According to neurologists, fully 85 percent of human brain growth is completed during the first three years of life. It’s a recognition that's driving a new King County initiative, Best Starts for Kids, which aims to ensure all children are given opportunities to fulfill their cognitive potential, starting at birth. To this end, the county council has voted to place a $350 million property-tax levy on the November 3, 2015, ballot to launch and support the initiative for six years.
Despite the price tag, County Executive Dow Constantine argues the levy represents a net economic win for the county. At a panel discussion at Northeastern University-Seattle last week, Constantine said that King County spends almost three-quarters of its general fund on the criminal justice system. Research has shown that the downstream costs of adult crime, not to mention the public cost of treating adult mental illness and addiction, can be greatly reduced by focusing on early childhood development. Such investments are also “a moral imperative” in view of inequalities in educational, social, and financial opportunity available to families today, he added.
Proponents of the levy argue that it will expand and strengthen programs that employ proven or scientifically promising approaches for childhood development, producing healthier and more productive students and members of the community.
Fifty percent of levy funding would focus on programs for children from birth through age five, based on a framework of key developmental milestones and optimal caregiver strategies created by the UW’s Institute of Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS).
These early years mark a critically important stage in brain development, said panelist Dr. Michelle Barnes, a member of the Early Childhood Education faculty at Everett Community College. In the first three years of life, a child's brain builds more than three-quarters of its sensory, language, and executive function potential. “Every event creates or strengthens a pathway” in these areas during these years, when neural connections are being established at the rate of 700 per second. After age three, as the brain continues to develop, its efficiency increases as weak and disused synaptic connections are pruned out.
In these ways, early positive and negative experiences physiologically limit or expand each child’s potential for future success. Adverse childhood experiences change the architecture of the brain in ways that lead to future behavior problems, but nurturing investments during those years “make a positive difference that cannot be matched by interventions later in life,” Barnes said.
The work of Nobel-winning economist James Heckman supports this contention – see below for Heckman’s chart comparing the rates of return-on-investment in early vs. later years: