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4.3: How Brain Development Connects With Other Topics in Early Childhood

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    • Christine Moon & Hannah Mechler

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    Media and Screen Time

    The developing brain needs positive interactions with caring adults in an enriched environment for optimal growth. Interactions with media or screens can be detrimental to this development as it deprives the brain of multisensory interactions which are necessary for neuronal growth. Media includes phones, television, computers and anything with a screen. The Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended limited media for all ages and an emphasis on in person interactions (see figure 2) Research by AAP has found that using “A healthy Family Media Use Plan, that is individualized for a specific child, teenager, or family can identify an appropriate balance between screen time/online time and other activities, set boundaries for accessing content, guide displays of personal information, encourage age-appropriate critical thinking and digital literacy, and support open family communication and implementation of consistent rules about media use.” (AAP 2016)

    The American Academy of Pediatrics also shares important information about why limited media use is important:

    “Overuse of digital media may place your child at risk of:

    • Not enough sleep. Young children with more media exposure or who have a TV, computer, or mobile device in their bedrooms sleep less and fall asleep later at night. Even babies can be overstimulated by screens and miss the sleep they need to grow.
    • Delays in learning and social skills. Children who watch too much TV in infancy and preschool years can show delays in attention, thinking, language, and social skills. One of the reasons for the delays could be because they interact less with parents and family. Parents who keep the TV on or focus on their own digital media miss precious opportunities to interact with their children and help them learn. See Parents of Young Children: Put Down Your Smartphones.
    Figure 2: American Association of Pediatrics Media Use Guidelines
    American Academy of Pediatrics Media Use Guidelines for Young Children
    Age Description Media Use Guidelines
    Younger than 2 Children younger than 2 learn and grow when they explore the physical world around them. Their minds learn best when they interact and play with parents, siblings, caregivers, and other children and adults.

    For children younger than 2,

    • Media use should be very limited and only when an adult is standing by to co-view, talk, and teach. For example, video-chatting with family along with parents.

    Children younger than 2 have a hard time understanding what they see on screen media and how it relates to the world around them.

    However, children 15 to 18 months of age can learn from high-quality educational media, IF their parents play or view with them and reteach the lessons.

    For children 18 to 24 months, if you want to introduce digital media,

    • Choose high-quality programming.
    • Use media together with your child.
    • Avoid solo media use.
    2 to 5 years of age

    At 2 years of age, many children can understand and learn words from live video-chatting. Young children can listen to or join a conversation with their parents.

    Children 3 to 5 years of age have more mature minds, so a well-designed education program such as Sesame Street (in moderation) can help children learn social, language, and reading skills.

    For children 2 to 5 years of age,

    • Limit screen use to no more than 1 hour per day.
    • Find other activities for your children to do that healthy for their bodies and minds.
    • Choose media that is interactive, non-violent, education, and prosocial.
    • Co-view or co-play with your children.
    • Obesity. Heavy media use during preschool years is linked to weight gain and risk of childhood obesity. Food advertising and snacking while watching TV can promote obesity. Also, children who overuse media are less apt to be active with healthy, physical play.
    • Behavior problems. Violent content on TV and screens can contribute to behavior problems in children, either because they are scared and confused by what they see, or they try to mimic on-screen characters.” ( 2019)

    Emotional Intelligence/Social Emotional Development

    One of the first brain constructs to develop are those that process emotion, and are laid down before birth. Early emotional experiences form a kind of template that continued emotional development is built on. These experiences have a disproportionate importance in organizing the mature brain. Emotions develop in layers, each more complex than the last as the child responds to her emotional environment. Emotional learning becomes ingrained as experiences are repeated over and over.

    "Limbic System" by Laura B. Dahl is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

    The Prefrontal cortex regulates emotional responses and are developed and connected with the limbic system early, between 8 and 18 months of life. These neural pathways in the limbic system and prefrontal lobes provide the framework for emotional intelligence.

    Peter Salovey (a Yale Psychologist) and John Mayer (a University of New Hampshire psychologist) first proposed that we also have emotional intelligence. Daniel Goleman popularized this concept in his book “Emotional Intelligence” (Goleman 1995)

    Emotional Intelligence (EI) consists of a person’s abilities in 5 main areas or domains (Goleman 2005):

    1. Self-Awareness –the ability to recognize or know feelings as they are happening and using them to make life decisions you can live with. This includes pleasant, unpleasant and multiple emotions at once. It is critical we teach children about all their feelings and give them a wide range of emotional labeling (see figure 3).
    2. Mood Management –the ability to handle distressing emotions in appropriate ways to maintain our wellbeing.
    3. Self-Motivation –the ability to persist in the face of setbacks and channeling your impulses in order to pursue your goals.
    4. Empathy – the ability to recognize and share another’s feelings.
    5. Social Arts – the ability to interact with others in positive and socially acceptable ways.

    Emotional Intelligence is important because studies with children have shown that higher emotional intelligence is a better predictor of success than IQ. Kids who participate in social emotional learning (SEL) programs at school had significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior and academic performance (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor and Schellinger 2011).

    In order for emotional intelligence to develop, children need to feel secure and that their needs for survival are being met. The fundamental task of an infant is how to get their needs met in their world. Children also need to feel loved and emotionally secure. It is essential that they have a consistent, nurturing relationship with the same caregiver early in life in order to develop a secure attachment.

    Attunement is also critical to the development of EI, this is when a child’s inner feelings are accepted and mirrored back to them by caregivers. The brain uses the same pathways to generate an emotion as it uses to respond to it, so these experiences strengthen their emotional intelligence pathways. If emotions are repeatedly met with indifference or clashing responses, they may fail to strengthen or be eliminated. Feelings mirrored back to children help them develop self-awareness, the foundation of Emotional Intelligence.

    A child’s ability to regulate their emotions (calm down or self sooth) is built when they feel soothed by their caregivers. It is generally accepted that a baby does not have the ability to self –sooth until 6-8 months. It is not recommended that babies “cry it out” until after this time because even if they do become quiet, stress chemicals, like cortisol, stay active in their brain and inhibit optimal development of the stress response pathways.

    Chart labeling the feelings wheel by the Gottman Institute (2021)


    Stress is defined as a “physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation” (Merriam-Webster). There are two types of stress: positive stress or eustress and negative stress or distress. Which type of stress, how much and how we interpret it all impact how damaging stress is to our systems.

    "Illustration of brain regions" by National Institutes of Health (NIH) is marked with CC PDM 1.0

    Neural pathways run from the eyes, ears and other sense organs to a central clearing house deep in the brain called the thalamus. The thalamus works with the hypothalamus and amygdala to pass on the information to the higher levels of the cortex. They act like a gate to pathways that run to the cortex and are activated by how we feel about the information being processed by the limbic system. (Zhang, Li Steffens, Guo and Wang 2019)

    When we experience a positive emotion, are actively engaged, or appropriately challenged, while retaining a sense of control, we experience eustress. The thalamus “opens the gate” to the cortex where higher level thinking takes place. This is referred to as “upshifting”.

    When a threat is perceived, we experience distress. The thalamus quickly sends a message to the amygdala that there might be danger. The amygdala, acting as an alarm company, activates a cascade of chemicals (neurotransmitters and hormones) involved in the stress response: freeze-flight-fight. This distress closes the gate to the main road to the cortex and the brain downshifts to the lower survival brain. At the same time, another slower pathway moves up to the cortex- like a detour route. We can now access the prefrontal lobes to modulate our emotional reactions. This helps us make a rational decision about how to respond to an emotional trigger.

    "Brain side view" by National Institutes of Health (NIH) is marked with CC PDM 1.0

    Some emotional reactions bypass the cortex and can be formed without any conscious, cognitive participation at all. The degree of control we perceive we have over the threatening situation determines whether a hi-jacking will take place. If the brain continues to perceive the situation as a threat the stress hormone cortisol is released and keeps the body revved up and on high alert. When the threat passes, the cortisol level will decrease.

    Research by Kelly McGonigal of Stanford found that how we view stress makes a difference in how harmful it is. There are 3 ways to change our perception of the stressor effectively; 1) View your body’s stress as helpful and energy you can use, 2) view yourself as capable of handling and learning from the stress and 3) view stress as a common problem everyone deals with. (Parker 2015)

    Children need experiences that help them develop a strong stress-response system so that they recover from stressful situations quickly and build stronger pathways between the limbic system and prefrontal lobe in their brain. The main way adults can help build this healthy stress response system is a process called “serve and return”. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University suggests 5 steps to build positive brain pathways:

    1. Notice the serve and share the child’s focus of attention. It is important to pay attention to what the child is focused on and follow their lead on the interaction.
    2. Return the serve by supporting and encouraging. Offer comfort when they are distressed, play with them, be curious about what they are doing. Mirroring their thoughts and feelings let them know they are seen and understood.
    3. Give it a name! Name what a child is seeing, doing, or feeling will make important language connections in their brain, even before they can talk or understand your words. This helps them understand the world around them.
    4. Take turns…and wait. Keep the interaction going back and forth. Make sure to take time to let the child respond to you as you take turns interacting. They need time to form responses as they are learning so many things at once.
    5. Practice endings and beginnings. Sharing focus with a child helps you know when they are done. Did they turn away, fuss, or walk away? Let them take the lead and be sensitive to when they are ready to start something new.

    When children are experiencing extreme amounts of stress and are not getting the positive interactions to mitigate it, they are experiencing what is known as “toxic stress”. Figure 4 describes the difference between a positive, tolerable and toxic stress response.

    Chart describing the taxonomy of stress. National scientific council on the developing child (2020)


    The Council needed an effective way to communicate the negative effects of excessive and persistent stress on a young child's brain and other developing organ systems. When Council members refer to stress, they describe three different levels of biological response and their impacts.

    Positive stress response is a normal part of healthy development and refers to the transient increases in heart rate and hormonal levels that occur when a child is first left with a new caregiver or is given a shot at the doctor's office. Tolerable stress response refers to significant activation of the body's "alert systems," as might occur after the loss of a loved one or natural disaster in the presence of adult support. If the child is cared for by at least one response adult who provides a sense of security and protection, the stress response doesn't last for an extended period of time, and the child's brain and other organs can recover from potentially damaging effects. Toxic stress response is the unrelenting activation of stress response systems in the absence of adequate support or protection from adults. It can be precipitated by serious adversity, such as extreme poverty, such as extreme poverty, frequent neglect, physical or emotional abuse, or maternal substance abuse and can lead to stress-related diseases or deficits in learning and behavior across the lifespan.

    Trauma and ACEs

    Too much toxic stress in a child’s life can damage the developing brain and lead to life-long problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health. Toxic stress can come from extreme poverty, repeated abuse, or severe maternal depression. These situations or experiences are also called Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs and a cause of prolonged toxic stress. Many studies have confirmed the negative impact of ACEs on the health and wellbeing of children and adults. The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University has a wealth of information about the impact of toxic stress and ACEs. There is also evidence of how racism is connected to poor outcomes for children due to the impact of toxic stress on child development. Toxic Stress impacts a growing brain’s development by causing neurons to have fewer connections in the limbic and prefrontal cortex, the areas of the brain that control emotional reactivity.

    Chart of impact of toxic stress on neuron connections. Center for the Developing Child Harvard University.

    Cortical Modulation

    When a child experiences toxic stress or ACEs, the higher regions of the brain become less developed since the brain is constantly activating the pathways to the lower, survival regions of the brain. Dr. Bruce Perry developed a model for understanding the functioning of the layers of the brain in connection to each other called cortical modulation. In other words, how do the higher layers modulate the lower levels of the brain or not. He has demonstrated the decreased modulation ratio of the layers in the developing brain when impacted by ACEs.

    When looking at the number of connections in each of these layers in children’s brains we see a difference in their function based on their experiences. Figure 7 shows the optimum ratio in a healthy brain. The higher levels or cortical areas of the brain have the most connections, and higher ratio. The “thinking brain” is the strongest and therefore a child would have a strong stress response system developing.

    FIGURE 7. “Ratio of Modulation: Optimal Development. A healthy Cortical Modulation ratio (Cortical and Limbic/Midbrain and Brainstem) develops when the child experiences a variety of optimal emotional, behavioral, cognitive and social experiences at key times during their development. (Perry 1997)

    When a child is experiencing ACEs and toxic stress the ratio is less optimal. In figures 8 and 9 we see the impact on the ratios in brains experiencing neglect, trauma or both neglect and trauma. In these brains the lower regions of the brain have more connections and thus down shifting happens in the brain more readily.

    FIGURE 8. “Developmental Neglect: Emotional or Experiential Deprivation. The ability of the brain to develop a healthy Cortical Modulation ratio (Cortical and Limbic/Midbrain and Brainstem) is impaired when key experiences are minimal or absent. (Perry 1997)
    FIGURE 9. The Persisting Fear Response: Developmental Trauma. A child raised in an environment characterized by persisting trauma (e.g., domestic violence, physical abuse, community violence) will develop an excessively active and reactive stress-response apparatus. (Perry 1997)


    Some children who experience ACEs and toxic stress develop brains with better ratios than others. We consider these children to have resilience. Resilience requires supportive relationships and opportunities for skill building. These relationships can be outside of the family, for example a teacher or coach, and are the active ingredient for developing resilience. If children experiencing ACEs have access to these positive experiences, their brain can reverse the ratio and develop a greater ability to handle the stress in their lives. A child’s temperament can also be a factor in developing resilience.

    Trauma Informed Care and Education

    Understanding how the brain develops and what can happen if children do not get positive, caring experiences helps teachers create classrooms that will benefit all children. One of the keys to creating trauma informed care is understanding what the brain needs in order for a more optimal outcome. We need to move from blaming the child to understanding them. Providing consistent care and attachment with a teacher who is loving and compassionate is essential. Classrooms must be built to allow for healthy, developmentally appropriate experiences that provide an enriched environment for young brains to flourish.

    Social Emotional Learning programs in schools are helping children develop skills to build strong pathways between the limbic and cortex layers of the brain. These programs have demonstrated success in building a child’s resilience and emotional intelligence.

    Final Thoughts

    Understanding the brain, how it develops, how it functions and what it needs for optimal development is essential in creating a developmentally appropriate early childhood classroom. Once we understand how to provide a place where children’s brains are getting what they need, we are more likely to reverse negative impacts they may be experiencing elsewhere. This chapter has given you a brief overview of brain development and function and the necessary elements a child needs in the early years and beyond.

    10 Things Every Brain Needs:

    1. Proper nutrition
    2. Proper hydration
    3. Exercise
    4. Adequate Sleep
    5. Healthy Loving Relationships
    6. Mindfulness
    7. Limited screen time
    8. Safe environments to live and learn in
    9. Play
    10. Time in Nature

    This page titled 4.3: How Brain Development Connects With Other Topics in Early Childhood is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Christine Moon & Hannah Mechler.

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