Brain Development in Early Childhood

Posted on March 31st, 2017

On March 22, 2017, the ECCS hosted a workshop called “Early Childhood Brain Development – What Does the Research Tell Us?” It was presented by Allison Logan, the Early Childhood Project Manager of United Way of Coastal Fairfield County (and a Southington resident).

You can view the presentation slides here.

Allison discussed that we know a lot about the early years….
• Brain growth begins before birth and is explosive in the early years
• Brains grow through a “serve and return” relationship with primary caregivers, including parents, extended families and early child care providers
• Chronic, high levels of stress negatively impact these relationships and hurts brain development
• A child’s developmental delays, language, social-emotional and behavioral challenges can reduce school readiness
• Exposure to chronic, toxic stress and adversity has lifelong impacts that can cross generations
• Responsive, reciprocal positive parenting can buffer adversity
• Communities can buffer adversity through “protective factors”
• Parents, teachers and other primary caregivers need help, too

We discussed the toxic stressors in a suburban environment like Southington. These can include maternal/post-partum depression, mental illness, drugs/opioids, divorce, unemployment, food scarcity and poverty. Adversity, toxic stress and trauma in early childhood can impact adult health and mental health over the lifetime and can negatively impact a parent’s capacity for positive parenting. This impacts the development of these parent’s young children’s brains and body systems, thus continuing the cycle.

Allison recommended using the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University as a resource, especially these three brief videos that highlight the Three Core Concepts in Early Development:

Healthy development in the early years provides the building blocks for educational achievement, economic productivity, responsible citizenship, lifelong health, strong communities, and successful parenting of the next generation. This three-part video series from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child depicts how advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, and genomics now give us a much better understanding of how early experiences are built into our bodies and brains, for better or for worse. View videos here.

One of these videos discusses an essential experience in shaping the architecture of the developing brain, the “serve and return” interaction between children and significant adults in their lives. Young children naturally reach out for interaction through babbling, facial expressions, and gestures, and adults respond with the same kind of vocalizing and gesturing back at them. This back-and-forth process is fundamental to the wiring of the brain, especially in the earliest years. Caregivers who are distracted, hungry or under toxic stress may miss the serve cues or don’t respond thus impacting the child’s brain. Watching television or videos and most apps are a one-way communication, there is no return from the device. Screen time for children should be limited or look for apps that have a serve and return interaction with a character.

Moving to a steady beat is linked to the development of language skills. Children are first exposed to a steady rhythm via the heartbeat of the caregivers who are holding them and then as they are being rocked. They hear it via music and then try to make sounds themselves. Children who can’t keep a steady beat are frequently problem readers and third grade reading levels have a strong correlation to future success. Allison, a former music educator, discussed that the more singing, clapping, tapping and other rhythmical activities you can do with your child, the better. She suggested reading books to a beat combined with movement such as rocking, bouncing or tapping on the child’s arm, back, knee or even nose. Books by Dr. Seuss and “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” are well suited for this. You can have the child clap, hop or tap themselves to a beat set by books, games and music.

Hand movements that cross the midline of the body help to build connections between the left and right sides of the brain. This midline cross happens naturally when babies are crawling. But as children spend more time confined to a playpen and move right to walking their brains lose the opportunity to make those connections. Playing handclap games where the participants each reach out diagonally is another way to get that crossing action and can also be done to a steady beat.

At the workshop there were handouts from the Building Baby’s Brain initiative of the University of Georgia that helps parents learn strategies to improve early brain development.
You can find the ones Allison brought, “What Parents Can Do,” “What Child Care Can Do,” and “Buffering the Brain from Toxic Stress” plus several others on this page.

A big thank you to Allison Logan for a great workshop on brain development in early childhood.