Early Childhood Development – What Neuroscience Says About Parenting, Care and Learning – Part 3

This is the last part of a series of posts 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:

Children learn from watching and copying

Messages from Neuroscience:

  • Babies pay a lot of attention to faces. They can mimic facial expression from a very early age (as young as 42 minutes old, as Psychologist Andy Meltzoff discovered). This act of mimicking activates parts of the brain.
  • Babies learn empathy by watching and experiencing it. Young children need experiences of empathy to learn it.
Photo Credit: Meltzoff and Moore 1977

See also:

Recommended Parenting Strategies:

  • Play games and make gestures with children that they can copy, e.g. smiling, blowing kisses, waving bye bye, clapping hands.
  • Be a good role model and keep children away from antisocial models, actions and events. If your children are struggling, show them how to do it.
  • Be sensitive to your children’s attempts to get your attention.
  • Encourage to and fro communications with your children.
  • Talk to your children about feelings. Name the emotions.
  • Include your children in the concern and care for others and model appropriate behaviour.
  • Give your children experiences that help them express their feelings, e.g. drawing, painting, music, playing with sand.
  • Talk about pictures and read stories about feelings (the new Disney story Inside Out is also a good one). Explain how you understand what is happening and encourage your children to share their ideas.
  • Model caring ways to respond to others.

Children’s self control is critical for learning, responsibility and relationships

Messages from Neuroscience:

  • Children learn self control and how to manage their feelings by copying the behaviour of their parents and the adults around them.
  • The development of executive function (the ability to organise and manage your thinking, emotions and actions), self regulation and direction, is critical to early school success. Children need to:
    • be able to sustain attention
    • try new activities with curiosity and enthusiasm
    • inhibit impulsive behaviour
    • follow directions
    • take turns
    • show concern for others.
  • Babies with a nurturing and responsive environment with carers who are more attuned to their needs, have a stronger sense of empathy when they grow up.
  • Children that fail to regulate use of aggression prior to school can end up with longstanding aggressive behaviour.

Recommended Parenting Strategies:

  • Children learn behaviours from their parents’ so learn to regulate your own behaviour and be a good model for your child.
  • Be emotionally available.
  • Allow your children to experience tolerable frustrations and gradually experience some supported delays in gratification.
  • Establish routines, directions and boundaries.
  • Play memory and association games.
  • Encourage your children to make choices, e.g. keep the toys where your children can reach them so they can choose what they want to play with and are responsible for putting their toys away.
  • To help with self appraisal and self monitoring, give children feedback that focuses on the effort they put into it rather than the end result.
  • Encourage children to pretend/role play with others.
  • Include your children with the planning of family events, excursions, outings, visits, making of shopping lists, and mapping journeys.
  • Model positive social, emotional and cognitive problem solving and encourage children to be cooperative, socially responsible, self regulating.
  • Give your children opportunities to take age appropriate responsibility.
  • Reinforce good self regulation and responsible behaviour.
  • Play games with children, such as ‘Simon Says’, which helps children pay attention and improves motor control and control of impulses.
  • Be reasonable with your expectations and provide calm, clear, and consistent guidance.
  • Be assertive (as opposed to aggressive) – use reasoning and provide support rather than punish.
  • Establish rules such as not hitting/hurting others, no breaking things/destroying things.
  • Create opportunities for your children to negotiate, direct and work with other children. This helps them develop self regulation, initiative and understanding of consequences.
  • Help your children understand and express emotions safely.

Emotional Availability –  “being there” for your children — but in a way that is more than helping them with their homework, picking them up from school, putting dinner on the table, taking an occasional day off to spend “quality time” with them. It means being there for your children emotionally. It goes beyond the occasional hug or the perfunctory “I love you” before your child dashes out the door — but refers instead to an emotional connection that makes your child feel supported and secure.

See also:

Children learn language by listening to it and using it

Literacy and numeracy development relies on quality and quantity of early language and mathematics experiences.

Messages from Neuroscience:

  • Early experiences shape language and literacy capability.
  • Babies start learning to differentiate sounds soon after birth.
  • The number of words a young child knows is a very good indicator of later good literacy development.
  • Talking with children increases the number of words they recognise and learn. It is essential for language development, setting literacy and language pathways because oral language is acquired by hearing it and using it.
  • Conversations with your children provide the cognitive and emotional experience for brain development and function for language.
  • The quality of adult/child relationships can determine how your children receive cues and information.

See also:

Recommended Parenting Strategies:

  • Make sure babies can hear – treat ear infections promptly.
  • Extensive talking, listening and positively responding, reading, writing and singing with children, story telling, poetry, drawing, neighbourhood walks, visiting the local library and museums, creating opportunities to play with friends.
  • Sound, letter and word play, language games and songs, visits to the library, making shopping lists.
  • Talking using a wide vocabulary and listening in different situations to expand communication experiences, e.g., talk about what you are doing, expand what children say, have conversations with children, ask for their ideas, visits to friends, include children in group conversations, help children with information to build their vocabulary and knowledge.
  • Sit with and talk with your child at mealtimes.
  • If you speak a second language, use it with your children so they can learn the two languages and be confident users of both from an early age.
  • Reduce television time, increase times of interaction – e.g. family meals, playing games together, visit neighbours, extended family.
  • Make photo albums of family activities and look and talk about them.
  • Keep some favourite books within reach so children can choose to handle them.
  • Talk about books, create an interest in them.
  • Look where they are and draw attention to them.
  • Talk about pictures, what’s happening in them.
  • Interact with books, telling a story from pictures, reading, making sounds.
Image Source: Read Write Inc.

See also:

Children are born ready to use and learn mathematics

Messages from Neuroscience:

  • Babies intuitively use numbers to make sense of their world.
  • Young children learn maths more effectively by experimenting and finding things out by themselves rather than by rote or drill.
  • Early experiences shape perceptual and cognitive ability.
  • The key to intelligence is the ability to recognize patterns and relationships.

One of the best things we can do is encourage early numeracy because successful children have a strong foundation in the 3Rs.

Recommended Parenting Strategies:

  • Play counting games/rhymes using fingers singing songs and rhymes, play with numbers in everyday activities, play games with counting, guessing, listening to and making music (rhythm and pitch) using body and simple utensils, board games, counting games (e.g., Snakes & Ladders).
  • Include children in experiences that allow them to explore mathematical concepts:
    • cooking and food preparation/sharing, navigating space on play equipment, jigsaw puzzles and block building, domestic tasks
    • clothes sorting, table setting, unpacking/shelving shopping, talking about time, counting steps, board games with numbered squares, etc.
  • Draw children’s attention to and play with pattern making and relationships between objects and ideas.
  • Play guessing/prediction games, talking about what’s happening and ask questions to help children think about what’s happening, what might happen and how things happen.

Final words…

In a perfect world, every parent would have this “parenting” thing nailed. But it’s not a perfect world and we’re only human. Thankfully, our children don’t require us to be perfect – just good enough. While we can and should aspire to be better parents to our children than our parents were for us (just as our children will grow up to be even better than we were) it’s worth remembering that perfection isn’t a requisite for this job.

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.

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