Thursday, January 30, 2014

Brain Development - The importance of the First 3 Years - Part One

Part One:

In the last few days I have participated in a workshop on Brain Development and the Implications for Education.   

Presented by a talented good friend of mine, it is a presentation I have heard a few times over the last 5 or so years.  Each time I hear it – particularly the basic information on the importance of what happens in the early years (when a young person is between the ages of 0 and 3 years old), it strikes me anew that not only is this information critical – it is essential information that every person needs to know.  It is as important as knowing which side of the road to drive on, that we don’t put our hands into an open flame, and that we don’t shake a baby or leave it to fend for itself when it is born. 

The brain is an extremely complex wee beastie.   How it operates and the impact certain factors have on its development, has huge ramifications for parents, educators and policy makers. 

So – what were the main take out points from our workshop, that you might find of interest and may help shape what you do, think and implement – especially so if you are a parent, or contemplating parenthood!

Important message number 1 – the following is all researched based and not made up out of thin air.  The research is evidenced based and scientific.   It is also based on the average, and you will always find the odd exception to any rule.   If you think any of these key take outs are a little too provocative or the claims a tad too challenging in terms of what you have always perceived as a truth – I would advise finding out more and doing some further readings.  The topic is huge - and this is merely the tip of the iceberg. 

Key Take Away Points: 

The Importance of the First Three Years of Life – 7 things you should know.

1. The first 3 years of your life ARE the most important. 

Your first 3 years of life are like your blueprint.   The relationship you formed with your most significant other (significant other being the main caregiver – like your Mum or Dad) and the quality of that relationship, is critical to who you are as a person now.   This relationship is called a dyadic relationship (twofold)  If you strengthen this dyadic relationship it will improve the outcomes for a child.   

2. Sending young children under 3 to childcare does not improve their future outcomes. 

Your child will not get a higher IQ or improve your child's social skills by attending childcare.   Staying at home, and being in a dyadic relationship – even if that relationship is a little dysfunctional but ‘good enough’, is still better than going to childcare.   If you want to improve the future outcomes for your child – then strengthen the bond between the adult and child with whom the dyadic relationship exists. 

Please note – in a good, functional relationship where there are many strength factors such as a strong dyadic relationship, supportive grandparents, loving parents and parents with a degree, childcare is just one risk factor and in itself will not ruin your children’s future!  The key point here is that to believe that childcare for young children improves the future outcomes for your child is a myth – and not at all supported by scientific, evidenced based research.

3. The longer you stay at home, in those early years, the higher your IQ will be. 

Being at home, in that dyadic relationship, forms the pro-social base that little people need to navigate and understand the world they live in.  This is particularly true for those little people less than 18 months old.  As the parent, when your little person acts like a revolting ratbag – you know those times when they throw their food at you, or if you are giving them a cuddle, and they pull your hair or slap you.  As a loving parent, you don’t slap them back – instead, you teach them the right way to do things, continue to love them and respond to them in a pro-social way.  In addition, 

4.  By the time you are 3, your brain is over ¾ grown. 

The average brain is 1200 grams – by the time you are 3 it is 1000grams.  This in itself tells you just how much development of the brain is taking place, and learning about the world, in those first 3 years.  Have you ever noticed how the average 3 year old has a fairly large head in proportion to their body?  You do if you try to slip a top over it!!!  This is why.  For the rest of their development, they only have a further 200grams to grow. 

5.  Your brain is not ready for formal education until you are 7.

Yes, there are exceptions, especially for first born girls (that’s a different post).  However, there is no evidence to show that teaching your child to do something their brain is not designed to do until they are 7, at the age of 3 (like reading) will improve their IQ or make them more successful.   Given this information, one does wonder why the western world, for the most part, seems hell bent on standardised testing regimes.  Do they not know the research? 

6. The language that is spoken to you by the person who has the dyadic relationship with you, is what will wire your brain for the world you live in.

The words that are spoken to you from anyone else, including in childcare, or by a brother or sister, do not count.    The more you talk to you baby, irrespective of what that is, the better it is for their brain development. 

 7.  Scientists are able to statistically predict the outcome of your life, and how successful you are going to be, based on who you were – and the experiences you had – up to the age of 3.    

This work is based on the Dunedin Longitudinal Study, which is a long term, in depth study of  health, development and behaviour.  One of their most famous studies was following a group of children born in 1972.   The Dunedin Study Website  

With the above points in mind, what does this mean for policy makers?  If we were serious about making a difference to the future outcomes of our young people, and for the future of our world, where we paid out less in health, incarceration, and the impacts of neglect - surely we would take cognisance of the research and design our policies for child welfare differently?

Imagine if:

- We invested in early intervention, by providing support systems, structures and resources so that those children most at risk and vulnerable were able to have their relationships with their significant dyadic other - usually the Mum, strengthened. 

Imagine if:

- As a society we invested in ensuring families were able to have a main caregiver at home for the first 3 years of a little persons life?  

Imagine if:

- We valued the first 3 years of a little persons life and we valued the importance of that dyadic relationship, as a society?

Researchers much smarter than me have done the maths.  Investing in the early years saves so much more tax dollars at the other end.  Whist it is not rocket science, it is indeed, it would seem, brain science!

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