Early this month, we introduced Science in Early Childhood through five topics including: Executive Function and Self-Regulation, Resilience, Serve and Return Interactions, Toxic Stress and Early Experiences and Brain Architecture, then followed up with a series of social media posts (if you haven’t been following, the easiest place to catch up is on Instagram).
To wrap up this concept, we are recapping these same topics below with some tips on how you can help support your child’s brain development. After all, YOU are your child’s first and most important teacher.
Executive Function and Self-Regulation
What is executive function and why does it sound serious? The official definition for executive function is: “the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully”. As we grow, we rely on these skills every day for things like:
focusing and paying attention in school or while we drive
remembering instructions on the job or trying a new sport
multitasking as a child’s caregiver!
Self-regulation is the ability to process and control emotion. You might see an example of this when you drop your child off with another caregiver or when a conflict arises with another child over a toy. Self-regulation refers to the ability to feel strong emotions but control them before they control you.
Self-regulation takes of patience and practice to develop—a child cannot learn to self-regulate without your help.
So, how can you as a caregiver help support your child’s development of executive function and self-regulation? For executive function, you can:
have a predictable and consistent routine for your child
offer your child choices
give your child small, specific instructions
For self-regulation, you can:
role model your own self-regulation and management of emotions
notice what your child is feeling and encourage them to name their emotions
support your child when they are overcome with emotion—for example, get them to take deep breaths or hit a pillow
validate their emotions (‘I see that you are crying. It is hard to wait for a turn with a toy.’)
The word resilience refers to the ability to “bounce back” in the face of adversity. You might see this is when your child is building with blocks and their tower falls down: they show resiliency by taking a deep breath and saying, “It’s ok, we can build it again.” Or when someone takes a toy from your child and they say “Hey, that is mine,” instead of crying or hitting. The ability to be resilient in the face of adversity is a skill that will help your child as they grow into successful and thriving adults.
Supporting the growth of resiliency in your child can be done in many ways – one of the most important simply being to maintain your secure and loving relationship. You can:
encourage them to try new things and take risks (climb high, run really fast!)
help them problem-solve when things go wrong
use I-messages to support them (I see that you are trying really hard to cut that paper. I believe in you and am here if you need me!)
Serve and Return Interactions
Think of a tennis match. A ball is served from one player and is hit towards another. The other player then hits the ball back to player one. Now, think of when your child has asked you a question and you respond back with an answer. Or when they smile at you and you smile back. These are all known as serve and return interactions.
As a child’s first and most important teacher, parents/primary caregivers can support brain growth just by speaking to, playing with, and caring for their child every day!
Stress: from toxic to tolerable (and even positive!)
There are many types of stresses that a child might go through on a day-to-day basis, ranging from toxic to tolerable and even positive stress.
Toxic stress is harmful to the developing brain. Toxic stressors include things such as mental or physical abuse, neglect, or exposure to violence. Toxic stress can weaken synapses (or connections) in the brain and can have long term implications on your child’s physical and mental health throughout their life.
Tolerable stress results from serious events such as a natural disaster or loss of a loved one—with the support of a reliable caregiver. While these events are very difficult, children are able to pass through the stress and become more resilient.
Toxic stress can turn to tolerable stress with the ongoing support of at least one caring adult. How? Go back to what we wrote above on helping a child learn to self-regulate.
Positive stress – sometimes stress is good! Some short-lived stresses are essential to healthy and robust development – such as the stress your child feels as they start their first day of school or ride a bike for the first time.
Early experiences and brain architecture
A child’s brain is constantly developing, making connections, and growing. So next time your child strikes up a conversation and you make the effort to be present and chat, know you are helping them build their brain. The next time your child express strong emotion and you help them work through it, you are helping build their brain. The next time you see your child ‘just playing,’ you can admire how they are independently building their brain and a solid foundation for their own future.
Consider yourself not just a caregiver to your child, but a partnering architect!