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Early Development and the Achievement Gap:
New Findings on Why Early Brain Development Matters

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

During this Community Symposium, leading experts from the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development presented cutting edge research on brain development and the achievement gap, and interacted with attendees from the community during small group discussions.

Thank you to the Center for Early Education and Development (CEED) for contributing to this event!

Below you will find descriptions of the symposium sessions as well as videos of the talks.



Welcome and Overview

Megan Gunnar, Regents Professor of Child Psychology; Director, Institute of Child Development

Megan Gunnar provides an overview of the role of experience in brain development and the import of this information for approaches to the achievement gap. This presentation highlights themes that will run throughout the morning: relationships as the context of brain development, toxic stress, early intervention, and resilience.

Talk 1: Zeroing in on the Timing of Early Adversity Effects

Bryon Egeland, Professor Emeritus of Child Psychology
Andrew Collins, Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of Child Psychology

This presentation uses data from the Minnesota Longitudinal Project on Risk and Adaptation which has tracked children born in 1975 to women living in poverty in Minneapolis. Bryon Egeland, one of the study’s founders, describes the impact of trauma exposure at various points in early development on IQ measured in the early elementary years. In the second half of the presentation, Andrew Collins discusses evidence that the security of the infant’s early attachment relationships predicts health in young adulthood. Combined, these data link the importance of early experiences not only with academic achievement but also with life-long health.

Talk 2: Toxic Stress and Development

Kathleen Thomas, Associate Professor of Child Psychology
Dante Cicchetti, McKnight Presidential Chair in Child Psychology and Psychiatry

This presentation focuses on toxic stress, or the chronic activation of the body’s stress system, and its impact on development. Kathleen Thomas presents evidence that longer periods of deprivation and neglect early in life increasingly alter the development of critical brain regions in children. Dante Cicchetti provides evidence that an intervention designed to improve parent-child relations in maltreated infants reduces one of the key physiological mediators of toxic stress.

Talk 3: Homelessness and the Achievement Gap

Ann Masten, Distinguished McKnight-University Professor of Child Psychology
Stephanie Carlson, Associate Professor of Child Psychology
Philip David Zelazo, Lindahl Professor of Child Psychology

This presentation highlights what can be done when we partner child development research with private and government agencies. Ann Masten describes results from her work in collaboration with the Minneapolis Public School System and the major homeless shelters in Minneapolis that serve families. This work highlights the imperative of intervening with homeless/highly mobile children if we are to ever reduce the achievement gap. Stephanie Carlson then discusses joint work that is being done at the Institute of Child Development demonstrating the importance of executive functions in mediating how homeless children do as they start kindergarten. Finally, Philip Zelazo describes an intervention that Masten, Carlson and Zelazo are implementing to improve executive functions in homeless children at the cusp of their entry into kindergarten.

Talk 4: Second Language Learners and the Achievement Gap

Maria Sera, Professor of Child Psychology
Melissa Koenig, Associate Professor of Child Psychology

This presentation highlights the importance of the child understanding English as they start formal schooling. Professors Maria Sera and Melissa Koenig describe the work they are doing with preschool-aged children looking for the factors that facilitate second language learning in early childhood. This work includes examining how development in your first language relates to development in your second language. Their work has implications for the timing of immersion programs and programs design to facilitate English language learning for children entering public school.