U.S. Kids Are Falling behind Global Competition, but Brain Science Shows How to Catch Up

By Lydia Denworth | June 1, 2022 | Scientific American | Topics: Parenting and Family

By Lydia Denworth & Dana Suskind

On vital measures that predict later success in school and life, small children in the U.S. do worse than kids in comparable countries. This distressing information comes from an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study of five-year-olds. For years the OECD has been examining the academic achievement of 15-year-old students from around the world, and recently it extended this work to the younger group. On average, American children had lower literacy and numeracy scores, poorer self-regulation skills, and engaged in fewer acts of cooperation, kindness and other prosocial behaviors than did children in England and Estonia, the other countries studied. Just about the only bright spot was that U.S. children were roughly equivalent to their international peers on some—but not all—social-emotional measures.

These findings did not get the attention they deserved, because they were announced in March 2020, a few days after the World Health Organization declared that COVID had become a pandemic. But they did not come as a surprise—other recent research has shown that about half of American children are not “on track” in at least one critical area of school readiness. Because the OECD report looked at kids who were just starting school, it was a powerful reminder that we have lost sight of something basic: Learning begins on the first day of life—and not the first day of class. The earliest years of a child’s life are full of opportunity. A child’s brain will never be more receptive to experience, more plastic, than it is during this pivotal time. Nearly 85 percent of brain growth occurs between birth and the age of three. During this period one million neural connections per second are formed.

Two decades of child development research tell us that small kids need two things above all else to get off to the best possible start: nurturing interaction with caregivers and protection from toxic stress. Over the past five years a new wave of neuroscientific studies, highlighting the neurobiological effects of early experience, has strongly pointed toward ways of accomplishing these goals. Such research provides an early peek at what is happening in young children’s brains. The studies show that environments and relationships we know benefit development are also associated with higher levels of activation and connectivity in parts of the brain that underpin language and cognitive development.

One of us (Suskind) is a pediatric physician and early-learning researcher who has been tracking the way emerging science on brain development can inform not just what we do as parents but as a society. For instance, paid leave gives parents time to develop nurturing relationships. Child allowances and tax credits can alleviate the poverty known to be detrimental to development. When parents work outside the home, as a considerable majority of American mothers and fathers must, access to quality child care provides young children with responsive, engaged caregivers.

Yet there is a disconnect between what science tells us children need and what we as a society do to help them. The U.S. is the only developed country in the world that does not mandate paid leave for a parent after childbirth. In 2020 four in 10 children in the U.S. had families who were struggling to afford basic necessities. Congress just allowed an expanded child tax credit to lapse—a credit that helped millions of families weather the pandemic and had dramatically cut the number of poor children. Further, approximately half of Americans live in so-called child care deserts, where there aren’t nearly enough facilities or caregivers, and fewer than 10 percent of existing child care programs are considered high quality. The pandemic highlighted these gaps. Like a powerful earthquake with lingering aftershocks, it showed just how shaky our nation’s support for parents and their children really is.

The science of brain development is rarely part of any public discussion of ways to fix these gaps. But it should be at the center of that conversation because it lays out a road map to improve national and local policies that can make children’s lives much better.