Why is it important for early childhood educators to know about early brain development?

It is critical that early childhood educators have a thorough understanding of a many theories, science based, evidence based, research based and multiple perspectives both locally and from around the globe. Educators who see themselves as professionals will use all the information available to them to inform their practice.

The image of the early childhood educator

The early childhood sector has gone through a significant transformation in the last decade. No longer is the work simply child care, it is being recognised as way more than just ‘looking after’ children. Part of this transformation is due to the ground-breaking brain development research and the supporting evidence of how the first 5 years of our life shapes our future.

In the last 10 to 15 years there have been many changes to the tertiary qualification requirements for early childhood educators as well as the amount of health and safety mandatory certificates that need to be maintained at an individual level. The regulatory environment has changed and the amount of accountability has increased dramatically.

Mission Australia Early Learning (MAEL) as a provider of early childhood education and care are one of the providers who are doing extremely well in terms of investing in professional development opportunities for their staff to ensure that they are up to date with current trends and are exposed to a variety of perspectives. Not all early childhood providers support and encourage their staff to continue to upskill and engage in further learning. Many providers in fact only enforce that their staff maintain the minimum requirements but do not support, provide or encourage any type of professional development above that.

What does brain development research tell us?

Prior to the 1980’s it was thought that the structure of our brain is genetically developed and fully formed when we are born. Current brain development research tells us otherwise. The research shows that our brains begin to form very early in-utero and continue to develop well after we are born. Neuroscientists use the word plastic when they are describing a newborn baby’s brain because our brain is pliable and changes shape with every interaction and every experience for the first five years. In fact, our brain never really stops developing but the first five years is when the majority of our brain development occurs.

Babies brains are rapidly forming neural circuits. Every interaction and experience will fire several circuits, connecting them together which then develop neural pathways. The circuits that are fired constantly are reinforced but when circuits are not fired and stimulated they begin to diminish. Therefore, brain development research has taught us that there are critical periods throughout our baby’s life where we need to develop the positive neural pathways in our young children’s brains for positive life-long benefits.

I often explain brain development to families in these terms. If a child’s first three to five years are positive where their needs are met consistently and they are exposed to many calm, peaceful and happy experiences, their brain’s wiring will reflect this type of predictable, familiar, calm and happy life. If a child enters a world that is unresponsive, unpredictable, cold, and harmful then their brain will develop neural pathways that anticipate these types of experiences therefore their brain will be wired for chaos.

For a healthy brain to develop it needs minimal stress and as much positive stimuli as possible. Persistent fear and on-going stress can dramatically affect the development of the brain and have lifelong consequences.

How does brain development research inform practices in an early childhood centres?

High quality early childhood educators will use brain development research to inform their practices; their environment designs; their routines and their teaching methods. In centres provided my MAEL these are the types of things you will see happening at a centre level which have all been informed by brain development research.

  • Centres will gather as much information from you about your child on enrolment and throughout the year so they can bridge the gap between home and the centre and mimic as best as possible the type of routine and care your child receives at home. Centres will also share with you the experiences that happen at the centre so you can follow through with things at home.
  • Centres should acknowledge that you are the most important person in your child’s life. You are the expert of your own child. You and your entire family should feel welcome at the centre at any time.
  • Relationships are the key. The centre will endeavour to develop trusting genuine relationships with you where everything can be discussed and shared including the good and the uncomfortable. It’s extremely important that open and honest lines of communication are developed and maintained.
  • Routines and environments will be kept predictable and familiar at the centre to avoid as much stress on your child as possible. For example, your child’s sleeping arrangements at the centre should rarely change until your child progresses to another sleeping stage.
  • Educators caring for the younger children should stay as consistent as possible. The very young children are usually assigned a focus carer who remains their main carer for at least the first year.
  • An emphasis is put on meeting the children’s basic needs including good nourishment, plenty of invitations to drink fluids during the day to avoid dehydration, ample opportunities to sleep and continuous love, care and attention. The group size and ratio should also allow for every child to have opportunity for one-on-one with a caregiver. The environment and routines should be arranged that there is time for each caregiver to give every child some focussed attention throughout the day.
  • Environments will be thoughtfully organised with meaningful resources provided for the babies that stimulate their curiosity and sense of wonder. Spaces will be set up to encourage all domains of learning such as spaces to practice their language, their physical skills, their sense of identity, and allow for social interactions with their peers. There should also be a variety of areas which allow for busy play as well as areas where a child can be calm and quiet.
  • The routine will acknowledge that all children are individuals and they do not necessarily all need or want to do the same thing at the same time. High quality centres aim to create warm, soft, responsive environments and less institutionalised routines.
  • Learning happens best when it is relevant to the child, is of interest and builds on existing experiences and knowledge so a high-quality centre will use this as a basis to their planning cycle.
  • Professional early childhood educators should be able to help you as a parent understand how different theories and perspectives interact with practice including brain development research. Educators should be utilised as a support service to your family and should act as a referral service if needed.

One major benefit of early childhood educators being knowledgeable and up to date with developmental theories and research is so they can advocate for all children’s right to quality early education and can explain clearly what high quality looks like at a government level. It would make sense to think that governments would spend more time and money resourcing the stage of our lives where our brains are being shaped than any other stage of our life but unfortunately this is not the case. If educators are able to clearly articulate and refer to theory, research and evidence, they are more likely to be able to influence the decision makers when it comes to improving child and family social policies.