How many times have we been out at the store with our two year old when the end of the world erupted and a childocalypse ensued? I’m talking about one of those kidnados that leaves nothing in its wake untouched. A fully blown meltdown where even the stomped-on tile floor might not survive. Every parent knows what this is like. We’ve lived it too many times, whether at the store, playground, or on the homestead. We all know how they go. Yet, how do we know if what we know is best, as guardians and nurturers of our young ones? How many of us have stood over our precious, flailing, temporarily insane little ones wondering what to do to the point of thoroughly questioning the validity of our parenthood in its entirety?
As conscientious parents, the HOLY HECK, WHAT AM I DOING?! mind set can wash over us at the drop of a hat –or loss of a binky- at any time. With good reason, though. No, really. We’re supposed to continually evaluate how we’re impacting our children regarding the way we raise them! We’ll completely fail as a race if we don’t. Human life can’t carry on into the ages if we don’t leave our planet with better people than the ones who came before us. Fortunately, the people we raise, and the other children whose lives we touch, will pass on what we’ve given them and taught them. The more kindness, consistency, patience, and empathy we show and teach our children, the more our humanity changes into a kind, patient, stable, and caring one. With this kind of impact we can make, what would happen if more people understood that children need a LOT of input in those first few years and can fail to thrive later as adults without it? What would happen if people were commonly taught that the first few years of brain development are the most important?
Although all the emphasis in our American culture seems to be on acquiring a good degree in college in our twenties, and going on to make as much money as possible, the first few years of life are where our attention should be focused first and foremost. That’s not to say a good degree isn’t a valuable and goal-worthy thing, but how far can a person get with that goal, if they don’t have the proper and basic foundation, put in place when the brain is still growing and developing? As parents and teachers, or anyone working, living, and interacting with babies and children, more of us ought to understand the immense impact we have on them, for better or for worse. This is an education en masse that needs to happen! It needs to become common knowledge that early childhood is the critical period for brain development, because the young brain develops so fast, or fails to, in our first few years, according to its environment and experiences, shaping us all for the rest of our lives.
Like a computer, good functioning of the brain will depend on decent wiring so that it can process and share information via that wiring. This requires the healthy formation of thousands of neural pathways. A neural pathway is the tract in the brain along which information is relayed; the fewer pathways made in the brain, due to negligence during the first few years, the smaller the amount of information it will be able to process. The development of our brains when we are infant and toddlers, affects us in all of our developmental areas: physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional. That development of our brain in the first four years of life becomes the foundation from which we grow as people for the rest of our lives. As you can see, healthy neural pathway development is critical to development in general.
The connections used regularly in everyday life become reinforced, or protected, and become part of the brain’s ‘circuitry.’ The human brain at birth is still very immature, so these early learning experiences can have a dramatic effect over time on an infant’s growth and learning. In the early years, young brains produce almost twice as many synapses as they will need… By age two, the number of synapses a toddler has is similar to that of an adult… Experiences activate neural pathways, and information in the form of chemical signals gets stored along the pathways. Repeated experiences strengthen specific pathways (p.97).
These neural pathways are the foundation for every area of development in a person and are an important part of how intelligent a person will become, how empathetic, how physically strong and capable, how hormonal, how artistic, how optimistic vs. pessimistic, how emotionally stable or not, how resilient, how anti-social, how successful in life, and more.
Conversely, this also means that opportunities for optimal neural pathway development can be missed and we can, often unintentionally, impede a child’s brain development. When there is a lack of quality experiences that would strengthen these pathways, areas of the brain can fail to form well. This impairs a child’s social skills, cognitive growth, emotional well-being, etc. Stunted growth in these areas can be hard or even impossible to reverse later in life. “’Windows of opportunity’ are sensitive periods in children’s lives when specific types of learning take place… A child’s experiences, good or bad, influence the wiring of his brain and the connection in his nervous system… If a child receives little stimulation early on, the synapses will not develop, and the brain will make fewer connections” (Graham). Sadly, an impairment of development can also occur from chronic stress and traumas in a child’s life.
There’s a lot of information circulating on the web, on TV shows, at the doctor’s office, and pretty much everywhere we go, about the harmful effects of stress. The body’s “fight or flight” response to stress (a production of the hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine) was great when we were cavemoms, always on the go to protect ourselves and our babies from wild beasts that we couldn’t turn around and kill and eat. It still serves us well when we need the extra boost to make it through an especially tough challenge or to run from danger. Chronic stress, however, and the consistently elevated level of stress chemicals, can be devastating for children. It “shortens caps, called telomeres,which are chunks of DNA at the ends of chromosomes… and leads to premature cell aging,” (Honig, 14) or, in other words, chronic stress causes a shortened lifespan.
Later in life, the elevation of childhood stress hormones leads to emotional problems, aggression, and even heart disease (Honig, 14-15). “Chaotic and hurtful childhoods lead to worrisome personality outcomes such as aggression and predatory violence in adulthood as well as drug abuse and victimization… Stresses in a child’s life do not just add up; they multiply their worrisome effects… That is, after an individual reaches his or her stress threshold, there is a four-fold jump in developmental problems if more stresses are piled on the child” (Honig 15). So, while adults can often yoga or bar hop their way out of heightened stress levels, the entire well-being and lifespan of the child who experiences too much stress can be drastically diminished.
On the topic of shortened mortality rates and other impacts of stress and trauma, a psychological researcher at the Oregon Research Institute, shared with me in an interview:
Stressful life events in childhood can have large impacts on many domains of life, and these effects can last for decades. A good place to start in understanding the impact of early life trauma is the ACES study. ACES stands for ‘Adverse Childhood Events.’ This work uses a relatively simple measure, namely a count of how many adverse events a person has experienced in childhood. This is not very detailed, and yet this simple count predicts many life outcomes in adulthood, including risk of addiction, problems with employment, physical health problems, and mortality... Childhood betrayal traumas involve traumatic experiences where a child has experienced or witness[ed] a traumatic event for which a caregiver is responsible. They are thought to be especially impactful and damaging, because they involve the people a child depends on for their basic needs. So these are areas where kids are at a great risk of harm.
[The psychologist asked to remain anonymous when he realized I wasn’t able to share the entire interview in this short article.] Simply put, keeping the stress levels in our children’s lives low couldn’t be much more important.
That can be easier said than done for those who live in poverty, however, with all the stressors of too many bills to pay, low wages, high living expenses, subsequent poor diets and healthcare, and not enough money to make ends meet. In fact, “The Abecedarian Intervention Project, inspired by the Perry Preschool Study, illustrated how early intervention is critical in countering the environmental ramifications present in at-risk communities” (The Abecedarian Intervention Project). This study, conducted on 111 impoverished children, through the ages of infancy on to age five, produced fantastic evidence that early childhood intervention and education greatly reduces the consequences of growing up in poverty. The project showed, 20 years later, that children living in poverty who enter a quality daycare-preschool program –this one in particular, as most emerging philosophies on child development support, was “play-based, with a focus on language and cognitive development”- go on to have tremendously reduced rates of aggression, depression, violence, teen pregnancy, and jail time, and wonderfully increased levels of education, income, success, self-esteem, and general well-being.
In addition to providing a stimulating learning environment for our infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, we can help them build their own sense of internal resiliency. Resiliency is the ability to face and bounce back from challenges and adversity in life. According to Dr. Edith H. Grotberg on the International Resilience Project, we encourage a core sense of resiliency in children by providing them with caring, reliable, stable caregivers, and using educational life experiences to show them how they are capable, trusted, lovable, autonomous, and responsible. As parents and teachers, we must give children tasks suited to their ages to help them see what they can do; we must care about how we function as role models in their lives; we must be affectionate, soothing, and consistent in our enforcing of rules. Children thrive when they know what we expect from them, what they can expect from us, and what they are capable of. A strong sense of self (resiliency) is fundamental to a person’s coping with life. And who doesn’t believe in themselves more when the people who care about them clearly believe in them, too?
Obviously, a lot depends on how those first few formative years, well, form us. On a broader scale, Jean Bishop, Director of Early Childhood Education at Lane Community College, confirmed with me that development of the brain via quality experiences and interactions during the first several years of life is so critical that we absolutely must:
Advocate at the local, state and national level for quality care and for working conditions for parents that allow family to be a priority. Make sure all those in the field of ECE [early childhood education] have the education and training needed to guide children and offer curriculum that is optimal for developing and enhancing emotion regulation, problem solving and peaceful conflict resolution. The early years are key and giving children the most loving, positive experiences possible in homes, schools and with their families will pay off in huge dividends later. This means our government must make the well-being of young children and their care a key national priority with funding available to back up this goal.
In accordance with this, there are even economists, like Dr. James Heckman, who insist that educating young ones saves taxpayers a lot of dollars in the future. It’s time for people to understand the value in knowing how to best guide the youngest growing minds.
We’ve got a long way to go, on a national level, before enough people insist on better financial support for quality early childhood education and child care programs for all. Until then, we can make more people aware that the most significant time for a person’s entire life is in those first few years of life. We can also start with our own children, the other children in our lives, and their friends. We plant a seed that grows every time we show a child she is lovable and respected as is, every we time we give her new experiences that show her things she’s capable of, every time we engage a toddler in a positive conversation or read him a good book, and every time we take a minute to ask ourselves how we’d like to be treated if we were the child in this moment.