I have lost count of the number of times somebody working with young children outside of the school system describes him or herself as ‘just a childcare worker’. I have also heard, phrases such as ‘I ended up’ working in a crèche, or ‘I settled for’ working in childcare. Each of these terms, which are increasingly used in relation to working with infants and toddlers, minimise, diminish and undermine the critical importance of Early Childhood Care and Education. It is as if the early childhood professional is saying they have accepted something that is not quite whole, it is less than what they really want. Did you know though, that as an early childhood professional, you grow brains? From birth to age five, a child’s brain develops more rapidly than at any other time in life. In fact, ninety percent of a child’s brain develops in the first three years of his/her life, and early brain development has a lasting impact on a child’s ability to learn and succeed in school and life. During this time, children develop learning dispositions, which Aistear refers to as ‘enduring habits of mind and action’ (2009, p.54). Learning dispositions are about children how to learn, rather than what to learn. Aistear goes on to explain that positive learning dispositions developed in early childhood include confidence, perseverance, being interested in and, curious about things, being a good listener, being friendly, assessing and taking risks, being accepting of others and of differences, being considerate and co-operating with others. The quality of a child’s experiences in early childhood, whether positive or negative, helps shape how their brain develops. The most important influences on brain development are the relationships with significant adults in his/her life. Healthy brain development therefore, depends upon loving nurturing relationships with responsive and dependable adults. Outside of parents and families, early childhood professionals play a crucial role in establishing and maintaining such relationships with young children, which nurtures and supports early brain development.
Every time a baby coos, smiles or cries, they invite you to respond and interact with them. When a toddler invites you to play peek-boo, and you respond, you are doing so much more than engaging in a fun activity. You are responding to the child’s invitation to interact, you are helping the toddler’s brain to develop. Early childhood professionals respond to hundreds of these simple invitations in the course of a day or a week while ‘just’ working in a crèche. Yet these highly complex “serve and return” interactions are fundamental to early brain development. Every song you sing, every book you read, every game you play, every time you count fingers and toes, give cuddles, change a nappy, settle a child to sleep, you are literally building a child’s brain. Every time you smile, laugh, dance, give attention, respond to and interact with a child, you are building his/her brain. Think of how a Christmas tree lights up and creates a magical vista when switched on. Likewise, when an early childhood professional interacts positively with a young child, the neural pathways light up. What a powerful and empowering image. If you are still not convinced that you really do grow brains, consider this: at least one million new neural connections are made every second between birth and five years of age, which as mentioned, is unmatched in any other phase of life. Next time you are tempted to describe yourself as just a childcare worker, stop, think and act - be proud to say ‘I grow brains’.