Thriving in the 21st century: the new science of early childhood (2024)

A provocation paper

Kathy Sylva, Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology; Emeritus Fellow of Jesus College, University of Oxford

Thriving in the 21st century: the new science of early childhood (2)

In the 21st century a new vision of children and childhood has been forged, based largely on the neuro-sciences. This new vision, however, cannot be the sole guide for government policies because it describes the ‘biological’ child much better than the ‘social’ one. What we need is a broader theory to describe the forces that shape the child’s development and specify physical and social supports that enable the child to thrive.

At the turn of this century a powerful bio-developmental framework burst upon the scientific world, followed quickly by an explosion of media interest that filtered down to parents and local communities. The new framework brought together advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, genomics and the behavioural and social sciences in order to chart the causal pathways to healthy or deviant development in children. At Harvard Jack Shonkoff boldly claimed ‘We now know that genes provide the initial blueprint for building brain architecture, environmental influences affect how the neural circuitry actually gets wired, and reciprocal interactions among genetic predispositions and early experiences affect the extent to which the foundations of learning, behaviour, and both physical and mental health will be strong or weak’.[i]

The framework laid out the causes of development while at the same time outlining policies and practices that governments could follow to assure healthy development. The developmental scientists were optimistic that their new and integrative science would create a blueprint for policies and that smooth implementation of these policies would lay the foundation for ‘responsible citizenship, economic prosperity, healthy communities, and successful parenting of the next generation’.[ii]

Michael Rutter asked the right question in 1981: ‘Why do some children rise above environmental challenges to thrive while others falter in the face of adversity?’[iii] Rutter went on to study children who developed resilience in the face of adversity and contrasted them with those who succumbed to vulnerability. He found that there is a strong genetic component to resilience but that the environment mattered too: whether or not the genetic pattern associated with vulnerability actually leads to poor outcomes depends on the way inherited genetic patterns interact with specific environmental risks or protectors encountered by the child and at specific time-points.[iv] Thus, life outcomes are influenced by a dynamic interplay between specific genes and specific physical or social risks/advantages. Rutter also identified the buffering effects of ‘protectors’. These can be found within the individual child, such as a positive temperament, or within the environment such as a sensitive, caring parent. Rutter’s model of risk and resilience emphasised the importance of reciprocal child-adult interactions during development, pointing towards the vital role of enduring relationships.

But this framework is an oversimplification. Too often this new model of early childhood neglects the importance of the political or cultural environment in which the child lives. This theory, and the policies which flow from it such as the government’s plethora of parenting programmes, fails to acknowledge powerful economic forces that influence family behaviour. Take parenting as an example. The developmental sciences put great store on consistent parenting. Research suggests that parents who set a regular bedtime or insist on teenagers informing parents of their whereabouts will have responsible and high achieving children. But consider how easy is this for a parent of three children between two and twelve who share one room. Setting limits under these circ*mstances is not only difficult, it is but one ‘parenting skill’ that needs to be mastered within the context of unsuitable housing in an un-safe neighbourhood.

Rutter discovered individual differences in the ways children respond to environmental risks; what was not known was what underpinned these differences. Biological science suggested that the foundations of both healthy and deviant development could be found among ‘biological memories’ that are created in the earliest years of life and lead the brain to ‘expect’ certain regularities. These patterns were manifested within the circuitry of the developing brain as well as the physiological systems that control the way the young child adapts to the environment, the child’s immunological responsiveness, metabolic and neuroendocrine regulation, and cardiovascular health. This means that the child ‘reads’ the characteristics of its environment and then develops ‘expectations’ of what is likely to happen in the future. If early experiences are characterised by threat, neglect, uncertainty or abuse, stress management systems go into over-drive and heightened awareness of threat leads to greater vulnerability in the child. Scientists coined the term ‘toxic stress’ to refer to strong, frequent and prolonged activity of the body’s stress-response system in the absence of buffering support from adults. This disrupts brain architecture and adversely affects other organs. Though toxic stress is rare, lower levels of stress can lead to milder, but nonetheless dysfunctional, responses to future stresses.

Central to the new developmental science was the role of the family in shaping the developing intellect, motivation and social dispositions. Research on the effects of stress on child development led to theories of change, specifying pathways whereby supportive environments, especially in the family, could ‘buffer’ the child from the stresses of adversity or ‘steel’ the child so that development was protected from poverty, neglect or social upheaval. In other words, it was believed that good parenting would lead to the development of resilient children through the protective shield of nutritious diet, warm and responsive interactions, and effective behaviour management techniques.

Parents shape the development of their children. If they engage often in language rich interactions with their children, especially around book reading, their children are more likely to become competent readers. Recent research has shown that ‘reminiscing’ amongst parents and children about family members and events makes a special contribution to children’s development. This ‘shared history’ makes possible the building of bridges between the here-and-now of the family home and the world outside including the past and even the imagined future. Conversing about family history exposes children to new vocabulary but also to exciting worlds that cannot be seen. Compared to their more advantaged peers, children from families with incomes in the bottom quartile hear about one third the number of words and talk much less about unseen or abstract things. Children thrive on conversations where they take their own turns in conversational partnerships. A recent and innovative study found that children who participated in more conversational turn-taking during their early years developed superior neural processing capacities for language when they were of school age.[v]

What does this theory, with its deep roots in the health and biological sciences, tell us about ways to configure services to support families? It tells us what a good parent does, but it is far less clear about effective ways to support families — especially those struggling in poverty — to become a ‘positive’ parent. Loosely based on developmental science, Sure Start Children’s Centres were created in the early 2000s to provide a ‘one stop shop’ for parents living in poor neighbourhoods. They offered advice, support for breast feeding or child behaviour, groups for parents to share their problems, and outreach into the homes of young mothers feeling isolated. The Government’s evaluation showed that Children’s Centres were effective at reducing parental stress and improving parental support for home learning.[vi] Austerity has led to many closures, but Centres remain in the poorest neighbourhoods, an effective means to support parents in their parenting role. Their effects, however, are small when compared to the powerful and adverse effects of poverty and the culture of low expectations.

A recent book by Eisenstadt and Oppenheim[vii] praises the work of Children’s Centres but argues that parenting programmes on their own will not enable parents of highly disadvantaged children to develop the cognitive skills, self-regulatory ability or emotional dispositions to succeed in life. They note ‘Some politicians and commentators have come to believe that any parent can produce happy productive offspring if only they try hard enough’. They cite research demonstrating that sheer lack of money — over and above low qualification levels and job status — can lead to mental health problems and poor relationships among the parents, problems that a twelve-week parenting course cannot solve. Their book makes a strong argument that parenting courses are misplaced if they do not face up to the wider challenges that poor parents must overcome.

Although there is no doubt that families have the strongest influence on children, they are difficult to change and are only one part of the environmental context of development. Another supportive environment for the developing child is the nursery or playgroup. Countless studies from around the world show that children who attend early childhood education (ECE) make a stronger start to school, go on to higher educational attainment and eventually to better jobs compared to children with no nursery experience. This is now widely known and accepted. What is not accepted, at least in policy circles, is that only high-quality early education, with well trained teachers and a challenging pedagogy, can give poor children the skills they need. There is a battle raging over ECE with the government focusing its effort and funds for childcare so parents can work, while ECE scholars argue forcefully that ECE ‘only works to promote development when quality is sufficiently high’. Supporting parental employment while also enhancing children’s development through high quality provision were compatible and achievable aims in the first decade of the century, although they came at a high cost. The cost may be worth it, however, because research has shown that the children who benefit most from high quality nurseries are those whose parents have the lowest levels of education or where English is not spoken at home.[viii]

Which skills and dispositions will children need to thrive in a world of internet connectedness, global markets and intense competition for resources? One aspect of child development shaped profoundly in family life is ‘executive function’, the capacity to remember information, focus attention, regulate emotion and think flexibly.

It is easy to see how enhanced vocabulary can be ‘taught’ by well-educated parents but how can parents support executive functions such as concentrating on tasks or thinking flexibly? Early executive function is shaped by parents in the home, especially by parental responsiveness in the context of warmth aligned with setting challenges. Executive function is part of a broader ability called self-regulation that includes the child’s capacity to choose tasks, plan ahead, and work in partnership with others to achieve goals.[ix] Ground-breaking research over the last decade has demonstrated predictive links between early self-regulation and later academic skills at secondary school and general well-being in adulthood.[x] Shuey and Kankaras[xi] point out that children who increase in self-regulation during the preschool years have better health outcomes in their thirties, perhaps through the link between self-regulation and healthy eating styles. Self-regulation may be the most important of 21st century skills; it is moulded by the family and the preschool early in life and is the engine of successful planning, coping and problem-solving[xii]. It has long been known that children’s earliest experiences shape the development of ‘hard’ skills like counting but we now know they shape ‘soft’ ones too such as self-regulation[xiii].

The bio-developmental theory of childhood charts the course of successful development and describes the environmental contexts that protect the child from adverse risks and promote self-regulated learning. The family, supplemented by early childhood education, has a key role to play. The policy challenge is to use this knowledge-base as the springboard for new ways of thinking about educational reform, workforce development, health promotion, protection of children from maltreatment, reduction in crime and violence, but above all, the alleviation of poverty. Supporting the ‘biological’ child with effective policies will require innovations in ways to conceptualise the ‘social’ and the ‘economic’ family. The neurosciences must join up with more social ones to set an effective policy course.

The British Academy has undertaken a programme of work that seeks to re-frame debates around childhood in both the public and policy spaces and break down academic, policy and professional silos in order to explore new conceptualisations of children in policymaking. Find out more about the Childhood Policy Programme.

Subscribe to our newsletter for monthly updates on our Childhood Policy Programme.

[i],[ii] J.P. Shonkoff, ‘Building a new biodevelopmental framework to guide the future of early childhood policy’, Child Development, vol. 81, no. 1, 2010, p.357.

[iii] Rutter, M. (1981). Stress, coping and development in children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 22(4), pp.323–356.

[iv] N.E. Garmezy and M.E. Rutter, ‘Stress, coping, and development in children’, In Seminar on Stress and Coping in Children, 1979, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, CA, US. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

[v] R. R. Romeo et al., ‘Beyond the 30-million-word gap: Children’s conversational exposure is associated with language-related brain function’. Psychological science, vol.29, no.5, pp.700–710, 2018.

[vi] P. Sammons, ‘The impact of children’s centres: studying the effects of children’s centres in promoting better outcomes for young children and their families: evaluation of Children’s Centres in England’, ECCE, Strand 4, 2015.

[vii] N. Eisenstadt, and C. Oppenheim, Parents, Poverty and the State: 20 Years of Evolving Family Policy, Policy Press, 2019.

[viii] E. Shuey, and M. Kankaraš, ‘The Power and Promise of Early Learning’, OECD Education Working Papers, Paris, OECD Publishing, no. 186, 2018.

[ix] K. Sylva, ‘The role of families and pre-school in educational disadvantage’. Oxford Review of Education, 40, pp.680–695, 2014.

[x] T. E. Moffitt et al., ‘A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol.108, no.7, pp.2693–2698, 2011.

[xi] Shuey and Kankaraš, ‘The Power and Promise’, OECD 2018.

[xii] Sylva, K., ‘The role of families and pre-school in educational disadvantage’. Oxford Review of Education, 40, pp.680–695, 2014.

[xiii] Raver, C. C., Blair, C., & Willoughby, M., ‘Poverty as a predictor of 4-year-olds’ executive function: New perspectives on models of differential susceptibility’, Developmental psychology, vol.49, no.2, pp.292–304, 2013.

Thriving in the 21st century: the new science of early childhood (2024)


What skills every child will need to succeed in 21st century summary? ›

Communication, collaboration, teamwork, adaptability, resilience, grit, perseverance, emotional intelligence, the ability to fail and adapt.

How do you think science has come to matter in early childhood education? ›

Science encourages and teaches children how to discover and wonder about everything in the world around them. Scientific thinking and the desire to explore and investigate can be used to your advantage in the classroom. You can use children's natural curiosity to teach any one of your curricula learning intentions.

What are some current issues in early childhood education? ›

Issues in Early Childhood Education in 2022
  • Workplace burnout. ...
  • Mental health concerns. ...
  • Lack of resources. ...
  • Low levels of compensation. ...
  • Heightened safety concerns. ...
  • Ever-evolving technologies. ...
  • Lack of parent engagement and communication.
Dec 20, 2022

What is the importance of early childhood development? ›

Healthy development in the early years (particularly birth to three) provides the building blocks for educational achievement, economic productivity, responsible citizenship, lifelong health, strong communities, and successful parenting of the next generation.

What are 21st century skills in early childhood education? ›

The 4 C's of 21st Century Skills are Collaboration, Critical thinking, Creativity and Communication. In preschool children begin to acquire the skills listed below, designing a classroom with this knowledge creates an inspiring learning environment where children can flourish.

What is the most important skill that students should develop in the 21st century? ›

Learning Skills: Also known as the "four Cs" of 21st century learning, these include critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

Why is science education important in the 21st century? ›

Along with these, children and adolescents can learn, among other things, cognitive skills and problem-solving while better understanding the construction of knowledge and the scientific process. These skills help them manage better in our present society.

What is the goal of science in early childhood education? ›

Science in early childhood is about providing experiences that can stimulate young children's curiosity and motivate them to become interested in their environment and in the mechanisms of nature. Children are naturally curious about the world around them and this involves of the technological world.

What do you think is the best way to teach science to children and why? ›

Simply stated, the best way for kids to learn science is by doing real science. A child can read scientific facts and obtain knowledge from a book. However, when they are fully immersed in the learning process, problem-solving and fully understanding science concepts will begin to come naturally.

What are the three biggest issues in education today? ›

Several of the present issues of education are:
  • Government funding for education. On any list of current issues in education, school funding ranks near the top. ...
  • School safety. ...
  • Disciplinary policies. ...
  • Technology in education. ...
  • Charter schools and voucher programs. ...
  • Common Core. ...
  • Standardized testing. ...
  • Teacher salaries.
May 19, 2022

What is the biggest challenge in childcare? ›

A common challenge shared by most early childhood educators is paperwork. There can sometimes be a lot to get through, in a short amount of administration time. Of course, with practise and experience, dealing with this necessary part of the job becomes easier – all things you're taught during your studies at Selmar.

What is the most important issue facing education today? ›

A student's overall well-being is crucial to their success in school. Mental health and physical health are important components that impact a student's ability to learn. To perform well in school, students need to feel supported, safe, and comfortable in their environment.

What are the most important goals of early childhood education? ›

The purpose of ECE is to provide children with strategies that help them develop the emotional, social and cognitive skills needed to become lifelong learners.

What are the most important factors in early childhood development? ›

Five main factors identified in contributing to growth and developments at early childhood are nutrition, parent's behaviours, parenting, social and cultural practices, and environment.

What is the most important aspect of early childhood education? ›

Socialization: A Key Component to Early Childhood Education

Children who take part in early childhood education programs have improved social skills. In a preschool setting, children learn crucial skills like listening, sharing, and taking turns with others.

Why are 21st century skills important for children? ›

Linking to 21st century learning prepares students for the future world of work, and arms them with critical life skills. It supports students to be critical and creative-thinkers, communicators and collaborators.

How does 21st century skills enhance learning? ›

“21st century skills are tools that can be universally applied to enhance ways of thinking, learning, working and living in the world. The skills include critical thinking/reasoning, creativity/creative thinking, problem solving, metacognition, collaboration, communication and global citizenship.

What are 3 main skills in the 21st century? ›

The Three 21st Century Skill Categories
  • Learning skills.
  • Literacy skills.
  • Life skills.
Jan 10, 2022

What is the value of education in the 21st century? ›

A 21st century education is about giving students the skills they need to succeed in this new world, and helping them grow the confidence to practice those skills. With so much information readily available to them, 21st century skills focus more on making sense of that information, sharing and using it in smart ways.

How do you describe yourself as a 21st century learner? ›

The way I describe myself as a learner in the 21st century digital learner is a person who is always interested in using new and innovating types of technology. I feel comfortable with technology and don't get intimidated when new technology is presented.

Which major skill is required to survive the fast changing world of the 21st century? ›

Thriving in today's fast changing world requires breadth of skills rooted in academic competencies such as literacy, numeracy and science, but also including such things as teamwork, critical thinking, communication, persistence, and creativity. These skills are in fact interconnected.

What are the three 21st century skills that science education develop? ›

Therefore, it is crucial to incorporate 21st century skills in science education. 21st century skills comprised of four main domains namely digital age literacy, inventive thinking, effective communication and high productivity. Scientific literacy is one of the skills required in digital age literacy.

What is 21st century science? ›

Twenty First Century Science is a suite of GCSE science courses developed by the University of York Science Education Group for OCR, with resources published by Oxford University Press. The courses: link science to modern and engaging contexts relevant to all students.

How will you describe a 21st century science teacher? ›

These educators don't just expect their students to be a lifelong learner, but they are as well. They stay up-to-date with current educational trends and technology and know how to tweak their old lesson plans from years before to make them more current.

What is the 3 main goal of science education? ›

know, use, and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world; generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations; understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge; and. participate productively in scientific practices and discourse.

What are the most important goals of science education? ›

Developing students' “scientific habits of mind” is typically the principal goal of science education. Attention to this goal can lead to students valuing and using science as a way of knowing based on evidence.

What are the advantages of teaching science in early childhood? ›

Science education activities provide children with opportunities to develop and practice many different skills and attributes. These include communication skills, collaborative skills, team working and perseverance, as well as analytical, reasoning and problem-solving skills.

What makes the most successful science teaching? ›

Effective science teachers involve students in making sense of natural events and the science ideas underlying them. In other words, they actively engage students in wondering and figuring out science phenomena around them and how they happen.

What is the most effective strategy in teaching science? ›

Inquiry-based learning and project-based learning are two of the most effective instructional strategies that I have used to teach science to my English-learners.

How can we support children's learning and development? ›

Develop and become part of a parent forum. Take up free training opportunities to help you progress into paid work. Get to know your child's friends better. Explore new career opportunities in childcare.

What are the challenges of the 21st century education? ›

and be the first to get the newest updates
  • Seven Challenges.

What is the greatest challenge that students face today 2022? ›

Socioeconomic dynamics, inequalities for underserved communities, lack of access to technologies, too much exposure to technologies, too few teachers, lack of resources, and hybrid classrooms are just some of the challenges that drove families to re-evaluate their children's educational setting.

What are the challenges faced by children today? ›

Unprecedented Global Hunger. Over 2021, a perfect storm of COVID, conflict and climate change pushed millions more children into malnutrition. In 2022, an estimated two million children under the age of five will die of hunger-related causes. There's no vaccine for hunger, but here is a solution if we act now.

What strengths do you need to work in childcare? ›

Examples of child care worker skills
  • Communication. Communicating with children requires you to convey ideas and instructions in ways that are easy for them to understand. ...
  • Problem-solving creativity. ...
  • Patience. ...
  • Physical energy. ...
  • Teaching. ...
  • Monitoring. ...
  • Planning. ...
  • Leadership.
Jun 25, 2021

What are three factors that affect the quality of early childhood programs? ›

As such, the quality of an early childhood program is dependent on the following three key factors.
  • Interpersonal interactions. The learning environment created by a teacher is critical to the quality of an early childhood program. ...
  • Physical environment. ...
  • Program support structure. ...
  • Professional and stable teacher workforce.
Feb 13, 2017

What is the importance of education in today's time? ›

Education helps you develop critical skills like decision-making, mental agility, problem-solving, and logical thinking. People face problems in their professional as well as personal lives. In such situations, their ability to make rational and informed decisions comes from how educated and self-aware they are.

What is the importance of education today? ›

Education develops critical thinking. This is vital in teaching a person how to use logic when making decisions and interacting with people (e.g., boosting creativity, enhancing time management). Education helps an individual meet basic job qualifications and makes them more likely to secure better jobs.

What do you consider as the most recent trend in education today? ›

Interactivity in Classroom

The flipped classroom model has allowed students to do all the learning at home and all the practical work at school. All these new technologies have brought about a change in the way that classes used to function traditionally.

What are the three goals of early childhood education? ›

It helps to build a child's cognitive, physical, social and emotional proficiency which will prepare them for life challenges.

What is the impact of early childhood education on child development? ›

They have a direct impact on how children develop learning skills as well as social and emotional abilities. Children learn more quickly during their early years than at any other time in life. They need love and nurturing to develop a sense of trust and security that turns into confidence as they grow.

What knowledge is important for an early childhood educator? ›

Teachers and educators need to be able to communicate with children in a way that is age-appropriate. It is also important to develop skills in communicating with families about their children's skills, abilities and achievements to provide the best learning experiences for their child.

What is the most important part of child development? ›

Having a safe and loving home and spending time with family―playing, singing, reading, and talking―are very important. Proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep also can make a big difference.

What is the need for 21st century skills in kids of today? ›

Communication and collaboration are imperative 21 st century learning skills because technologies have enabled access across space and time. Social and cross-cultural skills are important to imbibe in our kids who are connected and in communication with people from across the globe.

What knowledge and skills do students need to be successful in the 21st century Why? ›

Critical thinking, problem solving, reasoning, analysis, interpretation, synthesizing information. Research skills and practices, interrogative questioning. Creativity, artistry, curiosity, imagination, innovation, personal expression. Perseverance, self-direction, planning, self-discipline, adaptability, initiative.

What is the most important skill according to the 21st century skills Why? ›

1. Critical Thinking. One of the most important 21st century skills to teach our learners is how to think critically. With so much information available online, it's crucial that young people analyze, question and challenge what they are being told.

What skills will your child need to be successful in this world you have imagined twenty years from now? ›

7 Skills Students Will Always Need
  • Skills #1: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving.
  • Skill #2: Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence.
  • Skill #3: Agility and Adaptability.
  • Skill #4: Initiative and Entrepreneurship.
  • Skill #5: Effective Oral and Written Communication.
Mar 17, 2019

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