Post by:  Cristy Roberts, Training Specialist at Community Action Project, Tulsa and National Certified Conscious Discipline Instructor


Who would ever object to providing children with positive, quality early childhood experiences? The topic is one many people, elected officials and concerned citizens alike, have rallied behind. Statistics show that positive and quality early experiences set a child up for academic success, and children that don’t have these experiences start school already behind. So, the answer is to start providing children academic experiences earlier and earlier, right? Wrong!

A baby’s brain is underdeveloped at birth, just waiting for experiences to shape how it will develop. The brain is put together like building blocks with lower parts being the more primitive, survival area.  It develops from the bottom up and inside out, with normal development of higher centers dependent on the healthy development of the lower parts.  Here is where I would like to pose a question; what is really happening in the brains of children who have positive early experiences?

Rather than talking about specific parts of the brain, let’s refer to the states a child (or adult) is in and the skills we have when those states are stimulated or triggered. With each of the states, there are physiologic reactions that take place; these reactions lead to outward expressions or behaviors.The lowest region of the brain is the brain stem or survival state. The skills you have when you find yourself in your survival state are fight or flight. When the survival state is triggered the stress chemical cortisol is dumped into the body causing physiological changes. Blood rushes to your arms and legs, the pupils in the eyes dilate and your breathing becomes shallow. These are all helpful and important ways for your body to respond if you are being chased by a mean dog, but not so helpful when a child is trying to sit still in a classroom!  A child who is living in this state will be expressing survival state behaviors like hitting, kicking, and biting.

The Limbic/mid-region of the brain houses the emotional state. When this state is triggered, again, certain chemical reactions happen that will produce behaviors associated with this state (whining, complaining, hopeless or black and white, always or never reasoning). Emotions are a vital part of our existence and give us messages of how to proceed, again very important, but not helpful in the learning process to be stuck here.

The highest center of the brain is the pre-frontal cortex or the executive state. It is in this state where optimal learning takes place. The skills housed in this region are referred to as “executive functioning” skills; attention, time management, prioritization, working memory, organization, flexibility, goal achievement, impulse control, empathy, emotional control, task initiation and metacognition. You can see the importance of developing this area of the brain in order to measure school readiness and success.

We know the brain wires these regions together with cortical-limbic connections. These connections create pathways from the lower centers to the higher centers and wire the brain for impulse control and willingness. These pathways are like highways carrying information up and down the brain all day long. The only way to create these connections is through eye contact, touch and presence (or interaction) with other people in playful situations. In short, children need to feel safe and connected in order to develop executive functioning. (Notice with other people is underlined…these connections are made through relationships, not through electronic games or Baby Einstein videos.)

So, what’s happening in the brain of a child who is immersed in positive, quality early childhood experiences? I believe they are growing up in environments where they feel safe and connected. What you do during those times can include reading, talking about numbers, colors and other academic topics, but it’s not the topics; it’s the eye contact, touch and presence that make the difference!  These children show up with the highways already built ready for academic traffic. When it is developmentally appropriate for them to learn concepts, there is a well laid route for the information to travel up to the executive function of working memory. Children, who perceive the world as scary and unpredictable, will show fewer gains than children who come to school already in their optimal learning state. So, in my opinion, where we are getting it wrong is assuming children are showing up at school ready to learn just because they were exposed to academics earlier.

Why does it not work for some and why are some of the gains lost?  When the “business” of early childhood becomes too rigid and outcome based, when children don’t feel safe or connected at home or school, when parents and teachers are too stressed for eye contact, touch and presence in playful situations you are constructing a bike path rather than a highway. When a child’s brain is in a state of toxic stress, their brain is marinating in stress chemicals. The results of this over time can literally eat holes in the pre-frontal cortex, making it extremely difficult to gain the skills for school and life success.

All this science to say…slow down. Let them play. Be present in their lives. Provide lots of opportunity for eye contact, touch and presence in playful, low stress situations. Be intentional during those times to be stimulating those executive functioning skills. Play stop and go activities to build impulse control, talk about why we take care of pets or be gentle with younger siblings to build empathy and when your emotions get really big, build emotional control skills by being a S.T.A.R. …Smile, Take a deep breath And Relax! Enjoy the journey. I wish you well.  ~ Cristy