Protecting Brains, Stimulating Minds: The Early Life Roots of Success in School

Early childhood education is sometimes dismissed as unimportant – or at the very least considered far less essential than later education in primary and secondary school. The truth, however, is that early education and learning might just be some of the most essential learning children ever do.

In recent years, the education community has begun to call for evidence-based curricula and a better grasp on the science of early learning. A plethora of research on the biology of stress provides strong evidence that healthy development can be slowed or halted due to excessive activation of stress response systems in a child’s body and/or brain.

There are 3 Types of Stress Responses

Positive stress responses are totally normal. In fact, they are an integral part of development and learning. These responses are brief – something like an increase in heart rate when coming in contact with a stressor. Stressors might be things like getting a shot or the first day of school.

The next type of stress is tolerable stress. This type of stress activates the body’s stress systems to a higher degree than a  positive response. It is often a result of more severe, longer-lasting stressors like a natural disaster or frightening injury. , such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury. As long as the stress response is of a limited length, and the child has the support of adults, he or she will recover from what might otherwise have had extremely detrimental consequences to the developing brain.


The final type of stress is toxic stress. This is often due to negative childhood experiences that create frequent and extreme stress. Types of trauma that may cause toxic stress are: physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, parental substance abuse, mental illness in the family, exposure to violence, family financial hardship. When kids are not given enough adult support, toxic stress can derail the development of the brain and other organ systems. These children also possess an increased risk of stress-related disease and cognitive impairment. These issues are likely to follow them throughout the lifespan.

Toxic Stress’ Long-Term Effects

A fully evidence-based approach to the curriculum of early learning must include strategies to prevent toxic stress as an experience of toxic stress at a young age can cause lifelong problems in learning, development, and behavior. It is not hard to imagine why prolonged and/or extreme stress could affect a small child’s ability to develop and learn. The question, then, is “What types of tactics can be used to reduce or eliminate this type of stress?’

Check out this awesome video from the Harvard Center on the Developing Mind to learn all about what experts believe are the best practices to protect and stimulate young minds:

Did you learn a lot? It is an incredibly informative and interesting video, so please be sure to share your thoughts, comments, or questions with us. The commitment to creating truly wonderful and edifying early childhood experiences requires a broader and deeper view of childhood and an appreciation for the beauty and value of preschool learning.

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