Why Early Intervention is Important: Neuroplasticity in Early Childhood

By Dana Asby, CEI Intern

Neuroplasticity is often cited as a saving grace for children facing adversity such as maltreatment or extreme poverty. Neuroplasticity is the forming and reforming of neural pathways and is most constant and rapid during the first five years of life. Because of this, young children can quickly unlearn negative habits and routines and replace them with more positive ones (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2014). However, without interventions to correct unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors, there can be permanent damage to the brain as harmful pathways are etched deep into the brain.

The importance of the first five years. Difficulty with emotional regulation often results from an absence of positive mental models for how to soothe extreme emotions by calming physiological and emotional reactions to uncomfortable stimuli. Parents play a crucial role in this process. Epigenetics, the way that early home environments turn on certain genes, plays a large role in brain development. Maternal support in early childhood can predict the volume of the hippocampus, an emotional control center in the brain, in later childhood (Luby et. al., 2012).  Childhood poverty is also associated with smaller white matter, cortical gray matter, and hippocampal volume in adulthood (Luby et. al., 2013). The effects of poverty on hippocampal volume remain years later in adulthood, even when controlling for various confounding factors, indicating that childhood experiences can have lasting impacts on brain development during the earliest years of life when critical brain structures are being formed (Staff et. al., 2012).

In certain cases of childhood abuse and neglect, the damage done to neural pathways can lead to debilitating mental health issues such as Borderline Personality Disorder, a personality disorder that typical presents in the teenage years with erratic behavior in interpersonal relationships and extreme swings between depression and mania due to the lack of mental models for emotional regulation (Cattrane et. al., 2017).

Intervening in the Socio-emotional Realm

Just as negative life events in early childhood can affect brain structure, positive experiences can repair damage done to the brain and form new neural pathways that set the child onto a better developmental trajectory (Parritz & Troy, 2017). Many of the most necessary interventions in the early childhood years deal with socio-emotional problems, most commonly emotional regulation. This is because the ability to regulate one’s emotions is highly correlated with various other outcomes such as executive functioning, memory, and academic achievement (Raver & Blair, 2016). Students must have good executive functioning skills, which help them plan, organize, pay attention, and multitask, to be able to perform their schoolwork well. Memory is essential for academic achievement as well, because students will not be able to perform well on tests and homework if they cannot hold information in their brains for short and long-term periods.

It is important to intervene early because of the ease with which new neural pathways can be formed during the critical period of neuroplasticity occurring between the ages of 0-5 (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2014).  To lay a foundation for academic interventions during the primary grades, early childhood educators and administrators should support emotional regulation skills for students who are struggling. Difficulty regulating emotion in young children typically presents with extreme and sudden emotional outbursts, a spiraling of emotions that cannot be stopped, and/or an inability to soothe themselves when experiencing difficult emotions, for example temper tantrums that last more than 30 minutes or occur every day or multiple times a day (Rettner, 2012).

Supporting Self-Regulation

Emotion Coaching allows educators, administrators, and clinicians to tear down ineffective neural pathways and encourage the growth of new ones that support healthy emotional regulation. This method validates a child’s feelings and provides an actionable pathway for them to manage intense emotions. When mothers in a high-risk population used emotion coaching, there was a mediation effect on the relationship between family risk and child emotional regulation (Ellis et. al., 2014). Such an approach could also be used by educators.

Steps in emotional coaching include:

  1. Acknowledge the child’s emotion.
  2. Validate their feelings by using a statement that demonstrates empathy such as, ‘I understand how Lola taking your truck must have made you angry.’
  3. Explain calmly why their over-reaction is not appropriate: ‘But we do not hit our friends when they make us upset, because that hurts their body and their feelings.’
  4. Provide an alternative method of expressing and/or managing emotions, depending on what methods you suspect will work best for this child. For example, ‘When you’re really upset, you can take a deep breath and count to 5 and then decide what to do to fix your problem,’ or ‘The next time that happens, you can use your words to tell Lola how upset she made you.’
  5. Give gentle reminders of techniques when other difficult situations arise.

School-based Interventions

Other successful interventions to improve emotional regulation in preschoolers include mindfulness-based socio-emotional focused programs such as The Kindness Curriculum, which teaches children stress reduction techniques like deep belly breathing and body scanning as well as fostering compassion for others (Flook et. al., 2015). One such exercise is ‘Spiderman Breaths,’ which helps children focus on their breath to calm their bodies and minds in a fun way by having children pair arm motions mimicking Spiderman shooting webs out of his wrists as they do breath work (Mahoney, 2016).

References

Cattane, N., Rossi, R., Landfredi, M., & Cattaneo, A. (2017). Borderline personality disorder and childhood trauma: exploring the affected biological systems and mechanisms. BMC Psychiatry, 17(221).

Eiland, L., Ramroop, J., Hill, M.N., Manley, J., & McEwen, B.S. (2012). Chronic juvenile stress produces corticolimbic dendritic architectural remodeling and modulates emotional behavior in male and female rats. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 37, 39’“47.

Ellis, B.H., Alisic, E., Reiss, A., Dishion, T., Fisher, P.A. (2014). Emotion regulation among preschoolers on a continuum of risk: The role of maternal emotion coaching. Journal of  Child and Family Studies, 23, 965-974.

Flook, L., Goldberg, S.B., Pinger, L., & Davidson, R.J. (2015). Promoting prosocial behavior and self-regulatory skills in preschool children through a mindfulness-based Kindness Curriculum. Developmental Psychology, 51(1), 44-51.

Luby. J., Barch, D.M., Belden, A., Gaffrey, M.S., Tillman, R., Babb, C., Nishino, T., Suzuki, H., & Botteron, K.N. (2012).  Maternal support in early childhood predicts larger hippocampal volumes at school age. PNAS, 109(8), 2854-2859.

Luby, J., Belden, A., Botteron, K., Marrus, N., Harms, M.P., Babb, C., Nishino, T., & Barch, D. (2013). The effects of poverty on childhood brain development: The mediating effect of caregiving and stressful life events. Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics, 167(12), 1135-1142.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2005/2014). Excessive stress disrupts the architecture of the developing brain: Working paper 3. Updated edition.

Mahoney, D. (2016). Spiderman breaths and mindfulness in Pre-K. Mindful Schools website.

Parritz, R., & Troy, M. (2017). The models of child development, psychopathology, and treatment. Disorders of Childhood: Development and Psychopathology. Third Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Raver, C.C. & Blair, C. (2016). Neuroscientific insights: Attention, working memory, and inhibitory control. Future of Children, 26(2), 95-118. Rettner, R. (2012). Normal tot or problem child? Temper tantrum frequency holds clues. Live Science website.

Staff, R.T., Murray, A.D., Aheam, T.S., Mustafa, N., Fox, H.C., Wahlley, L.J. (2012). Childhood socioeconomic status and adult brain size: Childhood socioeconomic status influences adult hippocampal size. American Neurological Assosiation, 71(5), 653-660.

Vyas, A., Mitra, R., Shankaranarayana, Rao, B.S., Chattarji, S. (2002). Chronic stress induces contrasting patterns of dendritic remodeling in hippocampal and amygdaloid neurons. Journal of Neuroscience, 22, 6810’“6818.

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