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Laying the Groundwork for School Readiness With Infants and Toddlers—OPRE Report: Developmental Foun

When we talk about school readiness, we often focus on preschool children who are getting ready for the transition to kindergarten. However, is preschool early enough? A new report from the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation (OPRE), Administration for Children and Families, shares a review of the research on the developmental foundations of school readiness during the first 3 years of life. The research suggests that the groundwork for school readiness actually begins with infants and toddlers.

This review offers exciting insight into the opportunities for setting children on a path toward positive school success as early as their first years of life. Below is a summary of the findings in five key domains.

  1. Perceptual, Motor, and Physical Development: This domain involves growth and change in weight and height, motor skills, perceptual development, brain development, and physical well-being and general health. In the 1st year of life, infants typically triple their birth weight; by the 2nd year, they tend to quadruple their birth weight. Although each child will develop at his or her own rate, monitoring growth in infants and toddlers can highlight concerns at a time when early intervention might remedy or reduce the impact on later development and learning. Physical development, which includes brain development, is largely shaped by early interactions and environmental factors. Harmful environments, such as abuse and neglect, living in poverty, or food insecurity, can hinder children’s positive development, but supportive environments can promote children’s positive development.

  1. Social and Emotional Development: This domain involves temperament, emotional and behavioral regulation, attachment, and friendship. Temperament is seen as a piece of a child’s “personality.” It shapes the way that children approach the world, influencing their relationships, experiences, and sensitivity to the environment. Another core component of social and emotional development is children’s ability to regulate their emotions and behavior, a key ingredient in school readiness. The report also discusses how infants and toddlers’ early attachment to their caregivers provides the foundation for future friendships. The development of friendships, or the ability to get along with peers, is central to preparing children for kindergarten and beyond.

  1. Approaches to Learning: This domain involves both social and cognitive developmental skills related to how children engage with learning activities, with a focus on interest and persistence in infancy and toddlerhood. A child’s approach toward learning shapes the opportunities that he or she has to learn. Research also shows that parents can play a key role in supporting and enhancing infants and toddlers’ interest and persistence.

  1. Language and Communication: This domain involves early communication efforts, receptive and expressive language abilities, joint attention, language environments, and individual variation in language development. Looking, crying, and babbling are all early forms of communication and are the stepping stones to later language abilities. Understanding (receptive language) comes before speaking (expressive language), but the size of a child’s vocabulary by age 2 has been linked to later language development and school readiness. It is important to keep in mind that there are vast differences in how children develop language, particularly children who are learning more than one language. Early childhood language specialists tend to be more concerned when a child experiences delays in both receptive and expressive languages.

  1. Cognition: This domain involves information-processing mechanisms, such as attention, memory, and categorization; imitation; and pretend play. Children are able to build their language abilities in large part due to changes in their underlying cognitive abilities or information-processing mechanisms. Children’s increased ability to attend to stimuli in the environment (attention), remember what they’ve seen and heard (memory), and categorize their memories (categorization) allows for the growth of their language abilities. These information-processing mechanisms (i.e., attention, memory, categorization) lay the foundation for higher order cognitive skills to develop, highlighting the relationships across domains of development.

Guiding Developmental Principles

The authors also outline some guiding developmental principles based on research and theory to help understand the link between infant and toddler development and school readiness:

  • Children are active participants in shaping their own development.

  • Relationships and experiences are the primary ways that development occurs.

  • Development is complex and transactional.

  • Development and learning occur in multiple systems and contexts, including the family, early care and education programs, and the broader culture.

  • All areas of development are interrelated.

  • There are vast individual differences in the rates of development among children.

  • Birth to age 3 is a distinct developmental period that serves as the foundation for later development.

These are just a few highlights from the new report. To learn more about how programs can inform their practices and policies to support the school readiness of infants and toddlers, visit this OPRE Web page to find the full report.

Material for the summary above was extracted from: Horm D, Norris D, Perry D, Chazan-Cohen R, and Halle T. (2016). Developmental Foundations of School Readiness for Infants and Toddlers: A Research to Practice Report. OPRE Report #2016-07. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation; Administration for Children and Families; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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