Nurturing the Developing Brain in Early Childhood Lisa Freund, Ph.D. The National Institutes of Health The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Bethesda, Maryland U.S.A.
Brain Growth AGE BRAIN WEIGHT (GRAMS) 20 WEEKS GESTATION 100 BIRTH 400 18 MONTHS 800 3 YEARS OLD 1100 ADULT 1300 - 1400
Brain Growth • At birth, most neurons the brain will have are present • approx. 100 billion neurons • By age 2 years, brain is 80% of adult size • What keeps growing? • Other brain cells (glia) • New neuron connections • approx. 1000 trillion connections by age 3 yrs.
How Does the Developing Brain Become Aware, Learn, Think,? • Overproduction of neurons and connections among neurons • Selective reduction of neurons and connections among neurons • Waves of intense branching and connecting followed by reduction in neurons • Before birth through 3-years-old • Again at 11- or 12-years-old
Major Areas of the Brain Self-regulation, problem solving, goal setting, social cognition Sensory motor perception, spatial abilities Hearing, language, memory, social -emotional function Vision and perception
Cortical thickness development from birth to 54 mos over Months 6 mm 4.5 mm 3 mm 1.5 mm 1 mm under
Right lateral and top views of gray matter maturation over the cortical surface.
Right View of Gray Matter Maturation Over Brain Surface between Ages 4 to 21 Years
How Brain Areas are Developing • Anatomical studies of brain development show • Occipital lobes show earliest pruning • Frontal and Temporal lobes show growth of neural connections longer than other areas of the brain…through 3 years old • Frontal and Temporal lobes show pruning of connections longer than other areas of the brain • Greatest change between 2 years and 5 years
Synaptic production and pruning correspond with overall brain activity Young children’s brains work harder and less efficiently than adults’
Myelinization • Speed of connection • Begins at birth, rapidly increases to 2-years old • Continues to increase more slowly through 30-years-old
Myelinization Young children’s brains have fewer neuron connections and work slower than adults’
How Brain Function is Developing • Brain areas with longest periods of organization related to… • self-regulation, • problem-solving, • language/communication • Social bonding • Most vigorous growth, pruning, connecting, and activity occurs between 1-1/2 years through 3 or 4 years old • Neuroscience is telling us that this may be one of the most important periods for developing self-regulation, problem-solving, social-emotional, and language/communication behaviors
Nature and Nurture • Genes and environment interact throughout brain development • Genes form neurons, connections among major brain regions • Environment and experience refines the connections; enhancing some connections while eliminating others
Experience Can Change the Actual Structure of the Brain • Brain development is “activity-dependent” • Every experience excites some neural circuits and leaves others alone • Neural circuits used over and over strengthen, those that are not used are dropped resulting in “pruning”
Differences in brain activity (colored areas) between a typical child reader and a child with reading difficulties
Differences in brain activity in the same child before and after specialized reading instruction
Experience Can Change Brain Development • The brain is undergoing explosive growth in the first years of life and needs organizing experiences to facilitate development. • Learning results in more consolidation of neuronal activity—brain activity becomes more efficient
Neglect Impedes Brain Development • Limited exposure to language, touch or social interactions • Emotional or cognitive neglect • Structural Changes • Lack of brain growth beyond effects of poor nutrition • Neuronal death beyond “pruning”
Brain activity of a normal 5-year-old child (left) and a 5-year-old institutionalized Romanian orphan who was neglected in infancy (right).
What early experiences promote healthy brain development? • Important areas of brain development are associated with… • Self-control or Self-regulation • Language/communication • Learning • Social emotional function • Research shows that everyday experiences with caregivers or other children can optimize the development in these areas
Social Basis of Early Brain Development • Early experiences create brain neuron connections • Parent-child interactions are key • And when are they most effective? • Neuroscience and other research says between birth and 3 to 4-years old
Self-Regulation • Emotion Regulation • Capacity to identify feelings • Empathy • Management of strong emotions • Behavioral Inhibition • Delay gratification • Control impulses
Self-Regulation • Attention and Thinking Regulation (Executive Function) • Directing attention • Mental representation • Planning • Focus on goal • Monitor actions; information • Correct actions • Identify and use strategies
Self-Regulation • Early parent-child interactions lay basis of self-regulation skills that become internalized by the child • Directing attention • Identifying goals • Monitoring Child’s actions • Correcting Child’s actions • Modeling strategies
Parent-child Interaction with Infant or Toddler • Parent who supports optimal development • Is sensitive to child’s cues • Responds to child’s distress • Takes advantage of simple, everyday activities to stimulate learning
Parent-child Interaction with Infant or Toddler • The child can influence interaction through • Clarity of his or her cues • Responsiveness to parent • Activity level
Parent-child Interaction with 3- to 5-year-old • With 3- to 5-year-old • Directing attention • Suggesting strategies • Monitoring, evaluating actions • Staying directed toward goal • Feedback is less directive
Research has Shown that Successful Scaffolding Results in Healthy Brains Ready to Learn • Faster rates of language learning • Increased task persistence • Increased self-control • More appropriate requests for help • Increased self-monitoring during tasks • Increased ability to learn • Moderates risk factors
We Know that…. • Children show improved school achievement • With planned, intentional instruction in the preschool years. • When the literacy environment at home and in school can engage the child. • With consistent reading aloud • When preschool teachers receive high quality training.
We know that… • Just as parents who provide scaffolding promote healthy development, so can pre-school teachers provide scaffolding in the classroom
Classroom Scaffolding • What types of teacher scaffolding can result in optimal outcomes for children? • Providing print and materials that foster their understanding of concepts • Responding to children’s requests and signals promptly and sensitively • Maintaining and expanding on children’s interests in meaningful learning activities • Providing children with choices and prompting children to make thoughtful decisions
To Promote the Foundations for Reading • Phonological awareness --ability to notice and work with the sounds in language. • How quickly children learn to read depends on how much phonological awareness has developed during toddler and preschool years.
To Promote Phonological Awareness • Teachers and Parents can… • Chose books to read aloud that focus on sounds, rhyming, and alliteration • Invite children to make up new verses of familiar words or songs by changing the beginning sounds of words • Play games where children isolate the beginning sound in familiar words, and generate rhyming words
Promote Knowledge of Letters • Research shows it is important for young children to be able to: • Recognize and name letters • Recognize beginning letters in familiar words (especially their own name) • Recognize both capital and lowercase letters • Relate some letters to the specific sounds they represent Teachers and parents can reinforce learning about letters by providing letters in a form children can touch, by playing games with letters, and by helping children write letters.