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Interacting with the Brain


Tuesday 25 September 2018

As I read last week's Scéalta blog post, I really started to think about the important role of the adult working with children under the age of three. Kathleen Tuite discussed care routines for children under three and how these times are a wonderful opportunity to build trusting relationships with children. I couldn’t agree more. These times are so precious, and we really need to slow down and focus on these interactions. But why? What impact are we really having? Well, we may be having more of an impact than we think.

Although we know that the parent is the primary caregiver and educator of the child, early years educators do spend a considerable amount of time with children in full day care settings, so it is important to build relationships and communications between educator, parent and child. The educator’s role is about supplementing the care of the child, rather than replacing the loving care children need from home. Early years educators become the constant, trustworthy, responsive adult in the parents’ absence and this can be quite challenging. The question remains: does your role matter?

Research conducted by the Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University, tells us that 700 new neural connections are formed every second in the first few years of a child’s life and experiences that children have contribute to the shaping of a child’s brain. They refer to this as the ‘serve and return’ relationship. It is essential that educators working with children respond to the child’s early attempts to converse, as their ability to communicate is still developing. The absence of this ‘serve and return’ interaction can impact on brain architecture and lead to disparities in learning and behaviour. Sue Gerhardt (2004), in her book “Why Love Matters”, tells us that when very young children and their caregivers engage in joint playful experiences, pleasant hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin, which support development, are released in the brain. When these ‘feel good’ chemicals are dominant in the brain, children see the world as calm, safe, interesting and wonderful. It is these consistent loving and nurturing interactions which are repeated over time, that teach a child how to trust the caregiver. This insight provided Gerhardt with the subtitle of her book ‘how affection shapes the brain’.

Interactions are more than just talking, listening or having eye contact with the child. They require educators who will consider their feelings, who will interact with them for meaningful lengths of time and who will follow the child’s lead. Bonds are formed through these interactions and it is these bonds that impact on the health of the child’s physical, social, emotional and brain development.

So, as we move forward we must recognise that we play such a vital role in all areas of child development and that caring is educational and education must have elements of caring. A primary goal in early education should be about building secure attachments with children of all ages.



Fiona Kelleher works with Early Childhood Ireland as an Early Childhood Specialist and Siolta Mentor. She has a BA (Hons) degree in early childhood care and education and is currently undertaking her MA in Leadership and Advocacy in the Early years with IT Sligo. Fiona has worked with NCNA/ECI for 13 years. She works with full and part services in delivering the Siolta Quality Assurance programme in the west of Ireland while also delivering training and mentoring across all areas of Early Years Practice. Fiona has recently completed her Marte Meo Colleague Training as this is a particular area of interest for her.

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