Understanding the “Why”: How Research Is Improving Early Childhood Education

A Primrose teacher interacting with her students in a classroom

Understanding the “Why”: How Research Is Improving Early Childhood Education

This article was originally published in the May 2016 issue of “The Source” from AdvancED. It is reprinted with permission from Advance Education, Inc. Copyright © 2016 AdvancED® All Rights Reserved. 

It’s fascinating to watch a child’s physical growth, as infants become toddlers and master such milestones as turning over, crawling, standing up and eventually walking unassisted. We cheer our little ones along at each attempt through mastery. Although less visible in a traditional sense, a child’s brain development showcases possibly an even more interesting and exciting display of growth over time.

Researchers for the National Research Council agree that brain development from birth to age 5 is more aggressive than at any other point in a person’s life, even though our brains continue to grow through adulthood. According to research compiled by ZERO TO THREE National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families, a newborn’s brain is only about one-quarter the size of an adult’s. It grows to about 80 percent of adult size by age 3, and to about 90 percent by age 5.

A high-quality interactive relationship between a child and her early caregivers and teachers is vital to making the most out of this developmental phase. Widely accepted research cited by the ZERO TO THREE Policy Center confirms this. Nurturing relationships are critical as the brain forms visual, language, motor and social-emotional connections ­– long before a child can talk. Knowing this, we, as properly informed educators, are poised to impact the lives of all children.

Research shows that the key to children meeting and exceeding their full potential is how we help them learn. Three fundamental factors that facilitate proper brain development are: quality of environment, quality of interactions and quality of teachers.

Even in infancy, natural ability is directly impacted by environment. In a popular report from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, researchers found that during early periods of development, a child’s brain is most open to the influence of external experiences. For this reason, creating stable environments with responsive and nurturing interactions is critical to producing lifelong benefits for learning, behavior and health.

In early brain development, research shows repetition is key to developing a child’s best self. Research conducted on early literacy programs shows that at birth, children arrive with 100 billion neurons, but they haven’t yet formed the synapses to connect them. Constant repetition helps build those connections. Mimicking and imitating adults through “serve and return” interactions help children form a strong neural foundation for lifelong learning. ZERO TO THREE National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families found that brain development is “activity-dependent,” meaning the synapses that are most often stimulated will be the strongest.

But, repetition is not the only way to build proper brain development. Research shows that reaching the highest potential also depends on the content that is being repeated and how it is received. Because every child learns differently and at different rates, multi-sensory interactions expose children to important experiences through different methods of teaching. Hearing a lesson read or sung aloud, touching objects and feeling different textures, stomping or clapping while counting out loud – the multi-sensory, active repetition of each different experience helps strengthen the neural connections being made. Repetition not only benefits academic development. When children know how to do something well, something they’ve learned after several days or weeks of repetition, their confidence and social-emotional growth are also strengthened.

Research cited by ReadyNation shows that children who do not have access to quality child care and early learning experiences may be as much as 18 months behind their peers when they start kindergarten. These children are half as likely to read well by third grade, and children not reading well by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. Brain development research makes it clear: quality environments and quality interactions matter.

The third, and arguably most important element for maximizing a child’s potential, is the consistent presence of highly trained teachers in the early learning years. Brain development research isn’t just making a difference in how we teach children; it’s also affecting how we teach teachers. Several colleges and universities are creating specific disciplines that focus on infant and toddler development to stretch the spectrum within the larger early childhood education program.

In my view, it’s not necessarily the degree a teacher has, but the degree to which that teacher is willing to go in understanding how best to help children grow and develop. Teachers who receive professional development based on brain science and research can be more effective in their roles because they understand the “why” behind the methodology for stimulating brain development in babies. They realize that child care is so much more than feeding and diapering. Early education begins at birth.

At Primrose Schools, we’ve made understanding the “why” one of our top priorities in developing both our early learning and teacher training programs. Our Balanced Learning® curriculum is informed by traditional early learning theorists and continues to evolve as new insights emerge about how children learn best. We have engaged experts across all aspects of early childhood education and development to design a truly integrated, multi-sensory approach that is consistently delivered across the system.

New research in the area of early brain development is informing how quality early education and care are delivered, even though it still may be years before we see quantitative data from the field. AdvancED is at the forefront of accreditation for early child care providers. As the largest community of education professionals in the world, AdvancED has more than 100 years of work in school accreditation. But, the organization still constantly evaluates itself and its member schools based on new data, focusing on three key areas: meeting high-quality standards, implementing a continuous process of improvement and engaging in quality assurance through internal and external review.

From the time children enter an early learning school, they should be comforted by familiar faces and a consistent environment and routine. They also should experience a stimulating “home away from home” where discovery and exploration are nurtured and encouraged. Science continues to reveal that early educators hold the keys to future success for every child with whom they interact. Our job is to provide a learning environment in which those high-quality synapse connections can form to set the foundation for learning and life for all children.



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