Children’s Brains Are Built, Not Born

In December 2015, the county government released a report entitled “State of the Young Child in Transylvania County.” This report is a result of the months long collaborative work of the county administration, public agencies and private nonprofit organizations.

The members of the Preschool Task Force were in agreement that “children under five years of age depend completely on family and community to provide the right start and ensure that developmental milestones are being met.”

In the report, the participants arrived at the conclusion that “making sure that children have the right environment to learn and develop is not only an ethically sound practice, but it is also critical to the community’s economic development.”

This is supported by the studies of economists who are weighing in on the importance of children to the economy, such as, the research conducted by Art Rolnick and Rob Grune-wald of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank that found a 16 percent return on investment in early childhood education, with 80 percent of the benefit going to the general public.

Equally important though is the contention by Harvard University pediatrician Jack Shonkoff that “brains are built, not born.”

“What happens in children’s early years sets the foundation for all the years that follow. Child development is a dynamic, interactive process that is not predetermined. It occurs in the context of relationships, experiences and environments. Understanding this concept is ensuring that each child has the opportunity to realize his or her potential,” said Shonkoff.

“The brain is one of the only organs not fully developed at birth. Most of the cells are there, but the connections – the wiring that forms the architecture is not. These connections develop in early childhood. Every experience a baby has, forms a neural connection in the brain. These connections – called synapses – form very rapidly in the early years at a rate of 700 synapses per second, “ Schonkoff said.

According to Schonkoff, the synapses that form for vision and hearing peak at just four months, language at nine months, higher cognitive functions at one year. Experiences and environments determine which connections get used more and therefore strengthened. Those that are used less fade. A child’s interactions with the world determine how these connections (wiring) are formed, providing either a strong or weak foundation for all future health and learning.

In view of these findings, Transylvania County’s collaborative effort to promote an early environment for the development and life of each child is both timely and critical.

The best part of the story is that we now know what children need to build a strong foundation: good health, strong families and quality learning experiences.

Health in the earliest years lays the groundwork for a future well-being. Children that participated in a high-quality early learning program that included health screenings and nutritional components had better adult health and less chronic disease 30 years later.

Strong families are vital. Parents are a child’s first and best teacher. Supporting parents has significant benefits to children and families. For example, voluntary home visiting programs provided by qualified professionals to parents — prenatally and/or with young children – reduce health care costs, improve school readiness and success, reduce need for remedial education and increase family self-sufficiency.

Quality learning experiences that begin at birth and continue through third grade make all the difference. For example, Duke University researchers found that North Carolina third graders had higher reading and math scores and lower special education placements in counties that spent more money on Smart Start and More at Four – now NPreK – when those children were younger. The early years are so defining that by the time children turn eight, their third grade outcomes can predict future academic achievement and career success.

(Joe Castro, executive director of Smart Start of Transylvania.)

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