Simply put, because it lays the foundations for all that is to come! The future wellbeing, success and happiness of every child are in many ways determined before she or he turns eight. This isn’t theory but fact based on well-established research in neurobiology and childhood development into the positive effects of quality early-learning experiences on children’s lives. Although children continue to develop throughout childhood and into adulthood, the basic architecture and function of the brain are determined during an individual’s early years.
Newborns have roughly the same number of brain cells as adults but their neurons are disparate and unconnected. They connect extremely quickly after birth, reaching a peak of over one hundred trillion connections (synapses) by age two - double the adult number. A process of “pruning” then starts, in which the number of synapses is rapidly pared down. Synapses which successfully participate in a circuit are strengthened, while those which are not utilised are eventually eliminated. The motto of this learning process is “use them or lose them”, just like paths in a forest.
In essence, the young child’s brain is being “live wired” to its environment through a complex interplay of genes and world-life experiences. Therefore, the “environment” becomes crucial for optimum outcomes - both the home environment and the early school learning environment. Extensive research has established the following characteristics for the ideal early school-learning environment:
1. Pre-school attendance from the age of two (but preferably not earlier); what matters is the duration of attendance in months, with full-time attendance yielding no better results than part-time attendance.
2. The most beneficial settings are those which ‘integrate’ education and care, while following high-quality early childhood programmes which treat cognitive, social-emotional and physical development as complementary and mutually supportive. These settings also feature highly qualified teaching staff, deploy high adult:child ratios and support parent involvement.
3. Environmental continuity is highly beneficial during this period of rapid development, in terms of existing relationships with both classmates/friends and teachers/carers, predictability of interaction patterns based on a consistent ethos, as well as a sense of safety and security which stem from familiarity with the surroundings.
We have always believed in the benefits of educating the “whole child” because the brain’s development is a highly complex process which interlinks all its domains (physical, cognitive, emotional, social and self-regulatory). It is gratifying to see that not only all research findings unequivocally confirm this approach but also that parents, practitioners, policy makers and society at large are increasingly recognising it.
Historically, our educational systems have put great emphasis on the cognitive competencies such as reading, writing and mathematics. This is, of course, essential but it is equally and arguably even more important to also develop the emotional and social skills. In a future world with prevalent artificial intelligence, knowledge databases and automated processes, the best guarantor for ‘robot-proofing’ this generation of children for success is to also develop their “soft skills” such as being kind, creative, communicative, empathetic, balanced, motivated, curious and confident.
EQ or emotional intelligence and all its associated skills are likely to be the differentiating ones. They are also the best basis for the versatility and adaptability our children will undoubtedly require in the course of their long lives, expected to be about 100 years. Because of this and the estimation that, for about 80% of today’s 8 year olds, their future jobs have not yet been created, our task as early years educators must be to develop the broadest possible skills set to prepare them for all that lies ahead. It’s a huge responsibility and privilege, which we relish every day.
By Dominik Magyar and Ngaire Telford, Director and Headteacher of Herne Hill School, the largest independent Pre-School and Pre-Prep in the UK focusing exclusively on 2–7 year olds (Kindergarten – Year 2).
Herne Hill School, “Love ● Care ● Excellence”, 127 Herne Hill, London SE24 9LY.