Our motivation – “The amazing potential of young children”
Our DNA consists of just four building blocks, and they are combined in fantastic variety to make us who we are. Among a myriad of processes, these combinations – our genes – trigger the formation of the neural tube in the growing foetus, which ultimately becomes our brain and nervous system.
The brain develops precociously compared to other organs. In terms of weight, its peak rate of growth is in the third trimester of pregnancy and first three months of new-born life. During this period, the neural circuits required to sense and to think ‘wire together’ at connection points called synapses. Sensory neurons take the lead in wiring to each other and to other parts of the brain. Then language connections start to dominate, before higher cognitive functions – such as the ability to imagine and plan – kick in in a frenzy of wiring between specialised areas of the brain. The most intense synaptic activity is before one year of age!
These linkages are reinforced by the child’s interaction with her mother and father in an unconscious game of ‘serve and return’. The child ‘serves’ a volley of smiles; the parent ‘returns’ with eyes that light up , sounds that encourage and touch that comforts. In this simple environment – of sufficient food, love, security and stimulation – the child is primed to learn, and the brain grows in size and sophistication. By the time she goes to school, neural circuitry is well established and the brain is already 95% of its adult size. In fact, the rich experiences of the first six years of life over-stimulate the neural pathways and what follows is a process of pruning and reshaping.
But what happens when the simple triggers of food, love, security and stimulation are not there? Then the brain switches to survival mode. Fight-or-flight neurotransmitters are released that inhibit processes of learning and reasoning. When these conditions persist, stress becomes toxic and the child’s learning potential is seriously damaged. Worse still, this stress changes the very structure of the child’s genes, so that the tendency to cower rather than flourish becomes part of her DNA and, in time, that of her children and grandchildren.
Imagine each child as a tower of building blocks. We know that many won’t reach their full height. However, we generally fail to understand that most building blocks are missing from the bottom, not the top. The Nobel Laureate and Economics Professor, James Heckman, has shown that investments in pre-school learning produce the highest returns in terms of economic productivity. Yet, in South Africa, our spending on education is the inverse of where we would get the best results. As a proportion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita enrolled, we spend most on tertiary education and least on early learning.
The answer doesn’t only lie in realigning public expenditure, but in growing the simple building blocks of food, love, security and stimulation. Surely these are things that can be provided to every young child in South Africa? You can start by reading to your own child from their first day of life – and to another child who might be missing out on the rich experiences that enable us to reach our full potential. Read a story to a child with a full stomach, and you’ll tick all the boxes for her growth and development, sparking connections that associate learning with love and security. Her sense of self-esteem and capacity to aspire will be enhanced. You’ll be putting in place the building blocks of learning and personal achievement.