Long before a child enters the classroom, inequities can create a lasting imprint on the architecture of the brain. Recent research on brain development casts new light on the formative influence of early childhood experience. In the first few years of life, a child’s brain creates 700 to 1,000 new neural connections every second, a pace that later diminishes. These early connections set the foundation on which later connections are built.
The new research shows that nutrition, health care and interaction between children and their caregivers can help with brain development in early childhood. Conversation, repeating and connecting words in meaningful contexts, and early exposure to literacy through reading and play are all positively associated with language skills.
Conversely, frequent exposure to chronically stressful events in infancy, including nutritional deprivation and violence, can affect children by damaging neurons in areas involved in learning and emotional development.
In other words, these deprivations affect how the brain develops. Negative experiences in a child’s life often manifest themselves later as difficulties with learning, emotional development and management of anxieties.
Because the first years of a child’s life affect brain development so significantly, early childhood offers a critical window of opportunity to break intergenerational cycles of inequity. Early childhood care, protection and stimulation can jumpstart brain development, strengthen children’s ability to learn, help them develop psychological resilience and allow them to adapt to change.
Early interventions can even affect future earnings. Research has shown, for example, that preventing under nutrition in early childhood leads to an increase in hourly earnings of at least 20 per cent later in a child’s life.
Sources: 1. UNICEF Report 2016: The state of the world’s children. page 50 2. The World Bank, World Development Report 2015: Mind, society, and behavior, Washington, D.C., 2015, Chapter 5. 3. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, ‘Brain Architecture’, <http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/brain-architecture>, accessed 15 March 2016. Lake, Anthony, and Margaret Chan, ‘Putting science into practice for early child development’, 4. The Lancet, vol. 385, no. 9980, 2014, pp. 1816–1817. 5. International Food Policy Research Institute, Global Nutrition Report 2014: Actions and accountability to accelerate the world’s progress on nutrition, Washington, D.C., 2014.