China is not the only nation grappling with policies affecting families with infants and young children. Here in the USA, policymakers and parents alike are wondering how to end disparities in access to high-quality childcare; a new report by the Economic Policy Institute documents that high-quality childcare has become inaccessible to low-income wage earners.
Closing the gap matters for several reasons. Most importantly, without access to high-quality childcare, infants and toddlers from low-income families face increasingly steep developmental challenges.
In many low-income homes, where parents must work multiple jobs and where childcare alternatives rich in language exposure are well beyond economic reach, young children may hear up to 30 million fewer words than their more advantaged peers. When they enter preschool, these children are already at a disadvantage.
This "word gap" is not a fleeting or isolated phenomenon. Instead, it is associated with a cascade of deleterious consequences that serve as barriers to a child's opportunity to learn, both in and outside the classroom. Ann Fernald, professor of psychology at Stanford University, and her colleagues found that toddlers who had the benefit of rich language exposure processed language more efficiently than those whose exposure to language was sparser. Sadly, this gap became grew wider with age: 24-month-olds from low-income homes processed language at the rate observed in 18-month-olds from middle-income homes.
Because the number of words in a young child's vocabulary is highly correlated with that child's later academic achievement, many programs have been designed for preschool-aged children, with the express goal of filling the gap by teaching them more words.
This approach may seem heartening at first, but because the word gap takes root in infancy, it would be far more effective to begin such interventions in the first two years of life.
Moreover, the power of language does not come from the sheer number of words a child understands, but from its connections to thinking and learning. Amazingly, infants begin to forge these links between language and thinking in the first months of life. From the moment they are born, infants are captivated by language. They prefer listening to language over virtually any other sound. Neural evidence shows a parallel effect: infants' brains respond differently to language than to other sounds.
But even in the first months of life, infants' enchantment with language is helping them in other ways. At the Project on Child Development at Northwestern University, my team and I recently discovered that for infants as young as three months of age, just listening to language boosts their learning in a cognitive task. This is striking. It means that long before infants understand a single word or manage to roll over in their cribs, listening to language serves as an open invitation to link language to the world that surrounds them.
We also discovered another way that listening to language boosts learning. Even before they reach their second birthdays, toddlers use the few words that they do know to discover the meanings of new ones that they hear in the conversations around them. Their spontaneous use of context clues tells us that toddlers, who have yet to master the challenge of getting their shoes on the right feet, nonetheless process language efficiently enough, in real time, to use language as a conduit for new learning.
Clearly, links between language and thinking, forged in infancy, have profound consequences for subsequent learning. But this gateway is more open and accessible for some infants than others.
Must we wait until preschool to open this gateway to low-income children? The answer is "no."
We have strong models for successful interventions that begin in the first years. Evidence-based research tells us that although any single element of intervention is unlikely on its own to be sufficient to close even the earliest gaps, more comprehensive programs that integrate a suite of services, including high-quality, center-based early childcare, home visiting programs, and access to prenatal and pediatric health care, offer more promise.
But is it too much to ask young low-income families, whose time and resources are already stretched so thin, to participate in such comprehensive programs? Again, the answer is "no."
Parents are eager for opportunities like these. It is not unusual to find long waiting lists for entrance into programs like Early Head Start, a federal program initiated in 1995 to serve low-income pregnant women and families with infants and toddlers.
We need policies that increase the number of people with access to the most promising programs. This means funding both the programs with the highest promise for strong, long-lasting impact and the rigorous research required to evaluate the evidence.
This will take money. But James Heckman, Nobel Prize winner in economics, reminds us that investments we make in our nation's infants and young children offer rates of return that far exceed those made on investments initiated later in adolescence and early adulthood. Perhaps more importantly, investments that begin at the beginning, from ages zero to three, will have a far-reaching impact, guiding the path toward reducing the pernicious gaps that perpetuate the widening economic, social, and academic disparities in our nation.