Sensitive Windows of Development:               


Related Video(s):

Readiness: Early Life-Learning Trajectories
Sensitive Slopes

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Missing Sensitive Periods: Burden Kids Carry, Increased Challenge, and Increased Financial Cost 

The one thing we know about plasticity, which is the capacity to adjust and adapt, is it's greatest when the brain is immature, and it is less as the brain becomes more mature.

Getting things right the first time is better than trying to fix them later when they weren't right the first time, trying to adapt to something that was not developed in the best way at the time when it was supposed to be developed. So, the sobering message here is that if children don't have the right experiences during these sensitive periods, for the development of a variety of skills including many cognitive and language capacities, the sobering news is that that's a burden that those kids are going to carry. The sensitive period is over, and it's going to be harder for them. Their architecture is not as well developed in their brain as it would have been if they had had the right experiences during the sensitive period. That's the sobering message.

But there's also a hopeful message.., the sensitive period says, "It's not too late to try to remediate, and you can develop good, healthy, normal competencies in many areas, even if your earlier wiring was somewhat faulty." But it's harder. It costs more in energy costs to the brain. The brain has to work at adapting to kind of earlier circuits that were not laid down the way they should have been. And from a society's point of view, it costs more in terms of more expensive programming, more specialized help. So I think the best way to think about this is to say that prevention is better than treatment, and earlier is better than later, but it's never too late, in most cases, to get kids back on track.   

Jack P. Shonkoff, Dean of The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University – Chair, Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development for the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences - Co-editor, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Source: 

What’s Going in There  

We know from 50 years of research in neuroscience that an infant’s experience can have permanent effects on the wiring of the brain. What we are learning through neuroscience is that each different part of the brain carries on a different cognitive function, whether it’s perception, movement, emotion, language or memory. Each has a different developmental time table, and along with that different critical periods.   

Lise Eliot, Chicago School of Medicine, Author of What's Going On In There?

The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children  

An accumulating body of evidence shows that early childhood interventions are more effective than interventions that come later in life. Remedying early disadvantages at later ages is costly, and often prohibitively so. This is because of the dynamic nature of the human skill formation process. Skill begets skill; learning begets learning. Early disadvantage, if left untouched, leads to academic and social difficulties in later years. Advantages accumulate; so do disadvantages.  

James J. Heckman, (Nobel Laureate) University of Chicago, American Bar Foundation and University College London and Dimitriy V. Masterov, University of Chicago. Source:   (see also COTC interview: )

The Science of Reading Research

Substantial research carried out and supported by NICHD indicates clearly that without this systematic and intensive approach to early intervention, the majority of at-risk readers rarely catch up. Failure to read by 9 years of age portends a lifetime of illiteracy for at least 70 percent of struggling readers (Shaywitz, 2003).

NICHD-supported research has also found that older struggling readers can indeed develop strong reading capabilities under the right instructional conditions (Lyon, 2002). However, successful remediation of reading problems among older students requires extensive, intensive instruction (see Torgesen, 2002b).  

G. Reid Lyon and Vinita Chhabra, Educational Leadership March 2004 | Volume 61 | Number 6. Source:

Facilitating Language Development  

The NICHD study concludes that children in high-quality child care environments have a larger vocabulary and more complex language skills than their peers in lower-quality care. These findings are especially significant for at-risk and underserved children.

Additionally, recent research on early brain development indicates that a child's capacity to learn is increased through language-based interactions. In fact, in the first few years of life the brain starts to build a network of connections, or synapses. During this time, the infant's brain is setting the building blocks for future learning. These stages of development are sometimes referred to as sensitive periods, when learning is easier. Language development, for example, is acquired much more quickly in the first 5 years of life. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association, authors of Caring for Our Children – National Health and Safety Performance Standards: Guidelines for Out-of-Home Child Care Programs, agree "Richness of language increases as it is nurtured by verbal interaction of the child with adults and peers."   

Donna Rafanello, with contributions by Chet Johnson - Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Remediation Cost is Seven to Eight Times as Much in Time and Money

I can tell you that for those children who need remediation, if children do not have reading fluency by the end of third grade, it’s going to cost seven to eight times as much in time and in money to address their reading problems and get them up to grade level in reading.

James Wendorf, Executive Director, National Center for Learning Disabilities. Source: COTC Interview -

Hundreds of Billions of Dollars

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education, a substantial portion of the Department’s discretionary budget, which is roughly fifty-three billion dollars a year, is spent on problems that are related to reading.

Title I, which is our single largest grant program, which is a grant program for schools that serve children from low income backgrounds, is a grant program that is focused primarily on the problems of low academic achievement, and reading is at the core of academic achievement.

The federal budget is only about eight percent of the national expenditure on K-12 education. And so, if one imagines that simply in terms of elementary and secondary education, states and localities are spending in like kind for issues related to reading, then the cost just in terms of primary education becomes substantial.

Yes, absolutely. No question that the price tag is hundreds of billions of dollars; both to support the normal acquisition of reading and certainly to deal with the consequences of reading failure.  

Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, Ex-Director (2002-08), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Source: COTC Interview:

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Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst  Director, Institute of Education Sciences, Assistant Secretary of Education, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Jack Shonkoff Chair, The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child; Co-Editor: From Neurons to Neighborhoods
Dr. Edward Kame'enui Commissioner for Special Education Research, U.S. Department of Education; Director, IDEA, University  of Oregon
Dr. G. Reid Lyon  Past Director, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Dr. Keith Stanovich  Canadian Chair of Cognitive Science, University of Toronto
Dr. Mel Levine Co-Chair and Co-Founder, All Kinds of Minds; Author: A Mind at a Time, The Myth of Laziness & Ready or Not Here Life Comes
Dr. Alex Granzin  School District Psychologist, Past President, Oregon School Psychologists Association 
Dr. James J. Heckman Nobel Laureate, Economic Sciences 2000; Lead Author: The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children
Dr. Timothy Shanahan President (2006) International Reading Association, Chair National Early Literacy Panel, Member National Reading Panel
Nancy Hennessy  President, 2003-2005, International Dyslexia Association
Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams Senior ScientistSoliloquy Learning, Author: Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print
Dr. Michael Merzenich Chair of Otolaryngology, Integrative Neurosciences, UCSF;  Member National Academy of Sciences
Dr. Maryanne Wolf Director, Center for Reading & Language Research; Professor of Child Development, Tufts University
Dr. Todd Risley  Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Alaska, Co-author: Meaningful Differences
Dr. Sally Shaywitz  Neuroscientist, Department of Pediatrics, Yale University, Author: Overcoming Dyslexia
Dr. Louisa Moats  Director, Professional Development and Research Initiatives, Sopris West Educational Services
Dr. Zvia Breznitz Professor, Neuropsychology of Reading & Dyslexia, University of Haifa, Israel 
Rick Lavoie Learning Disabilities Specialist, Creator: How Difficult Can This Be?: The F.A.T. City Workshop & Last One Picked, First One Picked On
Dr.Charles Perfetti Professor, Psychology & Linguistics; Senior Scientist and Associate Director, Learning R&D Center, U. of Pittsburgh, PA
Arthur J. Rolnick Senior V.P. & Dir. of Research,  Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis;  Co- Author: The Economics of Early Childhood Development  
Dr. Richard Venezky  Professor, Educational Studies, Computer and  Information Sciences, and Linguistics, University of Delaware
Dr. Keith Rayner  Distinguished  Professor, University of Massachusetts, Author: Eye Movements in Reading and Information Processing
Dr. Paula Tallal  Professor of Neuroscience, Co-Director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University
Dr.John Searle  Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language, University of California-Berkeley, Author: Mind, A Brief Introduction
Dr.Mark T. Greenberg Director, Prevention Research Center, Penn State Dept. of Human Development & Family Studies; CASEL Leadership Team
Dr. Terrence Deacon  Professor of Biological Anthropology and Linguistics at University of California- Berkeley
Chris Doherty  Ex-Program Director, National Reading First Program, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Erik Hanushek Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Dr. Marketa Caravolas Director, Bangor Dyslexia Unit, Bangor University, Author: International Report on Literacy Research
Dr. Christof Koch Professor of Computation and Neural Systems,  Caltech - Author: The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach
Dr. Guy Deutscher Professor of Languages and Cultures of Ancient Mesopotamia, Holland; Author: Unfolding Language
Robert Wedgeworth  President, ProLiteracy, World's Largest Literacy Organization
Dr. Peter Leone  Director, National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice
Dr. Thomas Cable  Professor of English, University of Texas at Austin, Co-author: A History of the English Language
Dr. David Abram Cultural Ecologist and Philosopher; Author: The Spell of the Sensuous
Pat Lindamood and Nanci Bell  Principal Scientists, Founders, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes
Dr. Anne Cunningham  Director, Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education, Graduate School of Education at University of California-Berkeley
Dr. Donald L. Nathanson  Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Jefferson Medical College, Director of the Silvan S. Tomkins Institute 
Dr.Johanna Drucker  Chair of Media Studies, University of Virginia, Author: The Alphabetic Labyrinth
John H. Fisher  Medievalist, Leading authority on the development of the written English language, Author: The Emergence of Standard English
Dr. Malcolm Richardson   Chair, Dept. of English, Louisiana State University; Research: The Textual Awakening of the English Middle Classes  
James Wendorf  Executive Director, National Center for Learning Disabilities
Leonard Shlain Physician; Best-Selling Author: The Alphabet vs. The Goddess
Robert Sweet  Co-Founder, National Right to Read Foundation


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The Children of the Code is a Social Education Project and a Public Television Series intended to catalyze and resource a social-educational transformation in how we think about and, ultimately, teach reading. The Children of the Code is an entertaining educational journey into the challenges our children's brains face when learning to read. The series weaves together archeology, history, linguistics, developmental neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, information theory, reading theory, learning theory, and the personal and social dimensions of illiteracy. 




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