Biological, psychological, linguistic, sociological and economic perspectives
(2014, 116 pages, ISBN: 978-3-8047-3295-7)
Neurobiology, psychology, linguistics, sociology and economics are consistent in showing how early childhood experiences have a long-term influence on a person’s later developmental trajectory. The effects of these early experiences – both positive and negative – can be traced into adult life. There are two reasons for this:
(1) Hereditary predispositions and environmental influences always work in tandem to determine the structure and workings of the nervous system – and thus both behaviour and experience. Neither the structures of the nervous system nor behavioural traits develop automatically: instead, “compatible” environmental influences are required for predispositions to manifest themselves. The reverse is also true: favourable environments can positively influence development only in cases where susceptible hereditary predispositions are available. This close interaction between genetic makeup and environment applies throughout life, yet especially in early childhood.
(2) In early childhood, critical and sensitive periods exist, in which the individual must make certain environmental experiences. Only then can key structures within the nervous system and associated behavioural patterns develop to their full capacity. If these critical phases are not fulfilled by the necessary environmental influences, neuronal development remains incomplete and certain types of behaviour can be acquired only to a limited extent – or not at all. Such deficits are irreversible. They accompany a person throughout life, and even when specifically targeted by training in later life can rarely be en tirely compensated for and are sometimes intractable.
Seen from the perspective of lifelong development, funding early childhood education is thus a particularly advisable strategy. While this applies to the development of all children, it is particularly relevant for children who are born with sensory impairments or raised in disadvantaged environments (precarious familial circumstances, insufficient childcare, poorly educated parents, etc.). Such radically unfavourable environmental conditions must be recognised early on, since compensatory programmes must act at an early stage and thus before the end of sensitive phases.
Investment in high-quality educational and childcare programmes in early childhood is especially profitable both for the individual and for society at large, since it ensures favourable conditions for further developmental steps. Such funding should thus be secured and expanded over the long term.
While recent research findings attach particular importance to early childhood educational programmes, one should not overlook the need for later educational programmes catering to adolescents and young adults. Since subsequent experiences always build on earlier ones, however, the effectiveness of later investments will depend on the favourable conditions achieved by earlier educational programmes.
Since genetic makeup and environmental factors are inextricably in-tertwined, genetic dispositions must be actively addressed and fostered in all children. This does not apply solely to children from less favourable environments: children from favourable backgrounds also need encouragement and active support appropriate to their predispositions. Only in this way can the intellectual and social resources available within a society develop to their fullest potential.
Head of Department Science – Policy – Society, Head of Berlin Office
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