Early years education series: the foundations of health and childcare

Published on Thursday, 02 January 2014 15:32
Written by Rosie Renshaw

In the fourth part of our early-years education series Rosie Renshaw looks at how brain development and reducing stress levels could affect a child's progress in education.

The foundations of health and emotional wellbeing are laid in the very early years when the brain is developing most rapidly. Neuroscience shows us the vital part parents play in 'wiring up' their child's brain.

Genetics play an important role, but we now know that a complex mix of heredity (nature) and experience (nurture) shapes brain development. The most important factor in 'nurture' is the quality of the relationships the infant experiences in early childhood.

Babies' brains are not fully developed at birth. They are born with around 200 billion brain cells but there are few connections between the cells. Adult help is needed to 'wire up' the brain connections, especially the areas responsible for managing stress. Infants are unable to regulate stress by themselves and need an adult who is sensitive to their needs to provide comfort which brings their cortisol level, nicknamed 'the stress hormone', back to base rate.

Responsive and attuned parenting builds strong attachment bonds. Children who are securely attached as infants tend to develop stronger self-esteem and better self-reliance as they grow older. These children also tend to be more independent, perform better in school, have successful social relationships and experience less depression and anxiety.

A baby's 'stress response' adjusts to his or her environment. If a caregiver expresses resentment or hostility towards a crying baby or leaves them distressed for longer than they can bear the brain becomes flooded with cortisol. Depending on temperament and other factors the child may become overly sensitive to stress. They will panic easily over difficulties that others can take in their stride. They are more vulnerable to depression, anxiety disorders, stress-related physical illness and alcohol abuse in later life.

Stress experienced in infancy results in a highly sensitised nervous system as the infant brain adapts to their emotional environment. The brain becomes 'wired' to be highly sensitive to any form of stress or potential stress. The brain expends a lot of energy on handling consistently high levels of cortisol, making sense of ongoing 'perceived threats' and trying (but often failing) to regulate itself. This results in a significantly reduced capacity to learn and achieve.

This helps to explain why so many babies who were highly stressed in infancy may go on to struggle to concentrate, learn and achieve in school. Their inability to manage their emotions and focus can be presented in a variety of forms, most commonly in behavioural problems and outbursts of anger. These children are not on a level playing field with others whose brains have not been 'wired' to be sensitive to stress. I believe parents should be helped to understand the long term effects of stress on their baby's brain and equipped with the knowledge of how to help get their child off to a good start.

Do you think as professionals we are well resourced with the materials we need to reach a wide client group on these issues? Not everyone responds well to just being told what they need to do. How then are we as professionals catering for the 'hard to reach' on these key issues?

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