Eight facts that every educator should know
1. A lot of brain architecture is shaped during the first three years after birth. However, despite a widespread belief to the contrary, the window of opportunity for brain development does not close on a child’s third birthday. While the regions of the brain dedicated to higher-order functions, which involve most social, emotional, and cognitive capacities, including multiple aspects of executive functioning, are strongly affected by early influences, they continue to develop well into adolescence and early adulthood. Whilst the basic principle that “earlier is better than later” is sound, the windows of opportunity for most domains of development remain open far beyond age three, and individuals remain capable of learning ways to “work around” the more lasting effects of earlier impacts throughout their adult years.
2. Adverse foetal and early childhood experiences can cause physical and chemical disruptions in the brain that can become life-long problems. The biological changes associated with these experiences may affect multiple bodily systems and increase the risk, not only of future impairments in learning capacity and behaviour, but also for poor physical and mental health outcomes.
3. Just taking a child away from a dangerous environment will not automatically reverse the negative impacts of that experience. Children in harm’s way must be immediately removed from the dangerous situation. In the same way, children, who are subjected to severe neglect, should be provided with responsive caregiving as soon as practicable. Notwithstanding this, children, who have been traumatised, should be in environments that restore their sense of safety, control, and predictability, and, in order to facilitate their recovery, they usually require therapeutic, supportive care.
4. Resilience grows out of relationships, not being an intrepid tower of strength. Becoming better able to adapt and thrive despite adversity, is driven by the interaction of supportive relationships, biological systems, and ‘gene expression’, the process by which the information contained within a gene becomes a useful product. Whilst there is a widespread yet mistaken belief that people only need to draw on some innate heroic strength of character, research has shown that it is the reliable presence of one or more supportive relationships, and multiple opportunities for developing effective coping skills, that strengthen the child’s capacity to succeed and achieve in the face of significant adversity.
5. Severe neglect is now seen to be at least as big a threat to a child’s health and development, as physical abuse, possibly even bigger. When compared with children, who have been subjected to physical maltreatment, young children, who have experienced prolonged periods of neglect, as they get older, have more serious cognitive impairments, attention problems, language deficits, academic difficulties, withdrawn behaviour, and problems with peer interaction.
6. The environment, in which a baby develops before and soon after birth, provides powerful experiences that chemically modify certain genes in ways that then determine how much and when they are expressed. So, while genetic factors strongly influence human development, environmental factors have the ability to alter what a child has inherited from their parents. For instance, all children are born with the capacity to learn to control impulses, focus attention, and retain information in memory, but their experiences as early as the first year of life lay a foundation for the development of skills that help the brain organise and act on information, and enable people to plan, organise, remember things, prioritise, pay attention, get started on tasks, and use information and experiences from the past to resolve current problems.
7. While parental attachment is of primary importance, young children can also benefit a lot from relationships with other responsive caregivers both within and outside the family, such as their early childhood educators. Close relationships with nurturing and reliably available adults, other than the parents, do not negatively affect the strength of a young child’s primary relationship with their parents. In fact, a good mix of caring educators can promote young children’s social and emotional development. However, it is also true that frequent disruptions in care, high educator turnover and poor-quality interactions in early childhood education and care settings, can undermine the child’s ability to establish secure expectations about whether and how their needs are going to be met.
8. Young children who have been exposed to adversity or violence do not automatically develop stress-related disorders or grow up to be violent adults. Although children, who have these experiences, are clearly at greater risk for adverse impacts on brain development and later problems with aggression, they are not locked into poor outcomes, and can be helped substantially, if reliable and nurturing relationships with caring educators are established as soon as possible and appropriate interventions are provided as needed.
These eight ideas coalesce into three vitally important principles, which are that:
• What educators do with young children, and the relationships that they develop with them, really do amount to something meaningful, valuable and important to the children.
• No child is ever ‘too far gone to fix’, and that educators can make a real and lasting difference in the lives of all the children they care for and the families that they serve.
• Early childhood education and care is a form of high value social capital investment; so, keep up the good work, educators, and aim to make it even better.