Healthy brain development in kids
Seeing your baby’s first tooth come in, watching your two-year-old excitedly point out a red car, cheering on your four-year-old as they write out their first letters. Not only are these the moments that proud parents may record in baby books, they also mark some of the important Developmental Milestones that indicate children are on track in terms of growth and development.
Developmental Milestones offer guidelines for parents and caregivers to monitor the physical, cognitive, emotional, social, language, sensory, and motor development of their children, and compare them to the norms for other children their age.
While most children tend to progress from one milestone to the next, everyone grows and gains skills at their own pace. Some six-year-olds, for instance, may have trouble catching a ball, but are able to read full sentences. Each child is different, and develops differently, which is why a general knowledge of the developmental milestones for each age is useful for parents to understand.
Toxic Stress and Adverse Childhood Experiences
The experiences that we have in the early years of our lives impact the way our brains develop. Positive stresses, like starting the first day of school, can actually help our brains develop in a more healthy way, as they prepare us for future challenges. Traumatic events, such as losing a loved one, can be tolerable stresses that won’t cause lasting damage to developing brains, so long as supportive caregivers help buffer the stress response. Toxic stress, caused by things such as abuse or neglect, disrupts the healthy development of the brain. When children are repeatedly exposed to toxic stress, without the support of a caregiver, they are at an incredibly high risk for physical and mental health problems later in life.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, neglect, domestic violence, or household dysfunction, cause toxic stress that can affect a child’s ability to cope with the challenges of life, and may even lead to a future of lifelong health concerns.
Craig Foley, Director of Signature Initiatives at United Way, emphasizes the impact that this kind of toxic stress can have on a young developing brain: “The trauma that children face when dealing with ACEs can disrupt their ability to learn and function in school. It impairs the most essential elements of learning, including thinking, attentiveness, and the ability to process information and regulate emotions.”
Telling the Brain Story
Nancy Mannix of The Palix Foundation and the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI) knows the impact that childhood trauma can have on brain development, and is helping others understand it as well. By telling the Brain Story—the story of how experiences shape our brains—the AFWI is changing public perceptions of those factors that truly impact the courses of our lives.
Because of the intergenerational nature of toxic stress and its impact on our brains, the Brain Story is not only a tool for parents to learn more about their children, but also a tool for them to learn more about themselves. As Nancy explains, “the brain story shifts people’s understanding of themselves. That’s why it’s so powerful. People think, ‘Oh, this explains how I was raised, and what my brain does.’” Most people are accessing the Brain Story to determine what their children need, but it also engages people in a conversation that helps them understand how the brain works and what that means for them.
The Brain Story Certification Course is free of charge and open to anyone interested in learning more about the science behind the human brain. Over 19,000 Albertans have enrolled in this 20-hour online course to date. Many organizations are now requiring staff to take the course, so that they may approach the people that they serve with greater understanding and useful strategies.
Nancy’s mission is noble: “Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is improve outcomes and reduce the burdens on our systems.”
Building Healthy Brains
Supporting kids to develop the skills they need to thrive and make emotionally healthy social connections, United Way invests in programs that help young children develop a sense of belonging in their families, schools, and wider communities. By focusing on early childhood, these comparatively small investments result in lifetime societal benefits.
We know that the first five years of a child’s life are a critical time for brain development. Experiences over these early years greatly influence a child’s future health, education, wealth, ability to have healthy relationships, and overall happiness. The First 2000 Days Network is a collective response of community members, organizations, and professionals with a passion for making progress toward improving the lives of young children, aged 0-5. The Network acts as a catalyst for linking, aligning, and leveraging efforts in the Early Childhood Development (ECD) system to enable collective action, reduce replication, decrease inefficiencies, and improve ECD outcomes. We do not see quality ECD resulting only in school readiness, but more broadly as the development of wise, responsible, resourceful children and families.
When we work together to set children up for success by supporting their development in the early years, we give them the opportunity to live happier, healthier lives, reducing the risk for mental health problems, and ultimately building stronger communities.
Resources for Brain Development
The First 2000 Days Network has developed a series of booklets called, "I'm Ready." These valuable engagement tools offer parents and caregivers a guide to stewarding their child’s development, and helping them understand the world around them. They also include lists of resources for childhood literacy, language development, recreation opportunities, and more. The “I’m Ready” booklets are available in 12 languages and can be accessed here.