When your child exits the womb, one of the first things the nurse will do is wipe the baby's eyes and clear the ears — and at that very moment, your baby begins a lifetime of learning. Babies learn early on the power and emotion given by the human touch, and the attention of others.
Parents play a critical role as teachers for their children for several years before school begins. “Parents can not only influence their child’s brain development in the first five years of life, but can strongly influence how well they learn and grow throughout their lifetime,” says Dr. Gabriel Murillo, pediatrician with Sharp Rees-Stealy. “Parents need to be diligent teachers to their children by talking, reading and singing daily.”
The nonprofit organization Zero to Three — dedicated to research and education on the best practices for raising a well-developed child — breaks early learning into four distinct components, and gives parents recommendations for how they can be good teachers as well:
Language and communication: Babies are actually good communicators, telling us through their vocalizations, movements and facial expressions what they want and how they feel. Their brains are preparing for those future conversations with every word they hear. Parents should listen to and observe their child carefully, and respond accordingly, so their baby begins to capture the power of communication. In return, parents can communicate back, by singing, telling stories, holding conversations and narrating what is happening at any given time to shape their baby's early vocabulary.
Thinking skills: Babies need to learn how to problem-solve, and how to make things happen through their actions. Parents can assist through play by banging a spoon on a pot to create a noise, making a structure by stacking blocks, showing how an item gets wet under the faucet — these activities introduce baby to cause-and-effect lessons.
Self-control: Teach children self-control by staying calm when they are upset, which demonstrates the preferred state of emotion. Teach sharing skills during playtime.
Self-confidence: Babies need a little (closely monitored) freedom, so they can learn the rewards of taking on challenges. Acknowledge a job well done; provide tools and advice to complete a task, without stepping in to do it for them; take the chance that something might get spilled (or broken) if the child is allowed to try it themselves; and encourage them to keep trying, even when the first few attempts are failures. Parents should applaud their children's effort, and not just the outcome.
Studies show that a child who receives this type of attention in the first years of life will hit the ground running when they step into a classroom. A broad vocabulary, the ability to analyze and problem-solve, social skills and a belief in self are the building blocks of a successful and happy person.
Parents: Talk with your child's pediatrician not just about their physical health, but also about healthy mental growth.