Why are the early years of a child’s life so important for brain development? How are connections built in the brain, and how can early brain development affect a child’s future health? This episode of The Brain Architects dives into all these questions and more.
First, Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child, explains more about the science behind how brains are built—their architecture—and what it means to build a strong brain.
This is followed by a panel discussion with Dr. Judy Cameron, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh; Debbie LeeKeenan, an early childhood consultant and former director of the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School at Tufts University; and Dr. Pia Rebello Britto, the global chief and senior advisor for the Early Childhood Development Program Division at UNICEF. These panelists discuss the practical side of building brain architecture, and what any parent or caregiver can do to help give children’s brains a strong foundation. Download the episode and subscribe now!
Sally: Welcome to The Brain Architects, the new podcast from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. I’m your host, Sally Pfitzer. Our center believes that advances in science can provide a powerful source of new ideas that can improve outcomes for children and families. We want to help you apply the science of early childhood development to your everyday interactions with children, and take what you’re hearing from our experts and panels and apply it to your everyday work. In today’s episode, we’re going to dive into the concept of brain architecture and learn a little bit more about the science behind it. We’ll learn why the early years are really important for brain development, and think about how connections are built in the brain, and what a strong or weak foundation in the brain can mean for a child’s future health and development. Here to help us explain brain architecture is Dr. Jack Shonkoff, professor of child health and development, and director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Welcome, Jack.
Jack: Hey, Sally. Good to be here.
Sally: We have a lot of questions to dive into today, but first, can you explain where the idea of brain architecture came from? I’ve heard you use the metaphor of a house before, which I’ve found to be really helpful in really thinking about that foundation that’s set in the early years.
Jack: Almost 20 years ago, the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child realized that we needed metaphors to take very complicated science and present it with a phrase that would capture what it was about, and would be remembered. What came from our early conversations was this very simple fact that brains are built over time. We latched onto this concept of brain architecture, and any building begins with a strong foundation. If the foundation is strong, the building will last a long time, and if the foundation has a crack in it, or it’s weak, the building may not fall apart, but you won’t be able to build on it very much over time without having to deal with some of the weaknesses. Think of the building communities where multiple houses are built, that they’re all exactly the same. But then people move in, and they bring their own decoration, and they’re own style to it, and every house that’s built with the same basic design ends up looking very different. The more we got into the architecture metaphor, the more we realized how powerful it is in terms of understanding this process of brains being built over time.
Sally: As I’m listening to you, it’s making me think about the nature/nurture argument. I know that the current science has a lot to say around that. Is brain architecture determined solely by our genes?
Jack: I love this question. This whole idea of how much is genetic and how much is the result of experience used to be a very fierce argument among scientists. We now know that there’s a very strong genetic and a very strong experience influence. To stick with the architecture metaphor, think of the genetic contribution as the architect’s blueprint, before you begin to build a building. That’s the way genetics contributes. It’s why most children, they sit up at a certain age, walk at a certain age. But how those skills develop, how they’re built, how strong they are, what the design looks like, very little of that is influenced by genetics. It’s influenced by, it’s the world in which kids live, the experiences they have, the environment of relationships they live in, that shape the development of the blueprint for that individual. Genes determine when circuits get built. Experience, individual differences in people’s life experiences determine how those circuits get built. Together, they both explain the development of brain architecture.
Sally: That’s so fascinating. I know a lot of our listeners are folks who are working directly with kids. I’m wondering if you can give them some examples what that building responsive relationships looks like, and also how that actually goes into building brain architecture.
Jack: Another great question. The key feature of what we mean by “environment,” and what we mean by “experiences” that shape brain development really come down to the nature of the interaction between very young children and the adults who care for them. The brain is wired to expect interaction with other people. It’s not looking for interaction with tablets, or mobile phones, mainly because those stimulus sources are not interactive. This need for interaction is built into our biology, into our genes. It comes from eons and eons of evolution. If there wasn’t a reason for it, it wouldn’t appear over and over again over eons. From a developmental point-of-view, somebody has to be there engaging and interacting, and providing experiences from which you can learn, in order for your brain to build strong circuits. If the brain is getting bad input, the brain struggles to learn how to deal with it. If the brain is getting no input, it’s an all-signal alert that the world is crashing down on you, not because it’s harming you, but because it’s ignoring you. Positive experiences strengthen brain circuits. Threatening negative experiences weaken brain circuits, at the time that they’re being made.
Sally: One last question. I can’t help but ask, given what you’ve just described about how detrimental some of these things can be to a developing brain, and I’m thinking about listeners who have either experienced this themselves, or have had children that have experienced this, and that sense that they might have of “This is a doomed situation. My foundation is crumbling and completely weak, and from there on, I’m not able to continue to build my house.” I just wondered if you could address that.
Jack: I’m really so glad you asked that question, Sally, because there are no perfect brains. The best parents in the world do a dozen things wrong every day. There’s a lot of science about brain development, but raising healthy, competent children is much more a bumbling art than it is a precise science, right? There’s a core concept in biology about adaptation and resilience over time, so that it is never too late to strengthen the brain’s capacity to do things. Anybody who says, “Past a certain age, there’s nothing you can do,” is ignorant of what science has to say. On the other hand, it’s not true that early doesn’t matter. It’s a balance. Having problems early on, perhaps having a weaker foundation, is not a doomsday scenario at all. It just means that some things are going to have to be worked on a little bit harder. They would have been easier if we had gotten it right the first time, but it’s not too late. The take-home messages here are earlier is always better than later, prevention of difficulties is better than trying to remediate difficulties later. But it is never, ever too late to strengthen capacities. The brain is always trying to get things right. If it goes off-track, it’s always trying to get back on-track. That’s the beauty of the science. It’s also the beauty of the magic of human development.
Sally: Thank you so much. I’ll leave you with that. “Earlier is better, but it’s never too late.” Thank you so much.
Jack: Thank you, Sally. I appreciate it.
Sally: When we come back, we’ll welcome a few special guests.
Sally: Here to discuss the implications of the science of brain architecture, we have Judy Cameron, Ph.D. Judy is a professor psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh, and the CEO of Working for Kids: Building Skills, LLC. Welcome to the podcast, Judy.
Judy: Thank you. I’m really happy to be here.
Sally: We also have Debbie LeeKeenan joining us. Debbie’s an early childhood consultant and former director of the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School at Tufts University. Hi, Debbie.
Debbie: Hi. It’s an honor to be here. I’m looking forward to the conversation.
Sally: Also joining us on the podcast, we have Pia Rebello Britto, Ph.D. She’s the global chief and senior advisor, Early Childhood Development Program Division, at UNICEF. Welcome, Pia.
Pia: It’s a pleasure to be on. Thank you for inviting me.
Sally: I’d like to start by asking why is it critical for parents, teachers, and even policy makers to understand the importance of brain architecture?
Judy: It’s important that people, all people who interact with children, understand brain architecture, and how brain architecture is made. Because experiences play a really strong role. The brain is genetically programmed to make connections, but whether those connections stay, become strong, and are permanent and there for the child to use their whole lifetime, depends on having experiences that strengthen them. You want parents to strengthen children’s brain circuits. You want teachers to do that. At the policy level, you want policy makers to vote for things that will give all children that opportunity.
Pia: To complement Judy, I want to focus a bit on the policy makers, in terms of their understanding of brain architecture. Ultimately, as we know, for these positive experiences to occur between children and their caregivers or parents, these adults in the child’s life need time. They need resources. They need services. All of that enables them, then, to be able to engage with their children in a meaningful manner. Policy makers, employers in the business sector, all of them create the right policies and enabling environment to then give the parents that time, that space, the resources they need. Their understanding of brain architecture, and the value it holds and how it occurs, is very important, then, to enable parents to engage in what they love the most, to engage and interact with their children.
Sally: Great. Debbie, I know you’ve been in the field for quite some time, in a variety of roles. I think our listeners would like to know what are some specific things that teachers, parents, and caregivers can do to actually help build a healthy brain?
Debbie: We know that young children learn through everyday play and exploration in safe and stimulating environments, and with relationships with their families, teachers, and caregivers. Young children learn when they’re using their whole body and senses. Giving opportunity for young children to explore open-ended materials that can be manipulated and combined in different ways, these provide unlimited play and learning opportunities. We’re talking about blocks, little figures, animals, toy cars, balls, spoons, buckets, pans, baskets, or recycled materials. Through all of that, the early childhood brains are opened to new experiences, and children are testing new theories, and changing old theories when they learn something new. This kind of constructive play allows experimentation, problem solving, higher-order thinking, and as well as language development and social skills. They develop new ideas and schema. It helps them with language development, cognitive skills, problem solving, and taking on other perspectives and self-regulation. All of these things are a way that teachers, parents, and caregivers can help the brain develop from very young ages.
Judy: I think that what Debbie has said is exactly right, and one thing parents are always asking is “How can we fit this into our everyday life?” Giving them examples of what they can do while they’re cooking dinner, what they can do while they’re driving in the car, what they can do when they’re just hanging out with their kids, so that they can begin to be creative. They have ideas that anytime can be a learning time for a child.
Sally: Great. Judy, you were part of a team that created a whole game around the concept of brain architecture. Could you tell us a little bit more about that game? Who plays it? What do you think people actually learn from it?
Judy: The Brain Architecture Game, people work in small groups. They have a task of building a brain. They roll the dice to get their genetic background. That gives you the structure of the base of the brain. And then, they draw Life Experience cards, and the Life Experience cards might be a good experience, a really bad stress, which we would call a toxic stress, or a tolerable stress, a stress that can be good for the growth of the brain or not, that it could be toxic, and it really depends on how much social support. A key issue in the game was to get people to understand that social supports are really important. They build their brain out of pipe cleaners with the supports being straws, and they debate with each other, “Okay. Where am I going to use this support? How tall can we get it? Do we need a little bit more of a sturdy base?”
Sally: Yeah, Judy, I’ve facilitated that game a few times, and I’m always struck by how many times I hear the term ” that’s not fair” when people are watching their brains collapse.
Judy: That’s true. I’ve played it with over 12,000 people. I remember playing it at a legislature at one point where the whole legislature decided to take an hour out of their day. One legislator came in the room, and he said, “I’m going to build a fantastic brain. I really care about children, and I’m a good architect.” And I said, “Excellent.” And then, his brain collapsed. And when I asked him what happened, he said, “Oh. It wasn’t my fault,” and I didn’t say anything. I just looked right at him, and he said, “Oh, my gosh. That’s what you’re trying to teach us. It’s not children’s fault.”
Sally: I always think that’s such an interesting concept that, of course, that’s part of what you’re trying to teach throughout these experiences. Pia, I’m wondering from your perspective, if you can share why the concept of brain architecture is so important for us to consider internationally, and do you have some examples of how this concept is being used all around the world?
Pia: Yeah. This is actually a very seminal concept for us to build on internationally and build on globally because the situation of children really calls us to take serious actions. So, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with but a few numbers to help you contextualize how important this is. The first is that over 250 million children around the world, especially in low- and middle-income countries, are at risk of not achieving that developmental potential. And when we look further into that number and understand what’s going on, we know that in 2018, 29 million babies were born into conflict affected areas where they’re born into these areas where they are exposed to high degrees of toxic stress. We know that over 300 million children live in areas with toxic air that we know can damage the developing brain. So, we know there’s a lot of risk factors in the environment. Okay so, that’s the broad environment. So, what’s going on in the daily lives of children? We find out across sort of our work that only about 60% of children receive that sort of early stimulation and responsive care from their parents and caregivers on a consistent basis. So really, it’s just about over half are receiving that type of care that we know is so integral for brain architecture. So, the case for why we need to bring this, this concept, globally is really important. The whole world community aims to achieve certain goals and targets, and in 2014, to have a very powerful seminar at UNICEF. Judy was there. Jack was there. The world’s leading neuroscientists were there, and they very clearly laid out a case for what happens when you build this brain architecture and what happens when it gets derailed. Now, for the first time in history, there was a goal that looked at child development. There was an indicator and a target that all countries now are accountable for, that they are supporting children to make this happen, and that’s super powerful. We never had that at a population level before. Another example I can throw out really quickly is most parents around the world do not have access to this information of why their engagement with their child matters, why responding to their baby’s cues matter so much. They don’t have access to this information. So at UNICEF, we launched Early Moments Matter. It’s now the largest global campaign. The essence of Early Moments Matter is that babies’ brains are built and they need the active ingredients. They need eat, play love. They need care. They need protection. And we were actually through the Early Moments Matter, we’re able to reach over 2 billion people with these messages.
Debbie: I loved hearing those examples, Pia, with the UNICEF program and those Early Moments. I could give an example locally here in Seattle. I’m involved with a program called PEPS, Programs for Early Parent Support, and the concept here is that the first thousand days of a baby’s life are the most important, and yet many families, many parents feel isolated or have all these other negative experiences. So, this program tries to connect families with other families, creates kind of a small community learning group for parents where they get together maybe a group of 10 to 12 families in different settings, partnering with different agencies to really provide access to all kinds of families. Another point that I thought was important: one of these toxic stress factors is also about the racism and community violence that families and children experience. And one of the things in my work that we’ve found is that as adults in children’s lives, we have an opportunity to choose materials for children, whether they’re books, whether they’re toys, that provide both mirrors and windows for children. This really helps them build their positive social identity development, which happens to begin at birth. And I like this metaphor of mirrors and windows meaning we want to expose children with materials with experiences that reflect who they are, that help them feel good about their identity. And at the same time, you want opportunities to provide materials, books, that may provide windows for children and families to see people that are different than them.
Judy: I also had something that might be worth thinking about. We have been collecting data from communities that we work with, and most of these are very impoverished communities, about child development. We’re checking development of children over a one-year period, so measurements of the stress exposure of the parents and the children, poverty level, education level, as well as videotaping them with their parents and scoring parent-child interactions. And a really interesting finding is that parent-child interactions can be very strong no matter how much family stress is experienced. So, you have parents living in really stressed environments, but if they have very good serve and return interactions, if those are strong from the parents, the child will be doing better even in the face of stress.
Pia: And just building on Judy’s point, one such context we haven’t discussed too much is families who are on the move, migration, refugee status, families who are living through protracted crisis, conflict, and those who are suffering sort of links of humanitarian or climate change-related emergencies. And what we’re finding when we are working with families with young children in these areas is that caring for the caregiver is as important as giving messages to the caregiver about their young child. And in order for parents to feel sort of on top of the game, in order for them to be able to care for children in the manner that’s most suitable for their kids, they need caring as well for their own emotional wellbeing.
Sally: Judy, I’m wondering if you could also weigh in on that question on how to build social-emotional skills, in particular in how it relates to regulation.
Judy: Happy to. So, in the communities we’re working in, there often is a lot of disruption in the family setting, and so we’ve put a lot of emphasis on getting adults in a community to think more broadly about who can provide kids with the skills that they need and with learning environments. And we think of this as charging stations. We talk about the fact that you need to plug the phone in in order to function. Each of us needs to have a support in order to function, and we start by talking to adults about, “What is your charging station? What do you do when you really need to feel better?” This connects very closely to what Pia said earlier about taking care of the parents and making sure that the adults that are interacting with children are taken care of also. But then, we expand it to, “What are the charging stations in your communities that can work to help children?” And that gets people to think much more broadly about the fact that it’s not just parents. It’s not just childcare providers. It’s not just teachers that have an impact on children in children’s development. Everybody in the community can play a role. The matter is getting everybody in the community to realize that they can play an important role in helping children learn skills.
Sally: Excellent. Up next, our panelists are going to answer some of your social media questions.
Sally: Since our panelists have answered all of my questions, let’s move on to some of yours. So, haleyraepearce from Instagram asks, “How do we make sure young children are successful in their transition to school?”
Debbie: Preparation is always important, but I also like to say not too early because typically in the early childhood years, children don’t have a good concept of time. So when we talk about preparing children, we’re not talking about months in advance but maybe a week in advance what’s going to happen, and you want to do it in a very concrete way, maybe visiting the school, reading stories about going to school. I also think always bringing something from home to school is also a good strategy that helps with transitions. I think that a key idea is preparation but doing it in a concrete way and kind of figuring out the when to start that preparation, not too early and not too late.
Pia: Just adding to that. The model we use at UNICEF is children ready for school, parents ready for school, but school’s ready for children. So, I want to build on what Debbie presented. Preparation is key, and preparation is key on the part of the school as well to be able to receive children in. And in many of the contexts in which we work, we have a lot of different issues linked to school readiness, for example, multiculturalism, multilingualism. So many of our children are for the first time coming into schools where maybe the language spoken at home is not the language that is being spoken in the classroom or part of the curriculum. So, a lot of the focus and emphasis is also on preparing these teachers and the school administration to be able to receive children to sort of smooth and ease their transition.
Judy: I can also comment on this from a much broader perspective. So, Debbie and Pia have talked about the literal transition from living at home in your family to starting to go to school. But what’s really important to remember is how well children do in that transition, and in school is going to be very dependent on brain development earlier in life. So throughout their time growing up. And so it really behooves parents and those who are interacting with children to try to help them build strong social-emotional skills, strong problem-solving skills, a strong image of themselves so that they are ready to make that transition.
Sally: I love the variety of perspectives there. We had sort of some really concrete specific examples, and then zoomed out to more global and then thinking about how that all relates to brain architecture will be really helpful for our listeners. So attipay61 from Instagram asks, “I’m a teacher of one -to two- year-olds, and in your opinion, what is a good timeframe to expect children of that age to grasp, understand and remember a concept? Simple examples, hands are not for hitting, or food goes in your mouth. Some days things are a little challenging because it feels like this is what we say all day.” I bet some listeners will relate to that.
Debbie: And I’m chuckling here too, as I take care of my grandchildren this age. I’m thinking about that. First of all, there’s these first two years of life, is what we call the sensory motor stage. And often infants are busy discovering relationships between their bodies and the environment, and this is actually how they’re learning. When we say don’t put things in your mouth, yet, that’s how they learn through sensory experiences. Through their seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, et cetera. I think we can also through simple words, repetition, signs, gestures, a 12-month-old can understand the concept, what we put in our mouth, food goes in our mouth, toys we put in the bucket or in the basket. But instead of saying, “No toys in the mouth”, we’ll often say, “Put the toys here, we’ll eat our snack in our mouth.” Things like that. So being concrete and yet understanding that this is where they are developmentally, what their brain understands, so it’s not like it’s a misbehavior I always say, but a typical behavior.
Judy: I would have a different perspective, that is that what we really have to remember is the way brain development happens is that the genetic program tells neurons, brain cells to make connections. And what causes those connections to be strengthened and become a stable brain circuit is experiences that use the connections. I get asked many times, “How many times do you have to use a connection to increase the probability of it being permanent, and really strong?” And the answer is thousands and thousands of times. And so you have a teacher or a parent who’s working with one- and two-year-olds who says, “I’ve told them over and over again about this. Why do they still not get it?” They really have to have used that part of their brain thousands of times. And we need to understand that it really takes a lot of work on the part of the growing brain to form a strong, stable pathway.
Sally: Thanks to our panel for offering that expertise and thank you to our social media followers for submitting some great questions. Up next, Dr. Shonkoff is back to debunk an early childhood myth that may have actually heard.
Sally: And we’re back with Dr. Jack Shonkoff, and we’re going to talk about a myth that exists in the early childhood field. This is a segment I’m particularly excited about, because I think there are a lot of myths out there. I know you are particularly passionate about, and it is that 90% of a child’s brain is formed by the age of three. So could you tell us a little bit about that myth and why it is not a correct fact?
Jack: Should I start with why this drives neuroscientists insane? Let me just start with something simple, which is why that’s wrong. To say that 90% of the brain is completed by age three, or age four or age five is to completely misunderstand the very basic concept of a developing brain. Is there anybody out there who could make some sense of the idea that a three-year-old now has 90% of all of the competence and skills and knowledge that you’ll have for the rest of your life? From a common-sense point of view, that’s just ridiculous. If we’re talking about brain development, we’re not talking about how big your brain is, or how much it weighs. We’re talking about its circuitry. You don’t have to be a neuroscientist. Ask anybody who knows anything about kids, how much of a difference is there between what a two-month-old can do and what a five-year-old can do? But here’s why it’s damaging. If 90% of your brain development is completed by age three or four, what does that tell us? What it tells us is not only to get hysterical about the first three or four years of life and drive yourself crazy, it also tells you, okay, you’re four, you’re five years old now, you’re there, it’s done. It implies it’s too late to do anything. It implies there’s not a whole lot you need to do to promote healthy brain development afterwards, because most of it is over.
Sally: It also implies that at some point you get to 100%, which contradicts exactly what you just said earlier, that we’re still developing.
Jack: Exactly. It creates a lot of misperceptions and misunderstandings that could affect the way we think about how much of an impact can adults have on children? But let me tell you why it’s continued. I was speaking at a conference once, and I was on a panel with some people, one of whom who got up there who made this comment about how 90% of the brain, and I said, you know that’s wrong, right? You know what he or she said to me? That person said, “I know, you’ve told me that, but do you see the look on the audience’s face when I say that? Do you see how jazzed they get? Do you see how much they understand the importance of the early years? I know it’s wrong, but it’s effective.” And perpetuating that myth is terrible. Not only because it’s wrong, it creates ideas in people’s heads that end up being damaging to how we can help children all through their lives to be who they can be. Sally, to your point about it never reaches 100%, this is the other side of the coin. People ask this question about how flexible and adaptive is the brain? We know that resilience also is something that’s built over time. If you have a weak foundation early on because you hadn’t had time to develop resilience, you can develop resilience later, and you can get better and things can be better. So then the question becomes, is it ever too late? It gets harder the older you get. But if there’s anyone out there listening to this podcast who’s 103 years old, who learned one thing from this podcast, goes to sleep and tomorrow wakes up and remembers it, a new connection was made in the brain.
Sally: Thanks Jack. Up next, how can we take the science of brain architecture and apply it to everyday situations?
Sally: We’ve learned about the science of brain architecture, and its implications, and we’ve learned that your brain is never fully developed. We’re always learning. Now we’ll leave you with something that you can do today, tomorrow, or even next week to promote healthy brain architecture. Do you have to go pick up groceries this week, for example, while your little ones tag along? Well, when you’re searching for ripe apples, ask your child if they can point out all of the green ones. While you’re picking out cereal, maybe ask them if they can find all the cereals that start with C. Simple games like these require children to understand rules, hold those rules in mind and then follow them. So while you’re shopping for groceries, they’re actually building their brain. I’d like to, once again thank our guests, Dr. Judy Cameron, Professor Debbie LeeKeenan, Dr. Pia Britto, and Dr. Jack Shonkoff. I’m your host Sally Pfitzer, and we’ll see you next time. The Brain Architects is a product of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. You can find us at developingchild.harvard.edu, where we’ll post any resources that were discussed in this episode. We’re also on Twitter @HarvardCenter, Facebook @CenterDevelopingChild, and Instagram @DevelopingChildHarvard. Brandi Thomas, Charley Gibney, and Kristen Holmstrand are our producers. Bridgette Cyr is our audio editor. Our music is Brain Power, by Mela from FreeMusicArchive.org. The podcast is recorded at PRX Podcast Garage in Allston, Massachusetts.