Heidelberg 2019

November 25, 2019

Why Early Childhood Development Matters

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“By age 3 we know about 50% of what we will eventually know as an adult,” said Prof. Charlie Trautmann, psychology.

Trautmann is a part of the Early Childhood Development Project led by Prof. John Hopcroft, IBM Professor of Engineering and Applied Mathematics, whose aim is to better the standard of early childhood care across the United States.

The project focuses primarily on translating existing research on early childhood development and making it accessible to those who most need it — parents, caregivers and policymakers.

According to Hopcroft, the importance of early childhood brain development is often underestimated by adults. In fact, the first few years of a child’s life encapsulate important milestones in learning and brain development.

To illustrate this, Trautmann proposed two analogies: “At age 1, children learn how to walk, and walking is an incredibly complex task. For an engineer to create a machine that walks is one of the most difficult tasks out there, and we just learn it instinctively in one year.”

“We’re learning to talk at age 2, think of trying to create an artificial intelligence machine that can listen and respond and it’s a very difficult task, and children instinctively learn it in the first two year of life, and many of them speak multiple languages,” he continued.

Hopcroft said there has been “tremendous” research done on early childhood development in the 25 years, but most of them are “hard to read” because of their dense vernacular. The problem in this, Trautmann said, is that there is a disconnect in the communication of the research to parents and the public.

“I would like to see a level playing field for all children,” Hopcroft said, adding that his ultimate goal is to “educate the general population of the importance of early childhood so that maybe eventually sometime our nation will fund quality childcare.”

Hopcroft noted that the U.S. is far behind other nations in investment in early childhood, citing both China and Scandinavia as regions that have seen success in educating and funding programs for early childhood. He said that early childhood is not just important on an individual level but should be a matter of national importance.

“The leading nations are not going to be the ones that have energy and material resources, which is what it was in the past. In the future, it’s going to be talent, and if we don’t start to focus on the talent of all of our children, we aren’t going to be the leading nation,” Hopcroft said.

In order to move forward with the goal of educating the public and influencing policy, Hopcroft said there needs to be a “marketing plan” for the importance of early childhood development.

In pursuit of this goal, Hopcroft has partnered with the Cornell Consulting Group, a student-run organization that provides strategic consulting services. Members of CCG were brought in to “treat the project as if [we] were marketing a product,” said project leader Haley Mathews ’21.

Mathews said the team is looking at creating a social marketing campaign aimed at specific issues in early childhood education.

CCG’s end goal is “to recommend some concrete steps [to] take to create greater awareness for the constituent base so in the future policy changes can be made,” Mathews said.

The Childhood Development Project began just two years ago, but Hopcroft sees it lasting as a decade-long initiative.

“I hope that, at some point, our nation will have early childhood care for everybody,” Hopcroft said.