Primary Outcome

Cognitive development

Infancy and Toddlerhood

Babies change rapidly, and there are many things adults can see, hear, and feel that tell much about how the baby is doing and growing.

One minute and five minutes after birth, every hospital tests a baby’s first responses to this new world. A nurse notes a baby’s heartbeat, breathing, activity, skin tone, and gestures. A low score (4 or less) means a baby needs help, and a high-score (8 to10) means a baby is ready for life’s journey. The Promise Neighborhood Research Consortium (PNRC) helps every neighborhood develop powerful strategies to make sure every baby starts out right with the first gulp of air.

In the first year of life, babies often tell us what they see, hear, and feel—if we simply take a moment to notice. Remember, they enter the world with nine months of experience.

A whirlwind of small changes happen in just a few months. Within hours, most babies recognize and turn their gaze to birthmother’s voice. Soon babies startle to loud noises. They generally soothe when swaddled, sung to, rocked, cuddled, or fed.

Babies begin to notice new things by turning their eyes to those objects, sounds, or people; very young babies can then follow things with their eyes. When babies are about three months old, they notice interesting patterns like spirals and checkerboards. By about six months, babies can make two syllable sounds. This shows that they are noticing the structure of language. Before age 1, infants begin to “count” differences cross the broad categories of humans, animals, and things, and understand the sound ratios of whole numbers.

In just a year, that baby starts to have a full set of basic skills to “graduate” to the next year of “university.” You should notice shaking head for “no,” saying “ma-ma” or “da-da,” bouncing to music, wanting to “read” books, and much more. At the first birthday, a baby can understand some simple commands.

In the second year, a baby’s ability to understand language leaps. For example, a 16-month-old starts to understand simple rules with time like “snack after nap” or “story before bedtime.” Children demonstrate their early understanding of numbers when they indicate they want more or less of things—much to the consternation of adults!

As children reach the third year of life, many can copy complex actions of adults, practice doing things that seem interesting to them, understand the use of tools—and know what tools not to use for given tasks. Three-year-olds often start to draw representations of things in their world, and can tell some social story about those drawings

Early Childhood

Five-year-old children with good language skills will succeed in school.1 Children need to be able to talk in detail about the world around them and understand what others are telling them. They should be able to use words to ask for things they need, and to tell others what they have done recently and what they plan to do. When young children learn these skills they are much more likely to do well once they get to elementary school.2 3

Imagine being a five-year-old coming into a kindergarten class and not understanding many of the things the teacher says. The teacher asks you to find your name on a list by the door, and you don’t know how to read your name. Or the teacher might ask you to tell her a word that rhymes with “cat,” but you don’t know what “rhyme” means. If you didn’t know simple terms and concepts, you would find it hard to learn new things based on what the teacher assumes you already know.

Children who are competent in language: have large vocabularies are skilled in talking with others know their numbers3 are aware of the sounds that make up words and the sounds that letters make2

It is hard to realize that young people don’t know what adults know. Yet much of what we learn as children is taught by the adults around us. Young children learn language best when adults and older kids take the time to talk with them about all of their experiences and activities.

Young children’s language skills are closely linked to their ability to control their emotions and cooperate with others. As children get better at talking, they can guide their own behavior with words. You can hear this happen, when children are playing by themselves. You may find that they are talking to themselves about what they are doing. They may even say things that others have said to them about what they need to do.

The good news is that we can help children develop these important language skills. For more information about language competence, how to measure it, and how to increase young children’s language abilities, contact the PNRC scientists.


By age 11, children should be able to read, do math, write, and study at a grade 6 level in order to have a positive middle-school experience. By fostering children’s abilities to reason, communicate, and understand and retain new information both in the school and at home supports grade-level achievement. Maintaining attention and staying motivated are also important abilities to nurture during childhood. In some cases, children may lack the intellectual abilities needed to learn in traditional ways. In other cases, learning in the school environment may be especially difficult despite a child’s intellectual abilities. In all cases, children should receive the support and encouragement they need both in school and at home to ensure they reach their full potential. A positive elementary school experience with support from home is key to achieving success in middle school and to preparing well for high school.

Early Adolescence

Early adolescence is the period from age 11 through age 13, when most young people are in middle school or junior high school. Early adolescents should be competent readers who enjoy reading for pleasure. They should be at or above grade level in math, social studies, and language arts.


A high school diploma at age 18 is needed for a positive transition into adulthood. It is key to success in many areas of life, including being able to continue education, increasing one’s chance for a good job and earnings, and maintaining overall health and wellbeing.4 People with more education are more likely to be healthier and to live longer.4 People with more years of education, when they become parents, have babies and children with better health.4 Education is key to breaking the cycle of poverty. Therefore, it is very important for young people to attend and do well in high school, to graduate, and continue on with their education.


Related Interventions




  1. Durham, R., Farkas, G., & Hammer, C.S., & Catts, H.W. (2010). The importance of early language skills: an explanation for social class. Social class background, preschool oral language development, and elementary school performance. Available online.  

  2. Adams, M. J, Foorman, B., R., Lundberg, I., & Beeler, T. (1998). Phonemic awareness in young children: A classroom curriculum. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.  

  3. National Research Council. (2009). Mathematics learning in early childhood: paths toward excellence and equity. C.T., Cross, T.A. Woods, & H. Schweingruber, Editors; Committee on Early Childhood Mathematics; National Research Council.  

  4. Egerter S., Braveman P., Sadegh-Nobari T, et al. (2009). Education Matters for Health. Commission to Build a Healthier America, September, 2009. Available online.