Epigenetic Brain Development in Children

Adapted from NAEYC article by Jack Wright, 2017

Biological science research during the last 20 years has offered educators and parents dramatic changes in our understanding of child development. One key change is it is generally accepted that the debate over nature versus nurture appears over.  We now understand epigenetic adaptation: how a child’s nurturing influences their innate nature. Together the two control our subconscious lives. Early childhood educators don’t need to be neural-biologists, but we do need to understand how the current information regarding epigenetic adaptation informs our professional role in the development of young children.

We especially need to understand that we are changing our understanding of the expression of genes, not just a child’s behaviors. That suggests that how we endeavor to adjust behaviors is crucial to the success of children. Most of us have moved from attempting behavior modification to teaching thinking skills, but we also need to pay close attention to brain development: the ability of a child to think.

It appears that the process of thinking itself is a central piece of the environment that affects genes. Genes control all development of animals and plants. They control the development of cells: the basic element in all living things. Thinking is available to humans because brain cells divided to produce neural structures that recorded environmental experiences and make connections between neurons.

This is a different language to describe this development than early childhood educators are used to using.  It is a significant difference If, for example we think that a child is being obstinate by way of multiple refusals, we are not as likely to see what the child needs to develop in their brain that will sustain the learning necessary to obey the commands of caregivers. The child’s behavior may appear to be obstinate, but it is actually a lack of education, of brain development.

Understanding epigenesis could even lead to adults not giving children as many commands, instead to assist them in their self education. For example, for their own safety and to enhance their rate of learning children sometimes do need to obey: but not always in all ways. The decision to obey requires cognition. Recognizing the need for improved cognition could instead lead to more focus on nutrition, sleep, and sensory-motor activities. Further, the development of cognition requires understanding the procedures of scaffolding: offering mental-assistance when the child is asking, and finding ways to encourage their own search for answers.

Early childhood educators have mostly stopped directly punishing children for their mistakes, but we still may be thinking that children make mistakes on purpose. We confuse children when we let them know we’re disappointed in them. We probably have confused ourselves when we expect more of children than they have learned. Understanding the epigenetic adaptation aspect of young brain development will help us improve our training of young children.

The directors and teachers at Prime Time Early Learning Centers in Edgewater New Jersey and Farmingdale / Babylon New York are constantly engaging in professional development; keeping up with the latest research and understanding of early child development.  By maintaining memberships in professional organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children, reviewing and discussing professional literature and engaging in early childhood training, our directors and teachers engage in a process of continual improvement in their ability to understand, appreciate and teach young children.