Early Childhood Brain Development
SciWorks Radio is a production of 88.5 WFDD and SciWorks, the Science Center and Environmental Park of Forsyth County, located in Winston-Salem.
Much research has been done over the past two decades on early childhood brain development. But often scientific research is published and shelved only to be referenced later by other researchers. When it is, details can be put together from many sources as background for a new publication. Scientific publications are notoriously difficult to read. If information is to be brought to the public in a way that is understandable, it needs to be translated. This process is called translational science. Recently much of the important work on early childhood development has been researched and is being communicated through a series of seminars by Dr. Dean Clifford and Dr Heidi Krowchuk in conjunction with the Wake Forest Translational Science Institute.
Business leaders some 20 years or so ago began talking about how they really wanted young people to come to them with well-developed critical thinking skills, good language skills, and also the ability to work with other people well on teams. And what the research is showing is that the foundation for those is laid out in the first year of life, not after children arrived at school.
With this critical piece of knowledge uncovered, what are some of the ways we contribute to the development of a young child?
It's amazing how many parents don't know that they should talk very much to their baby. Should they read to the newborn? Yes, they should but they don't know that. Any interaction that you do helps build the brain. The brain is very plastic at birth and the neural connections aren't set. What sets them is the interaction the infants have with the people around them, not TV sets. What happens is that when you respond to an infant vocally through interactions and they respond back to you, the synapses that connect the neurons grow, and the more that they are used the stronger they get. If you don't use the synapses they're going to be lost and what we see is that children in lower income families, by the time they were three, heard about thirty million fewer words than children in middle income and higher households. By the time they get to school if they've heard a third less the words than other children have, it puts them behind in their reading skills, in their writing skills, their ability to interact with other children, so it really sets them up for problems.
A condition that affects many Americans can be critical to a lack of development.
Stress is really an important issue in children's lives, and it becomes really problematic when stress is continuous. Children who are in stressful environments where there is a lack of resources, they have poor nutrition, they're not getting adequate sleep, they don't have consistent caregivers, domestic violence or unemployment even, and when the stressors are there the child's hormones react differently to what’s going on in their brain. And that chronic stress kind of beats them down, and it makes it really difficult to develop optimally. Children who are under constant stress have smaller brains. They don't know how to interact with other people. They don't know how to respond. They respond differently and not in a real adaptive way. And it's very negative.
There is one very important aspect that can positively affect a child in this kind of situation. You yourself may be that aspect.
If there is a caring adult that provides continuing reassurance and warmth they can offset some of the effects of that stress. We want parents to know that you are really important. We want early childhood caregivers to know the same thing. You have the potential not only to stimulate brain development and brain growth and language development and to teach appropriate social and emotional reactions to life. You also have the opportunity to offset anything negative that's going on in that child's life. You have a great responsibility and you also have this privilege of making a difference in a child's life.