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July 2014
Short version
German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina
National Academy of Science and Engineering – acatech
Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities
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Neurobiology, psychology, linguistics, sociology and economics are consistent in showing how
early childhood experiences have a long-term influence on a person’s later developmental trajectory.
The effects of these early experiences – both positive and negative – can be traced into adult
life. There are two reasons for this:
(1) Hereditary predispositions and environmental influences always work in tandem to determine
the structure and workings of the nervous system – and thus shape both behaviour and
experience. Neither the structures of the nervous system nor behavioural traits develop automatically:
instead, “compatible” environmental influences are required for predispositions to
manifest themselves. The reverse is also true: It is only in cases where susceptible hereditary predispositions
are available that favourable environments can positively influence development.
This close interaction between genetic makeup and environment applies throughout life, yet especially
in early childhood.
(2) In early childhood, critical and sensitive periods exist, in which the individual must make certain
environmental experiences. Only then can key structures within the nervous system and
associated behavioural patterns develop to their full capacity. If these critical phases are not fulfilled
by the necessary environmental influences, neuronal development remains incomplete and
certain types of behaviour can be acquired only to a limited extent – or not at all. Such deficits
Socialisation in early childhood:
Biological, psychological, linguistic, sociological and
economic perspectives
are irreversible. They accompany a person throughout life, and even when specifically targeted
by training in later life can rarely be entirely compensated for and are sometimes intractable.
Seen from the perspective of lifelong development, funding early childhood education is thus
a particularly advisable strategy. While this applies to the development of all children, it is particularly
relevant for children who are born with sensory impairments or raised in disadvantaged
environments (precarious familial circumstances, insufficient childcare, etc.). Such radically
unfavourable environmental conditions must be recognised early on, since compensatory programmes
must act at an early stage and thus before the end of sensitive phases.
Investment in high-quality educational and childcare programmes in early childhood is especially
profitable both for the individual and for society at large, since it ensures favourable conditions
for further developmental steps. Such funding should thus be secured and expanded over the
long term.
While recent research findings attach particular importance to early childhood educational programmes,
one should not overlook the need for later educational programmes catering to adolescents
and young adults. Since subsequent experiences always build on earlier ones, however,
the effectiveness of later investments will depend on the favourable conditions achieved by earlier
educational programmes.
Since genetic makeup and environmental factors are inextricably intertwined, genetic dispositions
must be actively addressed and fostered in all children. This does not apply solely to children
from less favourable environments: children from favourable backgrounds also need encouragement
and active support appropriate to their predispositions. Only in this way can the
intellectual and social resources available within a society develop to their fullest potential, as the
development of the individual and the social and economic conditions of a society as a whole are
entwined over successive generations (see figure).
Figure (Frank Rösler). Socialisation: influencing factors and consequences. Structural and functional properties of the
brain determine an individual’s behaviour and inner experience (top right). This is expressed in perception, language,
cognition, emotions, goals and desires, social behaviour and temperament. The properties of the brain–mind system
develop on the basis of two mechanisms: functional and structural changes in the brain (plasticity), a process due to
maturation and experience. These two forms of plasticity are dependent on genetic, epigenetic as well as environmental
factors. The lower set of connections in the diagram indicates how an individual’s behaviour determines his/her
chances in society (bottom right) and how, at the same time, this, and the interactions between individuals, influences
the characteristics of an entire society (bottom left). In turn, these societal and cultural characteristics then influence
the maturational and experience-based plasticity (top left).
2 Socialisation in e arly childhood
Language competence
The development of language in early childhood
follows a biologically predetermined
sequence of sensitive periods, in which certain
kinds of linguistic experience must be acquired.
Only if this experience is gained, can
competence be achieved at the level of a native
speaker. Educational programmes can and
should be used to support the developmental
process – which can be guided but not undone.
Where children grow up in families in which a
society’s dominant language is not spoken as a
native language, access to this language spoken
by native speakers should be provided as early
as possible, i.e. no later than preschool. Otherwise
full linguistic competence in the dominant
language will most likely not be achieved.
To allay their fears, parents whose native language
is different from that spoken in the society
where they live should be made aware
that early contact with a second language
will not hinder a child’s development of its
parents’ language of origin. Early bilingual
competence does not lead to impairments of
linguistic or cognitive capacities. If a child is
likely to be making its home in a society for
the foreseeable future where their mother
tongue is not spoken, acquisition of “two first
languages” should begin as early as possible,
i.e. before the child’s fourth birthday.
Even children from monolingual households
should begin learning a second language as
early as possible, so as to enable the acquisition
of a very high degree of competence.
Ideally, the acquisition of a second language
should begin at preschool age and no later
than primary school where possible, since
children’s language learning capabilities start
to worsen considerably at the age of 8–10
years. The successful early acquisition of a
second language requires an adequate investment
of time, however, coupled with the
availability of preschool educators with high
competencies for the language to be learned.
Techniques to determine levels of linguistic
competence must be applied early on – possibly
during routine postnatal visits to the
paediatrician or paediatric audiologist. Initially,
the focus must be on the phonological
aspects of the language. Only in this way can
deficiencies affecting normal language development
be identified early on and compensated
for by taking appropriate action.
Basic cognitive abilities
The basic cognitive abilities collectively referred
to as “general intelligence” – i.e. language
proficiency, problem-solving abilities
and memory capacity – develop by means of
interaction between genetic predispositions
and environmentally-dependent learning
processes. The level of intelligence a person
can achieve is not written in stone at birth but
is also dependent on the environment, which
crucially influences the elaboration of genetic
predispositions. Positive environments boost
– and negative ones hinder – the development
of intelligence. Accordingly, genetic predispositions
mark out the boundaries within
which basic cognitive abilities can develop.
Children should be challenged and supported
so that they can attain their maximum possible
level of cognitive functioning. Challenges
and support signifies that programmes should
demand neither too little nor too much of the
respective child’s predispositions.
Properly utilising the intelligence inherent in
children and adolescents drawn from across
the population depends not only on satisfying
basic physical needs in early childhood, however.
Steps must be taken to ensure that children
are raised in an emotionally supportive, cognitively
stimulating environment, and acquire a
society’s dominant language and cultural techniques
as a result of natural interactions with
other children and adults.
Cognitive development should not be taken
for granted. It requires targeted stimulation
and continual gains in knowledge that permit
the solving of increasingly sophisticated
cognitive problems. Proficiencies and items
of knowledge gained later always build on
what has been learned before. The stronger
the foundation, the more rapid and effective
the learning processes it can support. The
knowledge and cognitive bases to the domains
of written language, mathematics and
the natural sciences learned before a child’s
3 Socialisation in e arly childhood | R ecommendations
tenth birthday are therefore of particular importance
for his/her educational choices and
later development at school.
Targeted support programmes are especially
likely to succeed if they are able to reach children
from disadvantaged social backgrounds.
Yet fostering the intellectual potential in certain
groups – i.e. improving their average performance
– does not imply that all children
and adults can achieve an identical level of
competence. Even with beneficial training
and schooling programmes in place, inter-individual
differences in cognitive functioning
will still tend to persist.
As a consequence, a society should not act
solely to promote the development of intelligence,
but should also provide career choices
that can be taken by individuals with varying
levels of cognitive functioning.
Social, emotional and motivational
The development of social/emotional and motivational/
volitional skills is crucially dependent
on the formation of a secure attachment
with primary caregivers in early childhood.
These are usually the parents themselves:
their sensitivity and warmth creates positive,
culturally appropriate conditions for socialisation.
Secure attachment is essential for the
child to form a positive and realistic self-concept,
and to develop proficiency in self-regulation
and the ability to cope with stress.
Such self-regulation skills express themselves in
emotion regulation and both behavioural and
inhibitory control, i.e. they enable the individual
to make goal-oriented decisions between conflicting
behavioural choices and inhibit impulsive
behavioural tendencies, e.g. when choosing
to delay gratification. Empirical studies
show that the degree of proficiency in self-regulation
observed in childhood reliably predicts
the course of later development in adolescence
and adulthood in terms of academic and career
success, social adjustment, physical and mental
health, socioeconomic status and prosperity.
Groups at high risk of developing inadequate
self-regulation skills include children without
a reliable primary caregiver, children of overburdened
parents, children of impoverished
and poorly-educated parents, and children
who experience domestic violence or a lack
of parental care and support, or who grow up
in socially-disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
For these risk groups, particular commitment
must be shown – in the shape of active support
programmes to encourage the development
of self-regulatory competencies.
Longitudinal studies have shown that the experiences
of early childhood have far-reaching
implications for the later development
of social, emotional and motivational competencies.
Appropriate interventions aimed
at fostering executive functions and skills in
self-regulation should therefore take place as
early as possible – i.e. for those attending preschool
– and not solely for disadvantaged children.
Institutional programmes should be used
to actively promote support for individual socialisation.
Awareness should be raised among
both parents and teachers of the need to identify
and promote self-regulation and, equally,
to recognise and foster its corollary social,
emotional and motivational competencies.
Consequences for educational policy
Attendance at a preschool educational facility
supports a child’s development in terms
of both socioemotional and cognitive/performance-
related aspects. Longer-term positive
effects will depend primarily on teaching being
of a high quality. The educational quality of day
care facilities is defined above all by the process
quality, i.e. the direct support processes available
within the facilities themselves. Structural
quality characteristics influence these processes,
and these latter processes can be changed
and improved by policy frameworks. In this
context, key items to address will include making
group sizes smaller, reducing the number
of children cared for by each preschool educator,
and improving basic/further training and
continuing professional development for the
facility’s teaching staff. Note that the criteria in
each case will vary by the children’s age group.
An active support programme at the preschool
stage, e.g. in day care, does not necessarily
imply formal schooling. Actively supporting
children’s cognitive and emotional socialisation
creates ideal educational opportunities
for them at an early stage. This does not imply
that these children are being moulded to
4 Socialisation in e arly childhood | R ecommendations
serve economical goals but, on the contrary,
that individual chances can be seized. A common
prejudice against nursery teaching often
stems from misconceptions about playful and
situated learning. Education in early childhood
has little in common with conventional learning
in the classroom. For example, encouraging
multilingualism in nurseries does not mean
that preschool children should start being given
language classes. The presence of native
speakers in a day care facility is quite sufficient
to ensure children acquire a different language
by (playful) interaction with one another.
The efficiency of educational investments can
be increased by targeting their deployment,
as long as segregatory effects can be avoided.
Children from disadvantaged families in
particular can benefit from education and
care that is of a high quality. Accordingly, the
German system of day care must also tackle
the issue of providing enhanced support that
is focused on specific target groups and/or urban
Stronger involvement of families in educational/
support programmes outside the home can
boost the efficiency of these interventions.
Evidence for high efficiency is demonstrable
above all for educational programmes where
parents are firmly “on board”. One option for
Germany might be the targeted expansion
of day-care facilities into “Family Centres” or
“Parent & Child Centres”.
Educational choices are determined not only
by differences in ability and performance due
to a child’s social background, but also by
class-specific decision-making behaviour resulting
from different values being placed on
the costs and benefits of educational options.
These factors need to be addressed by policy
interventions. On the one hand, day-care facilities,
full-time schools etc. should act to balance
out a lack of potential for parental caregiving
and support. For migrant populations,
such interventions could make a major contribution
to reducing linguistic deficiencies and
establishing a level playing field for entry into
the educational system. On the other hand,
interventions should be funded to cut educational
costs for low-income families and to
raise awareness of the prospects for success
offered by educational options.
Prevailing institutional conditions materially
influence the educational options available
to children and thus the reproduction of social
inequality by the education system. More
open – i.e. more porous – systems offer better
chances of acquiring a higher level of education.
More rigid systems involving early selection
act to curtail the chances available to
weaker social groups in particular.
Research desiderata
Current research shows that longitudinal
studies organised over as long a period as
possible provide an indispensable basis for
understanding the complex, temporal interdependence
of early experiences and behavioural
characteristics in later life.
In contrast to work conducted by researchers
in the UK and US, Germany has provided few
representative longitudinal studies to date that
are capable of mapping out the developmental
trajectories of children into adolescence and
adulthood, and which are available to the wider
national and international scientific community.
Recent years have seen the addition
of new panel studies capable of filling this gap
over the medium to long term. Several existing
studies have also greatly expanded their childhood
research focus. Nonetheless, on account
of the specific methodological approaches to
the respective data collection, these projects
permit only limited statements to be made.
They are therefore unable to replace further
research on other specific topics.
While many questions about the relationship
of early childhood experiences to individual
development can be researched using epidemiological
studies and the long-term collection
of data, it should nonetheless be emphasised
that convincing causal links and a clear
understanding of the underlying processes is
only possible by carrying out dedicated experiments.
Since experimental interventions
involving human subjects operate within very
narrow bounds and must observe the most
rigorous ethical standards, research must
also consider the use of animal models. This
is true in particular for research conducted
on bases for development within molecular
biology, genetics, neurophysiology and neuroanatomy
– and their role in the expression
of behavioural characteristics.
5 Socialisation in e arly childhood | R ecommendations
Union of the German Academies of
Sciences and Humanities
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55131 Mainz
Phone: +49 (0)6131 21 85 28-10
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and Engineering – acatech
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Phone: +49 (0)89 5 20 30 9-0
Fax: +49 (0)89 5 20 30 9-9
Berlin Office:
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10117 Berlin
German National Academy
of Sciences Leopoldina
Jägerberg 1
06108 Halle (Saale)
Phone: +49 (0)345 472 39-867
Fax: +49 (0)345 472 39-839
Berlin Office:
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10117 Berlin
The German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, acatech – National Academy of
Science and Engineering, and the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities
provide policymakers and society with independent, science-based advice on issues of
crucial importance for our future. The Academies’ members are outstanding researchers from
Germany and abroad. Working in interdisciplinary working groups, they draft statements that
are published in the series of papers Schriftenreihe zur wissenschaftsbasierten Politikberatung
(Monograph Series on Science-based Policy Advice) after being externally reviewed and subsequently
approved by the Standing Committee of the German National Academy of Sciences
German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina
Department Science-Policy-Society
Phone: +49 (0)345 472 39-867
Members of the Working Group:
Jürgen Baumert (Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin), Hans-Peter
Blossfeld (European University Institute Florence, Italy), Thomas Cremer (LMU Munich),
Angela D. Friederici (Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig),
Marcus Hasselhorn (German Institute for International Educational Research (DIPF),
Frankfurt/Main), Gerd Kempermann (TU Dresden and German Centre for Neurodegenerative
Diseases (DZNE), Dresden), Ulman Lindenberger (Max Planck Institute for Human
Development, Berlin), Jürgen Meisel (University of Hamburg and University of Calgary,
Canada), Markus M. Nöthen (University of Bonn), Brigitte Röder (University of Hamburg),
Frank Rösler (University of Hamburg), Frank Spinath (Saarland University), C. Katharina
Spieß (German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), Berlin), Elsbeth Stern (ETH Zurich,
Switzerland), Gisela Trommsdorff (University of Konstanz)
Chairs: Brigitte Röder (University of Hamburg), Frank Rösler (University of Hamburg)

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