How Experiences Impact Early Childhood Development

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In this lesson, we will explain the ways in which positive and negative experiences impact cognitive, emotional, social, physical, and language development in children ages 2-5.

Impactful Experiences

Several years ago, pharmaceutical company Kaiser Permanente facilitated a weight loss program for some of their patients who struggled with obesity. Analysis of the medical and biographical data of participants indicated a statistically significant correlation between negative experiences during childhood and serious, long term physical, emotional, social, and mental health issues, well beyond the weight problem that brought them to the group in the first place. This prompted the company to fund a landmark long-term study in which they administered a survey to several thousand participants, designed to determine if there is a link between adverse experiences during childhood and long-term well-being. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACE) provides much of what we know today about traumatic experiences and the detrimental or even deadly impact they can have.

Let's take a look at some ways negative experiences can impact early childhood development, and how positive experiences can mitigate this effect.

Cognitive Development

Research in post-traumatic stress disorder indicates clearly that a traumatic experience can alter the structure and function of the brain. Specifically, a traumatic experience can reduce the amount of growth in the memory and logical reasoning parts of the brain in order to spend more effort cultivating the fear processing center of the brain to protect itself from danger. When these trauma experiences occur in early childhood, there is an added layer of complexity because healthy development requires that children are able to take risks and evaluate a situation and work toward greater independence. Children can learn early from negative experiences that it can be unsafe to take a chance on thinking for themselves.

As preschool teachers, it is critical to try to provide positive experiences and safe opportunities to explore the world so that children can develop the security they need for their cognitive development. For teachers with students who have negative experiences, preschool can become a safe haven, an escape, and a buffer, distracting them from their difficulties at home and increasing the number of positive experiences they have.

Emotional Development

Children who have negative experiences in early childhood are at risk of impeded emotional development. Sometimes this can manifest as attachment disorders and behavioral outbursts that can escalate into serious mental illness. Children who experience emotional abuse and neglect face challenges in their emotional development. Some parents don't intend to create negative emotional experiences for their children and aren't necessarily abusive. Because they may lack experiences with healthy coping skills and emotional management themselves, parents may not realize their parenting style impedes emotional development.

One way preschool teachers can create more positive emotional experiences to enhance the development of their students is by including ample opportunities for students to improve their emotional literacy. Many children do not have the vocabulary to articulate a wide variety of emotional states. Preschool teachers can help them identify and describe their feelings even if they do not have modeling at home. Incorporating role playing and other kinds of games can help students practice positive emotional experiences with adults and peers.

Social Development

Negative social experiences might include bullying, isolation, or exclusion from group activities. Having few, infrequent social experiences is almost as bad as having negative experiences. Negative or absent social experiences can impact a child's development by not providing them opportunities to interact with peers and practice social engagement. We behave differently with relatives then we do with others and so children need to learn how to behave in multiple social settings.

A child's healthy social development depends on having positive social experiences. Preschool settings provide opportunities for children ages 2-5 to practice positive social interactions and learn skills like cooperation and collaboration with their same-age peers. These skills translate long-term into greater success in school and college or in the workplace.

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