Child Development Specialists have developed decades of research which indicate how impactful one’s early childhood experiences can be in their overall human development. When an infant is born, their brain is said to be primitive and impulsive operating from its developed limbic system. “The limbic system is located in the inner brain beneath the cortex, is a collection of small structures involved in more instinctive behaviors like emotional reactions, stress responses, and reward-seeking behaviors.”(1, 2, 3) At birth, this part of the brain is the most developed.
“Between conception and age three, a child’s brain undergoes an impressive amount of change (Figure 1). At birth, it already has about all the neurons it will ever have. It doubles in size in the first year, and by age three it has reached 80 percent of its adult volume.” (4, 5, 6)
The early stages of one’s life are strongly affected by genetic factors. Although, they play an important role in the basic wiring of the brain, genes alone do not design the brain completely. The brain will fine-tune itself according to the input it receives from the environment and experiences one encounters. Genes provide a blueprint for the brain, but a child’s environment and experiences carry out the construction. (9)
By the age of three, a child will have up to double the number of synapses that they will have in adulthood. A synapse is a structure that permits a neuron to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron. Synapses are forming at a faster rate in this time period, then any other time in a person’s life. A child’s senses report to the brain about the environment and experiences, and this input stimulates neural activity.
Repeated use strengthens a synapse. Synapses that are rarely used remain weak and are more likely to be eliminated in the pruning process. Synapse strength contributes to the connectivity and efficiency of the networks that support learning, memory, and other cognitive abilities. (10,11)
The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain located at the front of the frontal lobe. It is active in a variety of complex behaviors, including planning, higher level thinking, and greatly contributes to personality development. Synaptic density in the prefrontal cortex probably reaches its peak during the third year, up to 200 percent of its adult level. This region also continues to create and strengthen networks with other areas. As a result, complex cognitive abilities are being improved and consolidated. At this stage, for example, children are better able to use the past to interpret present events. They also have more cognitive flexibility and a better understanding of cause and effect(12,13).
In the first years of life, a child will experience times when strong emotions will overtake them whether it be happiness, sadness, frustration, anger, loneliness, or fear. In addition, physiological symptoms such as illness, hunger, or tiredness can aid in a child’s inability to self-regulate their strong emotions. Since a child’s brain is undergoing rapid brain development, a child is not physical equipped with the ability to recognize and appropriately respond to their feelings. Thus, children will often revert to an instinctual fight, flight, or freeze response when experiencing heavy emotions. Empathy and an awareness of other’s feelings are not inherent. In fact, children are egocentric by nature up until the age of approximately seven years old. Each child is absorbed in its own private world and speech is egocentric due to the brain’s current developmental stage. The main function of speech in early childhood is to externalize the child’s thinking rather than to communicate with others. As of yet, the child has not grasped the social function of either language or rules. Children utilize language to express their view point of the world and have a difficult time seeing beyond their own perspective.
A social, play based program is the greatest opportunity a child can be given to practice and develop appropriate responses to situations such as turn taking, listening to others, or learning how to work together as a team. The key to success is helping the child to label their emotion, validate what they are feeling, and redirect their response to consider the impact they have on the world around them. Acknowledging a child’s emotion and helping them work through appropriate reactions to said emotion, will wire neurons to operate from the logical part of the brain instead of the instinctual limbic system, improving long term skills in self-regulation and executive functioning.