Learning Leader

Birth to Three: Building the Foundation for Learning

We often think of children beginning to "learn" as they enter preschool—they learn letters, numbers, shapes, and countless new words. We think of it as a time of tremendous growth and development, as children become more articulate, demonstrate more self-control, become more curious and independent. While this is true, it is also true that development of the 4-year-old's brain is actually beginning to slow down; we now know that 80% of brain development occurs in the first three years of life. The learning that begins in preschool is based on a foundation for which construction began the moment they were born, perhaps even sooner.

This foundation is built through supporting emerging brain connections that are rapidly changing in the first three years. Healthy and stimulating experiences that begin at birth and continue through early childhood result in brain architecture that operates at its full genetic potential. This plasticity, or the brain’s capacity to adapt, decreases with age. A weak foundation can have detrimental effects on further brain development even if a healthy environment is restored.

We have extensive research that demonstrates learning delays start to form very early in life. For example, gaps in verbal language abilities (i.e., vocabulary and language processing skills) between children from families at lower and higher socioeconomic statuses (SES) can be detected as early as 18 months of age, and by 24 months of age children from lower SES families are already 6-months behind their higher SES peers. This is a full two years before most at-risk children enter prekindergarten, if they do so at all.

Despite the tremendous gains we’ve made in improving preschool environments, we would be remiss to ignore the clear evidence that the key to making dramatic gains in school success for at-risk children is to begin at birth. Research shows clearly that there is a low ceiling on what we can accomplish at ages 3 to 5 without work at birth to 3. 


Given what we know about the importance of the birth to three window, how can we best support children during their most vulnerable years? The answer lies in improving the interactions between caregiver and child. Known as “responsiveness,” this interaction style places high priority on attending to children’s signals or the ways they communicate, facilitating their understanding and practice of language, and building strong emotional connections with caregivers. Not only has responsiveness been shown to support and capitalize on the brain’s growth and plasticity in the first three years, but in the worst cases, a lack of responsiveness can be devastating to brain development, setting the child on a track for significant developmental delays and academic failure.

Center-based interventions, in which infant and toddler teachers are trained in responsive strategies, are key to improving outcomes for at-risk children. But, given how many children spend their time equally with caregivers both at home and in a center-based setting, supporting parents and families in using the same strategies is an obvious way to maximize the impact of responsive approaches.  

So, how can we design a coordinated approach that involves both families and teachers? Drs. Ursula Johnson and Beth Van Horne of the Children’s Learning Institute are doing just that.

Funded by the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, the Supporting Sprouts study is in the second year of a 5-year project to raise the quality of responsive caregiving behaviors in both teachers and parents of children through a coordinated intervention approach. To do this, Drs. Johnson and Van Horne are using interactive online courses and remote, video-based coaches who provide one-to-one mentoring to both coaches and parents. Fifty-five Early Head Start classroom teachers and 330 families will participate in the project, in partnership with Early Head Start agencies such as AVANCE Houston, Neighborhood Centers Inc., and Gulf Coast Community Action Association. The researchers will compare caregivers in intervention vs. control groups, analyzing changes in teacher and parent behavior. If the project is successful in changing adult behaviors to better support child development, the team will develop a sustainability kit to guide future center-based programs and childcare centers in implementing similar programs.


In addition to our research, CLI is advancing birth to three quality through a comprehensive effort to close the resources gap for caregivers of infants and toddlers. These resources include online professional development courses that train caregivers in early language, literacy, social-emotional, cognitive, and physical development in children. The courses tackle the topics of quality caregiving from multiple angles, including child development theories, tracking child behaviors at each stage of development, videos of national experts answering commonly asked questions, and an in depth look at highly specific adult behaviors that help children grow and learn. A collection of activities complements the courses by giving teachers concrete ideas for play-based learning in the classroom, as well as home activities for families. Finally, developmental screeners and a video series on the importance of screening and early intervention provide easy-to-use tools to track developmental and watch for red flags of developmental delay.

You can check out the first course in the series, Talk with Me: Promoting Early Language Development, as well as over 40 activities, at cliengage.org. All the resources are freely accessible to the public through the “sign up” button.


visit ChildrensLearningInstitute.org



Children's Learning Institute at UTHealth
7000 Fannin, Suite 2300, Houston, TX 77030

© 2015-present The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
All rights reserved.