I was introduced to Mine Conkbayir when she contacted me about neuroscience informing early years practice, which I think is such an exciting, and growing, area of study. So I was very enthusiastic when she offered to do a guest post on this subject. Here she discusses how neuroscience can add another dimension to our understanding of child development:
Like many individuals in this increasingly frantic world, I’m often busy juggling my responsibilities as a parent while I work and continue my studies – a very exciting journey as I try to achieve my PhD in early childhood education and neuroscience.
Having been a lecturer across a range of child care and education qualifications for the past 14 years, I continue to be bewildered by the lack of consistently embedded teaching of neuroscience and early brain development across these qualifications.
Early years students and practitioners are continually being encouraged and supported by lecturers and training professionals to use theoretical knowledge from the likes of Piaget, Vygotsky and Bowlby to help inform their planning of early childhood curricula, learning environments and their interactions with very young children.
However, this is not the case when it comes to using neuroscience, which can also be used to inform their understanding of early brain development in relation to their practice.
You may well ask ‘how?’
Here are just a few key messages from neuroscience which can inform how we care for and educate our youngest:
- The most prolific synaptic activity occurs during the first five years of life – this enables the young child to acquire enormous behavioural social, linguistic, environmental, and cultural information. This makes the role of parents, carers and early years practitioners crucial in supporting healthy brain development.
- Plasticity is therefore at its most rapid during early childhood – this means that the brain is at its most sensitive to environmental experiences, with neural connections growing and being strengthened in response to these experiences (positive or negative).
- Toxic stress and the stress hormone cortisol exert a powerful effect on early childhood development – when babies and children are continually exposed to stressful, threatening situations or whose needs for attachment and affection continually go unmet, they eventually develop a hyper-reactive stress response. This damages the developing brain’s architecture, with deleterious effects on a child’s ability to learn and develop.
- The relationships between brain physiology, cognition and learning are closely intertwined – understanding the centrality of emotional well-being as a strong foundation for cognition and learning ability can make a positive impact on planning the learning environment for the under-threes especially.
It is time for neuroscience to finally be accepted as another way of theorising about and understanding key issues concerning early childhood development and provision of education and care. This does not imply that understanding neuroscience is the only way to do this but that it adds another, more contemporary dimension to our understanding.
Steps are being taken in the right direction, with more discussion concerning the importance of early brain development, neuroscience and the need for early years teachers and practitioners to have a deep understanding of child development (particularly from conception to three) yet these three key areas are not embedded in qualifications.
Prof Cathy Nutbrown’s review explored this problem but did not go into any depth concerning the neuroscience behind it.
Having graduate led teams does not provide the entire solution either. I have worked with many trainee teachers who have received excellent primary school training but have not been prepared for and educated about the importance of early brain development from conception to three.
More recently, Save the Children appealed for every nursery to be led by a qualified teacher by 2020. Their claim is supported by evidence provided by neuroscientific research in their paper Lighting Up Young Brains.
My simple argument is that by embedding cutting-edge theories stemming from neuroscience and early brain development across early years qualifications, we can help to ensure that students, practitioners and teachers alike are more knowledgeable and better equipped to support child development.
I’ll leave you with you a comment from Dowling (2004: 4) who expresses in no uncertain terms, the pressing need to utilise findings from neuroscience to better inform parenting, education and care:
The challenge of understanding how the brain develops and how that understanding might help in raising the next generations to the best of our and their abilities is key to the future of humankind.
About Mine Conkbayir:
Mine Conkbayir is the author of ‘Early Childhood Theories and Contemporary Issues’ (find it here). Her latest book, ‘Early Childhood and Neuroscience: Theory, Research and Implications for Practice’ (find it here or here) was published in March 2017.
She is currently undertaking a PhD in early childhood education and neuroscience to further her work in the complex and challenging subject of infant brain development and to further explore its application in early childhood research, policy and practice.
Mine is a lecturer, trainer and author in early childhood education and care. She was previously Acting Head of the Centre for Research, Learning and Development at London Early Years Foundation, UK.
LinkedIn: Mine Conkbayir