Sensitive Windows of Neurological Development

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Missing Sensitive Periods: Burden Kids Carry, Increased Challenge, and Increased Financial Cost

The one thing we know about plasticity, which is the capacity to adjust and adapt, is it’s greatest when the brain is immature, and it is less as the brain becomes more mature.

Getting things right the first time is better than trying to fix them later when they weren’t right the first time, trying to adapt to something that was not developed in the best way at the time when it was supposed to be developed. So, the sobering message here is that if children don’t have the right experiences during these sensitive periods, for the development of a variety of skills including many cognitive and language capacities, the sobering news is that that’s a burden that those kids are going to carry. The sensitive period is over, and it’s going to be harder for them. Their architecture is not as well developed in their brain as it would have been if they had had the right experiences during the sensitive period. That’s the sobering message.

But there’s also a hopeful message.., the sensitive period says, “It’s not too late to try to remediate, and you can develop good, healthy, normal competencies in many areas, even if your earlier wiring was somewhat faulty.”But it’s harder. It costs more in energy costs to the brain. The brain has to work at adapting to kind of earlier circuits that were not laid down the way they should have been. And from a society’s point of view, it costs more in terms of more expensive programming, more specialized help. So I think the best way to think about this is to say that prevention is better than treatment, and earlier is better than later, but it’s never too late, in most cases, to get kids back on track. 

Jack P. Shonkoff, Dean of The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University – Chair, Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development for theInstitute of Medicine and the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences – Co-editor, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development.Source: 

What’s Going in There

We know from 50 years of research in neuroscience that an infant’s experience can have permanent effects on the wiring of the brain. What we are learning through neuroscience is that each different part of the brain carries on a different cognitive function, whether it’s perception, movement, emotion, language or memory. Each has a different developmental time table, and along with that different critical periods.

James J. Heckman, (Nobel Laureate) University of Chicago, American Bar Foundation and University College London and Dimitriy V. Masterov, University of Chicago. Source:   (see also COTC interview: )

The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children

An accumulating body of evidence shows that early childhood interventions are more effective than interventions that come later in life. Remedying early disadvantages at later ages is costly, and often prohibitively so. This is because of the dynamic nature of the human skill formation process. Skill begets skill; learning begets learning. Early disadvantage, if left untouched, leads to academic and social difficulties in later years. Advantages accumulate; so do disadvantages.

G. Reid Lyon and Vinita Chhabra, Educational Leadership March 2004 | Volume 61 | Number 6. Source:

The Science of Reading Research

Substantial research carried out and supported by NICHD indicates clearly that without this systematic and intensive approach to early intervention, the majority of at-risk readers rarely catch upFailure to read by 9 years of age portends a lifetime of illiteracy for at least 70 percent of struggling readers (Shaywitz, 2003).

NICHD-supported research has also found that older struggling readers can indeed develop strong reading capabilities under the right instructional conditions (Lyon, 2002). However, successful remediation of reading problems among older students requires extensive, intensive instruction (see Torgesen, 2002b).

G. Reid Lyon and Vinita Chhabra, Educational Leadership March 2004 | Volume 61 | Number 6. Source:

Facilitating Language Development

The NICHD study concludes that children in high-quality child care environments have a larger vocabulary and more complex language skills than their peers in lower-quality care. These findings are especially significant for at-risk and underserved children.

Additionally, recent research on early brain development indicates that a child’s capacity to learn is increased through language-based interactions. In fact, in the first few years of life the brain starts to build a network of connections, or synapses. During this time, the infant’s brain is setting the building blocks for future learning. These stages of development are sometimes referred to as sensitive periods, when learning is easier. Language development, for example, is acquired much more quickly in the first 5 years of life. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association, authors of Caring for Our Children – National Health and Safety Performance Standards: Guidelines for Out-of-Home Child Care Programs, agree “Richness of language increases as it is nurtured by verbal interaction of the child with adults and peers.” 

Donna Rafanello, with contributions by Chet Johnson – Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Remediation Cost is Seven to Eight Times as Much in Time and Money

I can tell you that for those children who need remediation, if children do not have reading fluency by the end of third grade, it’s going to cost seven to eight times as much in time and in money to address their reading problems and get them up to grade level in reading.

Hundreds of Billions of Dollars

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education, a substantial portion of the Department’s discretionary budget, which is roughly fifty-three billion dollars a year, is spent on problems that are related to reading.

Title I, which is our single largest grant program, which is a grant program for schools that serve children from low income backgrounds, is a grant program that is focused primarily on the problems of low academic achievement, and reading is at the core of academic achievement.

The federal budget is only about eight percent of the national expenditure on K-12 education. And so, if one imagines that simply in terms of elementary and secondary education, states and localities are spending in like kind for issues related to reading, then the cost just in terms of primary education becomes substantial.

Yes, absolutely. No question that the price tag is hundreds of billions of dollars; both to support the normal acquisition of reading and certainly to deal with the consequences of reading failure.