Early childhood is a time of rapid growth and brain development. In the first 3 years of life, our brains are growing at an astonishing rate and our brain cells are firing millions of times every second. These brain cells (neurons) fire to create connections (synapses) and form pathways that become superhighways of information processing. When we are born only a small percentage of our brain cells are connected. Every time our neurons fire and connect a pathway is activated. The more the pathways are active the stronger and faster the information is transmitted. You can think of this like a well-worn path through the woods. The more it is traveled the easier the pathway is to find and follow.
Science has demonstrated that our brain development is experience dependent. (Harvard Centre for the Developing Child, 2019). The nurturing, interactions, love, and care that we receive will shape our brain and lay down the pathways in response to the life that we experience.
This information can help us understand why it is important to create connections and positive pathways in the brain. The language that we are exposed to also impacts on the pathways that are developed. In the 1980’s two researchers, Risley and Hart, (2003) conducted a study that demonstrated the impact of the language that children are exposed to in early childhood. The study highlighted the need for children to be exposed to lots of language and a mix of directive talk as well as descriptive, flowery, and positive talk.
It might seem natural that you would talk to your baby and many parents instinctively chat away about nothing, however parents that have not been parented this way may not naturally talk and be responsive with their baby. Other factors can get in the way of this such as mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse.
The research examined the number of words that children are exposed to, but also the quality of the language and there was shown to be a huge difference in outcomes for children that were exposed to chatty, more descriptive language as opposed to directive or stern language. For example, children that hear directive phrases such as “get down from there, don’t touch that, stop yelling, eat your dinner” without the balance of the chatty more engaging phrases such as “look at your little toes, I can see them wiggling in the sand”, at nappy change time it might involve singing songs, at the supermarket, it could be talking about the different colours, or the smells. These are all examples of what can be called dancing talk. It is the kind of talk that is chatty, kind, descriptive, loving and playful.
Of course, we all need to use the directive talk to teach and keep children safe and to generally get through the day with a young child. But it is the children that receive more of the dancing type talk that flourish.
We can use the analogy of an emotional health piggy bank. We need to fill up the piggy bank with lots of dancing talk, praise, and positive words so that when we deduct from the piggy bank by using directive language we are still leaving the child with a positive balance.
If the positives and the dancing talk are what fills up the piggy bank it stands to reason that when we use the directive language and the more negative talk that this deducts from the piggy bank.
If the positives and the dancing talk are what fills up the piggy bank it stands to reason that when we use the directive language and the more negative talk that this deducts from the piggy bank. As we said this is a necessary part of learning, developing, and staying safe, so what we need to do is fill up the piggy bank with all the positives so that when we deduct the child is still left with a positive supply in the piggy bank. Risley and Hart, (2003) suggest that we invest six positives for every negative that we take away.
By investing in the richness of our child’s language and filling their piggy bank with lots of positives we are creating an environment in which they are learning and creating the pathways that tell the child that they are seen, loved, and worthy. These pathways if activated frequently will grow a strong healthy foundation for future brain development.
Hart, B. and Risley, T. 2003, The Early Catastrophe The 30 million Word Gap by Age 3, https://www.aft.org/ae/spring2003/hart_risley
Harvard Centre on the Developing Child http://developingchild.harvard.edu/