Young brains need support

A YOUNG CHILD who is feeding themselves is also developing their brain by developing motor skills, which helps them navigate and manipulate their environment.

In the last few decades there has been an explosion in what we know and how we understand early brain development. In celebration of the Week of the Young Child, this is a review of some of the most current and relevant information about brain development in the early years. It may change how you view children and adults alike. 

Young children make more than 1 million new brain cell connections every second — IF their living situation(s) allow. 

In a nod to sugaring season, think of a maple tree as a metaphor for a brain cell. The “roots” of one cell connect with the “leaves” of the next cell…that’s what we mean by “a brain cell connection.” Brain pathways for all types of development (motor, sensory, speech, thinking and reasoning) all begin with a couple of little brain cells connecting. Through repetition, rehearsal, and practice more and more cells connect until millions of strong, fast, efficient brain cell pathways are created. It may take 25 years or more before an individual’s brain is fully mature. In the meantime, children’s brains need a lot of support and proper ecological/environmental conditions for development. 

In addition to nutritious food, proper clothes and shelter, and appropriate amounts of sleep and exercise, all children need stable, responsive, nurturing relationships with consistent, protective, interactive adults. Without these crucial personal relationships, brains cannot not develop their fullest abilities. 

What is brain development? It is every little baby-step or milestone a parent can think of. A baby rolling over, sitting up, walking independently, self-feeding, coloring, writing etc., are examples of motor skills; they help us navigate and manipulate our environments. Seeing, hearing, sense of smell, taste and touch are sensory skills and are important for interacting with the world around us. Speech and other forms of communication help us share our thoughts, wants and needs. 

Last to fully develop are our thinking and reasoning skills. In this category “Executive Skills” (ES) are a key component. ES are brain-based skills that help individuals complete tasks and become independent. Babies are not born with mature executive skills; they develop little by little over time. Examples of executive skills are: a) the ability to wait and be patient, b) being able to remain focused and pay attention, c) having mental flexibility to change one’s mindset depending on circumstances, d) emotional regulation; being able to remain calm, cool and collected, e) time management; being/doing things on time, and f) stress tolerance. These skills, along with judgment, social language, decision making, and more, all develop in the frontal lobes of the brain, located behind the eyebrows. And, like everything else in the brain, they require nurturing support and a lot of time.

When children and their families/caregivers experience “stress” that is chronic, recurrent, unrelieved and unbuffered (that means no one is present in your life to help you) it affects us in unhealthy ways. Brains and bodies do not develop optimally when the stress response is constantly activated.

We must keep in mind that every experience in a child’s day is a learning experience. Learning is not confined to “school” hours. Some experiences are truly great and others may be less helpful or even harmful. It is up to adults to ensure that all children grow in safe, stable and nurturing living/learning environments. They need consistency, routine and a healthy balance of stress. And, by the way, parents and caregivers need the same. 

Children need time to talk and to be heard. They benefit from singing, reading, laughing and playing. All children need at least one, caring supportive adult in their lives — the more the better.

Whenever you look at a child, you should be filled with wonder and curiosity. One million brain cell connections form every second. What’s going on inside that little head? As a community, we must do everything possible to nurture and support every child’s tremendous potential.

Dr. Johana “Jody” Brakeley is a retired developmental-behavioral pediatrician.

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