Early childhood education begins early, even before birth. – Madeleine M. Kunin
Anyone who is passionate about education knows this: Investment in early childhood education has enormous payoffs for society. This has led to one of the targets for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 4, being to “ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and preprimary education so that they are ready for primary education.”
It is not for us to question whether we should invest in young children, but to focus on building their education. To increase high-quality preschool education as this mandate has universal reach. All over the world, preschool investments are reshaping the education landscape, from Ghana, to Sweden, and other nations.
New research on early brain development presents the information that preschool is important, and it isn’t the sum total.
More research has shown that one-year-olds growing up in poverty lag behind their middle-income peers on tests of language and cognitive ability. It is an astonishing fact that researchers have noted differences in brain size as early as five weeks old, and these can’t be explained away as the exposure to language and environmental stimulation.
In that research study, 44 infants and newborns from low-income families had less grey matter (i.e., the part of the brain where information is processed) than their middle-income peers. This suggests that differences in prenatal environments are to be considered.
I have my own personal research on this issue. When I was expecting my son, I played my favourite kinds of music – jazz, classical and soft rock. I ensured that my home and work environments were mentally and physically conducive to my situation. I was blessed with supportive colleagues in that lovely town in Central California. I ate lots of fresh fruits and drank gallons of water daily. I was in great health and I glowed. I didn’t wear makeup during my pregnancy and yet looked great. I enjoyed working with the teenagers who I taught that year and when I had my son, he was a healthy, strong boy. He grew up enjoying the music I already had exposed him to and he is still a quick study.
I have no doubt that our creating a nurturing environment even before he was born was a great boost to his mental development.
The study referred to above is a pioneer study demonstrating early signs of brain differences; and other indices of brain differences between low- and middle- or high-income children were also reported in it – the depressed growth in the hippocampus (memory), amygdala (involving emotion understanding), and frontal lobes (dealing with attention, language and self-control).
The brains of babies grow rapidly in the uterus but malnutrition and maternal stress hinder the growth. Logically it follows that the myriad of stressors faced by pregnant mothers experiencing poverty (e.g., food insecurity, housing insecurity, domestic violence) has an impact on the development of their baby’s brains. It has been discovered that mothers who are exposed to infections and stress give birth prematurely and the babies have issues developing normally.
To further butress this points, studies in veterinary medicine show that stress during pregnancy impedes neural development in the fetus and has a major impact on structures underlying self-control, attention, and memory. Beyond stress, toxins, nutrition, and physical health, other aspects of maternal health also affect brain development.
All of this seems hopeless, yet there is a lot to be optimistic about. Research dictates that we can alter the trajectories for brain growth!
There are successful interventions that affect cognitive development positively early, and these reflect changes in brain development. Programmes that work on the introduction of stimulation to development to infants at high risk of developmental delays, because of poverty or low birth weight, have produced improvements in cognitive and motor skills.
Brain imaging of children who are removed from adverse situations demonstrates that when children are put in an encouraging environment, they catch up in some aspects of brain development, while their peers who stay behind do not. This change is also reflected in their brain functioning.
Perhaps it is time to augment the drive towards preschool with a similar focus on expectant mothers and babies up to the ages of three years. Preschool education might even be too late to mitigate gaps in development that are already emerging by age three.
The key question is whether we can foster better brain growth even before the baby is born—to give every child a head start, or at least an even chance.
Brain matter matters. Smaller brains portend more cognitive risk. But there is something we can do about it.
Help us with our mission to bring about change for our students. Please contact me to see what we can do to bring about the desired transformation that we all desire for our children to be future ready!!!
Adetola Salau; Educator / Speaker / Author/ Social Entrepreneur / Innovator
She is an Advocate of STEM Education and is Passionate about Education reform. She is an innovative thinker and strives for our society & continent as a whole to reclaim it’s greatness. She runs an educational foundation with the mission to transform education.