Brain Development in Young Children

Ron Ferguson, an economist at Harvard, has made a career out of studying the achievement gap, which is the well-documented learning gap that exists between kids of different races and socioeconomic statuses. He was surprised to discover that this gap is visible with stark differences by just age 2, meaning kids who aren’t even halfway to kindergarten are already well behind their peers. And yet, there’s a whole body of research on how caregivers can encourage brain development before a child begins any formal learning. 

“Things that we need to do with infants and toddlers are not things that cost a lot of money,” Ferguson explains. “It’s really about interacting with them, being responsive to them.” He calls his list of simple but essential tasks the Boston Basics, and he’s on a mission to introduce it to caretakers first in Boston and then across the country to improve brain development in babies. The principles are:

  1. Maximize love, manage stress. Babies pick up on stress, which means moms and dads have to take care of themselves, too. It’s also not possible to over-love or be too affectionate with young children. Research shows feeling safe can have a lasting influence on development.
  2. Talk, sing and point. When you point at something, that helps the baby to start to associate words with objects. Some babies will point before they can even talk.

  3. Count, group and compare. This one is about numeracy. Babies love numbers and counting, and there’s research to show they’re actually born with math ability. Ferguson says caregivers can introduce their children to math vocabulary by using sentences that compare things: “Oh, look! Grandpa is tall, but grandma is short” or “There are two oranges, but only three apples.”

  4. Explore through movement and play. The idea is to have parents be aware that their children are learning when they play.

  5. Read and discuss stories. It’s never too early to start reading aloud. Hearing words increases vocabulary, and relating objects to sounds starts to create connections in the brain. It’s also important to brain development to discuss stories: If there’s a cat in the story and a cat in your home, point that out. That’s a piece lots of parents miss when just reading aloud. 

So how do these five principles get into the hands, and ultimately the brains, of our children? Ferguson and his team are partnering with hospitals to incorporate the five principles into prenatal care and pediatrician visits. They work with social services agencies, home-visiting programs, local businesses, and more; Ferguson even teamed up with a local church to deliver a handful of talks at the pulpit after Sunday services. There is also a group for teen moms at the Full Life Gospel Center in Boston. 

Tara Register, who runs this group, says that when she talks about the Basics, the teenage parents are surprised to discover that so much learning happens so early. “Some of this stuff they’re probably doing already and they didn’t even know there was a name behind it or development behind it,” she says. This is true for most caregivers; a lot of this brain development comes naturally, and the key is to connect those natural instincts to what researchers know about developmental science — something all parents can learn from, Ferguson says. Overall, our babies are incredible, complex, and smart. There brains are sponges. They can take it all in, so we mustn’t underestimate them. 

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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