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In this section: 
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Early Brain Development 


(links to source documents are in the postings below)

1.  Brain Builders (video) - Harvard Center for the Developing Child
2. "Brain Mechanisms in Early Language Development" - NCBI
3. Early Brain and Language Development - Zero to Three
4. Poverty Impact on the Developing Brain - Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)
5. "Brain Plasticity and Intensive Reading Instruction" - NCBI 
6. "Early Brain and Child Development" - American Academy of Pediatrics 
7. "From Best Practices to Breakthrough Impacts" (early brain development) - Harvard Center for the             Developing Child 
8. Executive Function Skills from Infancy to Adolescence - Harvard Center for the Developing Child 
9. "Self-Regulation and Toxic Stress" - U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
10. Executive Function Skills - Mind in the Making
11. Five Steps for Brain-Building: Serve and Return - Harvard 
12. A Guide to Executive Function - Harvard Center on the Developing Child
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Brain Mechanisms in Early Language Development

Brain Mechanism in Early Language Acquis
The last decade has produced an explosion in neuroscience research examining young children’s early processing of language. Noninvasive, safe functional brain measurements have now been proven feasible for use with children starting at birth.
The phonetic level of language is especially accessible to experimental studies that document the innate state and the effect of learning on the brain. The neural signatures of learning at the phonetic level can be documented at a remarkably early point in development.
Continuity in linguistic development from infants’ earliest brain responses to phonetic stimuli is reflected in their language and pre-reading abilities in the second, third and fifth year of life, a finding with theoretical and clinical impact. There is evidence that early mastery of the phonetic units of language requires learning in a social context. Neuroscience on early language learning is beginning to reveal the multiple brain systems that underlie the human language faculty.
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Poverty Impact on the Developing Brain
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Using data from the National Institutes of Health Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study of Normal Brain Development, the investigators demonstrated that children living 1.5 times below the federal poverty level had smaller volumes of several brain regions critical for cognitive and academic performance (gray matter, frontal and temporal lobes, and the Hippocampus).


The findings showed that poor cognitive and academic performance among children living in poverty was mediated by a smaller hippocampus and frontal and temporal lobes and that the decrease in volume of the latter 2 structures explained as much as 15% to 20% of the achievement deficits found.

Early Brain and Language Development 
The first year of life represents a critical period in the development of the neural connections for speech and language which serve as the foundation for future language and literacy skills.  
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Brain Plasticity and Intensive Reading Instruction 

Brain Plasticity - Intristic Reading Cha
White matter tissue properties are known to correlate with performance across domains ranging from reading to math, to executive function. Here, we use a longitudinal intervention design to examine experience-dependent growth in reading skills and white matter in grade school-aged, struggling readers.
Diffusion MRI data were collected at regular intervals during an 8-week, intensive reading intervention. These measurements reveal large-scale changes throughout a collection of white matter tracts, in concert with growth in reading skill. Additionally, we identify tracts whose properties predict reading skill but remain fixed throughout the intervention, suggesting that some anatomical properties stably predict the ease with which a child learns to read, while others dynamically reflect the effects of experience.
These results underscore the importance of considering recent experience when interpreting cross-sectional anatomy–behavior correlations. Widespread changes throughout the white matter may be a hallmark of rapid plasticity associated with an intensive learning experience.
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American Academy of Pediatrics 

 Early Brain and Child Development 

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The Core Story of Early Brain and Child Development (EBCD)

  • Child development is the foundation for community and economic development.

  • Brains are built over time – prenatally to young adulthood.

  • Brain architecture is built in a cumulative, bottom-up manner; a solid foundation is required for future skills.

  • A dynamic dance between genes and experience shapes the architecture of the developing brain.

  • Brain development is integrated; the areas underlying social, emotional and learning skills are inextricably connected and rely upon each other.

  • Toxic stress disrupts the developing brain and has lifelong effects on learning, behavior, and health.

  • Positive parenting and nurturing emerging social, emotional, and language skills buffers toxic stress and builds resilience by promoting healthy, adaptive coping skills.

  • Creating the right conditions in early childhood is more effective and far less costly than addressing a multitude of problems later on in life.

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From Best Practices to Breakthrough Impacts

A science-based approach to building a more promising future for young children and families (2016)


Skill begets skill as brains are built from the bottom up, with increasingly complex circuits building on simpler circuits, and increasingly complex and adaptive skills emerging over time. Times of exceptional sensitivity to the effects of environment and experience for different brain circuits are called critical or sensitive periods.”

Sensitive periods begin and end at different ages for different parts of the brain. For example, the sensitive periods for neural circuits related to vision, hearing, and touch tend to end in the first years of life.

In contrast, the sensitive periods for circuits that process more complex aspects of the world, such as communication, the interpretation of facial expressions, reasoning, and decision-making, all end later in development. Because circuits mature sequentially, different kinds of experiences are critical at different ages. Soon after birth, basic sensory, social, and emotional experiences are essential for optimizing the architecture of low-level circuits, and at later ages, more sophisticated kinds of learning opportunities are critical for shaping higher-level circuits.

For the developing brain, this means that the abilities to perceive simple aspects of the world and to make simple emotional and social judgments develop long before the ability to carefully weigh multiple factors during reasoning and decision-making tasks.

The gradual acquisition of higher-level skills, including the ability to focus and sustain attention, set goals, follow rules, solve problems, and control impulses, is driven by the development of the prefrontal cortex (the large part of the brain behind the forehead) from infancy into early adulthood. A significant part of the formative development of the prefrontal cortex occurs during early childhood, as critical connections are forged between this region and other parts of the brain that it controls. This circuitry is then refined and made more efficient during adolescence and the early adult years.

Known as executive function and self-regulation, these higher-level capacities serve as the brain’s “air traffic control system,” which enables planning, monitoring, and managing multiple streams of information at the same time. Children aren’t born with these capabilities, but they’re born with the potential to acquire them within the context of responsive relationships that model skills and scaffold their development. Acquiring the building blocks of executive function and self-regulation is one of the most important and challenging tasks of early childhood. The opportunity to build further on these foundational capacities is critical to healthy development through middle childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood.

Providing the right ingredients for healthy development from the start produces better outcomes than trying to fix problems later. Scientists use the term “plasticity” to refer to the capacity of the brain to learn from experience, which is greatest early in life and decreases with age. The increasing specialization of the brain over time makes it both more efficient and less capable of reorganizing and adapting to new or unexpected challenges.

Although windows of opportunity for specific skill development and behavioral adaptation remain open for many years, trying to change behavior or build new skills on a foundation of brain circuits that were not wired properly from the beginning requires more effort—for both individuals and society.

The developing brain’s more flexible circuitry in the earliest years is explained primarily by three factors.

First, during its initial stages of development, the brain forms far more extensive connections than it needs in order to function optimally, and connections that are used less are pruned away over time. Thus, it is easiest to form new connections while they are proliferating most rapidly.

Second, adjusting to changing environments also involves eliminating connections, and the ability to eliminate connections is greatest before the circuit stabilizes.

Third, once a particular circuitry pattern becomes established, it is difficult for the effects of new and different experiences to alter that architecture. This means that early experience has a unique advantage in shaping the architecture of developing brain circuits before they are fully mature and stabilized.

Finally, it’s important to note that neural circuits that are specialized for learning, emotion, and self-regulation continue to adapt in response to experiences throughout the adult years. Moreover, this capacity for plasticity in mature neural circuits can be mobilized in the face of less-than-optimal early development.  In order for the brain to take full advantage of this continuing ability to change, however, new experiences must activate specific, relevant neural circuits, and the individual’s attention must be highly engaged in the task.

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 Harvard Center for the Developing Child

Executive Function Skills from Infancy to Adolescence 

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Executive Function Infancy to Adolescenc

Executive function and self-regulation skills depend on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. These functions are highly interrelated, and the successful application of executive function skills requires them to operate in coordination with each other.

Each type of executive function skill draws on elements of the others.

  • Working memory governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.

  • Mental flexibility helps us to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings.

  • Self-control enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.

Children aren’t born with these skills—they are born with the potential to develop them. Adverse environments resulting from neglect, abuse, and/or violence may expose children to toxic stress, which disrupts brain architecture and impairs the development of executive function.

Self-Regulation and Toxic Stress - ACF 

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In the present report, the authors introduce and describe a set of seven key principles that summarize our understanding of self-regulation development in context.  This is the first in a series of four inter-related reports titled Self-Regulation and Toxic Stress.


  •  Implications for Programs and Practice will consider implications of findings from the prior reports for programs supported by the ACF.     

Executive Function Skills -

Mind in the Making 

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Mind in the Making Executive

The Seven Life Skills Every Child Needs 

Perspective Taking: Perspective Taking goes far beyond empathy: it involves figuring out what others think and feel, and forms the basis of children understanding their parents’, teachers’, and friends’ intentions. 

Communicating: Communicating is much more than understanding language, speaking, reading and writing – it is the skill of determining what one wants to communicate and realizing how our communications will be understood by others.


Making Connections: Making Connections is at the heart of learning—figuring out what’s the same, what’s different and sorting these things into categories. Making unusual connections is at the core of creativity.

Critical Thinking: Critical Thinking is the ongoing search for valid and reliable knowledge to guide beliefs, decisions, and actions.

Taking On Challenges: Life is full of stresses and challenges. Children who are willing to take on challenges (instead of avoiding them or simply coping with them) do better in school and in life.

Self-Directed, Engaged Learning: It is through learning that we can realize our potential. As the world changes, so can we, for as long as we live—as long as we learn.

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"5 Steps for Brain-Building: Serve and Return"
Harvard Center for the Developing Child
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1.  Notice the serve and share the child’s focus of attention. Is the child looking or pointing at something? Making a sound or facial expression? Moving her arms and legs? That’s a serve. 

2.  Return the serve by supporting and encouraging.  You can offer comfort with a hug and gentle words, help him, play with him, or acknowledge him.  Or you can pick up the object he’s pointing to and give it to him.

3.  Give it a name.  When you return a child’s serve by naming what she is seeing, doing, or feeling, you make important language connections in her brain, even before she can talk or understand your words. 

4.  Take turns…and wait. Keep the interaction going back and forth. Every time you return a serve, give the child a chance to respond. Taking turns can be quick (from the child to you and back again) or go on for many turns. Waiting is crucial. 

5.  Practice endings and beginnings.  Children signal when they’re done or ready to move on to a new activity. They might let go of a toy, pick up a new one, or turn to look at something else. Or they may walk away, start to fuss, or say, “All done!” When you share a child’s focus, you’ll notice when she’s ready to end the activity and begin something new.

Post #12
A Guide to Executive Function
Harvard Center on the Developing Child
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"Executive function and self-regulation skills are like an air traffic control system in the brain—they help us manage information, make decisions, and plan ahead. We need these skills at every stage of life, and while no one is born with them, we are all born with the potential to develop them. But, how do we do that? The Center on the Developing Child created this Guide to Executive Function to walk you through everything you need to know about these skills and how to develop and practice them throughout life."
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