In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Development and Infancy (Birth to Age Three)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Ontogeny of Early Brain Development
  • Brain Development and Attachment
  • Genes and the Environment
  • Autism
  • Mental Illness
  • Social Work Practice Issues
  • Applications to Social Policy
  • Resources for Clients/Parents

Social Work Development and Infancy (Birth to Age Three)
Terri Combs-Orme
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0235


New research on brain development in early life is making it clear that this knowledge is critical for social work practice with clients of all ages. The brain is the seat of all behavior, emotions, and interactions, and early experiences shape the potential of individuals for functioning in all those areas (though the brain also remains plastic and able to make changes in later life). For micro-level social workers, this information is critical to understanding the behavior and needs of clients, as well as to helping parents provide children with the environment and experiences that are key to healthy development and future success. For macro-level practice, this knowledge provides the backdrop for designing and delivering policies and services that may provide the opportunity for “leveling the playing field” for children who grow up in poverty, are exposed to trauma and chronic stress, and do not have the benefits of a nurturing family and community. Because neuroscience is a fast-moving and rapidly expanding field of knowledge, the selections in this article focus on recent articles in scientific and other professional journals. Although some selections are highly scientific and complex, most are accessible to undergraduates and graduate students, as well as social work practitioners. The body of work presented here includes some repetition of some principles, but an attempt has been made to minimize repetition to provide variety and at least an introduction to the basic material as of this writing.

General Overviews

The works cited provide overviews of early brain development, including history, fetal imaging methods (which have provided the capability to study brain structure and functioning), and implications for parenting, practice, and social policy. Practitioners who work directly with pregnant women, infants, children, and families will find the cited sources particularly useful to practice. Social workers in areas of practice that do not bring them into contact with infants and their parents may nevertheless use this information to better understand the life histories of their clients. Shonkoff and Phillips 2000 is a classic work that summarizes much of the research in the 1990s (the “decade of the brain”). The PBS video The Baby’s Brain is a good and accessible introduction to the topic, and it is particularly interesting to students. The Urban Child Institute and Zero to Three websites are also highly accessible, designed in part for parents; they provide constantly updated material based on new research. Finally, Anderson and Thomason 2013 provides a good explanation of what brain imaging reveals about prenatal brain development. Johnson 2014 is a comprehensive reference on neuroscience for social work practice.

  • Anderson, Amy L., and Moriah E. Thomason. 2013. Functional plasticity before the cradle: A review of neural functional imaging in the human fetus. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 37.9: 2220–2232.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.03.013

    Describes the history of neuroscience research and explains recent technology with full-term and premature infants, which has provided the very recent capacity to map the functional development of the fetal brain. Complicated and technical.

  • The Baby’s Brain. The Secret Life of the Brain 1. Arlington, VA: Public Broadcasting System.

    Although dated (2002), this informative and entertaining video about early brain development is especially useful for students and practitioners. The PBS website also provides viewers’ guides. Series also includes episodes on adult brain functioning and aging.

  • Johnson, Harriette C. 2014. Behavioral neuroscience for the human services: Foundations in emotion, mental health, addiction, and alternative therapies. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Comprehensive, accessible reference work on neuroscience for all social workers. Particularly useful for direct practitioners.

  • Shonkoff, Jack, and D. Phillips. 2000. From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. Washington, DC: National Academies.

    This classic is a valuable resource that summarizes research from the 1990s, termed the “decade of the brain.” It is useful for working with parents and provides information to assist in explaining how the environment influences brain development.

  • Urban Child Institute.

    Website sponsored by the Urban Child Institute in Memphis, TN. Resources for practitioners, students, and parents. Changing content and resources, particularly for families.

  • Zero to Three. Early Experiences Matter. Washington, DC: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families.

    Authoritative website with resources and information for individuals interested in early brain development, including parents. Resources for caregivers to use in work with parents and infants. Other, more technical, resources focus on caregivers and researchers.

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