21
  • Better grades in reading and math
  • A better chance of staying in school and going to college
  • Fewer teen pregnancies
  • Improved mental health
  • Lower risk of heart disease in adulthood
  • A longer lifespan

Citations

  1. Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. The Carolina Abecedarian Project: Groundbreaking follow-up studies. Retrieved September 16, 2015, from http://abc.fpg.unc.edu/groundbreaking-follow-studies External Web Site Policy
  2. Kaplan, R.M. (2014). Behavior change and reducing health disparities. Preventive Medicine, 68, 5–10.
  3. Reynolds, A. J., Temple, J. A., White, B. A., Ou, S. R., & Robertson, D. L. (2011). Age 26 cost-benefit analysis of the child-parent center early education program. Child Development, 82(1), 379–404.

What are some factors that affect early learning?

A child’s home, family, and daily life have a strong effect on his or her ability to learn. Parents and guardians can control some things in their child’s life and environment, but not everything.

Some factors that can affect early learning include:1, 2, 3, 4, 5

  • Parents’ education
  • Family income
  • The number of parents in the home
  • Access to books and play materials
  • Stability of home life
  • Going to preschool
  • Quality of child care
  • Stress levels and exposure to stress (in the womb, as an infant, and as a child)
  • How many languages are spoken at home

Citations

  1. Campbell, F.A., Pungello, E.P., Kainz, K., Burchinal, M., Pan, Y., Wasik, B.H., et al. (2012). Adult outcomes as a function of an early childhood educational program: An Abecedarian Project follow-up. Developmental Psychology, 48(4), 1033–1043.
  2. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2006). The NICHD study of early child care and youth development: Findings for children up to age 4½ years. Rockville, MD: Author. Retrieved February 4, 2015, from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/Documents/SECCYD_06.pdf (PDF - 1.2 MB)
  3. Vandell, D. L., Belsky, J., Burchinal, M., Vandergrift, N., & Steinberg, L.; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2010). Do effects of early child care extend to age 15 years? Results from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. Child Development, 81(3), 737–756. Retrieved September 4, 2015, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2938040/.
  4. Blair, C. (2012). Stress relief can be the key to success in school. Scientific American Mind, 23(4).
  5. Barac, R., & Bialystok, E. (2012). Bilingual effects on cognitive and linguistic development: Role of language, cultural background, and education. Child Development, 83(2), 413–422.

Why is it important to study early learning?

Early learning can improve children’s health and well-being and have long-lasting benefits. Studying which factors affect early learning and education will help researchers:

  • Design better ways to help at-risk children before they start school
  • Improve parent, caregiver, child care provider, and preschool teacher training
  • Use research findings to design better preschool and child care programs
  • Study innovative early intervention settings, such as pediatrician’s offices and home visitor programs, and ways to make these programs convenient for parents and caretakers.

For example, NICHD research has helped characterize a positive learning environment as one with a warm caregiver and in which the child is supported and challenged cognitively. Findings of NICHD research also link early childhood education programs to improved adult health and demonstrate that early learning programs are cost-effective.

Recent examples include findings indicating that:

Read more about early education research supported by the NICHD.


How can parents and caregivers promote early learning?

A child's home, family, and daily life have a strong effect on his or her ability to learn. 

You are your child's first teacher, and every day is filled with opportunities to help him or her learn. You can help by:1, 2, 3, 4

  • Reading to your child External Web Site Policy, beginning when she or he is born
  • Pointing out and talking with your child about the names, colors, shapes, numbers, sizes, and quantities of objects in his or her environment
  • Listening and responding to your child as he or she learns to communicate
  • Practicing counting together
Refer to caption. READ our infographic for tips for developing your child's language skills.

You can encourage early learning starting at birth.

Video Series: Developing Lifelong Learners

NICHD experts provide tips on how to encourage lifelong learning in your children using math, language, and reading skills:

Read the Developing Lifelong Learners: Math Skills text alternative.

Read the Developing Lifelong Learners: Language Skills text alternative.

Read the Developing Lifelong Learners: Reading Skills text alternative.

Basic things like getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet are also important for a child's brain development and ability to learn. Creating a stable home with routines and support encourages children to learn and explore. Loud background sounds in the home (televisions, stereos, video games) can be distracting and stressful to young children and should be turned off or the volume lowered when they are present.

A good child care or preschool program also helps a child to learn and grow. For more information on evaluating and choosing a program, select a link below:

You might also want to learn about the findings from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (PDF - 1.25 MB), which examined different features of child care and how they affected children's lives.


  1. National Institute for Literacy. (2008). Developing early literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel: Executive summary. Retrieved February 2, 2015, from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/Documents/NELPSummary.pdf (PDF - 681 KB)
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Administration for Children and Families Early Learning & Knowledge Center. (1992). Fun and learning for parents and children: An activities handbook. Retrieved September 30, 2015, from https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/parenting/article/fun-learning-parents-children-activities-handbook
  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Administration for Children and Families Early Learning & Knowledge Center. (2010). Parents and families as teachers. Retrieved September 30, 2015, from https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/curriculum/consumer-report/curricula/parents-teachers-foundational-curriculum-prenatal-3
  4. American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Early Childhood. (2014). Literacy promotion: An essential component of primary care pediatric practice. Pediatrics,134(2), 404–409.

Video Text Alternative: Lifelong Learning Math

To view the original video, please go to http://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/early-learning/topicinfo/Pages/promote.aspx

Video/Graphics Audio
TITLE SLIDE:

Developing Lifelong Learners: Math Skills

Animation of a young woman walking through the produce section of the grocery store with her little boy sitting in a shopping cart.

Logo of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Logo of the NIH/Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
[MUSIC]
Camera view of Dr. Kathy Mann Koepke.

Banner text: Kathy Mann Koepke, Ph.D.
Child Development and Behavior Branch
Dr. Kathy Mann Koepke: If you’re a parent, and you want your children to be lifelonglearners, helping them to develop math skills is extremely important.
GRAPHICS SLIDE:

Animation of a young woman walking through the produce section of the grocery store with her little boy sitting in a shopping cart. …
Dr. Mann Koepke: When you go to the grocery store, you can use this time to build math and vocabulary. You can talk about numbers and shapes by counting and pointing things out in your environment.
GRAPHICS SLIDE CONTINUED:

A chalkboard drops down in the upper left corner of the screen and displays the words “more,” “smaller,” “longer,” and “heavier” one at a time. …
Dr. Mann Koepke: It’s helpful to use comparative words like “more,” “smaller,” “longer,” and “heavier” when you’re talking about numbered objects.
GRAPHICS SLIDE CONTINUED:

The chalkboard disappears. Three red apples appear in the middle of the screen, next to the young woman and her son. …
Dr. Mann Koepke: For example: “Let’s buy three red apples.”
GRAPHICS SLIDE CONTINUED:

A purple eggplant appears in the middle of the screen, next to the three red apples. …
Dr. Mann Koepke: “We can share one of those oblong eggplants because it’s bigger than the apples.”
GRAPHICS SLIDE CONTINUED:

The apples and eggplant drop into the woman’s shopping cart, and a big watermelon appears in the middle of the screen. Then the watermelon shrinks in size and drops into the shopping cart.
Dr. Mann Koepke: “That big watermelon is too heavy for me to lift! Let’s find a smaller one.”
GRAPHICS SLIDE:

Animation of the woman and her son at the checkout counter with an empty shopping cart. A cashier stands behind the register, ringing up the items on the counter.
Dr. Mann Koepke: By taking advantage of these opportunities, you immerse your child in math, language, and reasoning-rich environments.
GRAPHICS SLIDE:

Video fades to text:

Logo of the NIH/Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

For more information, visit www.nichd.nih.gov
[MUSIC]
FADE TO BLACK SCREEN  

Video Text Alternative: Lifelong Learning Language

To view the original video, please go to http://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/early-learning/topicinfo/Pages/promote.aspx

Video/Graphics Audio
TITLE SLIDE:

Developing Lifelong Learners: Language Skills

Animation of a woman with a young child walking toward an apple tree.

Logo of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Logo of the NIH/Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
Instrumental music plays in the background.
Camera view of Ruben P. Alvarez.

Banner text: Ruben P. Alvarez, Ed.D.
Child Development and Behavior Branch
Ruben Alvarez: If you’re a parent, and you want your children to be lifelong learners, helping them develop language skills is extremely important.
GRAPHICS SLIDE:

Animation of a mother and her son walking through a park with apple trees and a lake in the background. The scene zooms out to show the father and his daughter flying a kite.
Dr. Alvarez: This can start with creating a language-rich environment at home, one where children have daily opportunities to hear and take part in conversations.
GRAPHICS SLIDE CONTINUED:

The scene zooms in to show the mother and the little boy walk over to an apple tree. The mother points to the tree as a speech bubble appears above her with the text “These apples are red.” The little boy points to an apple in the tree as a speech bubble appears above him with the text “Red!”
Dr. Alvarez: You can make eye contact with your child, comment on something he or she is interested in, and pause for a response. This way, children learn the building blocks of a conversation.
GRAPHICS SLIDE CONTINUED:

The scene shifts to the father with the little girl flying a kite. A speech bubble appears above the girl with the text “How do you say wind in Spanish, papa?” A speech bubble appears above the father with the text “Viento, hija. Viento means wind.”
Dr. Alvarez: If you are a parent who speaks a native language other than English, speaking to your children in this language can be beneficial.
GRAPHICS SLIDE CONTINUED:

The mother and father sit at a picnic table with their son and daughter sitting between them. On the table are three bowls of salad, a sliced loaf of bread, a small bowl of dressing and a pie. A speech bubble appears above the little girl with the text “¡Él quiere postre!” The little boy puts his hands in the pie. His father looks shocked. A speech bubble appears above the mother with the text “You’re right. He does want dessert.”
Dr. Alvarez: Children who speak their parents’ native language tend to experience healthier family relationships and a stronger self-identity.
GRAPHICS SLIDE:

Video fades to text:

Logo of the NIH/Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

For more information, visit www.nichd.nih.gov
Instrumental music plays in the background.
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Video Text Alternative: Lifelong Learning Reading

To view the original video, please go to http://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/early-learning/topicinfo/Pages/promote.aspx

Video/Graphics Audio
TITLE SLIDE:

Developing Lifelong Learners: Reading Skills

Animation of a young mother sitting outside with her daughter on her lap. The mother holds an open book while the daughter turns the pages.

Logo of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Logo of the NIH/Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
Instrumental music plays in the background.
Camera view of Dr. Brett Miller.

Banner text: Brett Miller, Ph.D.
Child Development and Behavior Branch
Brett Miller: If you’re a parent and want to develop lifelong learners in your children, I think there’s a range of things that you can do.
GRAPHICS SLIDE:

Animation of a young mother sitting on a couch with her daughter on her lap. The mother holds an open book while the little girl looks at the pages. A speech bubble appears above the little girl with the text “Does her wish come true?” Then a speech bubble appears above the mother with the text “Turn the page, and we’ll see.” The little girl turns the page.
Dr. Miller: You can read books to children every day. You’re giving them not only experience to the content of what’s in the book in terms of the story, the vocabulary, the sorts of background knowledge that you build through reading.
GRAPHICS SLIDE CONTINUED:

Animation of a book opening to show two blank pages. A castle on a hillside with the sun in the background appears on the left-hand page. Lines of text appear on the right-hand page. A person’s hand turns the page. The text “THE END!” is on the new left-hand page and a picture of the woman and her daughter is on the right-hand page.
Dr. Miller: But it also gives them an understanding of the structure in the text, the flow of reading from left to right in English, flipping of a page to get you to the next content.
GRAPHICS SLIDE CONTINUED:

Animation of the woman and her daughter sitting on the couch discussing the book. A speech bubble appears above the mother with the text “Where does the princess live?” A thought bubble appears above the little girl with an image of the castle from the book in the previous animation. Another speech bubble appears next to the mother with the text “What wakes her every morning?” A thought bubble appears next to the little girl with an image of the sun.
Dr. Miller: You can ask children questions to try to encourage them to think about what’s going to happen next—what we talk about as “W-H” questions in English: who, what, when, where, why?
GRAPHICS SLIDE CONTINUED:

Animation of a table with an open cookbook on it, along with butter, flour, eggs, oranges, a pie pan and a bowl of apples. On the wall in the background hang three pictures. The picture on the left has the word “Eggplant” above an image of an eggplant. The picture on the right has the word “Apples” above an image of two red apples. The picture in the middle has the word “Oranges” above an image of three oranges. The woman and her daughter pop up behind the table and point to the pages of the cookbook. A speech bubble appears above the little girl with the text “How many apples fit inside a pie?” A speech bubble appears above the mother with the text “Let’s find out. Read the recipe to me.”
Dr. Miller: Also creating an environment where they see role models that are involved in these sort of lifelong processes of learning. Do whatever activities are going to be fun for you to engage with your children.
GRAPHICS SLIDE:

Video fades to text:

Logo of the NIH/Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

For more information, visit www.nichd.nih.gov
Instrumental music plays in the background.
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Early Learning: Other FAQs

Basic information for topics, such as “What is it?” and “Why is it important?” is available in the Topic Information section. In addition, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) that are specific to a certain topic are answered in this section.

Where can I find information about early educational programs for my child?

Individual states offer different early education programs and resources. The website and contact information for the department of education in each state is accessible through this directory on the U.S. Department of Education website.

What is “school readiness”?

School readiness refers to having the skills, knowledge, abilities, and attitudes needed for success in school and for later learning and life.
School readiness includes:

  • The child’s ability to meet milestones appropriate for their stage of development, including motor skills, language development, and general knowledge; their curiosity and enthusiasm; and their ability to explore and try new things
  • The environment provided by the school, including high-quality instruction, leadership, appropriate teacher training, and support of relationships with parents and the community
  • Appropriate support from the child’s family and community, such as daily learning opportunities and supporting the child’s mental and physical health

More information about school readiness and resources for helping your child are available on the Head Start website.1,2

Citations

  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Administration for Children and Families Early Learning & Knowledge Center. (2015). What is school readiness? Retrieved February 2, 2015, from https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/hs/sr
  2. High, P. C.; American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care and Council on School Health. (2008). School readiness. Pediatrics, 121(4), e1008–e1015.

Early Learning: Research Goals

Some NICHD research goals related to early learning include (but are not limited to):

  • Learning about behavioral and cognitive development at the molecular, cellular, and brain system levels
  • Understanding how these mechanisms interact with environmental factors
  • Pinpointing important periods for perception, learning, memory, language, and reasoning
  • Examining the effects of media and technology on brain development (for example, as seen through the developing central nervous system, learning, problem solving, social interaction, and communication)
  • Identifying how emerging technologies can be used to prevent, lessen, or treat a range of learning and developmental conditions
  • Learning how early interactions with family members, adult caretakers, teachers, and peers in early care and education settings support learning and school readiness in children from diverse backgrounds and environments
  • Developing interventions for at-risk infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children that promote early learning and school readiness skills and abilities
  • Perfecting methods for measuring early learning and school readiness skills in diverse populations of children and measures of home, child care, and preschool environments, and practices related to child learning and development
  • Assessing the effectiveness of training strategies for people involved in the care and education of young children

Early Learning: Research Activities and Scientific Advances

Through its intramural and extramural organizational units, the NICHD supports and conducts a broad range of research projects on early learning and childhood education. Short descriptions of this research are included below.

Institute Activities and Advances

Several NICHD organizational units support and conduct research on early learning, childhood education, and their long-term effects. Although the following areas are central to early learning and education research at NICHD, many NICHD organizational units conduct research that is relevant to early learning and education, including research on subjects like brain development or the effects of early-life exposures on cognitive processes.

The Childhood Development and Behavior Branch (CDBB), within the Division of Extramural Research (DER), develops scientific initiatives and supports research and research training relevant to the psychological, psychobiological, language, behavioral, and educational development and health of children.

In particular, the CDBB Early Learning and School Readiness Program supports basic and translational developmental research that attempts to specify the experiences children need from birth to age 8 to prepare them for a successful transition to school entry and later achievement. The program also supports long-term follow-up studies that quantify the long-term impact of early intervention programs. Studies have examined:

CDBB has other programs that support early learning research. Visit the CDBB Programs and Program Areas page for more information.

The Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Branch within DER sponsors research and research training aimed at understanding differences in early learning in children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as interventions to promote early learning.

Other DER components study various aspects of early learning within certain contexts. For example, research in the Maternal and Pediatric Infectious Diseases Branch examines cognitive effects of childhood HIV infection/treatment and early exposure to HIV or HIV drugs.

In addition, the Pediatric Growth and Nutrition Branch supports research on the role of nutrition in learning and development. The Pregnancy and Perinatology Branch explores aspects of early learning for infants born preterm or at low birth weight and to those exposed to different environments and factors in the womb. The Population Dynamics Branch examines how features such as multi-generational home or immigration status influence early learning outcomes.

In the Division of Intramural Research, the Child and Family Research Section investigates dispositional, experiential, and environmental factors that contribute to physical, mental, emotional, and social development in infants, children, and adolescents.

Other Activities and Advances

  • Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE)
    The ACE program is a trans-NIH initiative that supports large-scale multidisciplinary studies on autism spectrum disorders, with the goal of determining the disorders’ causes and the best treatments for them.
  • Cincinnati MR Imaging of Neurodevelopment (C-MIND) External Web Site Policy
    A collaboration between NICHD and the C-MIND study allows researchers to investigate brain development in children from infancy through adolescence. C-MIND allows exploration of developmental changes in brain anatomy, structural and functional connectivity, neurovascular coupling/reactivity and the interaction of brain development and cognitive changes during childhood. Researchers affiliated with the project gave an overview of C-MIND approaches and findings in the summer of 2015.
  • Databrary External Web Site Policy
    The CDDB supports this open data library, housing video and audio materials and free tools for coding and analysis, for use by the developmental research community.
  • DS Connect: The Down Syndrome Registry
    This registry links those seeking volunteers for their research studies with those who most stand to benefit from the research.
  • Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Consortium
    The consortium supports researchers whose goals are to advance understanding of a variety of conditions and topics related to intellectual and developmental disabilities.
  • Learning Disabilities Research Center Consortium
    The consortium was established in 1989 as a primary means for developing knowledge on the causes, origins, and developmental course of learning disabilities.
  • Learning Disabilities Innovation Hubs
    The hubs, initiated in 2012, aim to address the causes, symptoms, and treatments of learning disabilities that impact reading, writing, and mathematics.
  • NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD)
    The SECCYD, launched in 1991, was a comprehensive longitudinal study initiated to answer questions about the relationships between child care experiences, child care characteristics, and children’s developmental outcomes. Although funding ended in 2009, researchers continue to analyze data from the study.

Early Learning: Resources for Parents

Early Learning: Resources for Researchers and Educators

NICHD Resources

Other Resources

Please note: Links to organizations and information included on this page do not indicate endorsement from the NICHD, NIH, or HHS.

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