Written by Michael Wolper – School Director/Adolescent Neurodevelopmental Specialist
Decades of research indicate that the early years of life are a period of exponential brain development and growth. Consistent and responsive caregiving, social-emotional engagement, and a safe and nurturing environment are critical in early childhood years to promote and enhance healthy neurologic, metabolic, and immunologic systems.
The first 8 years of a child’s life build the foundation for their future health and well-being. One of the major reasons is how fast the brain grows, starting before birth and continuing into early childhood. It is during this period that more than a million neural connections are developed each second. Although the brain continues to develop and change well into adulthood, the first 7-8 years can build a foundation for future learning, health, and life success.
Children are born ready to learn, they are curious, creative, and in wonder of the world around them. They depend on parents, family members, and their early year teachers to cultivate the right skills to become secure, independent, and healthy adults.
In research conducted at UCLA’s Laboratory of Neuroimaging, how the brain grows and where the where neurodevelopment takes place is seen to be significantly affected by the child’s early relationships and engagements. fMRI imaging shows that different areas of brain development can either lead to an attitude of receptivity and openness or an attitude of reactivity and fear. The difference is based on coherent and consistent neural activation and emotional attunement.
During this time, children become aware of their separateness and the sense of themselves as individuals. They begin to exhibit self-conscious emotions and are particularly sensitive to others’ judgments. These early experiences provide lessons for gaining control of impulses and emotions, as well as learning and adapting to the rules of family, culture, and society. As they experience a growing sense of independence and self-control, their brains’ learn to regulate their behavior. This is where parents and educators have the greatest opportunity to positively influence the child.
The American Academy Of Pediatrics advocates for predictable routines in safe, clearly defined environments; respectful responses; and consistent guidance to provide the kind of care that strengthens self-regulation and the beginnings of executive function.
The young brain needs adults to act in ways that honor the child’s desires, hopes, explorative nature, and preferences, while also helping the child learn to honor the similar rights of others. Although the child is growing older and more independent, the young brain remains vulnerable. Caring relationships, with clear rules for behavior that are consistently applied in reasoned ways, provide safety, ensuring that individuation experiences and socialization occur in a fair and predictable environment.
In essence, brain development is about the whole child, from the health of the mother to the child’s early experiences and their early learning environment. The foundation for successful neurodevelopment is grounded in social and emotional support and caring relationships. If parents and teachers are mindful of how a child’s whole experience influences the developing brain, they can provide an environment that helps them feel secure, open, engaged, and learning throughout not only the early years but also well into their adult lives.