Early Experience and Brain Development

All animals adapt in order to survive, fine tuning their brains according to the input they receive from their environment. The more sophisticated the animal, the more adaptable their brain. 

At birth the human brain already has the majority of the information messengers that it will ever have. The young child’s brain has twice as many connections between the information messengers as an adult’s brain. These extra connections make their brains exceptionally responsive to input. For example, hearing speech stimulates connections in language-related areas of the brain, reinforcing and strengthening that specific area. Every time the child hears more speech, the connections will be further strengthened and reinforced. 

The brain will judge connections that are not used regularly to be unnecessary and delete them. This process of consolidating and pruning enables the brain to achieve development that is perfectly in tune with the individual child’s personal situation.

There are key periods in early childhood when the brain is most affected by experience, be it positive or negative, and this receptiveness can put the brain development of young children living in stressful situations at risk. Positive experiences throughout childhood help to build healthy brains, but negative experiences will have the reverse effect. If a young child is in a constant state of high alert, ready for aggressive or unpredictable behaviour from their familiar adults, they will exist in a constant state of anxiety and fear. Fear will change the way the child’s brain works. For example, when in a state of fear, the child can only use the primitive parts of their brain; they will react to situations instinctively and without thought: fighting or hitting out, absconding or simply freezing with terror. Such defensive mechanisms will help to keep them safe in stressful environments, but will be counterproductive in safer situations, such as school. 

Supporting children who have experienced early stress is difficult, but the situation is not hopeless.

  • It is important that parents and carers are attuned and responsive to their baby’s needs and provide appropriate care: recognising and responding when their baby is hungry, unwell or in need of physical affection and comfort.
  • Teachers should ask what has happened to the child, rather than what is wrong with the child. 
  • Human brains have the potential to change and grow: caring relationships and sympathetic support can reduce the effects of early negative experiences, helping a child’s brain develop in a healthy way. 
  • Resilience can be taught at any age.
  • Frightened children react without thought, so talking may not always help. To reduce panic and anxiety, try to be predictable and reliable in your response, involve the child in physical activity and increase their favourite sensory input, for example, listening to music, playing on a swing or walking round the playground.

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