By Jessica Carley Badolato
A rich, nurturing environment is required to optimize a child’s development. Early childhood is considered a critical time period during which positive experiences may be the most beneficial. During these years, a child experiences significant cognitive, language, motor, and social growth and changes (Curtis & Schuler). Research demonstrates that the interactions among children, caregivers, and the environment impacts development and behavioral outcomes. Through this interplay of nature and nurture, each component influences the others in what is called the transactional model (Augustyn, Frank, & Zuckerman). Starting at birth, parents and caregivers play a crucial role in participating in and providing opportunities for their children to engage in activities that encourage development and discovery learning and promote bilingualism.
Early Brain Development
The home environment and a child’s interactions during the first two years are critical to the development of neural pathways in areas related to cognitive, language, motor, social, and emotional functioning (Atinc & Gustafsson-Wright). These interactions work in conjunction with genetics to shape the brain’s architecture. Within the central nervous system, the brain’s synaptic connections can be enriched and maintained by age-appropriate stimulation and the environment, making these connections stronger and more efficient. Pruning of these connections occurs when they are not used. For instance when babies are not touched, research shows their brain sizes are smaller-than-normal (Curtis & Schuler).
Benefits of Attachment
In addition to brain development benefits, interactions among infants and their parents and caregivers help promote secure attachment and learning. In the first days of life, simple touch and holding a baby assist with creating secure attachment and bonding that are necessary for infants to explore (Augustyn, Frank, & Zuckerman). This is the beginning of the critical period for developing attachment according to Bowlby’s theory of attachment. The significance of attachment in the parent-child, and caregiver-child, is that it influences subsequent development. Children benefit socially, emotionally, and academically when they have secure relationships in early childhood. The reverse is also evident in that children who do not form attachment will “suffer from irreversible developmental consequences, such as reduced intelligence and increased aggression” (McLeod “Attachment Theory”).
In the infant stage, the calming and comforting effects of touch not only display love and affection and assist with the bonding process but they also help muscle development and promote other benefits such as stimulating appetite and possibly helping with relieving gas, improving digestion, and preventing colic. Parent-child activities that promote bonding such as touch, conversation, song, and natural eye contact also help parents monitor for healthy early social, cognitive, and language development (Curtis & Schuler).
The parent and caregiver roles extend beyond attachment to having an active role in discovery learning, in which children learn best through experience and active exploration. According to Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s developmental learning theories, young children are actively involved in their own learning and the discovery and development of new understanding (McLeod “Vygotsky”). Specifically, Vygotsky believed that children learn through social interaction with a skillful tutor, in this case a parent or caregiver. Modeling behaviors and providing verbal instructions serve as cooperative or collaborative dialogue, in which a child will seek to understand, internalize, and use to guide his or her own behavior (McLeod “Vygotsky”). Piaget also believed that infants “use all sensory modalities and emerging motor skills to explore the world and the people in it” (Augustyn, Frank, & Zuckerman 33). Furthermore, parents and caregivers play active roles in reinforcing desirable and negative behaviors. When positive behaviors such as using manners, reading, and playing nicely with others are encouraged, they are likely to be repeated. Repetition of negative behaviors occurs with a reflex response when positive behaviors are not reinforced and undesirable behaviors garner reactions (Webster-Stratton). When parents and caregivers reinforce the desirable behaviors, it is likely their frequency will increase.
The interactions of children, caregivers, and the environment in the transactional model influence the rate and quality of language, speech, and communication development. “The rate and quality of the infant’s progression through linguistic development can be more sensitive to caregiving practices than are other sensorimotor skills. Children who hear more language develop it more quickly” (Augustyn, Frank, & Zuckerman 35). Here the combination of secure, affectionate relationships and a stimulating environment that provides ample interaction opportunities motivates children to communicate and provides feedback (Buckley; Brock).
Research supports the need for and importance of human interaction for optimal language, speech, and communication development. Human interaction is a critical factor as children, from as early as birth, learn most effectively through rich experiences in talking, listening, engaging in two-way conversations, and playing with adults and other children (Brock). During these interactions, children are exposed to language’s rhythms and tones (Curtis & Schuler). Although these aspects of language can be heard through television, radio, and other screen and audio sources of entertainment, infants can only acquire reciprocal language with responsive sources that are saturated with affect. The other sources, without human interaction, have been found to have negligible effects on infants’ language development (Augustyn, Frank, & Zuckerman).
Human interactions during these early childhood years also impact learning. Shared communication, whether with a young child or adult, increases the likelihood of early vocabulary growth. Additionally, it is believed that reading to children is the most important activity that contributes to successful reading capabilities upon entering school (Buckley).
Studies show the connection between motor skill development and cognitive, social, and emotional development. This is in line with Piaget’s belief that during the first two years of life, sensory and motor experiences provide the basis for all intellectual functioning (Henninger). This time frame is considered a window of opportunity that is generally open from the prenatal period to around age five, when neural pathways lay the foundation for motor control. Movement experiences, such as those that assist with posture, coordination, locomotion, and muscle control, during these years are critical for optimal brain development and learning more advanced skills (Gabbard & Rodrigues).
To this end, it is crucial for parents and caregivers to provide opportunities for children to safely move, practice, and strengthen their gross and fine motor skills. Children should have ample sensory-motor experiences, specifically visual-motor (Gabbard & Rodrigues). These experiences are important for cognitive development and can “stimulate problem-solving abilities, critical thinking, and reinforce a variety of academic concepts” (Gabbard & Rodrigues). The skills and neural pathways that are strengthened during these early years influence school readiness. This is why fine motor skills are an important component of preschool curriculum (“Fine Motor Skills”). Furthermore, engaging children with physical activities during their early years helps reduce the health risks associated with obesity (Henninger).
Families and caregivers are the most influential teachers of a child’s social development. There is strong evidence that children with secure attachments to their parents and caregivers are more likely to be empathetic and prosocial, and that these relationships motivate children to communicate (Buckley; Hyson and Taylor). Through their interactions, children also learn important lessons that encourage generosity, helpfulness, compassion, compromise, respect, and sharing. Additionally, this is supported by “age-appropriate discussions about the thoughts and feelings of others along with reasons for rules” (“Character Development Age by Age”).
At a young age, children develop language skills rapidly, and they quickly absorb what they hear. This is a natural process and applies to learning languages in addition to the native language(s) spoken at home. Babies can become proficient in distinguishing between languages and can learn to understand new words in different languages at an incredibly fast rate. It is never too early to begin (Curtis & Schuler).
There are many advantages of being bilingual or multilingual and they include “enhancing self-esteem, enabling communication with extended family and friends, developing knowledge about how language operates, supporting cognitive flexibility and ability to learn more languages, and enhancing problem-solving and analytical skills” (Brock 89). Research supports increased higher-level cognitive ability of executive function among bilingual and multilingual children. Executive function refers to “prioritising and planning complex tasks and switching mental gears” (Greene). It is believed this is because monitoring between languages is an executive function exercise. In addition to learning double or more vocabularies, bilingual and multilingual children demonstrate learning different problem solving techniques and handle multitasking (Klass).
These benefits span across socioeconomic statuses and extend beyond early childhood years. Having phonological awareness (sounds of a language) supports early literacy development. Fluency in another language is not needed for this benefit as “even limited exposure to another language at an early age yielded a slight advantage over monolingual children in tasks requiring sensitivity to sound properties of words” (Buckley 171). In addition to these linguistic benefits, research supports cognitive benefits among bilingual and multilingual adults. In a study on Alzheimer’s disease, bilinguals and multilinguals demonstrated long-term benefits related to later onset of Alzheimer’s disease in comparison to monolinguals (Greene). As language is continuously used, the neural pathways supporting these areas are maintained, not pruned.
As with other areas of development, human social interaction is needed to support bilingualism and multilingualism. Kuhl, Tsao, and Liu found that young children need more than raw auditory sensory information to learn the phonetics of a language and that a live person influences learning (9099). This social interaction reinforces cues that attract attention, motivation, and referential information such as one’s gaze. The attachment and bonding between children and their parents or caregivers plays a role in supporting bilingualism and its cognitive and social benefits. Infants with strong attachment are more eager to produce sounds and syllables as well as toddlers with words, phrases, and short sentences (Jaramillo & Jaramillo). Language activities in which parents and caregivers can participate to support bilingualism and multilingualism include having conversations, signing, playing, storytellings, and book sharing activities (Jaramillo & Jaramillo; Buckley). These activities promote a positive attitude towards other languages, help children internalize the language, build self-confidence as a bilingual speaker, and promote communicative and academic linguistic proficiency (Buckley).
Research clearly demonstrates the need for positive human interactions to optimize a child’s brain development and development with language, cognitive, social, and motor skills and bilingualism. Through the interplay of nature and nurture in the transactional model, parents and caregivers have pivotal roles in providing an environment that encourages discovery learning in these areas. Learning another language in early childhood shapes the brain to be stronger with certain cognitive skills and more receptive to the language. These interactions are influential as early as birth and promote benefits that are evident during the school years and, with language and bilingualism, span decades.
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