Healthy relationships key to strong early childhood development

A social worker friend of mine who does home visits has shared stories about her work over the years.

Lots of stories.

One thing she’s noticed is that in many of the homes she visits, it’s loud.

The TV’s on, there’s a video game or music playing, and when parents are talking to children and other adults, it’s often in yelling tones.

It’s like a wall of noise hits her when the door opens.

All that noise makes it hard sometimes for her to even think, let alone do the work she needs to do.

Imagine what it’s like for the children who live there. Because it’s like that every, single day.

It’s hard to work on building a brain when you don’t have a moment to think. And the environment around our children has enormous influence on their growth and development.

The way that nature and nurture feed on each other was the theme of the sixth annual Early Learning Summit, hosted May 8, 2018, by the Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County. 

The featured speaker was Anne Hogan, a part-time faculty member at Florida State University and at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. She is past president of Florida Association of Infant Mental Health.

“Genes basically turn on and turn off,” Hogan says. “The environment they are in effects how those genes work.”

Nature and nurture interact all the time, and they influence each other.

“Babies are wired to be sensitive to the emotional tone around them. We don’t know all the ways that they pick this up, but we know that they do,” Hogan says.

It means they pick up the vibe of the environment they are in. If it is loud, stressful, full of anxiety, then chances are, the child will feel it. 

And the child won’t be better off for it.

Hogan asked the roughly 40 people in attendance to remember four things about child development. 

— Development is a highly interactive not solely determined by genes.

— While early intervention is easier, development opportunities continue throughout childhood.

— Young children benefit from nurturing relationships inside and outside of the immediate family.

— Relationships build a child’s resilience and capacity to adapt.

While the greatest development opportunity is in the first three years, there is always opportunity for developing a child’s brain in a healthy way. 

“Don’t think that after (age) 3 or after 5 that there isn’t opportunity for growth,” Hogan says. 

How the brain grows

Some of what underlies this is the science of how the brain and the body grow and develop in the first three years of life.

Synapses are the fibers that feed the electrical connections that make the brain work. They are the wiring of the computer that our brain is. The general pattern is rapid growth, then pruning based on use. 

“Once those pathways are set, changing them is going to be hard,” Hogan says.

It’s not that they can’t be changed, but the effort required to do so will be much harder.

Much the way you can learn to ice skate in your 20s or 30s, but once you start those lessons, you may wish you had started when you were 4 or 5. 

Hogan also talked about the DC:0-5 (2016 version), a diagnostic tool that considers the health and strength of the parent-child relationships and the strength of the caregiver, co-parent relationships as well. 

“This isn’t just about moms and dads. It could be moms and dads and grandparents, bio parents and foster parents,” Hogan said.

Coaching all caregivers in language development strategies like serve-and-return is important in every interaction someone has with a young child.

Home visitation programs, for example, can be an important component of this. 

Soft skills, resilience, higher executive function — the kind of self-management skills we all need ultimately in the workplace — are built in these early years, too. And they are fed by the interactions infants and toddlers have with the all of the adults in their lives.

Working and playing well with others, waiting turns in a group, calming yourself down, not lashing out when you don’t get exactly what you want at the moment you want it — all of these are skills even grownups need to work on.

But the foundation of those skills is laid in these critical early years.

Modeling, coaching, mentoring and guidance are all techniques to help parents do these things the right way. 

“Every great athlete has a coach,” Hogan noted. “You need the extra guidance and support. It’s how we build new skills, and most importantly how to manage the stress of performance.”

How to improve outcomes

Three principles, essentially work together to build a flywheel that can improve outcomes, Hogan said.

— Support responsive relationships.

— Strengthen core life skills.

— Reduce sources of stress in the home/family.

Some parents need help building the life skills they need to interact in a positive, loving way with a young child. Programs that help boost executive function/self-regulation in adults and use real-life context for these techniques can be most helpful.

Reducing stress is something everyone needs help to do. Research tells us the impact that stress has on a growing brain can last a lifetime — and have real physical health impacts later in life. 

To help reduce that stress, parents need to know what to expect from their children, and they need concrete advice about how to handle it. That’s not a one-and-done lesson. It should be ongoing, Hogan said. 

It is crucial, too, for the people who work with children and parents. Lawmakers need to be part of the solution. 

It can be a challenge to find the voice from the community to consistently deliver the message of the importance of investing in this area to people with the power to set policy — and budgets. 

But communities committed to real change must find that voice — and use it.

“It’s going to be a slog,” Hogan said.

Bruce Watson, executive director of the Early Learning Coalition, closed the morning.

“All of us are in a society where our young people will be the adults of our community. We have to be focused on this,” Watson said. “We are on the cusp of making a significant change in the way we do early education in the form of childcare. Part of that change will be more accountability, but I’ve realized change must include the providers in the room, to help make you the best you can be at what you do.”

“Our children deserve no less,” Watson said.

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