The early development in childhood is especially important for human beings. Children acquire valuable emotional, social, and other skills that directly influence their future lives in the first three years of life. While positive early experiences are useful and positively affect a child’s development, negative experiences may result in various problems, including poor social adaptation, cognitive deficits, depression, and other negative consequences.
Neurogenesis and The First Three Years of Life
One of the possible explanations of why the first three years of life are so important is the process of neurogenesis. New neurons are actively created in the hippocampus (Baddeley et al., 2015, 398). Therefore, the brain develops quite fast, and billions of synapses connecting neurons are also created. As a result, the brain is able to change by being influenced by new experiences of a child. During this period, the memory is quite unstable. Therefore, people don’t remember their first years of life.
This phenomenon is also known as neuroplasticity. The thing is that when a child is born, the brain is very immature, and it is not fully mature until the age of twenty (Mundkur, 2005). As a result, a child’s experiences during the first three years of life can cause structural changes in the brain. For instance, children who are born blind have a brain structure different from normal children. Their brain parts that usually process visual information start to take an active part in processing audio information. Children born deaf can process visual information with the help of brain parts that normal people use to process audio information (Mundkur, 2005).
Thus, it can be claimed that neuroplasticity is a defensive mechanism allowing children to be more adapted and prepared for survival. In this case, if the child has some physical deficits since birth, neuroplasticity can help compensate for them by adjusting brain functioning and structure. Another reason why neuroplasticity exists is that in the first years of life, there are too many new experiences. Children receive too much new information; to process this information effectively, the brain must be plastic and flexible.
Behavioral development is also quite fast in the first three years of life because of neuroplasticity. A child’s behavior is developed by creating responses to various stimuli.
Operant Conditioning And Piaget’s Theory
According to the theory of operant conditioning, the child understands how to behave by receiving rewards or by being punished. From an early age, parents should reward a child’s positive behavior and punish if the child does something wrong. At an early age, the child is not able to understand the difference between what is good and what is evil. Thus, their behavior develops by the impact of punishments and rewards provided by their parents.
One of the most interesting theories describing early development is Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. According to this theory, until two years of age, all children have a sensorimotor stage of development. At the beginning of life, the child uses only reflexes and innate behavior; however, children develop various sensorimotor skills at the age of 2 (Piaget, 2000). By the end of the stage, object permanence is developed, meaning that children can remember where objects are located and keep these objects in their minds.
Vulnerability to Stressors in The First Three Years of Life
It should be mentioned that during the first three years of life, children are highly vulnerable to different stressors and other negative factors. Long exposure to stress in early childhood can cause negative psychological consequences. Children who are exposed to stress can develop major depressive disorder (MDD) (Cicchetti et al., 2010). The influence of the cortisol hormone can explain this. During stressful situations, the concentration of this hormone in the blood significantly increases, which has a huge negative impact on the individual’s psychological condition. Early stress can also cause structural changes in the brain by negatively affecting the size of various parts of the brain.
Early stress was found to reduce the size of the amygdala, corpus callosum, hippocampus, and left neocortex (Teicher et al., 2003). Structural changes in the brain can lead not only to MDD but also to other psychiatric disorders. Therefore, it is essential to prevent child abuse. Otherwise, there can be irreversible negative consequences.
It can be concluded that the brain is highly sensitive to environmental factors in early childhood. Due to high neuroplasticity, its structure can be easily changed by positive as well as negative experiences. Thus, to ensure that a child will develop normally, it is necessary to ensure that negative factors have no impact. In this case, if the child is influenced only by positive experiences, this child will have no cognitive, behavioral, emotional, or other problems during adulthood. Thus, the first three years of life define a person’s mental condition for the rest of his or her life.
Baddeley, A., M.W. Eysenck, and M.C. Anderson. Memory. Taylor & Francis, 2015. Print.
Cicchetti, D., Rogosch, F. A., Gunnar, M. R., & Toth, S. L. (2010). The differential impacts of early physical and sexual abuse and internalizing problems on daytime cortisol rhythm in school‐aged children. Child development, 81(1), 252-269.
Piaget, J. (2000). Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Childhood cognitive development: The essential readings, 33-47.
Teicher, M. H., Andersen, S. L., Polcari, A., Anderson, C. M., Navalta, C. P., & Kim, D. M. (2003). The neurobiological consequences of early stress and childhood maltreatment. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 27(1), 33-44.