Opinion: Many factors influence children’s mental development

Early childhood education is essential for giving kids the good start they need to be successful. Eighty percent of a child’s brain has developed in the first three years, 90 percent by age five.
One of the most critical areas of the brain for intellectual, emotional and social development is the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain responsible for attention, self-regulation, emotional regulation, organization and controlling impulses. We all deal with some stress, but when stress becomes constant and overwhelming, i.e., “toxic stress,” it begins to damage the brain and the prefrontal cortex is particularly vulnerable.
Neglect, abuse (physical or emotional) and violence in a child’s life compromise normal brain cell connections. Simple interventions, like reading to a child beginning in infancy, conversing with them, having warm physical and emotional connections, enhance critical brain connections and help children become successful as they enter kindergarten. In one study, children who did well in school heard an average of 30 million words in their preschool years, whereas those who did poorly only heard an average of 10 million words.
Studies have shown that it is stress, not poverty, that inhibits development and success. Poverty often brings stress to young children, but a rich preschool environment can lessen the stress and enhance success. Parents can learn simple strategies that will improve their child’s readiness for school and social interactions, and lay the foundation for enduring success. 
Let’s Grow Kids is a statewide public education campaign that aims to raise understanding of the importance of the earliest years in the lives of Vermont’s children. Learn more at www.letsgrowkids.org
Jack Mayer, MD, MPH
Rainbow Pediatrics

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