Activities for Gifted Children: From Birth to Five (page 2)

— American Association for Gifted Children
Updated on Jan 25, 2012

We're all aware of the impact on stress on our lives. What kind of role does stress play in early brain development?

Stress in normal amounts is not a bad thing. A child builds a healthy stress capability with each new exploration because new things bring on a stress response that's a natural, neuro-biological system. Chemicals are released that help the body cope. But, if a child is in constant, chronic stress situations, he or she will build excessive stress reactions that will come out as fear, during certain times.

Overview: Wiring the brain

Scientists used to engage in the "nature or nurture" debate when they tried to understand the early years of childhood development. But, now they dismiss such philosophizing. That's because they are realizing it isn't one or the other. Nature is the dominant force in the earliest phases of embryonic development. But nurture plays a huge role in the first few years of the child's life.

Of all the recent neurological discoveries, the finding that the electrical activity of the brain cells changes the physical structure of the brain is the most surprising to the scientific community. And it translates into a new understanding of how important parenting is during the first three years.

At birth a baby's brain contains 100 billion neurons. While the brain contains virtually all the nerve cells it will ever have, the pattern of wiring between them is not yet established. It is the sensory experience (sight, sound, touch, taste) of the first three years (from age zero to three) that creates a blueprint for the assembly of a child's brain. Then, over the first ten or eleven years of a child's life, this blueprint is refined. Repetition of activity and stimulation helps the brain fortify certain neuron connections that lead to language, feelings and movement. The brain eliminates neuron connect-ions that are seldom or ever used. If a child isn't given stimulation that encourages language or feelings, the child can have a deficit in these areas. Depending on the type of parenting and stimulation provided, we end up with individual minds whose patterns of emotion and thought are unique.

How parents affect their children's development

In the 1930's D.W. Winnicot wrote about the importance of mirroring an infant by looking into the child's eyes. So, what's new here is more about why it's important to do that — we now know that the brain is reading each external signal as a road map for development.

Parents help babies learn by adopting the rhythmic, high-pitched speaking style known as "Parentese." When speaking to babies, mothers often put their faces very close to a child. They use shorter sentences, speak in a sing-song manner. Studies show that Parentese helps hasten the process of connecting words to the objects they denote.

Dr. Bruce Perry has done studies on the role parents play in helping their children regulate responses to stress. Children who are physically abused early in life develop brains that are sensitive to danger. At the slightest threat their hearts race and stress hormones surge. Perry said that "Experience is the chief architect of the brain."

Other studies show that a depressed mother's interactions with a child can affect the child's level of brain activity. A depressed mother who expresses her melancholy has a negative affect. But a depressed mother who can manage to play and interact with the child will encourage brain activity that leads to children with a more cheerful approach to the world.

                 — Good Morning America, ABC, April, 1997 

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