When toddlers receive attentive, loving care in a stable environment, “it literally shapes brain architecture and builds strong brain circuits for learning, emotional development and self-regulation,” Shonkoff explained at a workshop on young children organized by the Association of Teaching Writers. “The circuits and brain structures underlying the early foundations of attention are clearly damaged early on, not necessarily irreversibly, but the older you get – and byolder’ I mean between one and two or three years old – the harder it becomes to fully recover,” Shonkoff explained. Now one of the best ways parents and educators can help children develop healthy brain architecture is through “serve and give” interaction. “That doesn’t mean you’re doomed if you’re stressed, because we’re all stressed,” Shonkoff said. But stress levels and available support networks are making a difference. So, Shonkoff said, if society does nothing now to support young children, schools can expect to have “more kids with more needs” in classrooms within a few years. Parents, educators, doctors, and politicians may disagree on solutions, but they are all concerned about the impact the current upheaval in education will have on students from kindergarten through high school. However, stressors such as job loss, illness, or lack of child care make it difficult to provide the predictable and rapid care that young children need. This interaction between the past and the future can activate and strengthen connections in a child’s developing brain, just as playing tennis strengthens an athlete’s muscles and reflexes. But Shonkoff worries that the enormous stress and instability that families face could harm infants and children in the years ahead. The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls attention, is an example of an area where this can lead to long-term damage. Psychologists have identified this problem in a longitudinal study of children raised in Romanian orphanages and their peers placed in foster care. Without these elements, the brain detects danger and triggers the body’s chemical and biological responses to stress. The prefrontal cortex has two stages of rapid development, Shonkoff said in an interview. While this policy may provoke pessimism among some early-childhood advocates, Shonkoff said the scientific evidence for what’s possible holds “him” “positive.” In recent decades, neuroscientists and early learning specialists have discovered the extent to which childhood environments contribute to brain structure and circuitry. Programs such as Healthy Steps can help families access resources and support.