Children and Brain Development: What We Know About How Children Learn – Part 1

There is a lot of information available these days about the importance of brain development, early childhood education, kindergarten readiness, and how to help our children succeed in school. Healthy Peninsula’s Ready By 21 Project and Early Childhood Workgroup are based on the premise that early intervention – identifying problems and supporting families and schools early in the life of the child – will only help to make our children successful throughout their school years and beyond.

Although many scientific papers about brain development may be difficult to understand, child development specialists Judith Graham and Leslie Forstadt, PhD from the University of Maine Extension Service have brought this complex topic to life for the non-scientists among us. Below are excerpts and adaptations from UMES Bulletin #4356.

Like constructing a house, brains are built upon a strong foundation. This starts before birth, and is very important during the first three years of life. Brain cells are “raw” materials — much like lumber is a raw material in building a house, and a child’s experiences and interactions help build the structure, put in the wiring, and paint the walls.

At birth, a baby’s brain contains 100 billion neurons, roughly as many nerve cells as there are stars in the Milky Way, and almost all the neurons the brain will ever have. The brain starts forming prenatally, about three weeks after conception. Before birth, the brain produces trillions more neurons and “synapses” (connections between the brain cells) than it needs. As the neurons mature, more and more synapses are made. At birth, the number of synapses per neuron is 2,500, but by age two or three, it’s about 15,000 per neuron.

‘Windows of opportunity’ are sensitive periods in children’s lives when specific types of learning take place. For instance, neurons for vision begin sending messages back and forth rapidly at 2 to 4 months of age, peaking in intensity at 8 months. It is no coincidence that babies begin to take notice of the world during this period.

Scientists believe that language is acquired most easily during the first ten years of life. During these years, the circuits in children’s brains become wired for how their own language sounds. An infant’s repeated exposure to words clearly helps her brain build the neural connections that will enable her to learn more words later on.

Language can be learned in many ways, like casual conversation, songs, rhymes, reading, music, and story telling. A child’s experiences, good or bad, influence the wiring of his brain and the connection in his nervous system. Loving interactions with caring adults strongly stimulate a child’s brain, causing synapses to grow and existing connections to get stronger. If a child receives little stimulation early on, the synapses will not develop, and the brain will make fewer connections.

Although every child experiences some kind of stress, stress can become ‘toxic’ when a child has frequent or prolonged experiences like abuse, neglect, or poverty without adult support. When adults are present to support a child’s experiences and help the child’s stress levels come down, stressors may be tolerable. Examples of tolerable stress include loss of a loved one, illness or injury, or poverty, when a caring adult helps the child adapt.

When children are faced with physical or emotional stress or trauma, high levels of the hormone cortisol can cause brain cells to die and reduce the connections between the cells in certain areas of the brain. In other words, the wiring of the brain can be severely damaged or miswired if a child is exposed to repeated and longtime stress without the assistance of a caring adult.

At birth, the human brain is in a remarkably unfinished state. Most of its 100 billion neurons are not yet connected in networks. Forming and reinforcing these connections are the key tasks of early brain development. Connections among neurons are formed as the growing child experiences the surrounding world and forms attachments to parents, family members and other caregivers. Early childhood is the time to build either a strong and supportive, or a fragile and unreliable foundation. These early years are very important in the development that continues into childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

In Part ll we will see how parents and communities can help foster brain development and positive early childhood experiences.

Sandra Phoenix FNP Healthy Peninsula Health September 25, 2012

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