The video How Brains Are Built: The Core Story of Brain Development by the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative provides a brief introduction to early brain development. It covers several key points which I elaborate on below:
- There is rapid brain development during the first 5 years of life so experiences in early childhood are particularly critical. Parents play a key role during this period as young children spend most of their time interacting with their primary caregiving figures. Warm, sensitive parenting that responds to a young child’s needs and engages him/her in a variety of interactions (e.g., touch, singing, reading, playing) promotes healthy brain development that impacts critical areas. These include attachment, self-regulation, cognitive and emotional development, and a sense of agency (which is basically children’s sense that what they say matters, which then makes children feel that they can influence their environment because others are listening to them).
- Because children’s well-being rests to a large extent on the quality of parent-child interactions, it is vital that we support parents in their caregiving role by ensuring, for example, that they experience positive mental health and that they are connected with others in their community.
- The brain continues to develop and be shaped by experiences throughout an individual’s life so interacting with children and youth in a sensitive and consistent manner remains important past early childhood. As children enter school and start developing relationships outside of their home, teachers and peers become increasingly influential in their lives (alongside parents). As such, effective caregiving strategies need to be adopted by all individuals who play important roles in the lives of children and youth, namely parents and teachers.
- Adverse experiences, such as child abuse and neglect, can disrupt key developmental processes such as attachment and self-regulatory skills. However, the brain is a dynamic structure so positive experiences with individuals in the child’s life can make an important difference in minimizing the negative impact of past adverse experiences and promoting resilience.
- Children develop in a number of systems that mutually influence one another, such as families, schools, and neighbourhoods. As such, individuals within each of these systems have a responsibility to foster children’s healthy development, especially by way of high-quality and committed relationships.
Elisa Romano, Ph.D.,C.Psych
Shool of Psychology
University of Ottawa