"When children experience stable, nurturing relationships it fosters the development of healthy [neural] circuitry. And when children experience uncertainty or instability . . . it literally disrupts the circuitry in the brain’s architecture as it is being built."
Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D.
Center on the Developing Child,
Neural Circuitry in the First Five Years
Beginning in the prenatal months, the human brain undergoes an explosive growth of neural pathways and connections, making it highly receptive to environmental factors and external stimuli. When exposed to positive experiences and environments, the neural circuitry of a child’s brain creates an efficient and resilient framework for more complex learning patterns and behaviors.
By the time a child enters the K-12 system, excess neural connections are naturally pruned away and the established circuitry begins to harden in place. The brain retains its ability to learn throughout its lifetime, but the opportunity to build a strong neural foundation occurs only during the earliest years. It is far easier and more efficient to lay the groundwork for healthy brain circuitry at the beginning of a child’s life than to fix it later.
Serve and Return: Quality Interactions in Early Childhood
In order to grow healthy, functional neural circuitry, children need the kinds of experiences characteristic of safe, nurturing and stimulating early environments. Even the most common, regular interactions with parents enable young children to recognize and respond to facial expressions, spoken language, shapes, colors, and other kinds of experiential and environmental cues. When parents and caregivers regularly engage in dynamic “serve and return” interactions with young children, it conditions the neural circuitry of the developing brain to support that child’s ongoing cognitive, emotional and social growth.
The Developing Mind at Risk
In general, children are biologically primed for rapid learning during the first five years – but not all begin life with the same advantages of environment and experience. Very young children who begin life in conditions that lack in safe, positive environments and nurturing relationships are demonstrably less likely to develop the early skills that beget more advanced learning in the K-12 educational system and beyond. As early as 18 months of age, they lag behind their peers in linguistic aptitude, a reliable predictor of later academic achievement. Just as importantly, the denial of quality early care and learning experiences can actually disrupt brain architecture to the extent that children are less able to formulate healthy attachments to parents and caregivers and become less likely to develop healthy and appropriate social and emotional behaviors later in life.
The Science of Success -- First Five Nebraska's brochure on how and why neuroscience should inform the public policies affecting Nebraska's youngest citizens (pdf, 1.5 MB)
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