Making Sense of Early Childhood Development

As parents we want to give our kids a bright future and help them reach their fullest potential. However, it could be overwhelming because of too much information and conflicting advice. One approach says it’s superior and the other says it’s more integrated and effective. Early education centres also emphasise various approaches that claim to best help children.

To avoid overwhelm and still help you make an informed decision, let’s discuss a few of the most important factors that influence early childhood development. This way, you will have a solid and reasonable framework when it comes to understanding how your child learns and how you can best help your child reach his/her potential.

Making sense of early childhood development

First, we have to acknowledge that economic deprivation (low income levels) has a strong correlation with children’s cognitive development and behaviour (source). It could be because of the available and accessible opportunities for affluent families and neighbourhoods. Kids are able to attend excellent early learning centres with dedicated educators and better-designed program and curriculum. Children coming from affluent families could enrol in music, arts and dance classes that could expand their capabilities and expose them to various environments. Affluent households and neighbourhoods could also be more stable and predictable. This structure is important in helping kids feel safe and therefore free to learn and explore (instead of worrying about resources, neighbours, safety).

The difference is most pronounced in developing societies where modern education approaches don’t yet reach rural and remote areas. In developed societies, there’s some equality when it comes to access and implementation of modern approaches (e.g. Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework). However, economic deprivation still strongly correlates with the children’s cognitive development despite equalisation in opportunities and other factors.

What does this mean to us as parents? It’s important that we make our income levels less of a contributing factor. In other words, it’s always great to give our kids access to opportunities and enough exposure to positive environments. After all, when our economic status changes, the environment we live in and interact with also changes. This environment shapes our children’s development and future. In other words, it’s not the income level itself that affects childhood development, but the first- and second-order effects (e.g. where the child attends school, the friends he/she has, the kind of house and neighbourhood he/she lives in) resulting from such income level.

A positive environment encourages positive behaviour. It’s also the case with learning wherein a supportive and nurturing environment can encourage kids to learn, play and explore. An environment where there’s structure (and yet freedom to explore) can provide the order and feeling of safety. This could then heavily influence the children’s expectations of the world and how they behave.

Why early childhood is a crucial period

Putting our children in a positive and nurturing environment can provide them some early advantages that will help them throughout their lives. Those early advantages could then compound and snowball as they go through formal schooling and beyond.

“From birth to age 5, children rapidly develop foundational capabilities on which subsequent development builds.” as stated in the “From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood.” More and more findings support how crucial the early years are to the overall and long-term development of a person. Although there is always that leeway and enough time to correct things and catch up, what happened during the child’s early years can heavily influence his/her capabilities for formal schooling, professional success and beyond.

Back then there’s that debate about nature vs nurture and these were thought of as independent influences. However, we came to realise that they work hand in hand in shaping our children’s thoughts, mental processes and behaviour. Both genetic and environmental influences (which could then be affected by economic status) work together to determine the children’s full capabilities later in life. Although there might be some babies who were born with an intellectual or physical advantage (the “gifted” ones), this genetic advantage won’t be the only factor that will shape the children’s destinies. Life circumstances and the environment could expand or constrain the child’s capacities. It’s also possible that the child’s gifts will go to waste if he/she did not receive proper nurturing.

When we think of environment, the first things that come to mind are often the learning centre, the home and neighbourhood. But also part of our children’s environment is us parents (how we behave, how we interact with them). Our consistent presence and our devoted attention to them can nurture our children and give them a sense of security. In addition, our health and well-being as parents can also affect their development. After all, our health and well-being (physically, mentally and emotionally) affect how we communicate and interact with our children.

The environments our children encounter as well as our relationship with our kids heavily influence our children’s development especially during the early years. This is the period when rapid cognitive development takes place which then influences the child’s learning and mental capacities. As a result, we have to play an active role when it comes to maintaining a positive relationship with our children as well as making sure the environments they’re in are positive and nurturing.