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

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

In my September article, I presented information about how our children’s brains develop and that stressful experiences, like poverty, abuse, neglect, or loss of a loved one, cause chemical changes in the brain that negatively affect children’s ability to learn, be successful in school, and to form healthy relationships. The Maine Children’s Growth Council tells us that parent or caregiver-child interaction, sense of safety, emotional support, parent stress, nutrition, and exposure to environmental toxins all affect – positively or negatively – early brain development.

Early educational interventions, like home visiting and preschool programs, have been shown to partially offset the impacts of poverty, stress, and inadequate learning environments, and can produce meaningful, lasting effects on cognitive (thinking), social, and schooling outcomes. However, all interventions were not equally effective, including those that focused on intellectual growth. What was missing?

In his new book, ‘How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character’, Paul Tough writes that recent research is focusing on Executive Functions, the ‘air traffic control center of the brain’. Executive Function qualities include creativity, perseverance, and perhaps most important, flexibility and self-control. Children need flexibility to think creatively to find new solutions to problems. Self-control helps them to regulate their emotional responses and behaviors, and to help them avoid making bad choices. Other researchers add the ability to direct attention (focus) as a key skill in the Executive Functions toolkit in our brains. It is now believed that Executive Functions are more important for school readiness than Intelligence Quotient (IQ).

What role do parents play in brain development? The Zero to Three National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families tells us that parents are one of the most important parts of the brain developmental equation. The love most parents feel towards their babies and the kind of attention we give them—touching, holding, comforting, rocking, singing, and talking to them—provide the best kind of stimulation for their growing brains and for their emotional security.

In spite of all the recent hype about ‘making your baby smarter,’ scientists have not discovered any special tricks for enhancing the natural wiring phase in children’s brain development. Normal, loving care provides babies with the ideal environment for encouraging their own exploration, which is always the best route to learning. The one form of stimulation that has been proven to make a difference is language. Because language is fundamental to cognitive development (thinking processes), this simple action—talking and listening to your child—is one of the best ways to make the most of these critical brain-building years.

University of Maine Extension Service research on early brain development and school readiness suggests the following guidelines for the care of young children:

Ensure health, safety, and good nutrition: Provide wholesome foods, routine health care, and safe places for children to play. Develop a warm, caring relationship with children: Infants cannot be ‘spoiled’. Holding, comforting, responding quickly to their cries and needs help to develop a strong attachment between parent and child and make them feel more secure and ready to explore the world.

Talk, read, and sing to children: Surround them with language. Sing to them, play music, tell stories and read books. Take advantage of libraries and play groups. Ask toddlers and preschoolers to guess what will come next in a story. These are key pre-reading experiences. Encourage safe exploration and play: Give children opportunities to safely move around, explore and play. Arrange for your child to spend time with other children and help them solve the conflicts that inevitably arise.

Use discipline to teach: Talk to children about how they are feeling and teach them words to describe those feelings. Make it clear that while you might not like the way they are behaving, you love them. Explain the rules and consequences of behavior so children can learn the ‘why’s’ behind what you are asking them to do. Establish routines: Create routines and rituals for special times during the day like mealtime, naptime, and bedtime. Try to be predictable so the children know that they can count on you.

Become involved in childcare and preschool: The relationships your children form outside of the home are among the most important relationships they have. Limit television: Limit the time children spend watching TV shows, videos or playing computer games. For very young children, there is no research evidence suggesting TV helps children learn.

Take care of yourself: Learn to cope with your stressors so that you can help your child learn too. Your child’s well-being depends on your health and well-being.

Sandra Phoenix FNP Healthy Peninsula Health October 18, 2012

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