Educators have long been aware of the effects of poverty, chronic stress, and malnutrition on their students, but until recently there wasn’t a scientific explanation for how early circumstances shape a child’s development. The new field of epigenetics is changing that.
Genes are commonly thought of as a fixed, inherited code that spells out who we will become, but scientists are discovering that the truth is far more complicated. Research shows that the environmental factors, experiences, and relationships we’re exposed to early in life can have long-lasting repercussions.
Each baby is born with approximately 23,0000 genes, but the experiences of each child determine how these genes are expressed.
For an overview of how early experiences alter gene expression from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, click on the screen shot below.
The fact that genes are vulnerable to modification in response to toxic stress, nutritional problems, and other negative influences underscores the importance of providing supportive and nurturing experiences for young children in the earliest years, when brain development is most rapid. From a policy perspective, it is in society’s interest to strengthen the foundations of healthy brain architecture in all young children to maximize the return on future investments in education, health, and workforce development.
Communities and policymakers need to look to these scientific findings to create policies that better support children and pregnant women. The working paper is an easy-to-read, seven page document that provides a good overview of the issue. Please share it with your colleagues and anyone you know interested in child development and improving outcomes for children in need.
The paper concludes
Greater understanding of how toxic stress, poor nutrition, and toxic chemical and drug exposures can increase lifelong risks for physical and mental health impairments by changing the chemistry of our children’s DNA would provide a powerful foundation for more effective public action to address the needs of young children—and all of society—for generations to come.