Early Childhood Development – What Neuroscience Says About Parenting, Care and Learning – Part 1

Babylicious by Figur8 began as an early child development blog with topics and articles following the growth and development of my children. Although my children are exiting early childhood, I still receive queries from new parents about early child development so this is an overview of touching on many of the topics I have covered previously, including a summary from an interesting report from the Australian Education Council reviewing the scientific literature and research from neuroscience on early childhood development and education. We can’t cover everything so the links are present to help you navigate this blog to find the relevant articles you would like to read about.

If you’re looking for the full report from the Australian Education Council, it can be found here: Engaging Families in the Early Childhood Development Story

So what are the messages from neuroscience on parenting, care and learning?

The first five years matter and last a lifetime

Our children’s brains are shaped by their experiences – good and bad. In order to encourage “good” brain development and the expression of their genetic potential, we need to ensure they receive plenty of good experiences. Life can’t all be a bed of roses so the goal of a parent is to ensure our children receive repetitive and consistent experiences that offer emotional and social security. At the end of the day, we’re after a net result.

Early experiences in the preschool years affect brain development and can have long-term effects on a child’s well-being – physically, mentally, and emotionally. It can also impact future learning and behaviour which can be difficult to change in the later years as they become less flexible with age.

See also:

Recommended Parenting Strategies:

  • Nurture, comfort and keep your child safe
  • Communicate and play with your child
  • Respond calmly, be gentle
  • Enjoy your role as a parent
  • Encourage and help your child discover the world around them
  • Monkey see, monkey do, so be a good role model
  • Establish predictable routines – young children need familiarity in their routine to feel security
  • Provide clear guidance about caring for self, others, things and places

It can be difficult to respond calmly all the time, especially when your adorable baby grows up into a mischievous young child, so it is worth knowing that it is okay to lose your cool every now and then. What you’re after is a net positive result.

Good nutrition, health, and exercise are critical

Studies from Neuroscience have shown:

We have also discussed these topics in the following articles:

Recommended Parenting Strategies:

  • Monkey see, monkey do, so make sure you lead a healthy lifestyle so your children can learn from you
  • Try to breastfeed for at least the first 6 months (see: Parenting 101 – breastfeeding)
  • Encourage your baby to be active – give babies daily tummy time and opportunities to roll and rock, reach, grasp; give them rattles, spoons, etc.
  • While encouraging children to be physically active, be sure to safeguard them from physical and emotional harm
  • Offer many opportunities to practice physical skills – visit playgrounds, parks, walk rather than take transport
  • Encourage children to help you with physical tasks like getting dressed, sweeping floors, leaves, hanging out clothes
  • Give older children safe opportunities to run, play ball games, climb, jump, skip
  • Establish good sleep routines – help your children learn to sleep independently and maintain a regular routine that takes into account your children’s need for sleep

Children are born ready to learn

What Neuroscience has taught us:

  • Early experiences matter because the brain develops most rapidly in the first three years
  • Early experiences plus genes shapes how the brain grows, learns and functions
  • Learning and development is cumulative
  • Early experiences provide the foundation for everything else that follows
  • New, more complex learning builds on previous learning
  • There are prime times for specific types of learning:
    • Prior to age 3: vision, habitual ways of responding, emotional control, language, and symbols
    • Prior to age 6: peer social skills, relative quantity
  • As children develop, they become more rational
  • When children are very young, delivery of the messages is more important than the content because children are learning what they are like as a person and a learner

See also: 11 Facts every parent should know about their baby’s brain

Recommended Parenting Strategies:

  • From birth: provide baby with sensory, social, warm emotional experiences, share gaze, vocalisations, and touch (e.g. baby massage). Play games that help establish self regulation, like peek a boo, sensory, tactile games, rocking, talking, singing, picture and word books.
  • For toddlers: provide large and fine sensory-motor experiences – listening and moving to music, movement, walking, running, balancing, climbing, rolling, balls, push/pull toys, books.
  • For preschoolers: games that strengthen social/emotional development and abstract thought – pretend and role play, group, turn taking, humour, language, drawing, ball games, rhyming and word games, stories.
  • Check sight and hearing early so early intervention can occur if necessary – absence of appropriate sensory information can impede learning and development, e.g. a child with persistent ear infections.
  • Establish routines and rituals and rhythms for the day (sequences, rather than timed).
  • Recall and retell stories and events.

You may also be interested in these related articles:

The best learning happens in nurturing relationships

Nurturing relationships – attachment and consistent warm, loving behavior – are critical for optimal brain development. Persistent neglectful and negative relationships and environments damage the developing brain with long-term consequences.

The strength and quality of the relationship between a child and his parents and close family is fundamental to the development of the child’s brain architecture, function and capacity. These relationships have long term influences on who the child is, how she behaves and who she becomes.

This topic has also been discussed in the following posts:

What Neuroscience tells us:

  • Healthy brain development relies on loving, caring, stable, supportive relationships with important people who respect children.
  • Children’s brains adapt to the environment in which they find themselves.
  • Babies with strong, positive, affective bonds to their caregivers are able to learn better and respond appropriately to stressful situations.
  • Children are social beings, they learn most effectively in socially sensitive and responsive environments through their interactions with caring adults and other children.
  • Parents and carers should aim for warm and responsive relationships/secure attachments:
    • Babies can’t be spoiled in their first year – they need to learn trust and they do this by feeling safe, by their parents being predictable and available when needed, and by parents encouraging their curiosity.
    • For toddlers, it’s about parents being available when their toddlers want them.
    • As children get older, rules need to be established to allow children and adults to share their lives together reasonably peacefully.
  • Warm, sensitive interactions are more effective at promoting brain development than a toy, CD, DVD or TV.

Recommended Parenting Strategies:

  • Babies depend on you for comfort in all forms – food, warmth, love, protection, connection – you need to make sure you provide them all.
  • Respond to baby’s cries consistently and warmly.
  • Be attentive and in tune with your child’s bids for attention and communication; and establish predictable daily routines.
  • Special educational equipment is not needed – you are your child’s best toy:
    • Play with baby; make sounds, facial expressions and gestures for baby to copy e.g. blow ‘raspberries’, smile, wave.
    • Hold, cuddle, caress, affirm, talk, sing, touch your baby.
    • Maintain a positive emotional relationship with your child – look into their eyes, reflect their smiles, share a cuddle, play in the bath water.

Continued in Part 2.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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