Cognitive development in early childhood: The healthy development of young children in the early years of life literally does provide a foundation for just about all of the challenging social problems that our society and other societies face.
What we’re learning not just from behavioral and developmental research, but also now from exciting developments in neuroscience and molecular biology is how much early experience from birth, in fact, even before birth, how much this experience literally gets into our bodies and shapes our learning capacities, our behaviors, and our physical and mental health.
The brain is basically built from the bottom up
1. First, the brain builds basic circuits that are responsible for basic skills, and then more complex circuits are built on top of those basic circuits as we develop more complex skills.
2. Biologically, the brain is prepared to be shaped by experience.
3. It’s expecting the experiences that a young child has to literally influence the formation of its circuitry. It’s built into our biology.
The interaction between genetics and experience that shapes brain architecture is embedded in the reciprocal relationship, the relationships that children have with the adults in their lives.
By that, we mean what we refer to as the serve-and-return nature of children’s interaction with their adults.
Cognitive development in early childhood and the impact of experience on development is not a one-way street. It’s a back-and-forth interaction. The brain is a highly integrated organ which has multiple sections that specialize in different processes.
We have parts of the brain that are involved more in cognitive function and other parts that are involved in the processing of emotion, and parts involved in seeing and hearing:
1. If a child is emotionally well-put-together and socially competent, that will affect more positive and productive learning.
2. If a child is preoccupied with fears or anxiety or is dealing with considerable stress, no matter how intellectually gifted that child might be, his or her learning is gonna be impaired by that kind of emotional interference.
So, when we talk about healthy development in the early years, and particularly when we talk about preparing children to succeed in school, we cannot separate cognitive development in early childhood from social and emotional development.
You can’t have one without the other.
All development builds on what comes before. When children experience stable, nurturing relationships, it fosters the development of healthy circuitry, and when children experience uncertainty or instability, or abusive or neglectful relationships, it literally disrupts the circuitry in the brain’s architecture as it’s being built.
Over time, this has a wear-and-tear effect, and the more stress you have, the more causes of stress, and the longer your stress response, the more likely you are to have a whole range of problems later on.
It can affect the immune system, it can affect the cardiovascular system, and this is why excessive prolonged stress early in life is associated with a higher prevalence later not only of learning problems and behavior difficulties but also physical and mental health problems.
Because the brain is optimally flexible and plastic early in life, but as it develops its circuitry and refines its circuitry, it loses some of its flexibility, which is why intervening early is so important, because as we often say, when it comes to brain circuitry, it’s better to get it right the first time than to try to fix it later.
By: Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., the professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.