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Early childhood and brain development in science

little girl walking hand in hand with her parents

Key points:

  1. Adversity and stress in early childhood can have physical and chemical implications in the brain, damaging learning capacity and putting children at greater risk for poor physical and mental health.
  2. Environmental factors, even before birth, can chemically modify the way in which some of our genes are expressed.
  3. Children can benefit from relationships with other responsive caregivers, as long as they provide consistent care and high-quality interactions.
  4. Severe neglect is equally as threatening for development as physical abuse, and long-lasting neglect or deprivation leads to serious cognitive impairments and difficulties with social and emotional development.

Throughout time, there has been an incredible amount of research done about early childhood and brain development. The behavioral and social sciences have created a remarkable amount of new knowledge and there have been recent discoveries in neuroscience. But, what do we actually know about child development?


The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University summarizes decades of research and discoveries in these next concepts. The next list gives us an insight into what a healthy development looks like, what can cause it to go off track, and what can we do to prevent it.

  1. Significant stresses in the family or environment doesn’t only affect adults, but infants and young children too. Adversity can disturb the bases of learning, behavior, and health. In fact, experiencing adverse early childhood experiences can have physical and chemical implications in the brain, damaging the child’s future learning capacity and behavior, and putting them at greater risk for poor physical and mental health. This is why learning to cope with stress is essential for healthy child development. We have to keep in mind that short periods of stress can help build adaptive responses while having supportive relationships. However, toxic effects on the developing brain might take place if there is no caring adult available to offer safeguarding and the stress is extreme and prolonged.

  1. Life outcomes are not determined merely by genes; development is actually a highly interactive process. The environment, even before birth, exposes us to powerful experiences that can chemically modify the way in which some of our genes are expressed. For example, children are born with the capacity to learn to focus attention, but their experiences will establish the groundwork for how well they’ll be able to develop this skill. Knowing this, we can take action to make sure we are building strong brain architectures in our children. How? Providing responsive relationships and positive experiences.
  1. Even though attachment to their parents is crucial, children can benefit enormously from relationships with other responsive caregivers. Of course, a child’s primary relationship is with their parents, but developing close relationships with other adults (as long as they are caring and reliable) won’t affect its strength and it can promote their social and emotional development. That said, we have to keep in mind that these relationships should not be frequently traded and should provide consistent care and high-quality interactions. Otherwise, they could have adverse effects on children and lead to a weakened ability to establish secure expectations about how their needs will be met.
  1. A large amount of the brains structure is built during the first three years, but this doesn’t mean that the window of opportunity for its development closes at this age. While it is true that “earlier is better than later” and some basic aspects of brain functions, as well as emotional development, depend critically on very early experiences, many aspects of brain functioning continue to develop during adolescence and early adulthood. Therefore, we remain capable of learning ways to “work around” earlier impacts in most areas of development beyond age three.
  1. Severe neglect is equally (if not more) as threatening for development as physical abuse. Long-lasting neglect or deprivation leads to a persistent activation of stress response. Because of this, young children who experience prolonged periods of neglect show more serious cognitive impairments, attentions problems, language deficits, academic difficulties, withdrawn behavior, and problems with peer interactions, than children who have been physically maltreated. This shows the importance of serve-and-return interactions in early relationships for the developing brain and makes us realize that healthy development can be endangered not only by negative experiences (physical or sexual abuse), but also by the absence of sufficient amounts of positive experiences. 
  1. Developing resilience requires healthy relationships, not harsh individualism. The capacity to cope with adversities, adapt, and thrive, is not dependent on the strength of character, but develops with the interaction of supportive relationships, biological systems, and gene expression. The reliable presence of at least one supportive relationship and having multiple opportunities for developing effective coping skills are essential conditions to strengthen the capacity to face adversity. Additionally, science shows that you can strengthen your resilient capabilities at any age. Building coping skills is a developmental process that takes place from infancy through adulthood.

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