Unless children achieve a minimum social competence by the age of six, they are at risk for the rest of the lives and may put others at risk, Lilian Katz, one of the world's leading early childhood researchers, told a conference in Stirling last week in the Albert Halls, the base for Lord Cullen's inquiry into the Dunblane shootings.
Professor Katz, head of early childhood education at Illinois University, said: "When you look at adults with mental health difficulties, invariably they are failing to develop satisfactory peer relationships within the first six years. It is very powerful data."
Whatever type of social behaviour children had, the chances were that other children would react to reinforce it. Some were rejected or ignored and were eventually cut off. "A child cannot break that cycle by itself," Professor Katz said.
But the cycle could be broken by adult intervention but not in large classes or by a single teacher.
In a statement that brought murmurs of agreement from her audience of nursery and infant teachers, Professor Katz said: "We also have reason to believe that children rejected by their peers early eventually find each other and they form a close relationship in which they obtain acceptance, loyalty, intimacy and caring based primarily on what they share, which is bitterness and hostility to the rest of society. That is really important. They do not want the problem solved because they lose the base of their intimacy."
She believed young children should be engaged in small groups every day in which they took part in projects to investigate their own world. This provides the context for developing skills.
Professor Katz told the conference on early intervention and early literacy, organised by Stirling Council, that forthcoming research from the United States would confirm the best predictor of reading ability was the child's household. If there were books around and others read, children would read.
She was puzzled by some of the mindless tasks set in nursery and infant classes. The intellectual powers of children were easily underestimated, especially in disadvantaged areas, and children enjoyed being worked hard.
Professor Katz endeared herself by drawing similarities with Scotland. The curriculum in the United States was overcrowded and teachers could not do justice to "mastery and coverage".
Children were also "tested ad nauseam" and local newspapers published league tables of results without any evidence that this helped schools to improve.
Ian Smith, an educational consultant and former Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum researcher, appealed for a range of ways to teach reading. Research on the brain showed people learned in different ways and that a child's motivation was crucial, Mr Smith said.
Nigel Hall, a reader in literacy education at Manchester Metropolitan University, urged Scottish teachers to fight any move towards the literacy hour being imposed on English schools. "You have got to make damn sure it keeps south of the border and make sure it does not creep in in another guise," Mr Hall warned.
Ministers and their advisers appeared to treat literacy as an object and devalued the importance of play in establishing reading and writing skills.
Gordon Jeyes, Stirling's director of education, said he was delighted Scotland had avoided the "detailed and over-prescriptive" approach in England and Wales.