With an increased focus on early education and child care programs, increased support for parents and home visitation programs, and compelling calls-to-action from business leaders, a Nobel Prize winning economist and the President of the United States, it’s hard not to notice the impressive groundswell around the first five years. Yet along with the intensified interest comes the natural question of how the first five years have found themselves in the national spotlight like never before. As someone whose career has been focused on the confluence of pediatrics, parenting, early brain and child development, and early education and care, I find that gaining a better appreciation for this invest-in-kids movement involves making and fostering a few profoundly simple, yet key connections.
Connecting the Neurons.
Babies are born with more than 100 billion nerve cells in their brains. These neurons must connect and communicate with each other in order to form the circuits we ultimately need to think, learn, and succeed – something neurons do at the remarkable rate of 700 connections per second in the first five years of life. In fact, peak development of many fundamentally important brain pathways occurs during the first year of life – from sensory pathways, such as hearing and vision in the earliest months, to language pathways by the middle of the first year, and more complex cognitive skills by the end of the first year. And that’s just the start. We also know, for example, that there is a critical window of opportunity to develop executive function pathways in the brain not just in the teen years, but between the ages of 3 and 5. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has created a useful interactive web feature explaining these and other core concepts in the science of early childhood development.
Making Connections With Caring Responsive Adults.
While the timing of brain development has its roots in genetics, we also now know that the strength and efficiency of this important circuitry is greatly affected by social interactions and relationships. In part two of the three-part series titled, “Three Core Concepts in Early Development,” Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, Director of the Center on the Developing Child, and his colleagues at Harvard have deemed the so-called “serve and return” interactions that take place between parents and children right from birth as “one of the most essential experiences in shaping the architecture of the developing brain.” Not to be taken lightly, this statement raises the question of what does “serve-and-return” actually mean? Simply put, all of the everyday back-and-forth interactions that caring adults have with babies – from the babbling and funny facial expressions, to the singing, cooing and other responsive gestures – stand to literally shape baby brain development far more than parents may have previously realized. Additionally, research from the Center on the Developing Child reveals that a strong relationship between a caring responsive adult and a child is so powerful that it can serve as a protective buffer against the potentially neurotoxic effects of stress and adversity on the developing brain.
Connecting Language and Literacy Skills With Future Life Success.
While you may already be aware that reading books to children (and even babies) is a smart (not to mention fun) thing to do, this time spent talking with young children is fundamentally important in their development. In their landmark 1995 study, University of Kansas child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley examined language development and the effects of home experiences on young children, and their findings were striking: While children in the study were found to begin talking at roughly the same age, the extent to which parents spoke to them (both frequency and quality of words spoken) had significant implications not only on their vocabularies by age 3, but additionally on their IQ, literacy skills and future academic success. Third grade reading scores are considered to be highly predictive of academic success (or conversely, high school dropout risk), and evidence now suggests that 18-month vocabulary is predictive of third grade reading scores. That means that we, as parents, have our work cut out for us in the earliest months and years of our children’s lives. Fortunately, our “work” is in the form of cooing, singing, talking, and reading with our children in order to ensure that they master the developmental milestones of early literacy, such as pointing at pictures between 12 and 24 months of age and reciting whole phrases from books between 3 and 4 years of age.
Recognizing the Connection Between Early Skills and Workforce Development.
All parents strive to raise happy, healthy and productive children. Yet not everyone is aware of how new research is changing what we consider to be the skills necessary for 21st century success. While creativity and abilities such as “playing well with others,” have long been recognized as valuable, the power and importance of play, asking questions, thinking outside the box and learning to fail all run the risk of being overscheduled, overshadowed or altogether overlooked. Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed offers an insightful overview of an evolving educational paradigm shift. Instead of the more purely cognitive focus of decades past, those dedicated to raising children for success are now focusing on character traits such as grit and perseverance that are proving to be better predictors than IQ or standardized tests. Add to this the wealth of supporting research Ellen Galinsky uses to identify seven essential life skills every child needs – from focus and attention to self-directed learning and making connections – and what we end up with is what may well be the most strikingly important connection of all: the 21st century competencies so highly prized by today’s business world are, in fact, one and the same with the core social, emotional, language, and executive function skills we have the ability to foster in early childhood.
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