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Building Better Brains

Shira Yehudit Djalilmand

Research shows that providing a stimulating environment for children ages zero to three can lead to multiple benefits later in life. What early childhood experts have to say about this “first-three-years” theory, plus strategies for helping your little ones reach their full potential.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

 Open any parenting magazine and you’ll likely find an article extolling the vital developmental importance of the first three years of a child’s life. Current opinions in child psychology claim that these early years are essential not only for physical and emotional growth, but also for cognitive, spiritual, moral, and intellectual development.

Are the experiences of the first three years really so crucial to a child’s future behavior, intelligence, and emotional health? According to Rabbi Shmuel Meyberg, Ashdod-based educational psychologist, the theory is spot-on. “It’s 100 percent true — this period is absolutely vital. Most studies show that if a child doesn’t get the right stimulation in the early years, they will have problems later.”

Psychologist Ilana Trachtman, who is on the staff of B’Derech HaMelech (an organization that provides information and guidance to parents), agrees. “From zero to five are the formative years — that’s classic child psychology. Psychological, emotional, and thinking patterns are all formed at this age.”

So important is this stage that a child’s IQ can be raised a full 20 points by giving him the right emotional and intellectual stimulation, adds Rabbi Meyberg, who evaluates and treats children of all ages, and also teaches developmental psychology in Bais Yaakov teachers’ seminaries.

Scarily, the reverse is also true. “If a child isn’t given the right environment,” says Ilana, “he will definitely be operating at way below his potential IQ level.” Of course, she points out, every baby is born with a certain genetic predisposition and ability. Whether or not that child reaches his potential, however, depends on the environment in which he’s raised. 

Perhaps the most widely quoted research in support of early childhood education is that ofUniversityofKansaschild psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley. Their 1995 study found that the number of words and the breadth of vocabulary heard by a child during the first three years of life dramatically affects IQ, literacy, and academic success later in life. Based on extensive research, Hart and Risley estimated that children in professional families hear around 11 million words a year, versus those in working class homes, who hear only 6 million words yearly. In families on welfare, the children hear just 3 million words annually.    

There is, it seems, a pretty clear scientific basis to the “first-three-years” theory. By the time a baby is born, he has 100 billion brain cells, but they are not yet connected. During the first three years, the brain apparently forms critical connections between brain cells. The process is so rapid that by the time a child is three, the brain has already formed about 1,000 trillion connections — way more than it will ever need. 


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