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The Building Blocks Of Brain Development

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How Brain Research Can Help Us in Working with Young Children

Over the past three years, early childhood faculty at Cuyahoga Community College (CDD) have been studying early brain development and its implications for all those who are involved with caring for and educating young children. Our study grew out of the department's replication of the Erikson Institute's Faculty Development Project on the Brain. The Erikson Institute, located in Chicago, is a prestigious graduate school that focuses exclusively on child development. The Project, which was enhanced by the participation of 22 faculty from eleven colleges and universities in Northeastern Ohio, centers on enriching teacher preparation programs by integrating that part of neuroscience that deals with brain development into the early childhood development curriculum. CCC was very fortunate to have the grant support of The George Gund Foundation and The Raymond John Wean Foundation in advancing our work.

As a result of our faculty's exploration of the neuroscience information, CCC was able to identify a number of key concepts that have substantial relevance for those working with young children:

  • Human development depends on the interaction between nature (genes) and nurture (experiences). Heredity and genes were once thought to govern how a child and his/her brain would develop. We now understand that daily experiences and interactions play just as significant a role in the development of a young brain. For example, you can compare early brain development to building a house. Genes provide the blueprint of the brain, while experiences and interactions are the wood, brick, and mortar. Also, it is critical for a house to have a solid foundation. The same holds true for the young brain; interactions that nurture and environments that stimulate the young brain are critical in the early years because early experiences provide the foundation for future learning.
  • Neurons (the brain's impulse-conducting cells) respond to a variety of sensory experiences. The brain develops in response to interactions with other people and the environment. Every time a child experiences something, his brain neurons begin firing, sending signals to other neurons. This firing process results in the creation of neural networks, which provide the organizational framework for the brain. Ever time a child repeats an experience, neurons fire, strengthening the connections between neurons.
    This is much like the development of a road system. When a truck first drives through a field, it begins to make a path by breaking down weeds. As other trucks follow, the path becomes a dirt road. As traffic increases, you may see the development of a paved road, which then may expand into a two, four, six or even eight-lane highway. A child's brain develops in the same way. As he or she repeats an experience, the repeated firing of the same neural network strengthens the connections, so the neural network becomes similar to a super highway.
  • The brain's pruning process is directly impacted by experiences. How easy would it be to travel through Cleveland, if you encountered as many unmarked dirt roads as you did marked, paved streets? Chances are you would get sidetracked, lost, or encounter traffic jams. Pruning is the human brain's way of eliminating this problem, -- removing weak connections and allowing vital signposts to remain. Before pruning begins, the child's brain is extremely dense, even overwhelmed, and too many neural networks slow down his or her ability to process information. Whatever experiences a child has, positive or negative, they will be reflected in the development of his neural networks. The importance of positive early experiences in child development becomes clear, when we realize that these neural networks remain in the architecture of the brain, impacting future development.
  • The brain's plasticity is remarkable, but timing is critical. The young developing brain is very malleable, adapting easily to environmental conditions. Research shows that the brain is more pliable during the exuberant process of wiring, before pruning begins. It is during this key time that intervention can have the most lasting impact on future development. As the child grows, the brain begins the pruning process. To the extent that existing neural networks are already entrenched, it is more difficult to change the structure of the brain.
  • There are sensitive periods in the developing brain. There are times during which children can more easily develop certain skills, such as attachment, language, and vision. Research indicates that these sensitive periods begin during the first three years of development and wane by puberty. Therefore, to support their development, children need specific exposure to experiences at the optimal time.
  • The presence of Myelin is a key factor in the acquisition of skills. At a genetically predetermined time in the brain's development, a fatty sheath called myelin begins to coat the neurons, which allows signals to be sent more quickly and farther. For example, we hear children begin to string words together into sentences at the time that "Broca's area," which is the part of the brain responsible for grammar, begins to myelinate. Even though we want to provide a stimulating environment for a child, we must realize that we can't force a child to develop a skill before he is developmentally ready (myelin is present).
  • Emotional development provides the foundation for learning. One of the first and most important skills for an infant is to become attached to a caregiver. Out of this secure attachment grow other emotional skills which support the child as he builds and maintains relationships. This emotional foundation not only supports a child socially, but is essential to his or her cognitive development as well. Before a child can think critically about something, he must be able to evaluate the concept emotionally.

How can we use brain research in our work with young children? The research indicates that children need emotionally supportive and low-stress environments in which they can engage in positive, warm, and responsive interactions with both adults and other children. We are also learning the benefits of creating print, language, and sensory rich environments with a variety of open-ended, authentic, and challenging materials where children have ample opportunity for motor development. Children need time to explore these environments in order to accumulate knowledge and create meaningful relationships with others. Children also need to be with adults who understand the principles of child development and have appropriate expectations of the child.

What is the bottom line? The brain research has revealed that experience shapes the brain's structure. Therefore, the quality and appropriateness of what we do with young children has the potential to dramatically affect their future growth, development, and learning. As a result of working on the Faculty Development Project on the Brain, CCC faculty have renewed their commitment to the critical importance of a child's early development.

By Elizabeth Walker-Knauer M.Ed.
Project Director of Faculty Development Project on the Brain
Cuyahoga Community College, Metropolitan Campus

Speaking Up for Young Children
A Publication of the Early Childhood Enrichment Center
Volume 2, Issue 3, Fall 2003

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