Policy Resource

Blogging NTI: A Return to the Neighborhood (and the Neurons)

Dec 24, 2011

The 26th National Training Institute (NTI) has begun! The opening plenary fittingly featured Dr. Deborah Phillips guiding us back to the neighborhood and the brain development that occurs there, last visited in the seminal work, From Neurons to Neighborhoods, which she co-edited in the year 2000.

This work was the springboard for many of the policy achievements for infants and toddlers in the last decade. Dr. Phillips kicked off this year’s NTI by reviewing how research from the last 12 years has added to the information presented in the book. She gave us six headlines and the research behind them.

Development as a non-linear trajectory. Research from the last twelve years confirms that growth is not constant and that development can be rapid at times, and slow or regressive at others. Recent research has also confirmed that development as a non-linear trajectory begins with prenatal development, as factors such as prenatal maternal stress have been shown to disrupt stress regulation and affect the development of the child’s nervous system, affecting the developmental trajectory a child may take after birth.

The brain is a highly adaptive organ. Research continues to demonstrate that the brain is a highly adaptive organ that is fine tuned by our interactions with the environment, particularly in the very early years of life as early experiences lay the foundation for development throughout life.

Development as reflecting the “biology of adversity”. Recent research has provided the early childhood field with a more detailed understanding of how adversity affects the neurobiology of the developing organism. Adversity becomes embedded in the biology of the developing child as exposure to long term stress without a buffer can disrupt brain functioning and reduce the number of connections in areas of the brain such as the hippocampus and the amygdala. This disruption biologically affects how the child responds to their environment affecting their long term health, and success in school, work and relationships.

Development in an environment of relationship. Children’s development is influenced greatly by the environment, but recent research helps us see even more that how children react to their environment is influenced greatly by the relationships around them. Children with stable and nurturing caregivers use parents as a buffer for stressful experiences, but children without stable and nurturing caregivers showed steeply elevated cortisol levels in stressful situations.

Development as a nature-nurture dance. Nature vs. nurture is an old debate, but new research has helped the early childhood field to understand the nature-nurture dance in more detail. This research demonstrates that experiences shape genetic expression and genes affect how children react to experiences encountered. For example, humans have one gene, a long or short gene, used for metabolizing serotonin. The ability to metabolize serotonin that affects how people respond to their environment. A study of maltreated children showed that children with the gene unable to metabolize serotonin were more likely to be depressed as a result of the maltreatment than the other group – a genetic influence on a person’s reaction to their environment.

Biological sensitivity to context. Research demonstrates that some children are more sensitive to their environment than others: some children need the right environmental conditions to thrive while others will often thrive regardless of the environment. Ultimately, children as young as four months react differently to their environments and daily experiences. So it is crucial for professionals to evaluate the needs of each child and adjust their environment to allow them to thrive.

Dr. Phillips presented the science in a clear and very accessible way, giving us a lot to think about as we move into sessions focusing on research and practice for various areas of early childhood development and especially as we seek to use her headlines to make news for babies in the policy world. You will be able to watch video clips of her presentation on the NTI website in a few weeks.

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