The National Center on Early Childhood and Policy at Harvard has an item on its website discussing early brain development and its importance in early childhood. This is critical information for clinicians working with children with hearing loss and for parents and family members. This summary provides good evidence about early brain development and its significance. Only through understanding the importance of early brain development can we provide families of children with hearing loss the information they need to maximize their child’s development.
Brains are built over time
Early experiences affect the brain’s development, establishing either a strong or weak foundation for future learning. During the first few years, 700 new neural connections are formed every second. After this period of quick growth, the formation of connections starts to slow down so circuits can become more efficient. Sensory pathways develop first, including that for hearing followed by language. Let’s think about what this means for children with hearing loss, especially those kids who do not have technology fit early.
Genes and experience build the brain
Infants naturally reach out through babbling, facial expressions, and gesture; adults respond likewise. But if adults do not respond, the brain’s architecture does not develop as expected.
Capacity for changes in the brain decreases with age
The brain is most plastic early in a child’s life. As the brain matures and becomes more specialized to assume more complex functions, it is not as capable of reorganizing to new challenges. We know that if a child is exposed to more than one language in infancy, the child will find it easier to learn the languages to which he was exposed as an infant. Children can learn language later, but not as easily. We also know that if the auditory cortex does not develop early, the visual cortex which surrounds the auditory cortex will expand into the area designated as the auditory cortex, significantly reducing the possibility that auditory skills can develop later.
Cognitive, emotional and social capacities
Research has shown that social and emotional competence provides a strong foundation for cognitive abilities. We know these skills develop in the early years and are critical for school success. So what can we do to make sure that the kids we are working with have good social emotional development?
Toxic stress damages the developing brain
Chronic stress in early life, which is often caused by extreme poverty, abuse, maternal depression, etc., can be toxic to the brain. Mild, short-lived stress is a part of healthy development. When working with children, we need to remember that we are also working with families and we need to be sure families we work with are managing stress.
And for children with hearing loss
While we want to give parents time to adjust to a diagnosis of hearing loss, we need to be cognizant of the urgency of getting technology on a child early so we can be sure that they are developing their auditory brain. We need to be sure that children with hearing loss are exposed to good clear language on a constant basis. And we need to be sure parents are managing their stress so they can provide what their children need.