Teacher-child interaction: How are you at brain building?
More than 10 years ago, breakthroughs in neuroscience started
to reshape early childhood education. New research tools—including
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Positron Emission Tomography
(PET) scans, for example—offered scientists and researchers
noninvasive tools for observing brain structure and function.
Physicians now have tools that help diagnose and treat neurological
disorders. And teachers have new tools—and real scientific
research—to direct and support practices that impact children’s
The new science, coupled with alarming statistics on children’s
physical and psychological health, has fueled an evaluation of
practices in child development, education, and social policy.
For the last decade, regulatory forces and policy makers have
underscored the key findings of current brain research:
An individual’s ability to grow and learn depends on
the interplay between nature (genetic factors) and nurture (the
environment—interactions with people and things).
The human brain is hard wired to benefit from rich experiences
and interactions, particularly during the early years.
Learning is lifelong.
A brain primer
The orchestrates the way people see, think, feel, hear,
communicate, taste, smell, speak, move, analyze, evaluate,
balance, create, and respond. The brain controls how a person
receives information, analyzes it, and encodes, stores, and
recalls it in memory.
The average brain weighs about 3 pounds and has developed to
full size by the time a child is about 6 years old. As it develops,
the brain responds to waves of chemical signals that stimulate
different areas at different times. These responses allow researchers
to describe a typical developmental sequence and prime times
for particular kinds of learning and skill development.
The , the largest and most complex portion of the brain,
has two or sides. The right hemisphere controls the
left side of the body; the left hemisphere controls the right
side. Each hemisphere is divided into four large sections called
The governs reasoning, judgment, and voluntary movement.
The controls spoken language ability and governs
the sense of touch.
The is responsible for vision and reading ability.
The contains the centers for hearing, smell, and
The , located below the cerebrum, controls posture
and muscle reflexes.
The (CNS) connects the brain and spinal
cord to carry nerve messages between the brain and the body.
The (top of the skull) and facial bones protect the brain.
(hollow spinal bones) protect and support the spinal
The (PNS) is a network of nerves that
connect the CNS with the rest of the body—skin, muscles,
and organs. It is not protected by bone and is more subject to
trauma and toxins. The PNS includes two subsystems. The (SNS) coordinates body movement and outside stimuli.
The (ANS) controls unconscious functions
like breathing, digestion, blood circulation, and blinking.
The connects the areas of the brain that control
emotion. Part of this limbic system, the , controls
body temperature, sleep cycles, mood, hormonal processes, hunger,
and thirst. It works with the gland to produce and
regulate hormones. The hypothalamus and pituitary gland are tiny
structures at the base of the brain.
From this overview, it’s clear that the brain is a complex
organ. It’s also clear that various parts and functions
are connected, and have an enormous impact on perception, feeling,
thinking, and learning.
What makes brains powerful?
Each part of the brain is made up of cells, or . Here
is where the real work of the brain goes on. Each cell has
branches, or , that take in electrochemical information,
and an , a long fiber that sends out information. The information
flowing between cells occurs as electrochemical sparks or .
At birth, a child’s brain has about 100 billion neurons,
but almost half are unconnected. It’s like a new house
with a breaker box but no wiring inside the rooms. New experiences—talking,
touching, eating—stimulate neurons and cause synapses to
occur. Repeated experiences strengthen these electrical pathways.
Connections that are not reinforced are pruned and fall away.
By age 3, a child’s brain has about 1,000 trillion synapses—twice
as many as in the brain of the child’s parent. That number
holds steady for about 10 years. By late adolescence, half the
synapses will have been pruned. The remaining 500 trillion will
remain relatively constant throughout the rest of the child’s
The first three years of life offer a remarkable window of opportunity
for learning, especially for language. For example, an infant’s
brain is able to detect all the sounds of all spoken languages.
If a caregiver speaks only Spanish, the connections for Spanish
will be strengthened and the potential for Cantonese or Swahili
will be pruned. As pruning accelerates, the synapses that have
been reinforced become permanent. That’s why learning languages
is easier in early childhood and harder—but not impossible—in
adolescence and adulthood.
The more experiences and interactions a child has with people
and the environment, the more synapses develop in the child’s
brain. The richer the interactions, the stronger the synapses.
Neural networks formed during early childhood build the brain
power that enables information processing throughout life.
Research shows that children’s development and capacity
for learning depend on both genetic traits and the environmental
factors—nutrition, surroundings, and interactions—that
are provided or withheld. Genetic factors are in place at birth.
Environmental factors begin to have impact during the prenatal
period and continue through the lifespan.
The early years of infancy and preschool offer an enormous opportunity
for parents, teachers, and other caregivers to help build neural
networks in children’s brains. Every positive interaction
with people and materials builds a stronger brain. Every negative
interaction or forgotten opportunity weakens potential.
How do you rate in brain building?
Use the following characteristics and behaviors to evaluate your
interactions with infants and young children.
You read and respond to children’s
You know each child’s skills, needs, and interests.
You use gentle touch to respond, guide, and redirect.
You pay attention to children’s communication tactics—crying,
smiling, signing, or speaking.
You provide an environment that is safe, clean, and inviting.
You build and expand children’s interests with questions,
props, and materials.
You respond with flexibility to unforeseen events, accidents,
You respond to children’s developmental
You create learning spaces for exploration and investigation.
You scaffold children’s learning by connecting concepts,
questions, opinions, and ideas.
You foster creativity and initiative.
You are attentive to children’s emotions and routinely
give explanations, offer choices, and acknowledge feelings.
You work to form a solid base of child development theory to
provide learning opportunities across developmental levels from
sensory to symbolic.
You respond to children’s unique interests and skills
with both interpersonal support and environmental materials and
You use positive guidance and respond to behaviors and events
consistently and fairly.
You apply behavioral consequences without shaming or blaming.
You anticipate needs and interactions and are prepared to respond
quickly and calmly.
You foster independence.
You offer predictable responses to behaviors, avoiding inconsistency
You apply simple rules appropriate to children’s ages
and developmental levels.
You maintain reasonable expectations that are appropriate to
children’s ages and developmental levels.
You demonstrate confidence and optimism in children’s
skills and behaviors.
You model and foster problem-solving skills.
You ensure a healthy environment.
You are attentive to children’s nutritional needs and
foster good eating habits.
You maintain a pleasant meal-time environment.
You arrange classroom and outdoor spaces to safely build developmental
You encourage daily physical exercise according to the children’s
ages and developmental levels.
You demand a smoke-free environment and minimize the use of
toxic cleaning agents.
You offer options for active and quiet independent play that
is respectful of children’s emotional and social needs.
You delight in literacy, language, and learning.
You speak directly and frequently to children, using their
Your conversations with children support and construct appropriate
language patterns and conventions.
You support curiosity about literacy by providing books and
other print materials appropriate to the children’s ages
and developmental levels.
You introduce language and build fluency skills with songs,
finger plays, rhymes, and signs.
You value children’s play.
You play games with children appropriate to their ages and
You provide materials and equipment that allow children to
create and observe interactions between people and things.
You support play that helps children integrate new ideas while
gently challenging and broadening existing skills and notions.
You model and foster wonder.
You model empathy and compassion.
Your interactions with children reflect your belief in the
value of all children.
You create situations in which children can observe and learn
from each other without competition.
You actively teach about feelings, kindness, and compassion
with specific observations and comments.
You model cultural and ethnic sensitivity and build your curriculum
using anti-bias practices and techniques.
You strive for balance in interactions.
You recognize the impact of temperament and personality in
children’s growth and development.
You tailor your interactions with children to maximize positive,
You work in partnership with children’s parents.
You express delight in children’s development.
Your body language—and often your voice—reflect
joy and interest in children’s growth and development.
You strive to make your teaching authentic and attentive to
particular children with specific interests at a given time.
You share and encourage curiosity.
You communicate your interest in the real value of every person
in every circumstance.
You reflect on your role in children’s
You take time for regular self-examination and evaluation of
your teaching practices.
You seek collaboration and peer support.
Your treasure your professional affiliations and demonstrate
loyalty to the highest standards of practice.
Your impact lasts a lifetime
Learning occurs throughout one’s life. But it’s during
the early years that the learning pathways are laid down and
connected in the brain. Early sensory and physical experiences—touching,
talking, reading, singing, crawling, running, jumping, playing— wire
the brain for learning and growth.
The care and nurturing you provide will have a lifelong impact
on a child’s development and cognitive success.