Early Childhood Development – What Neuroscience Says About Parenting, Care and Learning – Part 2

This is the continuation from our previous post on Early Childhood Development – What Neuroscience Says About Parenting, Care and Learning. It follows the trends in neuroscience on parenting, care and learning.

The full report can be found here: Engaging Families in the Early Childhood Development Story

Overview of the messages from neuroscience on parenting, care and learning:

The brain develops through use

Messages from Neuroscience:

  • At birth, all babies’ brains are similar. It is experience (good and bad) that shape it and make the difference.
  • Changes in the brain occur in response to stimulation from the environment.
  • Good experiences are kind, affectionate, consistent, predictable.
  • Sensory stimulation, especially touch, is critical for the development of very young children.


Image Source: Su Soutter

Recommended Parenting Strategies:

  • Give your children companionship and experiences that match their development and interests. It shouldn’t be too easy or they’ll get bored, nor so difficult that they get discouraged. Offer lots of encouragement and opportunities to practice as they try to master new skills and learn new things.
  • Include your children in day-to-day experiences, like helping out around the house and with family routines. Use the local community to expand language, knowledge and concepts for literacy, numeracy, science, history and social understanding.
  • Offer lots of safe opportunities and choices to explore and play:
    • For babies and toddlers – share point and talk picture books.
    • For preschoolers – read longer story books.
    • Play memory games.
    • Ask children open ended questions, like “What do you think?”
  • Make sure your children have lots of sensory experiences including touch (cuddling, rocking, rolling, lap play, stroking, massage), taste, sound, sight, smell and movement.

Children’s well-being is critical to brain development and learning

Just as babies need love to thrive, children also need love to learn:

Messages from Neuroscience:

  • The heart and mind are connected so it is important not only to focus on intellectual development.
  • All areas of learning and development are connected and dependent on each other.
  • Mothers suffering from chronic stress during pregnancy can have high blood levels of certain chemicals that can harm the baby’s developing brain.
  • Adverse environments are particularly damaging for young children because their brains are undergoing rapid development and are at their most vulnerable. These damaging effects can be long lasting.
  • Brain development is affected by chronic toxic early stress because it increases levels of chemicals in the body that can affect the brain and hinder learning.
  • Chronic and/or intense stress – both physical and emotional – release hormones that impair cognitive ability. These hormones slow or disrupt the transfer of information, the laying down of memory and social responses.
  • Children suffering from anxiety lose their curiosity and desire to explore. Anxiety can also lead to lack of resilience, poor impulse control and inattention.
  • Toxic stress includes strong, frequent, overwhelming, prolonged adverse experiences such as extreme poverty, repeated abuse, neglect, and exposure to violence without supportive adult relationships. It can disrupt brain development and increase aggression.
  • Not all stress is bad. Positive and tolerable stress – such as time limited events such as a serious illness, injury or death of a loved one, a parent separation, or a natural disaster – can help children learn to cope if they are supported by an attentive and sensitive adult.

A common concern among parents is whether we’re “good enough” to provide such positive environments for our children to grow up in. With the daily stresses of life, it can be more of a challenge for some us “hot heads” to remain calm. The good news is that you don’t need to be the perfect parent to raise balanced, well-adjusted children because “good enough is near enough“. Occasionally losing your temper and yelling at your kids isn’t going to scar them for life either.

Recommended Parenting Strategies:

  • Recognise the strengths in your child and acknowledge them.
  • Touch is vital, especially for very young children – for example, holding, rocking, cuddling.
  • Give your children opportunities to form relationships with other children and adults.
  • When you pick up and leave your children, make sure you say “hello” and “goodbye”; encourage your children to do the same.
  • Create opportunities for children where they can interact with people and the environment. Give them experiences with lots of talking, listening and responding to each other and each other’s feelings. Share family activities that are positive for everyone.
  • Communicate with your child’s carers and teachers. Share what you know about your child so it can be included in the plans for your child’s learning and development.
  • “It takes a village to raise a child” – be a part of a parenting network that can support each other, share the joys and challenges of being parents, and perhaps even some of the responsibilities.
  • Remember to “look, listen and love” – be observant, warm and responsive. Comfort, soothe, feed, clean and calm baby gently, attentively and in a timely manner. When your baby is distressed, attend to baby quickly to provide comfort.
  • Stay away from negative environments where there is aggressive and antisocial behaviour.
  • Do things together, like preparing meals or walking around the block, to the shops, to the park, or to school.

Children learn through being engaged and doing

Photo Credit: Childhood 101

Messages from Neuroscience:

  • Children are active learners acquiring knowledge by examining and exploring their environment.
  • Young children learn best when information is embedded in meaningful experiences rather than through artificial contexts fostering rote learning.
  • Pay attention to your baby’s facial expressions, movement patterns, gestures and vocalisations because this is how babies reach out for attention and social contact.
  • Currently, no evidence exists to demonstrate that excessive stimulation and ‘pushing’ a young child to learn beyond their interest, capabilities and developmental maturity will increase their intellectual capacity.
  • Play is vital because it helps children develop the skills they need to do well later:
    • Play mirrors and facilitates the development of the brain.
    • It is the repetitive nature of play helps shape and build networks in children’s brains that they will use for other things.
    • Children learn through play that involves them doing things themselves – using and expanding the knowledge they have through trying, working out problems, imagining, pretending and making up, talking and negotiating with others, reasoning and explaining.
  • There is little evidence that television viewing before the age of 3 years will increase later learning.
  • Over-scheduling children with too many educational/structured activities limits the natural curiosity that drives their learning through their explorations.

Play is one of the best ways for children to learn about the world around them being engaged and doing is through play. We’ve written quite a lot about play and its importance in child development:

Recommended Parenting Strategies:

  • Draw your children into the chains of communication. Use vocalisations, gestures, expressions, and body movements for your baby to imitate and connect with you.
  • Encourage your children to choose and direct their own activities. Make sure they have a balance of quiet and active experiences and choices.
  • Be observant for signs that your child is either not interested or very interested, and is exploring how something works through trial and error, or what makes something happen.
  • Give your children opportunities to talk about and represent their ideas, drawing, painting, play, and constructions with boxes.
  • Help children stay engaged by asking open-ended questions and giving them choices.
  • Give your children plenty of opportunities to explore things by themselves and engage in self-directed play (on their own or with other children) rather than filling up all their time with programs and products designed to increase intellectual ability.
  • The best toy a child can have is a caring adult who:
    • pays attention to a child’s cues
    • engages with the child
    • plays with the child using words, songs, touch and smiles
  • Give your child plenty of uninterrupted time and space to play safety. Provide materials for different kinds of play – you do not need expensive toys and equipment.
  • Encourage your children to explore and experiment how things works, how they go together, what you can do with them using toys, puzzles, materials.
  • Encourage pretend play with household items such as boxes, clean sand, pots, pans, dress ups.
  • Enjoy humour and jokes together.
 You may also be interested in:

Coming soon – Part 3.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this: