Educators educating Educators

Jul 21

January 15 Early Childhood

 


An update on the discussion below

On Wednesday, December 10, 2014, President Obama spending $1 billion on programs for young learners. Declaring early childhood education "one of the best investments we can make," President Barack Obama on Wednesday followed up on a promise to expand early education opportunities for tens of thousands of children by announcing $1 billion in public-private spending on programs for young learners.

Obama said that less than one-third of 4-year-olds are enrolled in preschool and blamed the high cost of these programs for essentially shutting off access to poorer infants, toddlers and preschoolers. He said studies repeatedly show that children who are educated early in life are more likely to finish their educations, avoid the criminal justice system, hold good jobs and have stable families. All those factors are good for the U.S. and its economy overall, Obama said.

 

The Developing Brain and The Important of Early Childhood Development

Happy New Year! I trust your holidays were refreshing and you are energized to begin the New Year. Possibly one of your resolutions was not only getting your body in better shape, but also your mind in tip-top shape.

For educators, a good place to begin implementing this New Year’s resolution to improve our minds is to review the basics of brain development and how it learns.

Let us start with an Emily Dickenson poem called “The Brain—is wider than the Sky— it expresses her sense of astonishment and wonderment of the brain.

The Brain -- is wider than the Sky --

For -- put them side by side --

The one the other will contain

With ease -- and You -- beside --

The Brain is deeper than the sea --

For -- hold them -- Blue to Blue --

The one the other will absorb --

As Sponges -- Buckets -- do --

The Brain is just the weight of God --

For -- Heft them -- Pound for Pound --

And they will differ -- if they do --

As Syllable from Sound --

The human brain is an amazing structure; it is the most complex and magnificent organ not only in the human body but also in our universe. Using a small amount of energy and weighing a few pounds, the human brain not only regulates the daily functions of the body, but also can solve mathematical problems, decipher hieroglyphics, compose a sonnet, or calculate how to get a man on Mars.

The human brain is approximately the size of a grapefruit or coconut, the shape of a walnut, the color of uncooked liver, the consistency of chilled or soft butter or a raw hard-boiled egg, and feels like an avocado. A brain will assume the shape of a cup. In whole body scans, the brain is so active that it appears as a small powerful heater while everything else appears ghostlike.

However, in a neuroscience sense, in many ways the brain is a diva due to the demand and supplies it needs to keep functioning efficiently.

The human brain weighs a little more than 3 pounds (2.2 Kg), 2% of the total body weight, uses 20% of the oxygen breathed and 20% of the calories we consume. The brain is made up of about 75% water and is the fattest organ in your body, consisting of at least 60% fat.

In order to power itself, it is an energy hog. Of the total body budget of 70 watts of electricity, the brain uses 15 watts of electricity or 21% of the body’s total wattage. This is 10 times more energy per organ mass than any other part of the body and the energy use per gram tissue is much higher in babies and young children than adult.

However, the brain is astonishingly efficient in energy consumption. In comparison to the brain, an idling laptop uses 30 watts of energy and a supercomputer with the power of the brain uses 60 million watts, equal to the output of a hydroelectric power plant.

And the diva does not stop there. The brain does not store energy and requires a steady supply of glucose since nerve cells in action burn fuel, just like muscles. To fuel this activity, the brain demands 25% of the body’s blood supply. In a child, up until age 6-8, half the calories available goes to power the brain.

The brain is not a static organ but an incredible volcano of activity. Just like muscle tissue, it is a physical organ and dramatically changes throughout life, only partially constructed at birth and not fully developed until the mid-twenties.

A new baby should come with a label saying, “some assembly required.” Metaphorically, the brain is like a house being constructed and all areas of the brain are participating in the building.

A baby’s brain has most of the nerve cells or neurons it will ever need and the number will remain very nearly the same from the time we are born until we’re well past 65. A baby’s and an adult brain contain 100 billion neurons, about the same number of stars in our Milky Way. However, a newborn baby’s brain weighs only about ¾ of a pound, a quarter as much as the adult brain - 3 lbs.

What causes the growth of the brain? The formation in the brain of trillions of connections between neurons in the first decade of life. This wiring is the result of the amazing and rapid development of axons and dendrites that form an intricate network of communication between neurons.

In children ages 3 to 10, brain activity is more than twice that of adult. It is a period of rapid social, intellectual, emotional, and physical development and never again will the brain be able to master new skills or adapt to setbacks so easily. In early life, infants and toddlers conservatively make more than 700 new neuron connections per second. In fact, some of the research literature cites that between birth and age six, a child’s brain develops about 1 to 5 million new connections between neurons per second.

Many of the new connections between neurons rely on a baby’s external environment, activities, and experiences with caring adults. In fact, experiences do not just influence a child’s development; they finish the job of molding and sculpting the brain. About three-fourths of the brain develops outside the womb in response to its environment and experience.

For years people thought that not much was going on when kids were very young, at least when it came to their brains. Today, science tells us the exact opposite: A huge amount is going on, and what is happening in those early months and years of a baby’s life directly affects whether he or she will have a good start or a troublesome one.

Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child and a pediatrician by training, has studied early childhood development for decades and is considered an expert on the topic.

“Brains are built over time,” Shonkoff says. They also don’t come fully wired.

“What’s critical then is the interaction between genetics and what we call ‘serve and return’ between young children and the adults in their lives,” Shonkoff says. “The child does something and the adult responds. The adult does something and the child responds. Back and forth, serve and return, like in tennis or volleyball. It’s that back and forth that literally, and I mean literally, shapes the architecture of the brain.”

Brains are also built from the bottom up, in layers, similar to a house. First, there’s the foundation, then the rooms are framed, and then the electrical system is wired, Shonkoff says. While this is happening, the circuits — the connection between brain cells — are being formed. What science now tells us is that very early in life there are “sensitive periods,” fixed windows of opportunity when certain parts of the brain are being wired for certain skills, such as associating sounds with objects or putting words together. Once that sensitive period passes, the circuit is formed and can’t be rewired.

“As new circuits are being built, if they’re building on earlier circuits that were wired properly, they work really well,” Shonkoff says. “If they’re building on earlier circuits that weren’t wired properly, it’s a harder job for the brain to adjust. There are greater energy demands on the brain. It’s a bigger cost to the brain to try to develop adaptive behavior and adaptive skills by overcoming and getting around faulty circuits.”

So what prevents circuits from being wired properly in young children? Poverty, the lack of free time for parents, and other adults to interact with young children, mental health issues, inadequate childcare centers, and other factors often prevent babies from getting the kind of stimulation they need. Persistent negative stress (family chaos, abuse, chronic neglect) is also a major factor, affecting the nervous and stress hormone systems. Shonkoff says the brain can compensate for all of this, but it’s much harder than if the child gets the right kind of nurturing and interactions from the start.

“Whenever you’re developing any skill, you’re never coming at it in a vacuum. The brain inherits what was there before,” he says. “All of the forces of nature are designed for positive adaptation. The brain is wired to do the best it can do with whatever it has to work with. If it has good early circuits, it zooms along. If it has poor early circuits to work with, it has to work harder. In terms of what that looks like for outcomes, the earlier you intervene and get it right, the greater the likelihood of getting the best possible outcome at the least cost. You rarely say it’s too late to intervene, and you’d never say I don’t think a kid can accomplish this or that, but it’s much harder. There’s nothing about development or behavior that’s irreversible, but circuit development certainly is.”

“The quality of early experiences, both within the family and the community, really sets the stage for whether there is going to be greater or lesser likelihood for success in school, which is going to affect success in the workplace,” he says. “It’s going to affect the greater or lesser likelihood that you’re going to be healthy or have problems with some of the common diseases that are all stress related, to some extent, like hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety disorder, and substance abuse, including alcoholism. All of these have a combination of genetics and experience as triggers. The experience triggers start to have their influence very early in childhood.

“If you want a bumper sticker for this, it would be: It’s better to get it right the first time than to try to fix it later,” he says.

So what’s the answer? Do we fund preschool for all kids universally? Do we target the ones who need help the most, from birth? Do we better train parents or pay mothers or fathers to stay home with their children? Or do we create formal schools for newborns, like Australia considered a few years ago?

“Being ready for school is a lot more than formal curricula,” says Gillian Najarian, deputy director of the Center on the Developing Child. “It’s not that early cognitive skills aren’t important, but you also need to have empathy and self control and the ability to socialize and get along with others.”

“Of one thing I’m certain: Children are born ready to learn,” Kathleen McCartney says, President of Smith College and former dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education. “All cultures need to ensure that children are in stimulating environments, whether they’re at home or in school. When formal schooling starts is a question for each culture to answer for itself.” McCartney says there is no one right answer.

Shonkoff says what children really need are the basics, from day one.

“What kids need is to be in safe, stable, relatively predictable environment where there are opportunities to explore and learn, where the relationships are nurturing and stable, where the people you’re with are going to be here tomorrow and next week, and where you’re involved in individualized interactions and not just left alone plopped in front of the TV,” he says.

“That’s what the brain needs for healthy brain development.” And it doesn’t matter if it comes from daycare centers or at home with a parent or neighbor.

“Safety and stability is what the stress system needs. That can be provided in a home, in an informal childcare setting, in a formal preschool setting, in an intervention program, or in an informal playgroup,” Shonkoff says. “The brain will do well with all of them. The science doesn’t tell you that you should be in a childcare center or in a preschool program or home with your mother. The science tells you about what the nature of the interaction should be and what produces healthy outcomes. The politics will decide how much money will go into each of these. Whether you do childcare or preschool or Head Start or you support mothers to be home with their kids, our role at the center is [to] say what the environment needs to look like in order to produce healthy outcomes. That’s our job.”

McCartney says parents don’t have to wait for the experts to tell them what to do.

“Everyday mundane acts offer opportunities for rich learning,” she says. “In a grocery store, for instance, a parent could ask what kind of food they need to make dinner. At the gas station, he or she could ask how many gallons it will take this time. Or on the walk home, a parent could ask the child what the most fun thing he or she had done that day. It’s socioemotional.”


 




News

In case you get bored with the lazy days of summer and want to get a jump preparing for the coming school year, I added to Stuff4Educators a section called How to Study Better based on research from Harvard Medical School that highlights four science-backed ways towards better learning (Hint: drop the highlighter). Additionally, I posted a YouTube video under exercise from the Dana Foundation that won the Northwest Emmy award called Exercise and the Brain that explores the benefits of exercise on the brain and learning. Finally, some books that I have read this past year and found to be stimulating are listed.