The first years are the most crucial to a child’s healthy development. During this period, one million new brain connections form every second, laying a foundation for social-emotional development, learning and skill-building. While a child's genes provide the blueprint for these connections, early experiences influence brain development. Connections that are used are strengthened, while those that aren’t stimulated are lost through a natural process called pruning. This means that helping our children build strong brains means giving them stimulating learning opportunities and nurturing, responsive relationships—from day one. (Watch this great "Brain Builders" video to learn more.)
Getting kids ready for school means more than helping them with their ABCs, packing their lunches, filling their backpacks and getting them to the bus on time. It starts the day they're born with quality early experiences. See this article by Winooski JFK kindergarten teacher Jessica Perrotte to learn more about "kindergarten readiness."
Healthy Stress vs. Unhealthy Stress
Early experiences are literally built into our brains, so it's important that we provide positive environments and experiences for the youngest in our communities. Some stress is considered good stress—like meeting a new caregiver. However, when children grow up in chronically stressful environments where violence, abuse or neglect occur, they experience what scientists call "toxic stress." Toxic stress can disrupt the structure of the developing brain, increasing the likelihood of poor outcomes, because the foundation for future learning, skill-building and social-emotional development is not as sturdy. For more on the effects of stress on a child's development, read this blog article by Dr. Jody Brakeley. If we want all of our children to have the opportunity to succeed, we must invest in what works to provide positive experiences in our communities during the very earliest stages of life.
Good Relationships = A Strong Brain
Good relationships affect almost all aspects of a child’s growth, helping him or her to:
- Develop confidence and good mental health
- Increase the motivation to learn
- Reach greater achievement in school
- Control aggressive impulses
- Resolve conflicts in nonviolent ways
- Know the difference between right and wrong
- Have the capacity to develop and sustain casual friendships and intimate relationships
Young children naturally seek interaction through babbling and cooing, facial expressions and gestures. When the adult responds with the same kind of vocalizing and gesturing back at them—what scientists call "Serve and Return" interactions—the child’s brain development is strengthened, and the child experiences affirmation and encouragement to continue learning. For more on Serve and Returns interactions, see this article by Dr. Lewis First.
As the infant brain is rapidly developing new connections, it’s through positive interactions with adults that the connections become stronger, laying the groundwork for more complex learning. Conversely, a lack of healthy, appropriate interactions with adults weakens those brain connections. To see how important responsive relationships are to babies, watch the "Still Face Experiment," in which a mother stops returning her baby's bids for attention:
A Healthy Diet
Good nutrition is critical to healthy development. A poor diet during the early years can negatively affect a child’s brain development and nervous system, resulting in poor health, lack of school readiness, nutritional deficiencies and obesity, developmental delays, poor academic achievement, depression and increased aggressive or hyperactive behavior. Children need good nutrition to help them grow up strong, healthy and emotionally well-adjusted.
For more on the overall nutritional needs of our youngest children, see this article by dietician nutritionist Marcia Bristow.
To learn about the essential role breastfeeding plays in early development, see this article by Karen Flynn of the Vermont Department of Health.