Booklet Review: Starting smart: How early experiences affect brain development (1)

It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged, and I’ve realized it’s been even longer since I’ve talked about some of the research I’ve saved and have been meaning to read. Now that I’ve switched to a new laptop and backed up a lot of the research articles I’ve saved, I’m taking the opportunity to finally go through them. These aren’t in any particular chronological order. I’m choosing them in the order they appear in my google drive, so I hope my readers will find these research articles or research summaries as fascinating as I have. My goal is to keep these blogs to approximately 750 words, so if my reviews are more extensive, they may extend through two or more blogs.

The first is Starting smart: How early experiences affect brain development. This booklet was put together by Zero to Three and The Ounce of Prevention Fund, and it was published in 2000. While it is 16 years old, I feel it is still very relevant to early childhood education.

First, this booklet discusses the importance or blend of genetics and environment. While genetics are largely important, it is the environment in which the infant and young child grows which will determine when and how certain genetic traits will develop. This is a recent discovery as there had previously been a debate as to which was the primary factor in human development. B.F. Skinner stressed that development, particularly language, was behavioral, based on the behaviors an infant sees as he is growing. Others, such as Noam Chomsky, argued that growth was innate, and it was this innateness that was the precursor to anything else that could cause development within an infant.

Zero to Three and Ounce of Prevention Fund argue that the combination is in fact the why and the how a person develops. And it is not simply observed behavior that influences development. Rather, it is nutrition, medical care, nurturing or the lack thereof, and observed behavior which will influence development, and of course as I mentioned above, how/when any innate traits contributed by the parents will develop. In other words, a child may have the innate ability to be bilingual, but unless that child has the all-around complete environmental contributors, that innate quality will either never be expressed or will be expressed to a lesser degree than it might have had the ability to do.

Further, it is important to note that the argument nature versus nurture takes on a greater significance. Nurture, in this article, isn’t just the environmental factors in general, but rather whether a child will be nurtured by his parents or neglected. Even a child with healthy genetics can develop into an adult that has severe mental or emotional disabilities.

My primary background before entering the world of general human development was in bilingual education. I had taken several bilingual education courses at the graduate level before deciding I wanted to pursue psychology and then educational psychology. So, I understood primarily how language and dual languages develop and the importance of exposure at a young age. I mention this simply because it’s important to note that the brain has a greater ability to learn when it is “new”. I have recently learned that the brain development or formation allows for so much more than language learning.

The author of Starting smart: How early experiences affect brain development explains, “In most regions of the brain, no new neurons are formed after birth. Instead, brain development consists of an ongoing process of wiring and re-wiring the connections among neurons” (p. 3). The brain can make new connections from one nerve to another, but it is essentially complete at birth. It has everything a child needs (or rather everything his parents could have possibly given him) to survive or thrive. Whether the child is able to use everything he is given is next dependent on that nutrition, medical care, education, etc. Once that brain formation period ends, at approximately as late as 10 years of age for some genetic expressions, very little can be done to retrieve those unexpressed genetic traits.

So, what does this all mean? Certainly most parents are aware that healthy development leads to success, but can all parents offer the quality of “healthy development”. Of course not. Socioeconomic factors play a role. The so-called exceptions to this rule are those that achieved some aspect of proper childhood medical care, nutrition, etc.

I will continue this discussion of socioeconomic background and brain development tomorrow.