Early childhood experiences influences brain development and helps to prepare the child for learning and life.
Dato’ Dr Lai Fong Hwa, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Island Hospital, Penang, in his public talk on ‘Neuroscience Updates for Early Childhood Education’ at the WOU main campus today, said that at birth, the child’s brain is packed with billions of neurons, which begin to form synapses or connections as the child experiences things in the environment.
“The brain is built over time from the bottom up, as they see and hear sounds. As mummy plays with the baby, the synapses start to grow more and more. The connections continue to form until to about 2 to 3 years old, and then pruning happens. The synapses that get pruned away in the brain are those that are not so much used by the child.”
He expressed concern that if a 1-2 year old is sent early to kindergarten to learn ABC, and this continues into preschool, there is the danger that the brain will prune away things unrelated to the writing of ABC. He stated that in the first few years of life, the brain forms more than 1 million new neuro-connections every second for different life functions like vision, hearing, language, higher cognitive functions, after which the ‘pruning’ process begins.
Dr Lai said a child may grow to be poor at socialising, interacting, or dealing with criticisms if one over-emphasises academic results and forgets about social-emotional development.
He highlighted the ‘Serve and Return’ relationship between children and parents which neuro-science research indicate impacts the brain developmental process. “If you let the child play iPad, watch TV, the brain isn’t developing as there is no connection. It must be two-way, like when the mother talks, smiles or plays with the child, there is serve and return, and connection happens.”
He stressed that children need supportive, caring relationships as most connections get built when the child is happy. However toxic stress like repeated abuse, neglect, unmet needs, extreme poverty and maternal depression can damage the baby’s developing brain. “Playing is the best way to learn. Babies’ brains require stable, caring, interactive relationships with adults. Let them explore, see as many things as possible, like visiting the botanical gardens, zoo.”
He also declared that the teacher/parent is important as they can only pass on the skills which they have learnt themselves. He listed 7 life skills every child must develop to succeed in life: focus and self-control; perspective taking; communicating; making connections; critical thinking; taking on challenges; and self-directed learning.
He shared that a game like ‘a,e,i,o,u’ can train the child’s brain to focus and control, thereby reducing negative episodes like temper tantrums. He also called for teachers and parents to be polite to the child since children learn to communicate by listening to what teachers and parents say.
He concluded: “Kids must know that is alright to make mistakes and fail as otherwise they will not try new things. We should create a desire in the child to learn new things; then it stays with them for life.”