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2.3: The Role of Adults in Children's Brain Development

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    The rapid growth of the brain from birth to age five emphasizes the importance of the adults in the child’s life during this timeframe. As discussed in the previous section, brain development is impacted by various factors, and adults are responsible for most of these factors. For instance, adults determine what types and the variety of environments and experiences children are exposed to, including in the home, community, and school. Adults also play a vital role in the quality of interactions and relationships that are developed with the child. These interactions and relationships play a key role in children’s brain development.

    Preschool students and teacher matching food cutouts with the colors of the rainbow in the classroom. Original public domain image from Flickr
    Preschool students and teacher matching food cutouts with the co © rawpixel is licensed under a Public Domain license

    There has been a great deal of research done on the importance of interactions between adults and children. Brain researchers refer to this interaction as the “serve and return” response (Center on the Developing Child, 2007). If you watch a young child carefully, they are regularly reaching out for interaction with adults. Think of this as the “serve” in a tennis match. The adult then has the opportunity to “return” the ball by responding to the child in some way. These serve and return interactions are vital for brain development and are one key way that adults support young children’s development.

    Pause and Connect: Serve and Return

    The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has created a number of resources and videos that show how these steps look in action. Click on the link below to see how the five steps of serve and return interactions could look in a variety of settings: How-to: 5 Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return – Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

    Return to the opening vignette and consider how Ms. Juanita moved through the five steps of the serve and return model with Harrison. Questions to consider: How did Ms. Juanita focus on what the child needs in this situation? How did she verbally label objects to support Harrison? What strategies did Ms. Juanita use to continue the interaction and shift when the child was ready?

    2.3a Nurturing Relationships with Children

    While relationships are important to children’s development for many reasons, the impact on brain development in many ways hinges on the quality of the relationship. Relationships play a key role in the serve and return process (or interactions) because brain researchers have found that this format works best when a caring relationship has been established with the child (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2007). Researchers have found that “mutually rewarding relationships” are key to further brain development.

    The presence of caring relationships with adults that results in quality interactions lays the groundwork for continued brain development. These types of relationships also create secure attachments, which have been shown to positively impact children’s emotional regulation and cognitive functioning (Center on the Developing Child, 2007). As with the impact of trauma, it is important to note what the absence of secure relationships does to children’s brain development. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2012) notes,

    When decreased responsiveness persists, the lost opportunities associated with diminished interaction can be compounded by the adverse impacts of excessive stress activation, the physiological effects of which can have lifelong consequences. This multidimensional assault on the developing brain underscores why significant deprivation is so harmful in the earliest years of life and why effective interventions are likely to pay significant dividends in better long-term outcomes in learning, health, and parenting of the next generation.

    It is clear that children without secure adult attachments will have difficulty engaging with other adults and children in the classroom, directly impacting their further brain development. Early maladaptive relationships can create a cyclical problem; few secure relationships in early childhood can create difficulty developing secure attachments in the future.

    Pause and Connect: Adult and Child Attachments

    Video: Molly’s TED Talk/ Thrive Before Five

    This video was co-produced by TED and the Minderoo Foundation as an educational tool. The Minderoo Foundation’s Thrive by Five is a long-term and evidence-based strategy to ensure that young children have the best possible start to life.

    After viewing this video:

    • Discuss your initial response to this TED Talk
    • Summarize the key points highlighted in this video regarding brain development
    • Outline the five “powerful things” adults can do to ensure healthy development

    This page titled 2.3: The Role of Adults in Children's Brain Development is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sandra Carrie Garvey (Remixing Open Textbooks with an Equity Lens (ROTEL)) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.