The National Week of the Young Child is underway and the public is being urged to support efforts that promote early childhood brain development.
The week got kicked off in Union County on Saturday with Touch-A-Truck 2012, held by Union County First Steps at the Union County Fairgrounds. Union County First Steps Director Linda Parker said events will take place throughout the week to highlight early childhood brain development.
“Early childhood education is vital to our community,” Parker said. “Children need a strong early learning foundation to succeed in school and to succeed in life.”
Throughout the week, South Carolina First Steps provided tips for early brain development in young children. Here some tips that relate to the intellectual, social, and language skills development in the young child.
Feeding young brains when they need it most
The brain develops from the bottom up and from the back to the front. Different areas of the brain control different brain and body functions; the areas develop simultaneously, but development peaks at different times. The first areas to peak in development are those that govern movement and basic organ functions. The development of movement functions in the brain sets the foundation for the child to explore their world and build new capabilities, therefore opening pathways to subsequent areas of the brain. Later, brain development focuses on areas that make us unique, such as temperament and personality.
TIP: When the baby is awake and active, give your baby “tummy time” – lay the baby on the floor on his or her tummy.
WHY IT MATTERS: This strengthens the baby’s motor skills, which are flourishing in the first months of life.
TIP: In the first few months of life, hold the baby about 8 to 10 inches from your face when talking.
WHY IT MATTERS: That is the range of the baby’s vision, so fostering vision development requires staying within the baby’s range of vision
TIP: Bathe the child in language.
WHY IT MATTERS: The brain areas responsible for speech and language are rapidly developing in the first three years of life. Throughout the first three years of a child’s life, the brain acquires language by hearing thousands and thousands of words spoken to them by the important people in the child’s life. (Television doesn’t count!)
TIP: Label the child’s feelings with words by saying aloud, for example, “Oh, you are smiling. You look happy.”
WHY IT MATTERS: The frontal lobe of the brain that controls higher level thinking and functioning is peaking in development during the first three years. Labeling the emotions aloud helps the child connect the meaning between the word and the actual emotion.
Young brains need social-emotional development, too
A child’s social-emotional development is peaking between ages 1 and 3. During this time, children develop a capacity to form relationships through experiences regulating and expressing emotions. This is the critical window for setting the foundation for a child’s later ability to feel empathy. Priming a child for empathy is essential to the future lifelong ability for pro-social behavior and management of conflict.
During this period of social-emotional development, parents and caregivers foster optimal brain development by staying attuned to a child’s ever-developing abilities for self-regulation and expression of emotion. Parents foster growth by helping a child build upon these rapidly emerging skills. In the early childhood field, professionals call this “scaffolding.” According to the think-tank Zero to Three, “Scaffolding happens when you follow your child’s lead and provide just enough support to challenge him to the next level without overwhelming him with frustration.”
TIP: State clear expectations for a child’s behavior that are consistently enforced.
WHY IT MATTERS: This focuses the child’s attention on the desired behavior, thereby guiding the child in the development of self-regulation.
TIP: Help children achieve what they set out to do by recognizing aloud when they do the right thing. Further, notice positive behaviors aloud, rather than praising everything. For example, “You shared a toy with your brother. Doesn’t that feel good?”
WHY IT MATTERS: This exposes children to the concepts of accomplishment, success and responsibility.
TIP: Support toddlers in resolving social conflicts.
WHY IT MATTERS: These first incidences of social conflict are key to the development of a child’s conscience and future ability for empathy. Children also learn cooperation when they are supported in the positive resolution of conflict.
TIP: Comfort and soothe children.
WHY IT MATTERS: Regardless of the emotion a child is feeling — anger, fear, etc. — validation of a child’s emotion helps her understand that the emotion is important and meaningful. The next step is teaching children that there are positive ways to cope with emotion (example: verbalizing a child’s feeling, “I don’t like that”) versus unacceptable ways to cope with emotion, such as hitting another child.
Validation of children’s feelings sends a message that they are special; when they are loved for who they are, they can love others that way, too.
Building brain capacity for language development starts at birth
When babies are born, their brains are primed to learn language, including millions of brain cells for controlling language. During the first years of life, the baby’s brain cells connect with other cells to form complex pathways for language. With the brain primed for language acquisition, the ball is now in the court of the adults and caretakers in the baby’s life. As the baby hears people speak, the brain strengthens these pre-wired language connections. Without activity in these brain cells, those cells can whither away within the first 10 years of life. The bottom line is, talk to your baby or young child all the time.
TIP: Watch and listen to see how your baby communicates what she is thinking and feeling. Repeat the sounds and words your child uses, and have a back-and-forth conversation.
WHY IT MATTERS: This shows that words have meanings attached to them. This is one of the critical building blocks for a child’s later reading lessons.
TIP: Read, sing and tell stories.
WHY IT MATTERS: Making language fun for a child paves the way for him to become a lifelong reader.
TIP: Talk to your baby or young child all the time.
WHY IT MATTERS: Don’t feel silly talking to a baby who can’t talk back. Hearing language sparks the creation of pathways between brain cells.
ABCs of Emotional Health and Dangers of Toxic Stress
The emotional atmosphere surrounding young children has a direct impact on their brain development. For example, research released the first week of April 2009 connects a family life of chronic stress with brain impairments in young children. A child’s holistic development hinges not just on cognitive and social development, but emotional development, as well.
Fortunately, this cautionary brain research can help parents know the importance of staying aware of the emotional atmosphere in the home environment. Because supportive relationships and positive learning experiences begin at home, parents should strive for a balanced approach to emotional, social and cognitive language development.
TIP: During stressful times, parents need to be extra aware of their stress levels and notice when they need to give themselves a “time out” to soothe rattled nerves.
WHY IT MATTERS: Children are extremely sensitive to stress in adults, and chronic amounts of it can impair their brains from being able to take in new information during these peak brain development periods.
TIP: A child’s brain development thrives in a stable, predictable environment.
WHY IT MATTERS: A stable environment is key to a healthy emotional atmosphere, which allows the child to be open to the experiences that feed cognitive and social development. For example, in a child care setting, the continuity of teachers and staff in a child’s life are key ingredients to stability.
TIP: The most precious gift you can give your child is your time and your attention.
WHY IT MATTERS: According to Harvard University early childhood expert Jack Shonkoff, “The nature of children’s relationships with the important adults in their lives is the active ingredient in realizing their genetic potential.”
The Week of the Young Child is an annual celebration sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The purpose of the Week of the Young Child is to focus public attention on the needs of young children and their families and to recognize the early childhood programs and services that meet those needs.
To learn more about early brain development and the work of First Steps and its partners, visit www.scfirststeps.org.