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The science behind early brain development

The science behind early brain development


September 13, 2016 | By Ron Spreeuwenberg
This is a transcript of the Preschool Podcast, episode #9 "The science behind early brain development ”.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi I'm Ron Spreeuwenberg co-founder and CEO of HiMama Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education.

In this week's episode we host Debra McNelis an early brain development specialist and founder of Brain Insights to talk about the science behind why preschool is so important. We delve into some detail about brain development from birth to age 5 and discuss how this deeper understanding benefits preschool teachers and other early childhood educators when collaborating with children in the classroom. To learn more about brain development in preschoolers and how we can spread the word about this super important topic, stay tuned for this week's episode of the preschool podcast.

Let me just start off with this question which is- what inspired you to do what you do.

Deborah MCNELIS: That's a big question because I have a long answer to that. Like what is it if you use the word inspire. It truly was an inspired moment that that led to this. It when I was a freshman in college or it began when I was a freshman in college in the college. The college I was attending had a policy that you declared your major in your freshman year. And I didn't know what I wanted to major in. And my adviser was the end of the first quarter and the advisor said well by Monday you need to declare a major. So I went back home to Minnesota. As you can pick up that I'm from Minnesota. And I was sitting watching a children's choir with my family and I was watching those children. Of course these thoughts were going through my mind what I wanted to go into. And as I watched those children it just this thought came to me and I thought you know all of the adults in those children's lives don't know all they could know to help those children become all they have the potential to become. And it was truly just, I felt truly inspired, and just thought OK I'm going to learn all I can to help those children become all they have the potential to become. And so I decided to go major in early childhood education and some somehow intuitively I must have known that it's important to start as early as possible.

So I got a bachelor's degree in early childhood education but this was several years ago. So at that time the brain research information wasn't out so everything was pretty much based on theory and behavioral studies. So from there I taught kindergarten for several years and I had two daughters during that time. I stayed home a year with each of them and then I started branching out that thought that same thought came to me and I thought you know if I could reach the parents of the children that I'm teaching we could work together in partnership and help support the development of these children. So if I could help these parents know what's best for their children that would be advantageous.

So I started doing sharing information with parents start at a parent teacher organization in the district I was working in. Then I started a community based organization for the community that I lived in called Family Network. And then from there I coordinated a family literacy program and I won't go into the details of that but it was during the time I was coordinating that family literacy program that the brain research information started coming out. And I just got so excited and I thought well now we have this scientific evidence it's not just based on theory and it's not just based on behavioral studies we have scientific information that shows us what children really need for optimal development.

So I just got so excited and I thought OK we got scientists behind it now you know it's not it's not just us early childhood people talking about it anymore we have scientists talking about it. So I thought well the world is really going to sit up and take notice and understand what young children really need. And start seeing that even though the information was out that people still weren't knowing this. So I then had the opportunity to work for an advocacy agency and my role was to go around the state I live, in Wisconsin now, and my role was to go around the state and do presentations on early brain development so that we could get support for programs and policies and funding. And I did that for about four years but then the funding for that project ran out. And what I tell everyone is the funding ran out but my passion to get the information out didn't. And so from there I decided you know what. This is too important. I'm just going to do it on my own. So I started brain insights my own company to create this awareness and understanding and give insights into the way that children's brains develop.

SPREEUWENBERG: Wow. So, very neat a very noble important cause. So let’s start with this question. You mentioned that some data has come out more recently from when you first have this intuitive sense that a young child brain development was so important what does the science and research say about why it's important. Is it possible to explain that to the listeners in a nutshell or is it super complicated?

MCNELIS: I don't know. It's somewhat complicated but kind of the niche of my focus is with Brain Insights is to give insights into practical everyday useable information so that like I say that you can get into real deep neural scientific terminology and understanding. But for everyday life in interacting and working with children it really isn't all that complicated. So what I often say is that to develop a child's brain well, we need to provide the physical and safety needs and then loving interaction and play. So it really isn't all that complicated. But I can go into some basics and because at the end you're asking you know why is it so important. The importance is that is what scientific research shows us is that 85 percent of a child's brain develops by age three it physically grows and develops by age 3 to 85 percent of their brain growth and 90 percent by age 5. And this brain growth is dependent, the brain is experience dependent. So that means that it's the brain.

Brain development is dependent on experiences. A brain will not grow. It will not just magically develop. If a child is not having experiences. So a baby that just lays in a crib all day or a carrier or something and isn't being interacted with, doesn't have visual stimulation doesn't have opportunities for sensory, their brain isn't kind of grow just sitting there. So the brain is dependent on experiences. Now what we need to care about is what type of experiences that child is going to have. And so that's where my passion comes in to ensure my what I say is my goal is to reach every adult on this planet because we need every adult that's going to have an influence on our child's life to understand that we need to have the most optimal experiences the most positive experiences for a child for their brain to wire in the best possible way.

SPREEUWENBERG: Got it. Now I work in early childhood education and so I have heard some of those figures before and I actually think it's also quite shocking the importance of brain development for young children. But like you said the info is out there now but still a lot of people don't understand just how significant this is. You mentioned at one point that a project you were working on the funding ran out. So I think certainly investment is potentially a big reason why people don't know about this. Would you say that sort of the mean block to getting the word out about this is just funding or what.

MCNELIS: Well I think funding is certainly a large aspect of it. Secondly I think sometimes just hearing the term brain development, people might avoid it thinking that it's going to be too complicated and too deep. So I think sometimes that occurs. I think also what has happened is the term brain development has to frequently become synonymous with meaning, well if children are their brains are developing this early in life we better push academics on them as early as possible. And so they're not seeing the whole picture of all that goes into developing a healthy brain for health and well-being and because it's every you know as I mentioned it's experience dependent. Well it’s every experience that a child has that's impacting the brain and what I try to communicate is that it's not just about learning and I'm going to use that term. You know it's not just about learning because still many factors go into developing a brain in a healthy way. So it's certainly about relationships and that's one of the main focus areas that I emphasize. So it's about relationships and there's a lot that goes into that of course.

Reducing stress and part of that is relationships but it's other aspects as well because stress has, well, we all need some stress but too much stress is not healthy for the brain. So providing routines and consistency nutrition a lot of people think of nutrition in relationship only to the body. But understanding the impact of nutrition on the brain and behaviour and moods and learning and all of that and how it's contributing. Hydration is critically important for the brain. Sleep, there's lots and lots of research on the impacts of sleep and the need for adequate amounts of sleep time in nature. Time in nature a wealth of information also on that too that the brain needs nature. And it's a big stress reliever for us to spend time in nature. And play is critically important for these early years. We can't just focus on pushing academics on young children. They have to have play, movement and exploration and experimentation and use of their imagination because that's all going to critically impact the highest functioning areas of the brain. So it's not all just about learning. It's about self-regulation and social emotional development and physical development and health for overall well-being and life.

SPREEUWENBERG: It almost sounds like there should be a parenting 101 course with all of this.

MCNELIS: I agree. Completely.

SPREEUWENBERG: Because you know what you're saying really resonates with me because this of course is the preschool podcast in early childhood education. A lot of the things that you're speaking about are critical to what's happening in the classroom in child care and early learning programs. But for whatever reason there hasn't really been a mechanism for parents to know about how children learn through play and by being outside in nature and all the other things that you are speaking to and I guess that's really in essence what brain insight is almost to teach parents about how they can be like an early childhood educator for their young children when they're not in an early age learning environment.

MCNELIS: That's right. Exactly. And it all starts at Day 1 it starts actually prenatally. But yeah having these positive experiences right from the start is just critical. So you're so right in addition to doing presentations on this and blogs and you know writing and all that kind of thing I also have developed what I call brain development activity packets. They're small little packets designed for parents that provide activity ideas or interaction suggestions and then on the back of that activity card it explains and in what way and that's helping to support brain development so parents are getting the what to do and the why to do it all in this little handy packet that they can have on a purse or pocket or a diaper bag. And so there's one for each year from birth to up to age six. And then there's also a nature one too. But the reason I'm bringing that up is because the first one for the first year is called Love your Baby. So starting from birth up to age 1 my dream is that every hospital gives out that love your baby packet at the birth of the child. So it would start then.

SPREEUWENBERG: Interesting what do you think needs to get done in order for that to happen?

MCNELIS: Well I'm thinking. But you brought up money. A lot of things come down to money. And I'm thinking that if there was an organization or company that would want to sponsor making that happen I think that would probably be the most efficient way of getting it across. Because you know each individual hospital you know it's about the decision making process but you know if it's a company that is going to provide a sample to parents at the hospital that might be a really efficient way of getting it out there. Or an organization too you know.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah. It's just hard to comprehend that's something that is so important. And when you look at the research the data the science and the numbers makes so much sense but it's not science it's not really happening yet you're you know you're a one woman show with Brain Insights you know trying to reach every adult on the planet.

MCNELIS: Yes exactly. Exactly. And speaking of money there are economists now that are using the brain research and longitudinal studies to show and demonstrate how cost beneficial it is for us to put an emphasis on the early years and if we put money into quality education really education programs and parenting programs and do all of this as early as possible it is cost beneficial we save so much money down the road in dropout rates or retention rates or remedial programs. So. one of my main areas of focus with the brain insights is let's just learn all of this and develop brains as healthy as possible in the first place so we don't have to go back and make changes later.

SPREEUWENBERG: Absolutely. I know a couple that are of course you're speaking about at least one in Canada was done by Toronto Dominion Bank and it said for every dollar invested in early education there's $8 return to the economy. And one of them was even right out of the White House and it was I think a for every dollar invested a $7 return. So I mean you know what else can you invest in where you get a 700 percent return. It's an investment. I mean it's yeah it's mind boggling.

MCNELIS: Yeah. And it's not only education it's health and crime and you know incarceration and you know all kinds of things.

SPREEUWENBERG: So yeah it's almost like a lot of the money that's being spent by governments is maybe trying to fix the symptoms of what is really a bigger root cause issue and on and investing in early childhood education would be really more of a grassroots investment into like where are the challenges starting. I mean like what's a better place to start than from birth and supporting young children.

Now because this is the preschool podcast. Would you have any advice or any type of message to early childhood educators that are working in a classroom, early childhood education environment of brain development and maybe how like what role they play in this.

MCNELIS: Well yes. I see I see this information helping preschool educators have more confidence in what they're doing so that you know like the Brain Research can support that they are doing what children really need. So often what you'll see and we talked about this a little bit already is that there's this push on academics and a lot of times you know educators get torn while there's the there's the outside influence pushing on them saying we need to push the academics on young children.

But the research doesn't support that. So it provides a confidence for them when they have this understanding that this is what children really need. Like you mentioned earlier that the time to play, time to get out nature and so forth so it can provide that confidence for them. Knowing how it benefits the children as well and then and then helping parents understand. So using that brain research information to share with the parents so that they are working as a team and they're helping that these parents understand why are my kids just playing all day you know. Because sometimes that's how parents look at it. But it helps. It helps students parents to understand this that this is the optimal way to help their child develop and understanding brain develop makes ends up making the job of being a preschool educator it makes it easier because they're providing what the child really needs and they're not going against the grain. It just makes everything much easier.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah I think you really nailed it when you said explaining parents not just what the children are doing but why. And that's going to in itself help educate the parents about you know like you said when the children are playing they're actually developing in this area of social development. This area of emotional development or whatever it might be because in lots of times the parents just don't know.

MCNELIS: Exactly. And so when I do my presentations I talk about the many areas of the brain. But I emphasize just four major areas of the brain. And that really helps both educators and parents really get a grasp why this is all so important. And so I talk about the brain stem which is at the base of the brain that is mostly focused on our survival and it's breathing and heart rate and blood pressure and those kinds of you know aspects to keep us alive. And then from there the next area that the brain develops in this order from survival to the higher functioning area. So the brain stem is the first area that's in a full term baby. It's the only area of the brain that is fully finished developing, In pre-term babies that's an area that still needs development and that's why we provide heart monitors and regulating their body temperature and those kinds of things.

So what happens is the next area of the brain to complete development is called the midbrain and that area of the brain regulates sleep patterns that regulates our motor skills and Motor development. And so that's why a newborn baby sleep is kind of all over the place. We have no idea when that baby is going to sleep next right. But as that next area of the brain develops sleep patterns become more regular and we're able to better predict this is when a morning nap might be and this is when bedtime might be because that area of the brain is organized in making connections to organize and more fully develop. So from there, and then all and then that's the motor development area. So lots of movement opportunities for developing all the motor skills. So a baby can learn to roll over and sit up and crawl and walk and manipulate objects and all of that is so critical.

The next area to complete development is called the limbic area and that's the area where memory and emotion are located. And so emotion and memory are really closely connected. So if a child is feeling really good and feeling comfortable and safe and secure with the parent or the educator, they're going to learn more. They're going to they're going to their brain is going to be in a in a calm state for learning in that situation if they're not feeling safe, what's going to happen is there's their stress systems which is the lower areas of the brain are going to be activated. And so they're going to have the fight or flight response and they're not going remember what they're learning and they're not going to focus on what they're learning. And then the last area of the brain to complete development is called the cortex and that the very in this is considered the thinking area in the brain, in the very last part of the cortex to develop is called the pre frontal cortex and that's where self-regulation skills are developed.

And so you know we ultimately want that part of the brain to develop well. And so as I said these four areas develop in that order. But each of them are developing all along the way so they complete development in that order. But even parts of the prefrontal cortex are beginning to develop at birth. It's just that this is the order they complete development. And so I'm going into all of this because play contributes greatly to all of those areas of the brain. But it's really critical for that self-regulation and that higher prefrontal cortex area thinking area with a brain to have all those opportunities for play and movement and exploration and experimentation and imagination and like dramatic play, pretending is highly correlated with that prefrontal cortex, that highest functioning area in the brain. So having that understanding really helps.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah I actually that's the first time somebody has explained that to me.

And the reason not that it resonates with me is that it's that classic thing of the difference between telling somebody to do something and not telling them why versus giving the context about why you're asking somebody to do something. And if you tell them why you've asked them to do it or given them the context in the background they can do it with much more confidence and much more success. And I think what you've explained about how the brain develops and grows is super interesting and to link it back to a point you made before about confidence. So I think early childhood educators for example having this understanding of brain development will give and that much more confidence to speak up about you know why their methods of working with the children in collaboration with the children building stronger relationships with them, play based learning, emergent curriculum, are all very effective ways to help children with their development, versus a more academic teaching type of a style which you which you mentioned. And that certainly relates to the theme of this podcast the preschool podcast which is we want to develop the future leaders of early childhood education and so knowledge is part of that and knowledge about brain development I think is a great way for them to have that context of background about why they're doing what they're doing and why it works so I think that's really neat.

MCNELIS: Thank you. You know your comment about this is the first time I've had to explain this is the comment that I get the most frequent comments I get after doing a presentation. They say I've heard some brain development stuff before but I never got it until you explained it so. So I appreciate your comments on that.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah because it's interesting because you hear a lot of play based learning, emergent curriculum, and you kind of understand. OK research tells us that it's better but having not actual understanding of the brain development I think gives you that further confidence of OK now I'm seeing how it all fits together. OK so wrapping things up a couple of questions for you. One of the things that we do think is important as I mentioned before is knowledge. We want people to always be learning new things and growing their own views about what is out there and where to get information. And so do you have certain sources where you go to on a regular basis to get information about brain development or other areas of interest in your field.

MCNELIS: There are several books that I've gained a lot of knowledge from. I'm sitting right here next to my bookshelf full of brain books so I can list a few of the top ones if you're interested in that. And then there's a couple of Web sites that I like but let's see. This one's designed for parents but it's so incredibly valuable for anyone that's interacting with children. So it's very appropriate for early childhood educators. Also it's called The Science of Parenting and it's by Margot Sunderland and it's just a beautiful book. It's just you know everything you know the topics that we want to know about the sciences tied in but it's laid out beautifully it's a lot of beautiful photographs and then explanations and it's an easy book to use. So there's that one. The other one I talked about The Critical Important of Movement. There's a book called A Moving Child is a Learning Child and that's by Jill Connell and Sheryl McCarthy. Let's see another one for infants that I just love is called The Blossom Method and it's about being able to tune in and understand the nonverbal communications of an infant. So you're establishing this relationship and this communication back and forth that the baby is actually communicating to you. But most of us don't know what they're trying to tell us. And it's all non-verbal stuff that you can pick up on. And that's by Vivian Sable.

SPREEUWENBERG: You also mentioned web sites. Is there certain ones that you frequent.

MCNELIS: The Harvard site on the developing child is a fabulous site. There's some great video clips.

SPREEUWENBERG: I believe it also focuses quite a bit on the education of parents as well right.

MCNELIS: Yes. Yes. Yeah that's a good one. And then there's one called The Zero to Three.


MCNELIS: They have but just a wealth of information. And then I have a Web site called Braininsightsonline.com.

SPREEUWENBERG: And that was going to be my final question to you is that the best place for people to get in touch with you if they want to reach out to you.

MCNELIS: Yes you can. Yes you can reach me directly there's a link to get them to e-mail me. So that's a real easy way to do it. I also have a blog that is called early childhood brain insights. So there's a blog on my web site but there's also a separate blog I think I developed that other blog before I started this new Web site so there's two locations certainly childhood brain insights. And then I do a lot on Twitter. So if anybody is on Twitter I do a lot. And oh my gosh what wealth of connections you can make through you know getting information from others that are in this field through Twitter.

SPREEUWENBERG: What's your handle on Twitter.

MCNELIS: Oh I'm sorry it's @braininsights.

SPREEUWENBERG: Wonderful. Well Deborah that was a very informative and to me a very inspiring conversation. The fact that you want to reach every adult on the planet to teach them about the importance of brain development in practical ways that they can work with the young children in their lives to improve their own development I think is phenomenal. And I hope so many more people get behind what you're doing because I personally buy into it. A hundred and ten percent.

MCNELIS: Wonderful!

SPREEUWENBERG: Well thanks so much Deborah for joining us on the show.

MCNELIS: Well it was my pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity to share what I what I'm so passionate about and I love hearing how enthused you are. So thank you for all you're doing as well.


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