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.
The Brain is Still a Mystery
Brain Growth
AGE
20 WEEKS GESTATION
BIRTH
18 MONTHS
3 YEARS OLD
ADULT
BRAIN WEIGHT
(GRAMS)
100
400
800
1100
1300 - 1400
The Neuron
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

MRI PICTURE OF A HEALTHY
13-YEAR-OLD BOY
Major Areas of the Brain
Self-regulation,
problem solving, goal
setting, social
cognition
Vision and perception
Sensory motor perception,
spatial abilities
Hearing, language,
memory, social emotional function
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 30years-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, problemsolving, 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 5year-old

With 3- to 5-year-old
 Directing attention
 Suggesting strategies
 Monitoring, evaluating actions
 Staying directed toward goal
 Feedback is less directive
Reading Comprehension
Scaffolding
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

Implications for Early Education
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 preschool 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.
Read Aloud To Promote Interest in
Reading
Establish a pattern of reading aloud
frequently to children.
 Ask children questions as you read.
 Encourage children to talk about the book.
 Read aloud many kinds of books.
 Reread aloud favorite books.

Teachers and Parents

Research has shown
 preschools that support the parent in
promoting the child’s cognitive
development and learning show greatest
child achievement in elementary school
and beyond
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