We’re all about improving children’s futures here at BabySparks—we built an entire program around it! So when we read this recent paper, published by The Harvard University Center on the Developing Child (HCDC), we knew it was important information to share.
HCDC has identified these 3 key ways parents, caregivers, educators, and policymakers can set children up to thrive in life, work, and relationships:
1: Nurture Responsive Relationships
Whether you’re a parent, caregiver, or other close adult in a child’s life, the most powerful thing you can offer her during the first years of her life is responsiveness, because it literally shapes her brain. A newborn cries and her mother feeds her. A father plays peek-a-boo with his baby. A toddler takes a tumble and her caregiver scoops her up into a hug. Each of these meaningful interactions with a committed adult builds and strengthens neurons in the brain, which lay the foundation for all future development and functioning.
Aside from being essential to brain development, responsive relationships set children up to be resilient in the face of future challenges. In fact, research has found that the number-one thing children and teens who develop resiliency have in common is having at least one stable relationship with a supportive adult.
2: Build Core Life Skills
To thrive in life, work, and relationships, we need executive function (EF) skills. EF skills are a hefty set of cognitive abilities that allow us to focus, plan, work towards goals, filter and shift our attention, adapt to change, and regulate our behavior.
Children are not born with EF skills. They rely on adults to learn them, starting in infancy. The very nature of a responsive relationship supports EF development, and activities like the ones in our BabySparks program strengthen it further.
3: Reduce Sources of Stress
Stress isn’t always bad. For instance, allowing a child to feel reasonable frustration while learning a new task teaches her the important skill of coping with failure.
Intense or ongoing stress, though (including abuse, neglect, exposure to violence, and having a parent or other main caregiver with addiction or mental illness), can have devastating effects on development.
Severe stress floods a child’s body with hormones like cortisol, which increase heart rate and blood pressure. This depletes the precious energy required for healthy development. Experiencing toxic stress as a child is linked to a host of challenges in adulthood, including mental and physical illness and substance abuse.
It’s important to remember, says HCDC, that all 3 of these key areas are interconnected. When a caregiver focuses on being more responsive, for instance, the child(ren) in her care learn more core life skills. Or, if a parent seeks help for substance abuse, he both removes a source of stress from his child’s life AND frees himself up to be more responsive.
If you’re interested in reading the full paper, you can find it here.