Brain Development

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Quality Matters: A Policy Brief SeriesWinter 2007
on Early Care and EducationVolume 1

Brain Development and Early Learning

Research on Brain
Development

or decades researchers have been aware of the ex-and amount of synaptic connections that are made. Synap- traordinary development of a child’s brain duringtic connections begin prior to birth and are created at a

the first five years of life. Recent advances in neuro-
rapid rate through age three. The brain operates on a “use it science have helped crystallize earlier findings, bringing new clarity and understanding to the field of early child- hood brain development. Children are born ready to learn. They cultivate 85 percent

of their intellect, personality
and skills by age five. The first
months and years of life set the
stage for lifelong development.i
Because of the importance of
early brain development, what
happens in the early years has
serious implications for public
policy that will be explored later
in this paper.
With the neuroscience of
brain development unfolding,
we now know that (1) the way a
brain develops hinges on the complex interplay between the genes a person is born with and the experiences a person has from birth on; (2) it actually takes up to 12 years for the brain to become fully organized, with parts of the cortex still to become organized through the later teen years; (3) the quality of an infant’s relationship with his or her primary caregivers has a decisive impact on the architecture of the brain, affecting the nature and extent of adult ca- pabilities; and (4) early interactions directly affect the way the brain is “wired,” and do not merely create a context for development.

The human brain develops more rapidly between birth and age five than during any other subsequent period.

The 100 billion neurons that humans are born with make connections through synapses, “wiring” the brain for ac- tion. The experiences an individual has impact the types or lose it” principle. Only those connections and pathways that are activated frequently are retained. Other connec-

tions that are not consistently used will be pruned or dis-
carded so the active connections can become stronger.ii

The preschool years are the time in which the brain begins to maximize efficiency by determining which connections to keep and which to eliminate.

Providing Repeated Positive
Experiences is Critical

For children’s brains to become highly developed for
learning, repeated experiences are essential. Connections
become stronger and more efficient through repeated use.
Reading to children every day, for example, helps
strengthen essential connections. Connections are also
made stronger when children have daily opportunities to
develop both large- and small-muscle skills, have the
chance to practice developing social skills, and interact di- rectly with their environment. It is vital to incorporate rich language into all of these activities, since exposure to rich language creates the foundation for a child’s use and un-

derstanding of words, and increases the likelihood of read-
ing success at a later age.
Research shows that the richness of a young child’s ver- bal interactions has a dramatic effect on vocabulary and
school readiness, with differences correlated to socio-eco-
nomic status. A watershed study on the topic found...
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