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Nov 28

Chris Smeaton

Developing the Young Brain

During the last couple of months, I’ve been fortunate to be involved in some community facilitated conversations that have centered on the importance of early learning and care. Traditional thinking has a tendency to believe that early learning begins in kindergarten, or maybe a year or two earlier. Although that may be true for what is viewed as “formal” education, the research suggests the importance of early learning right from birth. In fact, the latest research is clear that brains are not just born, but rather built over time based on our experiences. It is important, therefore, that our children get a good start in their brain development right from birth.

A good start requires the development of a strong foundation that promotes a lifetime of good mental function and overall health. Brain experts suggest that a model of serve and return interactions from caregivers to children provides for strong brain development. These interactions, from eye contact to singing, modeling and play, all support the building blocks necessary for a strong foundation. They assist children in dealing with healthy stress which prepares them to cope with future challenges.  The picture is quite different without those interactions coupled with abuse or neglect. Frightening are the statistics of the negative and long lasting impacts on our young children when faced with toxic stress from the ages of 0-6.

We have often believed that early learning is confined to the role of educators, or of parents, guardians and care givers. However, Canadian economists suggest that, for every dollar spent on the early years, there is at least a seven dollar return to the community through education, health or the judicial system. Nearly one in four children in our community live in poverty and 27% of typically developing children are entering kindergarten with vulnerabilities in one or more of the developmental domains. These statistics create an achievement gap in learning and an opportunity gap in life. Children impacted have impeded success in school as well as resulting health issues in adulthood, both of which negatively affect communities.

The Government of Alberta passed the Children First Act on May 14th this year. It recognizes that, although the primary care for children will always rest with parents, guardians and families, communities and government must be responsible as well. Our community needs to be aggressive in its approach to ensure we raise resilient children, ready for school, not just by knowing their letters and numbers but, more importantly, by knowing how to problem solve.

To learn more about brain development check out this short video from the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative.

This blog post was first published in the Lethbridge Herald on November 26, 2013.

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