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Every child deserves the opportunity to reach his potential, pursue her dreams, and experience a future of possibilities. As parents and caring community members, we play an essential role in laying the foundation for the healthy growth and development of our children, which also supports a healthy community.

Our work to help children develop their potential and identify their dreams must begin early and continue through adolescence. Research in the field of brain science reveals two key periods of brain development in a child’s life. The most significant period is the first two to three years of life when brain development is occurring at an amazing rate. The second key period is during the middle school years, when development of the frontal part of the brain reaches its peak.

In the early months of a child’s life, connections are being formed in the brain that provide the foundation for learning, for understanding experiences, for gathering and processing information, for managing and responding to emotions, and for developing relationships. In fact, research has determined that by the time a child enters kindergarten, 85 percent of brain development has occurred.

What do infants and toddlers need from their parents or caregivers so that their developing brains are best prepared for the cognitive and social/emotional tasks they will face in the years ahead? Probably the most fundamental need is for the young child to have the sense of being safe and loved -- truly cared for. This sense of emotional security provides the “cocoon” that allows other personal development to flourish, including the development of individual and spiritual identity. A second foundational need relates to physical health, which includes a focus on medical, dental, and nutritional health, and physical activity.

A third foundational need relates to adult-child interactions and the experiences available to the child. For a young child, a significant amount of learning comes through face-to-face verbal interactions between the parent/caregiver and the child. Hearing and processing language, especially when combined with visual cues of facial expressions and other environmental factors that provide context, plays an extremely important role in laying the foundation for language and literacy development for a young child. If a strong language and literacy foundation has been laid by age 3, it is highly likely the child will become a successful reader in early elementary grades, which then leads to continued educational success throughout school.

Children learn a lot through observation and physical experience. Exposure to a range and variety of experiences and sources of information at a young age is a fourth need of young children that aids brain development. Opportunity to play and interact with other children is extremely important for physical development, cognitive development, development of imagination and creativity, and social/emotional development. Throughout life, we have to be able to understand and manage our emotions and relate/respond to the emotions of others. For a young child, the foundations of social/emotional development provide the capacity for building friendships, interacting with groups of children at school, and participating in the classroom environment, with its structure and processes.

These foundational needs are the component areas of quality early care and education. Parents are the primary teachers to provide for their child’s developmental needs. When desired, parents may also choose a professional caregiver who is prepared to provide quality care and education.

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— David Miller is the Associate Executive Director at Youth & Family Services, a nonprofit youth-serving organization whose mission is to support children and families to be capable, caring, and contributing members of the community.

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