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Professors Marla Sokolowski and Stephen Lye, in the schoolyard of U of Toronto's Institute of Child Study.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

We have known for years that children from poor or abusive families have more challenges in school and, as adults, have markedly worse health. Now, scientists understand why. The experiences of a child during the first 2,000 days of his or her life affect brain circuitry and impair social and mental development because genes react to the environment.

The policy implications of this research, undertaken by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), are enormous. By providing early learning enrichment, it is possible to reverse the impact of adverse circumstances on a child's brain.

Hierarchical differences are apparent as early as kindergarten, according to research published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Children from less privileged backgrounds who are in subordinate roles in the classroom are already less attentive and less socially successful than their five-year-old peers and have less academic ability, concluded Dr. Tom Boyce of the University of British Columbia.

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Teachers can mitigate the impact of this early social stratification by going out of their way to help at-risk children learn and by creating a culture of empathy in the classroom. Dr. Boyce calls these children "orchids" because need more nurturing to succeed than "dandelions," who thrive in any circumstance.

Another study looked at the impact of parenting on cognitive and emotional development, showing once again the influence of environment on the brain and on epigenetic signals that control activities in the brain. "This isn't about blaming parenting, but about providing equity for children at a time in their life that is critical for brain development," said the University of Toronto's Prof. Marla Sokolowski, who co-edited the papers with Dr. Boyce.

Investing in early learning yields positive returns for the individual and for society. It can help all children not only reach their potential, but also stave off a series of medical and mental health conditions later in life that are associated with childhood adversity.

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