A critical… or a sensitive period?

Martin Woodhead

Research highlighting the formative significance of early childhood has fuelled policy work for at least a century. It crystallized in debates about how far the early years are ‘sensitive phase’ versus a ‘critical period’. Put simply, how far do experiences in early childhood have a determining and irreversible impact on children’s futures (reviewed by Schaffer, 2000; Clarke and Clarke, 2000)? If they do, the individual and social consequences of inadequate services and protection are dire; and the implications for early childhood policies are compelling. This debate has been expressed scientifically though studies of the impacts of extreme deprivation, abuse, and other adversities, along with evaluations of the impact of interventions at various age points, in order to establish the ‘reversibility’ – or otherwise – of negative impacts from initial adverse experiences.

This review focuses mainly on psycho-social dimensions of early adversity but it is important to emphasize that the impact of early health risks, disease and malnutrition is also well established, affecting physical growth, cognitive functioning and school achievement (Pollitt, 1990).

Comprehensive early childhood programmes are a major vehicle for combating health risks and reducing long term outcomes (Pollitt et al 1993), ensuring young children are provided with adequate nutrition and their parents are provided appropriate information and support. In many poverty contexts, physical and psycho-social risks co-occur and interact in long term outcomes. The major evidence on these psychosocial risks comes from young children deprived of adequate parental care and reared in a low quality institutional setting. Decades of research provide indisputable evidence of severe developmental delay and emotional disturbance.

However, follow up studies of children moved into a positive environment with adoptive families paint a more optimistic picture, consistently demonstrating improvements in social, emotional and intellectual functioning. For example, one study of institutionalised children adopted between two and seven years old found remarkable evidence for emotional attachments established with adoptive parents, at a much older age than would have been thought possible according to dominant theories at that time. There were also improvements in cognitive and social functioning, but even so some social adjustment problems remained, notably a tendency for formerly institutionalised children to be over-affectionate and even indiscriminate in their relationships with adults, as well as more often experiencing peer relationship difficulties than a non-adopted control group (Tizard, 1977).

More recent studies of children whose earliest years were spent in orphanages in Romania during the 1980s, but who were subsequently adopted within British families provides further insight into the ‘partial truth’ of the critical period hypothesis. This study was able to compare outcomes for children adopted before the age of two with outcomes of later adopted children, demonstrating that all made marked improvements, but earlier intervention (i.e. before the age of 2) produced much more rapid and complete catch-up (Rutter et al 1998). The headline message for policy might be characterised as ‘early is best’ but it is (almost) ‘never too late’.

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