Right after having my daughter, I started a blog called "The Mommy Brain: Where this Mommy Comes to Organize her Brain" to share the research I was consuming about brain development in the first three years of life. I wanted to share the research with anyone who would read my silly mommy blog because I was simply shocked that the brain was not mentioned in any of the prenatal or parenting classes I took, and I took several. We're told to breast feed, we're told to vaccinate, we're told about attachment parenting, to sleep train, not to sleep train, and there's no shortage of lists about what we're supposed to buy before baby comes. But, I was never informed about how important the first three years of life are to cognitive development, and how big of an impact a lack of such development will have on a child's life-long learning abilities, and ultimate well-being and success. As Paul Tough states in his book Helping Children Succeed, "The science tells us that parents and caregivers, and the environment they create for a child, are the most effective tool we have in early childhood for improving that child's future."
You see, the latest research shows us that, unlike almost all other organs, the brain is unfinished at birth, and that it grows 85% in the first three years of life. The 85% brain development happens in an area called the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of two very important functions for life-long learning: self-regulation and executive function, otherwise known as the ability focus on a single activity for an extended period, the ability to understand and follow directions and the ability to cope with disappointment. But, the brain does not just develop in positive ways on its own. It is completely dependent on the parent providing the child with face-to-face serve-and-return interactions in a calm & loving home environment. As Dana Suskind so bluntly states in her book, Thirty Million Words. Building a Child's Brain, "Children are not born smart. They're made smart by you talking to them."
The image below shows the difference of two three-year-old brains, one of which developed normally, and the other that experienced extreme neglect. But, something very important to note here is that neglect does not mean abuse in the traditional sense, but the mere absence of responsiveness from a parent or caregiver, according to Tough (p. 23). There exists a whole spectrum of environmental factors that fall short of the traditional definition of trauma but still have an adverse effect on brain development. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that one of the most serious threats to a child's healthy development is the absence of responsiveness from a parent. When children are neglected, especially in infancy, their nervous systems experience it as a serious threat to their well-being, and researchers have found that neglect can do MORE long-term harm to a child than physical abuse.
I was on maternity leave as an elementary school behavior interventionist at the time that I was reading all of this research, and it was like a lightbulb went off in my mommy brain! I realized I had been approaching my most challenging students needs all wrong because they didn't lack the will to behave and learn; they lacked the ability to do so because of their experience in the first three years of life. That part of their brain that would have allowed them to sit still and absorb information was simply underdeveloped. This was no fault of their own, or even their parents. We parents (myself included) are all so busy, stressed and distracted that providing a child the attention and interactions they need in the first three years of life takes knowledge of the research, intentionality, constant prioritization and practical application. Those moment-to-moment interactions are incredibly important to our children's development. In fact, according to Tough, "what matters, in general, is warm, responsive face-to-face, serve-and-return parenting, which can be delivered in many different flavors. That parenting approach, however it is carried out, conveys to infants some deep, even transcendent messages about belonging, security, stability, and their place in the world. And, those mushy, sentimental notions find their articulation in the infants' brains in precise neurochemical reactions: the formation of a synapse, the pruning of a dendrite, the methylation of a DNA sequence. All of which contribute, directly or indirectly, to the children's future success in school" (p. 72).
It is with this in mind that I developed Calma's mindful parenting workshop because it is clear that Calm & Loving Minds begin at home. In this 4-part workshop we will explore the science of the brain in the first few years of life, and real-life practical tips to develop it. The workshop content is an amalgamation of the latest research from childhood Psychologists, Pediatricians and educators, my experience applying such research to my daughter, and the ways in which my husband and I work to rid ourselves of constant distractions to become engaged, mindful parents. I hope you will join us for one of our future workshops to ensure your child develops a calm & loving mind that is prepared for life-long learning.
Research from: Thirty Million Words by Dana Suskind, MD, Simplicity Parenting by Jim John Payne, M.Ed., Helping Children Succeed by Paul Tough, The Whole Brain Child by Daniel Siegel, MD and Tina Payne, Ph.D., No-Drama Discipline by Daniel Siegel, MD and Tina Payne, Ph.D., The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel Ph.D. Also see Calma's library.