4 Ways to Enhance Brain Development in Early Childhood
Children’s brains grow at an astonishing rate in their first few years of life. More than 90% of the human brain fully develops before the age of five, and the gains and learnings made at that time stay with us for the rest of our lives. This incredible rate of growth makes it the ideal time for promoting activities and habits that help enhance children’s brainpower and cognitive health.
Understanding the Baby Brain
One of the ways our brain is constantly developing is through neuroplasticity. This is the process where we grow new neurons and carve new neural pathways while cutting synapses that we no longer use. It enables us to adapt and learn by building, breaking, and rebuilding habits. This process continues well into adulthood.
However, it’s in our early childhood years that our brain is the most malleable. We’re born with roughly 100 billion neurons, and we’ll carry most of these neurons well into adulthood. However, it’s the synaptic connections that are the developmental key. At birth, we actually have very few synapses, and it’s as our neurons mature and respond to our environment that the synapses begin forming. This is what’s known as creating and developing our neural network.
To put it in perspective, at birth we have roughly 2,500 synapses for every neuron. But by age two or three, it’s grown to roughly 15,000 synapses per neuron. And it continues to grow exponentially from there, evening out sometime before our adolescence.
It’s this explosive early growth that makes our early childhood years so pivotal. Initially these synaptic connections are sensory focused. Babies form neural pathways associated with touch, hearing, and sight. It’s in these early sensory developments that things like language begin to take root, even before speaking takes verbal form.
Conversely, however, babies also absorb things like stress, which can impact and strengthen neural pathways associated with high stress situations. The release of cortisol can adversely impact a baby’s brain development as well. Even more alarming, if a child doesn’t receive enough sensory stimulation, the synaptic connections as a whole can become developmentally delayed, hindering that child’s growth and development well into later childhood years.
Once our synaptic connections begin growing, our brain begins pruning unused pathways. This means several things. One, is that the things we learn early on that are reinforced become strengthened neural pathways. For better or worse, these become difficult to unlearn. But it also means we have the amazing ability to constantly adapt our brain to learn new things. Because these early childhood years are so formative, it’s important to be aware of how this cognitive journey can be shaped to have a strong and secure start.
Below are a few things that we as parents or caregivers can do to ensure that.
Show, not tell
The phrase, “do as I say, not as I do”, is impossible at this young age. No matter what we want to teach our children, they learn what they see. It’s as simple as that.
Because the brain is attuned mostly with sensory learning at this young age, they learn by doing. Babies watch us perform hundreds of everyday tasks. How we play, the way we laugh. You see this in the way they’ll place a toy phone up to their ear. Even if the details are wrong, such as the phone being upside down, it’s the behavior at large that is important. They see us perform an action and they mimic it.
While many of these tasks are harmless, clapping, talking on the phone, playing with keys, others are not. Babies simply don’t understand the safety difference between a spoon and a knife when they “help” us unload or load the dishwasher. Or that pulling the dog’s ear could lead to them being bitten. It’s important to remember that they aren’t engaging in these behaviors to be difficult. In fact, this type of understanding is beyond them at this young age. They see us doing things and they want to do them, so we need to be gentle in redirecting their behavior and activities to less harmful ones.
Imitation is a key part of learning for infants and toddlers, but they may not always have the muscle coordination or the cognitive resources to understand the intricacies of what they’re trying to do. However, this type of learning is powerful for children, and is connected with social-bonding and emotional connectedness. Meaning, they imitate us as a way to connect with us, and if we react harshly or negatively, that impacts the way they learn on a far deeper level than one behavior or action.
It’s important to remember that just because they lack the verbal skills to say what they see or how they feel, children act like us because their brain is adapted to learn through imitation. Even when we think they aren’t watching, they are. So one of the most important ways we can help our children develop healthy life-long learning habits is to model the behavior from birth, and allow them to imitate us in positive, socially reinforced ways.
Remove Toxic Stress
Babies are extremely sensitive to their environment. And because of this sensitivity, they pick up on subtle cues that we may not realize are there. Fighting with our spouse from another room, for example, can increase the cortisol levels in their brain, triggering their fight or flight response. They don’t know they aren’t in danger, only that something stressful is happening around them.
If a baby is neglected, lives in an environment of abuse, or witnesses domestic fighting or tension all shape how their neural pathways strengthen, often reinforcing unhealthy coping mechanisms that can delay their cognitive growth and development. In extreme cases, it can inhibit synaptic growth, which can have severe negative effects on their brain development.
It is important to provide children with an environment where they feel secure and happy. These are some things we can do to remove toxic stress from a child’s environment:
- Resolve differences through discussion instead of fighting.
- Seek relationship therapy if such a resolution is not possible.
- Be present and responsive to the child’s needs at all times.
- Curtail their violent news/graphics exposure by keeping the TV on to a neutral or kids entertainment program in the baby’s presence and only checking the news when they are not around.
- Build routines for meals, naps, playtime etc and stick to them. This provides a much-needed structure and consistency that helps them feel secure.
None of this means we have to shield them from emotions. We will all experience stress, sadness, and grief at some point in our children’s lives. However, we need to be aware of how these emotions can impact a child, especially if we don’t take the time to help them understand.
It’s common to think shielding a child from our emotions is good for them, but without a basis to understand that 1) these emotions are not their fault and 2) they aren’t because of them or something they did, children will often misinterpret these situations as things they need to be afraid of.
By being aware of how our stress impacts our children, we can work to build an emotionally safe environment with them, so they are better able to process a wide-range of emotions without internalizing or misunderstanding them.
It is important to establish a loving and understanding relationship with the child, as opposed to a fear-based one. Physical and verbal punishments are useless in teaching a child to do something, particularly an infant. Rather, it only works to make a child scared and angry. As a result, they are likely to withdraw, become demotivated or discouraged, and develop unhealthy coping mechanisms like isolation or anger to deal with the stress these punishments produce.
Instead of punishing bad behavior severely, or only punishing bad behavior, we need to practice positive reinforcement for the good behavior with enthusiasm. Genuine praise and physical rewards unlock the reward cycle in a child’s brain, which motivates them to repeat the behavior without adding any stress.
Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool that leads to promoting positive behavior. Punishment on the other hand simply punishes a behavior, without providing a replacement behavior. The most important thing to remember when it comes to punishment is that it should not be extreme, and there has to be a way for the child to learn a new behavior that will help them avoid punishment in the future.
For example, if we want our child to keep their room clean, utilizing a chore board, where they receive stickers on days they put away their toys is teaching them the behavior of cleaning their room. They have to produce a certain number of stickers to unlock a reward, such as watching a favorite movie or engaging in a favorite activity. If they do not get a sticker, perhaps they lose a privilege or access to a favorite toy for the day.
In general, punishment given without a behavior taught to take the negative behaviors’ place doesn’t give our child the resources or information they need to grow. Especially with young children, they learn from the emotional responses they get, making punishment more likely to be damaging than helpful.
If we must deal with extreme behaviors, controlling our emotional response is key. We need to be gentle but firm, explain why they must not engage in that behavior, and provide an alternative behavior for which they are praised enthusiastically every time they engage in the new behavior. This process will mold positive experiences, which children want to repeat by activating the reward centers in their brain.
Let them engage in multi-sensory play
Children learn the most and best through a multi-sensory approach, involving not only eyes and ears but also touch, taste, and smell. While many toys are designed for this exact approach, remember, imitation is how children learn the most. So it’s only natural that they will want to interact with objects they see around them daily, and that they see us using daily.
Imitation is part of this learning process, but play is the other key component. And while stacking pots and pans or moving in and out of a box may not seem like learning to us, to that child, it’s providing an incredible amount of learning. They’re sorting, problem-solving, trying to understand what this object is, what it does, how it works. They learn shapes, form, and texture. And playing with objects that aren’t toys sparks their imagination in ways toys actually can’t.
By allowing our children to play with the items they find in our homes, we also teach them that their house is a safe space meant for them to interact with. It allows for curiosity and again, imagination, which have been shown to be necessary for future learning abilities well into adulthood. It stabilizes them emotionally while encouraging their brain to absorb as much information as possible.
That doesn’t mean we allow them access to everything. Safety is the primary concern, as if children are constantly injuring themselves, this isn’t reinforcing that their home is safe. We need to ensure our home is baby-proofed well into the early childhood years. This means covering electrical outlets and securing electrical wires, such as to lamps and appliances. Toxic materials, including all cleaning supplies should be stored high up, in areas out of reach. Sharp objects need to be secured safely. We also need to provide ample supervision, and not just during playtime.
When we allow our children to explore the world around them safely, we open their brain to a full multi-sensory learning experience that will encourage learning and brain development far into their adult lives.
From birth, our brain is actively seeking ways to understand the world around us. We learn first through our senses, and then through exploring our environments. As parents and caregivers, we can help enhance our children’s growth and learning by providing emotionally stable and safe environments for them to thrive in.
Childhood is often the time in our lives associated with wonder and curiosity, but the truth is, it doesn’t have to stop there. By opening their imagination and encouraging growth, learning, and development from a young age, we set our children on a path to continue these experiences well into their adult lives.