The early childhood years matter a lot – experiences in these years have lifelong consequences for health and wellbeing. The early years of development from conception until age five, and in particular the first 1000 days of development from conception to age two, have been the focus of increasing attention in recent years. The argument is that the first 1000 days are the period of maximum developmental plasticity, and therefore the period with the greatest potential to affect health and wellbeing over the life span. However, in Australia, this age group receives far less attention and funding than children of school age and young people.
The Centre for Community Child Health, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute recently released an excellent summary of the evidence for the impact of experiences in the first 1000 days of life on all aspects of development and functioning, including physical health and wellbeing, mental health, social functioning and cognitive development (see www.rch.org.au/ccch/first-thousand-days). The paper is a call to action to reform policies, practices and systems to foster optimal development for children. In particular, it argues for the need to educate and empower the public and change the environments in which families are raising children. Investing in early childhood development also makes good economic sense. Short-term costs are more than offset by the immediate and long-term benefits through reduction in the need for special education and remediation, better health outcomes, reduced need for social services, lower criminal justice costs and increased self-sufficiency and productivity (Heckman, 2017).
The relational context
Children learn and develop in the context of their relationships. These relationships begin in their family, but also include other important adults in their lives such as grandparents and other extended family, early childhood staff and neighbours. These relationships affect virtually all aspects of the child’s development including cognitive, social, emotional and physical development, and lay the foundation for a wide range of outcomes in later life, including social and emotional competence, mental health and achievement at school or work (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2016; Price-Robertson, Smart, & Bromfield, 2010).
The relational experiences children have in their early years, and the environments in which they have them, shape their developing brain architecture and also affect how genes are expressed. Children are born ready to learn and engage with their world through their relationships. Young children naturally reach out to engage with the adults in their world through babbling, facial expressions, gestures and words. Responsive caregivers consistently respond with warmth and emotional engagement in a ‘give and take’, or ‘serve and return’ reciprocal interaction. These interactions shape the architecture of the developing brain and are essential for healthy development. Over time, these continued interactions and relationships build children’s brains from the bottom up, with increasingly complex circuits building on simpler circuits, and increasingly complex and adaptive skills emerging over time (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2016).
Experiences that are in sync with the neurodevelopmental process have the greatest impact, hence, for new babies, sensory, social and warm emotional experiences are essential to optimise lower-level brain development. As children mature, more sophisticated and diverse experiences are essential to optimise development (Winter, 2010). Children exposed to consistent, predictable nurturing and rich experiences will develop neurobiological capabilities that will increase the child’s chance for good, long-term health, happiness, productivity and creativity (Winter, 2010).
Children who experience toxic levels of stress, for example, through abuse or neglect or extreme poverty, can experience physiological disruptions that can lead to poorer outcomes in learning, behaviour, and physical and mental wellbeing (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2016). Consistent, warm and nurturing relationships with an environment of supportive adults can buffer children from these effects. By contrast, harsh, punitive parenting (where parents use physical or verbal punishment and intrusiveness or guilt, shaming, and conditional love to control their children) has been associated with poorer outcomes (Pinquart, 2017). For example, research suggests that worldwide, approximately six in 10 children aged between two and 14 years are subjected to corporal punishment by a caregiver (UNICEF, 2014) even though spanking is associated with antisocial behaviour, external behaviour problems, low moral internalisation, aggression, mental health problems, negative parent-child relationships, impaired cognitive ability, low self-esteem and risk of physical abuse from parents. It also does not work, with children who are spanked as likely to defy their parents as comply with them (Gershoff, & Grogan-Kaylor, 2016).
The important contribution of parents and other caregivers
In providing rich experiences in which children can develop, it is also important that experiences provided in the earliest years are appropriate for the child’s stage of development. The best ‘toy’ for children is a caring adult who pays attention to them, plays and engages with them and follows their interests. Self-directed, creative play is important for healthy development. Play engages children’s attention, providing challenges, observations and opportunities for practice and success in the development of skills, creative problem-solving, concepts and relationships (Winter, 2010). In the current education environment that focuses on academic achievement, parents can feel pressured to start their child’s learning early (for example, using flashcards, DVDs or tutors) under the misguided belief that it will give their children an advantage once formal schooling begins.
However, there is no evidence that excessive stimulation and pushing a young child to learn beyond their interest, capabilities and developmental maturity will increase their intellectual capacity (Winter, 2010). In fact, when adults ask children to use or master skills they do not yet have the brain circuitry for, it can result in considerable stress in the child and may even impair healthy brain development (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2016). It is also likely to be frustrating for both caregiver and child, and may lead to punitive, rather than supportive responses from the caregiver. Of course, this does not mean adults in children’s lives need to be in perfect control of their emotions all the time. Making mistakes, experiencing conflict and repairing relationships with children also provides important learning opportunities.
The parent ‘expectation gap’
A gap in understanding between what children are capable of and what caregivers may think they are capable of is common. A survey of parents in the USA (Zero to Three, 2016) found parents overestimate the age at which children master important developmental skills:
- 43 per cent think children can share and take turns with other children before the age of three (which actually occurs between ages three to four).
- 36 per cent think children under the age of two have enough impulse control to resist the desire to do something forbidden, and 56 per cent say this happens before the age of three (most children are not able to master this until 3.5-4 years of age).
- 23 per cent think children under the age of one can control their emotions and not have a tantrum when frustrated, and 18 per cent expected this to occur in children under two (whereas this control is not developed until around 3.5-4 years of age) (Zero to Three, 2016).
Parents also underestimate how soon children are capable of feeling complex emotions and being affected by the world around them, including their parenting. A notable portion of parents miss the mark by months, or even years, for example:
- When asked at what age the quality of a parent’s care has a long-term impact on a child’s development, 50 per cent of parents said this begins at six months or older, when in fact it starts at birth.
- When asked about the age when children can begin to feel sad or fearful, 42 per cent of parents say the age of one or older, when research has found evidence for this as early as
- When asked when children are affected by shouting in the home, even when asleep, 47 per cent said age one or older, when actually, it begins around 6 months.
Research suggests Australian parents are similar (Kendall-Taylor & Lindland, 2013) with findings from a small qualitative study finding that Australians conceive of children as passive absorbers of content and view the worlds of young children as simple and uncluttered. Australian parents acknowledge that emotions, desires and thoughts are present in children from birth, but believe these do not impact on children until they become aware of them at around age two, and also that children are unable to communicate these thoughts and emotions to others until after age two.
A quick scan of any Australian parenting forum highlights the challenges families experience in raising children, including difficulties with balancing work and family, misconceptions about effective parenting practices and wanting to know the ‘right thing’ to do – breastfeed or bottle-feed, when to start solids, co-sleep, bassinet or cot, why won’t my child sleep through the night, how to discipline children, to spank or not to spank, to return to work or wait, how to cope with tantrums, how much screen-time is too much, why won’t my toddler listen to me, how do I stop my child hitting, my child crawled/walked/spoke/potty trained later than others, and so on.
Psychologists can enhance child development
Psychologists have a critical role to play in working with families to facilitate loving and responsive caregiving, but also to work towards societal changes to ensure safe and nurturing communities for children that include support for parenting, secure housing, adequate nutrition and freedom from toxic substances. Psychologists are also well-placed to work with individual children who have experienced adversity (and their families) and who are at risk, or experiencing social, emotional or behavioural problems.
As a profession, psychologists can play an active role in contributing to the public discourse about the critical development that occurs in the early years and help families identify normal child behaviours, develop realistic expectations and provide ‘good enough’ parenting. Psychologists can also advocate for policies and practices that facilitate environments that promote positive child development such as:
- increased support for parents and families (for example, through adequate paid parental leave, flexible working arrangements, and high-quality information and support for effective parenting)
- access to high-quality early childhood education and care with an appropriately qualified and remunerated workforce
- affordable access to interventions for parents and children at risk or experiencing social, emotional or behavioural problems.
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org