Discoveries on the brain are essential to better understand the young child

1 May 2019

We are sharing this week an exciting and very rewarding article published on the site « les pro de la petite enfance » (“Early childhood teachers”).


“Neuroscientists and specialists reveal the latest secrets of the brain. They explain us that we are at the dawn of the knowledge of this formidable organ (1). Here are the main insights and lessons.
To consider today and to follow step by step, looking forward to the next developments. By Nathalie Casso-Vivcarini, the Early Childhood Educator, lawyer in social law and founder of «Ensemble pour l’Education» (“Together for Education”).

The brain of the young child is immature and very fragile
AUp to 5 or 6 years, the child can`t control his emotions, his upper brain isn`t still mature and his emotional and his emotional storms (joy, sadness, fear) always need to be accompanied by a caring, empathetic, mothering and affectionate adult. (2)

The 5 ages of the brain: the most malleable of our organs
Center of our emotions, memories, consciousness and thought, the brain develops in utero and remains in effervescence all our life.

  1. 1st age, the Big Bang: from the 28th day in utero, the embryo is the size of a grain of rice and already its first cells begin to emerge and form neurons. The machine to make neurons puts the turbo and 3000 neurons are formed every second; at 6 months of pregnancy there are 90 billion; yet, at birth, the brain is very immature even though the visual and auditory cortex are almost complete. The child so little can therefore have very wide access to sensory perception. The first years are crucial for the development of his brain. He faces permanent challenges: hold his head, move his arms, legs, before accessing the coordination of movements.
  2. The 2nd, the time of all possible: Dr. Laurent Cohen (3) explains that everything is possible until puberty, the learning potential is at the top. The brain is so plastic and the connections between neurons so flexible that, for example, learning a second language is simple and natural before 10 years.
  3. The 3rd, the big cleaning: “each of us is born with a number of cells much higher than what will be stabilized” explains Bernard Sablonnière. From birth to the age of walking 30% of ours connections will be eliminated so that only those with a functional link are stabilized.
    In adolescence, we know that the subcortical zones (center of emotions and sensations) develop first while the prefrontal cortex (upper brain) expands later; which explains why the teenager has great cognitive abilities but shows an emotional immaturity (conflicts, anger, sadness, love at first sight, runaways, excessive behavior).
  4. The 4th, on the way to maturity: neuroscientists have discovered that the prefrontal cortex (area dedicated to responsibilities, planning, prioritization and control of emotions) matures only by the age of 30.
  5. The 5th, the brain is at its peak: from 25 to 65 years old, connections are established and work very well. The icing on the cake: new neurons continue to form by migrating to areas that need them. Bernard Sablonnière explains that the brain is like a muscle, if we train it, we will stimulate the formation of new connections.

Our brain is a machine fueled by change
According to the neurobiologist Pierre-Marie Lledo (4), the brain is a fountain of youth: it produces neurons until our last hour.
It doesn`t were out if we don`t use it and if we are curious mind it produces neurons during all our life. It feeds by the change: moving, practicing new activities, learning a foreign language, fleeing habits, it allows the neurons just born to survive. New stimuli encourage our young neurons to integrate into brain circuits and make connections.
At the crèche or the maternal assistant the best present which we can make to the children is to provide them with the means to develop their curiosity and answer all their questions; the diversity of activities will never interfere with the essential rituals related to the rhythm and quality of their sleep, diet and care. The child is made for joy and wonder and feeds on all new discovery and experimentation.
Some older people who are intellectually curious all their lives look like eternal teens; indeed, the more their brain perceives changes, the more it regenerates!

The “infobesity” is toxic
It is a new term born of the profusion of information that we receive constantly, that we do not always understand and in front of which we are often passive. Neuroscientists clearly say that when the brain is informed, it is programmed to act. It is our human side; we are not plants!
When a child or adult receives information about an attack on TV, without being able to research and understand the causes and act: to research, read an article on the subject, watch a documentary, donate; the information received is experienced as a sound and visual pollution; therefore anxious.
It is therefore important to sort the information to keep only the one that makes sense to each of us.

Mirror neurons: the great controversial discovery of recent years
The man is made to cooperate and the last generation of adults has understood everything: cooperation, carpooling, co-education, cohabitation, co-working, co-management: unite for multiplication and pooling of means allows to love together in a more intelligent way.

The excellent film DEMAIN (TOMORROW) demonstrates it in 5 directions: agriculture, energy, economy, democracy and education; this film gives us wings!
Adults make small and great progress by imitating each other, by associating their resources, they thus have models for the child who imitates them thanks to the mirror neurons, until reproducing their attitude; it is observed in the context of symbolic games, the child scolds his doll, hugs it, reassures it, scolds it!

The senses awaken in the brain: caresses, massages, melodies, perfumes, light, flavors
Awakening the senses encourages the child to discover the world. 60 to 80% of the information about the universe surrounding the child comes from the vision but the first sense to appear in the fetus from the 2nd month in utero is the touch.
We are endowed with 6 senses and the last of which allows us to evaluate the position of our body in space. In the brain of a young child is integrated a topography of the space because he already knows how to evaluate the color, the form and the emplacement of an object in the space. These perceptions improve with experience as our senses capture new information.

Emotions: it’s natural!
No need to judge, “you’re a coward”, “you’re a mourner”, “stop your whims!” Emotions are the sign of life in us. The child is what he feels at a given moment, his brain is immature and he can`t control the situation himself.
The great emotions like the joy, fear, sadness, anger and disgust tell us what the child lives on a daily basis. They allow us professionals or parents to put words on the state of the child to make him understand the link between his condition and the word adapted and encourage him to express it himself when he will expand his vocabulary.
Baby signers (referring to babies sign language), the gesture helps to signify and represent the child’s emotion before speech and to prevent frustration.
Whether by a gesture or a word, the main thing is to show empathy by allowing the child to understand his condition. For example, when a child falls and cries, to tell him that it is nothing and that he will quickly dry his tears is like speaking a language he doesn`t understand; to tell him “Have you been afraid? I will see what you have and will take care of you ” and to show him all your affection engages the child to enter into connection with the adult, they speak the same language since the child feels recognized in his emotion.
Professionals have often been told that keeping a fair distance is beneficial to encourage the child’s independence and to protect himself; new discoveries in social neuroscience tell us absolutely the opposite: showing affection, cuddling, kissing a child, taking him in your arms, promote the maturation of his brain.
As an educator, I have always shown my affection for children and in all cases I observed that the children calm down well and quickly because they feel understood. Psychoanalysis, in addition to neuroscience, teaches us that we are not in a situation of “confusion of languages” says Dr. Ferenzi.
In 2013 and 2014, a Japanese and a Swedish researchers demonstrated that hugs and tenderness secrete the molecules of well-being and comfort and thus mature the prefrontal cortex. (5)

A child whose emotion is ignored or misunderstood will develop a state of stress that activates the cerebral amygdala -center of fear- and cause the secretion of cortisol and adrenaline, toxic to psychological and motor health, explains us the Dr. Catherine Gueguen who has collected a lot of research on the subject. The amygdala is the center of the perception of emotions, it makes us feel fearful of someone whose face seems aggressive. It warns us of a threat and any event that endangers our survival. When the upper brain is mature, it validates or invalidates this message received by the amygdala.
The brain of the young child is dominated by his emotions that he receives in full force, without the filters that our adult brain has been able to build thanks to the experience and maturity; at the same time, brain plasticity makes the child a real sponge that absorbs any word, gesture, humiliation, attitude and that each situation lived will leave traces, if the child is not well accompanied.

How to generate positive situations that nourish brain maturity? To observe each child taking into account the context and his family history ; each one is unique, to listen to him with kindness, not to deprive yourself of smiles, cuddles and affectionate gestures; the child takes his first steps in a world he discovers, as long as it is encouraging and rich in experiences and discoveries!
What is happening on the side of hormones? The dopamine motivates, it is the desire hormone, the oxytocin is responsible for the behavior of trust, empathy and the desire to enter into relationship with the other.
To summarize, to accompany the emotions and to mother acts positively on the development of the brain, the intellectual and affective faculties, the learning, the memory, and the concentration; it supports natural empathy, cooperation and helps to reduce stress and soothe emotions. To consume without moderation …

Sport is highly effective at preventing and curing mood jumps
Sport and relaxation have a major impact on brain chemistry and reduce anxiety, aggression and depression through the effect of serotonin, neurodrenaline and dopamine. And yet 50% of French people do not do enough sports. 30 minutes a day is enough to feel better physically and morally. Walk to the next bus stop, climb the stairs, do leg relaxation movements during the sleep of the children at the crèche, practice gymnastics during a workshop with the eldest children at the crèche… It is essential for working in well-being and providing well-being to children.

The intestine: an “other brain”
Researchers have recently discovered that the intestine is rich in neurons connected to each other and colonized with billions of intelligent bacteria that drive our digestive system to affect our emotions and therefore our behavior.
Professor Francisca Joly Gomez (6) reminds us that the intestine is close enough to the brain from an anatomical point of view. In the intestine, serotonin regulates mood through a cranial nerve that allows signals to go back and forth between the intestine and the brain.
We understand how the feeding of babies, young children and adults affects our behavior.
Loneliness is a bad signal sent to the brain
The human being is a social being. Professor Decety, a psychologist and psychiatrist at the University of Chicago, specifies that all social interactions, often vectors of emotions, whether positive or negative, affect the expression of our genes, our hormonal system, and the neuronal circuits.
Living together is a permanent intellectual challenge that leads us to evaluate and process messages that are sometimes complex but that in any case stimulate our brain activity.
The spiral of stress
The child’s time is a slow time. For example, telling him to hurry does not make sense. It is often this everyday situation that will stress a child and prevent him from doing his job well because he can`t and doesn`t know how to do it quickly; to ask him to hurry up is to put him in a situation of failure.
Abuse and humiliation will also have the effect of altering brain function by weakening the hippocampus, seat of memory and learning.
Under the effect of stress, the amygdala triggers the secretion of cortisol and adrenaline, which are very toxic when they are present in large quantities in the immature brain of the young child because it doesn`t have the ability to assess the situation and step back.
Only an adult can reason, reevaluate a situation to put strategies in place; the child, on his side, can live real terrors.

To play develops the brain
In moments of play, the brain gets more mature through the secretion of a brain molecule, the BDNF (7) which ensures the growth, survival and differentiation of neurons. When a young child returns from school, he feels an irrepressible need to play; the more he has spent time sitting and learning in his classroom the more this need will be felt when he comes home; he will express it in time spent or in quality.
The game is vital, the infant plays with his feet and hands, the baby plays exploring his universe; the imitation will bring other perspectives of the play, the child learns by playing. The more he learns with joy and enthusiasm the more his brain develops and the more positive emotions associated with learning encourage him to explore other skills.
Jaak Pansepp, a specialist in the brain circuits of the game, writes: play and the pleasure that accompanies it modify the emotional balance of the child by stimulating the secretion of endorphins and ensures the densification of neurons.

The natural empathy of the child: it encourages and is transmitted
The baby is naturally endowed with empathy (8), he shows sincerity and solicitude to other children who need help and support. Every day, at the crèches or with maternal assistants, we observe a hand caressing the head of a friend, a kiss on the cheek of another child, a pacifier that a child goes to look for another child.
This innate ability that allows us to identify and respond to the emotions of others is therefore in each of us at birth. To see this ability endure, the adult has a very valuable role to play, starting with being empathetic with himself!
If you live in agreement with yourself by responding to your needs and consider your emotions as important signals of your condition, then you are ready to feel empathy for others.
Whenever a child in the group receives empathy, he secretes oxytocin, the hormone of comfort and well-being. Recognizing and putting words on the emotions received by the child allows him to feel recognized in what he lives and to adopt a behavior positive for his development.
Nonviolent Communication is a high quality approach that allows us to prevent conflicting behavior through empathy.
Quebecers have been broadcasting programs in day crèches for more than seven years, which allow children to support their natural empathy, develop their social skills and prevent any form of violence and aggression; they will soon be available in France, as part of the “Together for Education” program (« Ensemble pour l’Education »), which co-produces a mini-series of 50 videos dedicated to the educational benevolence.
This fun and unpublished video series is the basis of the training sessions that will be offered soon to professionals and parents. (Https://lesprosdelapetiteenfance.fr/bebes-enfants/psycho-pedagogie/une-mini-serie-pour-les-parents-et-pour-les-pros)

The screens are exciting!
Positive points: the screens are fun, allow to diversify the learning and sharing with friends, if this is the case.
To improve: the violent images can fascinate the child but also make him anxious, the immature brain doesn`t allow to process information, the child retains violent words that are not for his age, -Maren Strenziok- researcher, explains that violent images have an impact on the upper brain (cortex) which has the role of regulating emotions and making decisions. Last point, prolonged use creates a deficit of attention in many children.
Did you know that? The favorite screen of children is the TV, because it is the one that allows to bring together the family to comment on the images and to communicate. To remember!

The complementarity of resources makes it possible to understand our world and its evolutions: the social and cognitive neurosciences, psychology and psychoanalysis. We have so much to discover about the brain, the more research are activated, the more we understand that the human being is UNIQUE.

1. Beyond the series Paris Match The brain revolution, summer 2016 (La révolution du cerveau).
2. Dr. Catherine Gueguen “Living happily with your child, a new look at everyday education through affective neuroscience” Robert Laffont, 2015.
3. Professor of neurology and researcher at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris
4. Research Director at the Institut Pasteur at the Perception and Memory Unit, and at the CNRS
5. In 2013: Testuo Kida, in 2014: Malin Björnsdotter
6. Gastroenterologist at Beaujon Hospital in Clichy (92), teacher at Paris VII University
7. Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
8.  Between you and me empathy, a film of Valeria lumbroso www.valerialumbroso.fr