Addressing the affective domain: What neuroscience says about social/emotional development in early childhood

Posted by:


Research in neurobiology clarifies the extent to which the interaction between genetics and early experience shapes brain architecture that impacts mental health. The affective domain and emotional development often receive less recognition as a core capacity emerging during early childhood than the cognitive domain. However, the foundations for social competence are developed from early childhood experiences linked to a child’s emotional relationships with caregivers. A review of the neuroscience literature provides a consensus of what a young child needs to experience in the first three years of life in order to achieve optimal social and emotional development for supporting learning.


The future mental health of society depends on the ability of adults to foster the emotional health of young children. Considerable research clarifies the extent to which the interaction between genetics and early experience shapes a young child’s mental health. Unfortunately, emotional development often receives less recognition as a core emerging capacity during early childhood than the ability to achieve school readiness. However, the social competence that is developed during early childhood is directly linked to a child’s later ability to adjust to social settings, like school and to form emotionally healthy relationships.

This chapter provides an overview of the existing literature on how the affective domain impacts learning during early childhood.  Developmental concepts are presented that have emerged from many decades of research. A consensus of what is understood about the emotional and social development of young children is presented for critique and exploration.  A framework is offered within which the emotional needs of young children can be optimally addressed. The goal is to promote a clearer understanding of the science of early childhood development and its underlying neurobiology.

The affective domain and its role in learning

The affective domain encompasses learned behaviors that primarily stem from feelings, emotions, values, beliefs, and attitudes. The affective domain deals with all aspects of learning due to how information from the environment is received, responded to, valued, organized in the brain, and characterized as positive or negative.

Neuroscience, by definition, is the scientific study of the nervous system. Neuroscience deals with the structure, function, development, genetics, biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, and pathology of the entire nervous system including the brain. The first three years of human life are a period of rapid brain growth in humans. A significant portion of human brain development takes place as a result of an individual’s interaction with the environment (Geake, 2009). The brain develops and organizes its functions in direct response to the pattern and intensity of sensory and perceptual stimuli occurring in the immediate environment. It is now asserted that the impact of early experience has a greater influence on development than heredity (Fogel, King, & Shanker, 2009). By the age of three, 90% of a child’s brain has developed (Szalavitz & Perry, 2011). During this first three years of life 50% of all human learning occurs. These finding suggest that a child’s mental health is directly related to the quality of relationships the young child experiences with the significant adults in his or her environment.

The interactive influence of genes and environmental experiences shapes the architecture of a young child’s developing brain. Brain architecture and human abilities are built from neurochemical circuitry and acting on elemental factors. This stimulates behavior that provides the scaffolding for more advanced circuitry and more complex behavior (Saarni, Campos, Camras, & Witherington, 2006).

What happens in the brain when an adult learns a new motor skill and the ability of the brain to reorganize its orientation after loss of sensory input from an amputated limb indicate the brain retains the ability to reorganize itself in response to necessity even in adulthood. Though the majority of brain development in humans occurs during gestation and the first three years after birth, the brain is not biologically limited to only that period. Though the human brain retains some ability to learn throughout life, there is no evidence that deprivation during the early years can be totally reversed in later years. Therefore, it is quite clear that the first three years of brain activity are extremely important in human development (Barrett, Mesquita, Ochsner, & Gross, 2007).

Neuroscience does not suggest that an enriched environment can, magically, augment the number of synapses that a young child will form beyond a set point. It does not appear that providing more stimulation than a baby is capable of taking-in will increase synaptic connections. However, it is true that infants that do not receive adequate touch, whose playfulness and curiosity are not encouraged, form fewer critical connections than they could have with adequate environmental stimulation. What science can add to society’s understanding of child development and early childhood education are insights about the causes, mechanisms, and leverage points that could most effectively optimize human learning cognitively, emotionally, and socially. Neuroscience can identify efficient leverage points for enhancing brain development in at-risk children (Lippina & Colombo, 2009).

Society’s emphasis on early literacy must not diminish the importance of other essential capabilities, such as learning initiative, self-confidence, and perseverance. Beyond the importance of academic achievement, addressing the affective domain during early childhood will enhance the capacities for young children to learn cooperation and problem-solving skills necessary for living in a democratic society. Providing for a young child’s emotional-social needs during the first three to five years of life will ensure a healthy foundation for the core characteristic of social competence: the ability to peacefully resolve conflict with others (Thompson & Raikes, 2007).

Brain architecture

The architecture of the human brain is composed of integrated sets of neural circuits that are influenced by the continuous interaction between genes and the environment. Genes determine when specific brain circuits are formed and experience shapes how that formation evolves. The developmental process is stimulated by inborn characteristics of human nature. Adequate stimuli to the five senses and stable, responsive relationships construct a brain architecture that provides the foundation for learning, behavior, and mental health (Lagattuta & Thompson, 2007).

Brain circuitry initially processes basic information. As circuitry becomes more complex, more complex information is processed. More complex circuitry builds on less complex circuitry. Adaptation of circuitry for processing of more complex data is more difficult if the basic circuits are not adequately established. Increasingly more complex skills build on foundational capabilities. The ability to name a feeling accurately depends upon earlier development of the capacity to differentiate the facial expressions and sounds that represent a specific feeling and do so in one’s primary language of communication. The brain circuitry necessary to put words together to speak about emotions forms the foundation for the subsequent ability to communicate empathic understanding. Just as more complex brain circuitry builds from previously formed brain circuitry, basic interpersonal skills beget more sophisticated interpersonal skills (Tsai et al, 2006) (Taumoepeau & Ruffman, 2008). Two other important brain processes occur during the first three years of life: 1. the insulation of axons by myelin makes each neuro-connection more efficient by facilitating the faster transmission of neural signals and 2. growing of glial cells provide nourishment and additional insulation to support neurons (Carter et al, 2009).

Critical periods of brain development

There is relatively little brain research that could be described as “new.” Over the last thirty years findings from the field of developmental neurobiology has provided the basis for rethinking the relationship between brain science and child development. For well over two decades it has been known, in scientific circles, that the brain grows and changes during the early months and years following birth at a very rapid rate. Neuroscience has documented that starting even before birth, the human brain is growing rapidly. Infant brains produce trillions more synapses than are found in an adult brain. The brain of a 2-year-old has twice as many synaptic connections between brain cells as the average adult. During the first three years of life brain connections form at a rate that far exceeds the rate at which connections are lost (Dirix et al, 2009).

Neuroscience has identified critical periods for brain development. These are times during which the brain requires certain kinds of stimulation if it is to develop normally. Critical periods serve as time windows for development. During these critical periods, when given adequate stimuli, normal brain circuitry develops. An adequately stimulating environment can precipitate optimal development of synaptic circuitry. The wrong kind of stimuli or a lack of adequate stimulation during these periods will result in abnormal brain development. Once a critical period ends, the opportunity to create critical circuitry in certain kinds of neural pathways is substantially diminished (Lenroot & Giedd, 2007).

The first three years of human life is a critical period for brain development. It is a period of rapid synapse formation that can facilitate functional nerve cell connections. Although the brain continues to develop after the first three years of life, it does so, typically, by eliminating synaptic connections, not by forming new ones. During the first three years of life an adequately stimulating environment can have its strongest and most lasting effect on brain development. This critical period provides adult caregivers a biologically limiting opportunity to ensure infants and toddlers an emotionally healthy environment conductive to developing affective resiliency (Bull et al, 2008).

In the first three years of life the human brain can store more information than it can possibly use. However, by the end of the fourth year of human life the pace of learning slows. A young child’s brain will continue to accept new information, but at a decreasing rate. By the time most young children become “language competent” (around age three), the architecture of the brain has essentially completed its basic formation. From that time until adolescence, the brain remains eager to learn with occasional growth spurts, but it will never again attain the incredible pace of learning that occurs during the first three years of life. After this critical period, an irreversibility sets in that will tend to change very little, qualitatively (Bierman et al, 2008).

Human development is, to a significant degree, predisposed by genetic factors. Genes direct neurons to specific locations in the brain and influence how genes will interact with other genes. Genetic factors determine the basic connectivity of the brain. However, genes can be influenced by the input they receive from environmental stimuli. A child’s visual, auditory, tactile, ofactory, and taste input received from environmental influences stimulate neural activity. For example, speech sounds stimulate activity in regions of the brain related to language development. The more speech an infant hears, the more neurons related to language development will be activated. The more articulated, non-random language a young child hears in the first three years of life, the more synaptic connections are created and strengthened. For example, a newborn is able to recognize the human face and prefer it to other objects in the environment. An infant can discriminate between happy and sad facial expressions and identify the voice of its primary caregiver over the voice of a stranger (Dirix, et al, 2009).

Synapses that are insufficiently utilized are weakened and many will eventually be eliminated in the pruning process if they do not continue to receive adequate stimulation. Synapse strength contributes to the connectivity of the neuronal network that supports cognitive abilities (Johnston et al, 2009). Experiences determine what information enters the brain and influences how the brain processes information. In other words, genes are the brain’s blue print and stimulus from the environment guides the brain’s construction.

Research about the effects of enriched environments on brain structure indicate that developmentally appropriate early childhood experiences can enhance children’s cognitive development during the first three years of life. There is no question that an optimally stimulating environment plays a major role in brain development during the first three years of life. However, it can continue to do so after that period, as well. Research indicates that more complex environments continue to have a positive impact on the brain, due to its plasticity, throughout life. Neuroscience does not support that learning after age three stops. Rather, experiences in the first three years provide a foundation that, if absent, tends to restrict the quality of later learning. However, evidence does not support that learning slows down after the first three years of a child’s life (Carter et al, 2009). Neuroscience has uncovered a great deal about the correlation between brain development and developmental disabilities. Research demonstrates that a child’s environment, during the first three years of life, has effects that last a lifetime. Understanding how the environment is related to early brain development stems from identifying patterns in brain activity associated with specific types of environmental exposure. The long-term effects of early stress, environmental deprivation, neglect, and maltreatment are well documented from more than thirty years of research. This occurred long before we could see the evidence of this with brain scans. Neuroscience is simply restating what has been well known to the scientific community for decades (Lagattuta & Thompson, 2007).

Nature and nurture; not nature or nurture

The interaction between nature and nurture results in a young child’s brain growth and capabilities during the first three years of life. A young child’s environment and experiences mediate his genetic predisposition. Thirty years ago, it was asserted that human intelligence was 51% genetic and 49% environmental. Current thinking reverses the balance. It is now more widely accepted that homo sapians are 49% genetically determined and 51% environmentally conditioned (Fogel et al, 2009). This does not dispute the fact that there is an absolute interdependence between genetics and experience. As is illustrated in the following:

Neuroscience provides conclusive evidence that early experiences influence the brain architecture, function, and capacities that:

  • shape emotional development
  • regulate temperament
  • influence coping skills
  • influence social development
  • shape perceptual and cognitive ability
  • influence mental health propensity in adult life.

Neuroscience also confirms that the build-in architecture of the brain:

  • has a propensity for adaptation and lifelong learning
  • has an internal programming for neural circuitry designed to strongly influence a child’s capacity to learn during the first three years of life
  • has biological pathways developed in the first three years of life that will impact mental health in adult life.

The influence of experience versus genetic predisposition differs depending upon the function of the brain in question. In the case of emotional regulation, social skills, and problem-solving ability stimuli from the environment is the primary influence. How genes can be turned on or off by environmental factors provides an explanation for how experiences in the environment determine the expression of a child’s genetic potential. (Szalavitz & Petty, 2001).

Neuroplasticity of the brain

Because of the abundance of synapses produced by the brain in the first three years of life, the brain is predisposed to being responsive to environmental stimuli. During the first three years, the human brain is more responsive to experiences than it will be once the pruning of synapses begins (around age three). The brain’s ability to shape itself is referred to as “plasticity” (ability to adapt to the demands of environmental stimuli). The plasticity of the brain is what allows humans to be so adaptive. Because of the brain’s plasticity, during the first three years of life, the brain is more vulnerable to the effects of environmental stimuli. Adverse environmental effects can be extremely harmful and have long-lasting negative effects (Johnston et al, 2009).

The brain develops rapidly during the first year of life. The cerebellum triples in size allowing for motor skill development and the visual area of the cortex grows to allow an infant’s limited sight to develop into full binocular vision (Knickmeyer, et al, 2008). By three months, an infant’s ability to recognize differences coincides with a growth spurt of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the structure in the limbic system related to memory and the ability to distinguish differences in sensory stimuli. During the first year of life, language circuitry becomes consolidated in the frontal and temporal lobes, influenced by the language an infant hears. By the end of the first year of life an infant loses the ability to distinguish between sounds from different spoken languages; a skill that, during the first few months, is inborn. The language sounds a young child hears most frequently become hard- wired, in memory, for a specific language. This is why infant exposure to multiple languages during the first few months of life is so cognitively valuable. During the second year of life the language areas of the brain develop synaptic interconnections that stimulate a quadrupling of language, if adequate language stimulation is provided by caregivers (Imada, et al, 2006).

During the second year of life, the increase in the rate of myelination of the connections between neurons helps the brain to perform more complex cognitive tasks. During this period, cognitive abilities such as self-awareness allow an infant to become aware of his own emotions and intentions. When a toddler sees her reflection in a mirror, she is able to recognize that it is her reflection and not another child. Synaptic density in the prefrontal cortex reaches its peak during the third year of life. This is approximately 200 percent more dense that it will be during adulthood. The strengthening of networks from one region of the brain to another results in the ability to perform more complex cognitive skills. For example, a toddler becomes better able to use past events to interpret present events and more cognitive flexibility allows for enhanced ability to understand cause and effect (Holmboe et al, 2008).

The environment and its impact on emotional development

Development is shaped for better or for worse within a relational context. The role played by parenting (whether performed by a child’s biological parents or by a child care provider) is a primary influence on emotional development. The quality of the relationship between a young child and his primary caregivers is fundamental to the development of the child’s brain architecture, functions and capacity (Fogel et al., 2009). A lack of positive relationships is associated with an increased risk for behavioral and emotional problems (Amelie et al, 2009).

Infant brains are very similar to each other. There is very little essential biological difference, at birth, between the male brain and the female brain. However, by adulthood human brains are extremely different; depending on the type and quality of early experiences (Gilmore et al, 2007).The brain maintains relative plasticity  throughout life. The drive for learning remains a lifelong endeavor. Even though genes predetermine the types of neural connections that will be initiated, the development of the brain is dependent on sensory-driven neural activity generated by stimulation coming from the environment. Neuroscience provides the evidence that the brain physically changes, over time, increasing neural connections and strengthening existing neural connections through repetitive experience (Dinstein et al, 2008).

A newborn has approximately the same number of neurons as adults. However, the adult brain has approximately10 times fewer synaptic connections between neurons. Brain development related to experience involves the growth of neuro-transmitters, receptors, and neurons having synaptic connections that form neural clusters. The forming of synapses is called synaptogenesis. This occurs in different parts of the brain at different times depending on environmental stimulation (O’Rahilly & Mueller, 2008).

As a result of environmental stimuli experienced from birth through age three the number of neural connections multiply by a factor of 20 (Marsch et al, 2008). Sometime after age three, the process of pruning, selectively starts eliminating connections that are not being utilized (Holmboe et al, 2008). The process of pruning organizes the brain’s architecture into networks called neuro clusters. This results in each individual’s brain being unique, depending directly on the experiences to which each individual is exposed Frey & Gerry, 2006).

The pivotal ingredient of brain development in the first three years of life is a nurturing relationship. Adult responsiveness to an infant is a major predictor of healthy brain development and social-emotional functioning. The character of the relationship with a primary caregiver has an indelible influence on emotional development. This results in establishing a pattern of expectation that ultimately leads to the way a child will typically respond to environmental stressors (Szalavitz & Perry, 2011).

Young children learn to regulate their emotional responses to people and experiences by watching and perceiving their caregiver’s responses. Over time, the child begins to self-regulate. Without a secure attachment relationship, a child may experience prolonged periods of unregulated stress resulting in long-term exposure to elevated levels of stress hormone that can lead to irreversible physical changes in the brain. This may measurably alter developmental trajectories, including emotional development and social cognition (Schechter, 2012). If children’s attachments are not secure or are disorganized, cognitive regulating structures do not develop to their full capacity, limiting the development of self-regulation, social cognition and empathy (Anda et al, 2006).

The neurodevelopment of the human brain is dependent upon the presence, pattern, frequency, quality, and timing of experiences occurring in the first three years of life. The human brain has a basic structure, size, organization, and functioning that adapts, over one’s lifespan, according to each individual’s genetic makeup as impacted upon by experiences in the environment (Szalavitz & Perry, 2011).

Relationships with caregivers

Secure and stable relationships with caring adults contribute significantly to healthy brain development. Young children are highly vulnerable emotionally to the adverse influences of parental mental health problems and family violence. One of the most extensively documented of these vulnerabilities is the negative impact of a mother’s clinical depression on her young children’s emotional development, social sensitivity, and concept of themselves, effects that have been demonstrated in both developmental research and studies of brain functioning. Young children who grow up in seriously troubled families, especially those with vulnerable temperament, are prone to the development of behavioral disorders and conduct problems (Brodsky et al, 2008).

One of the strongest predictors of social and emotional functioning is the level of  attachment to a primary caregiver during the first three years of life. The inclination to become attached to a significant adult is an innate drive (Smyke et al, 2012). Brain imaging research suggests there is a neurological basis to the human need for establishing a secure attachment with others (Marsch et al, 2008).

Parenting practices such as reading to a child, using complex language, being emotionally responsive, and communicating unconditional positive regard are all associated with a positive developmental outcome. Forty-six percent of parents are not aware that the first three years of life are the most critical for healthy emotional development. Even more sadly, 57% of fathers are unaware of the importance of the first three years of human experience. Having a primary caregiver that is consistently warm and responsive during the first three years of life is a strong predictor for positive cognitive, emotional, and behavioral outcomes (Farroni et al, 2007). The quality of the mother-infant relationship can influence gene expression in areas of the brain that regulate social and emotional function and can even lead to changes in brain structure. The nature of the relationship will have long-term influence on how the child is able to cope with stress, both physically and emotionally. Although young children can establish healthy relationships with more than one or two adults, prolonged separations from these familiar caregivers with repeated “detaching” and “re-attaching” is emotionally distressing and can lead to enduring emotional insecurities (Szalavitz & Perry, 2011).

The inseparability of thoughts and feelings

Adults who are responsive to infants model behavior that facilitates the healthy regulation of emotions. Infants that receive predictable responsiveness develop a healthy sense of trust in social relationships. Research documents that early attachment is extremely important to the healthy emotional development of an infant. In the first year of life nurturing, stable, and consistent caregiving is key to the healthy growth and development of an infant. The emotional responsiveness of caregivers increases the likelihood of positive emotional and social development. Early care and education professionals can support the social-emotional development of infants and toddlers through implementing developmentally appropriate adult-child interactions. Healthy interactions with significant adults provide young children the opportunity to learn social competence from predictable and responsive communication of unconditional positive regard (Strathearn et al, 2008).

Neuroscience indicates that the neural mechanisms underlying emotional regulation are the same as those underlying cognitive processes. Emotion and cognition work together, jointly forming a young child’s interpretation of the behavior of others and influencing the young child’s behavior in return. The learning of social competence occurs within the context of emotional support received from adult significant others. Emotions and cognition form an unbreakable interaction for young children. The cognitive process of problem solving is strongly influenced by emotion. Together, emotions and cognition interact to facilitate focused attention and making decisions (Barrett, et al, 2007).

Brain structures involved in the neural circuitry of cognition influence emotion and vice versa. Young children with healthy social and emotional adjustment tend to achieve higher academic performance in school. Therefore, the frequent distinction made between cognitive and emotional aspects of development are not an accurate representation of how the brain processes information. Temperament plays a significant role in children’s expression of emotion. However, emotional expression is also related to communication skills acquired from caregivers (Barrett, et al, 2007).

Healthy social-emotional development is based in a supportive social environment established by adults significant to a young child. Young children develop their social skills from the quality and quantity of interactions experienced with adults. Young children build upon the skills learned from their initial relationships with adults. If healthy adult-child interactions are not experienced a young child has no model for constructing healthy interactions with others (Messinger & Fogel, 2007).

The learning of social skills is a direct product of interactions that take place between adults and young children. These interactions form the basis for all subsequent social interactions. How adults interact with young children is at the very heart of early childhood care and education. Close relationships with adults who provide consistent nurturing strengthens a child’s capacity to learn. A healthy relationship with at least one adult caregiver is a vital early learning experience. Relationships influence an infant’s emerging sense of self and understanding of others (Schechter, 2012).

Establishing close relationships with adults is crucial for emotional security, a healthy sense of self, and an evolving understanding of social interactions. A young child’s social-emotional development includes gaining an understanding of social roles and relationships. Initially, infants express their emotions through facial expressions, vocalizations, and body language. The eventual ability to use words to express emotions gives young children a tool for expressing needs in a socially competent manner. Emotional expression is a by-product of social interactions between infants and adults as they attempt to communicate with each other (Geake, 2009). Both the understanding and expression of emotion are influenced by what a young child is exposed to. A young child’s understanding of the meaning of emotions and learning which emotions are appropriate to display in which situations is a direct product of interactions with caregivers. How young children express emotions plays a significant role in relationship development. The positive expression of emotions enables healthy relationship formation. Where as, the socially incompetent management of negative emotions leads to difficulty in social relationships. Infants respond more positively to adult vocalizations that have a positive affective tone. Social smiling is a developmental process of neurophysiology that has a cognitive, social, and emotional component (Messinger & Fogel, 2007). Observing caregivers expressing positive emotion is important for the mental health of young children (Quann & Wien, 2006).

Expressing emotions

Development of the affective domain is a critical aspect of brain architecture. How effectively a person learns healthy ways of expressing emotions has enormous consequences that will last a lifetime. Starting from birth, infants begin developing the ability to express different emotions and the capacity to cope with and manage their emotional responses to stressful situations. The development of these capacities occurs at the same time as skills related to mobility, thinking, and communicating with language (Bayley, 2006).

As a person develops into adulthood, social skills are essential for the formation of emotionally healthy relationships, competent parenting, the ability to hold a job, work well with others, and for becoming a contributing member of society. Disregarding this critical aspect of the developing child can lead to ignoring the foundation that emotions establish for later growth and development. It is essential that a young child’s affective domain get the same level of attention as his cognitive domain (Quann & Wien, 2006).

Learning to manage emotions is more difficult for some children than learning to count or read and may be an early warning sign of future psychological problems. The core features of emotional development include the ability to identify and understand one’s feelings, to accurately read and understand the feelings others, to manage emotions and express them in a constructive manner, to regulate one’s behavior, to develop empathy for others, and to establish and sustain healthy emotional relationships (Tsai et al, 2006).

Emotional development is built into the architecture of the human brain. Emotions are a biologically based aspect of human functioning that is hardwired into the central nervous system. Growing interconnections among brain circuitry support the emergence of emotional expression and socially competent behavior. As young children develop, early emotional experiences become embedded in the architecture of their brains (Fogel et al, 2009).

The emotional experiences of newborns and infants occur during periods of interaction with a caregiver. Infants display distress and cry when they are hungry, cold, wet, and experience positive emotions when they are fed, soothed, and held. During this early period, infants are incapable of modulating the expression of overwhelming feelings, and have limited ability to control their emotions (Carter et al, 2009).

Acquiring the capability of managing feelings is one of the most challenging tasks of early childhood. When feelings are not well managed, thinking can be impaired. Throughout early childhood, young children develop an increasing capacity to use language for communicating feelings. The interrelated development of emotions and cognition relies on the emergence, maturation, and interconnection of complex neural circuits in multiple areas of the brain. The circuits that are involved in the regulation of emotion are highly interactive with those that are associated with the executive functions of planning, forming judgments, and making-decisions. These functions are intimately involved in the development of problem-solving skills (Dinstein et al, 2008).

In terms of basic brain functioning, emotions support executive functions when they are well regulated but interfere with the ability to pay attention and make decisions when they are inadequately controlled. Differences in temperament are grounded in one’s biological makeup. These variations lead to the stimulation of different behavioral pathways for developing strategies to controlling emotional responses (Gilmore et al, 2007).

Nurturing emotional development

Findings from brain research indicate nurturing emotional development is crucial to the learning process. A young child’s intellectual well-being and emotional well-being are interdependent. In the center of the brain is a set of structures typically referred to as the limbic system. This set of structures has historically been thought of as the emotional center of the brain. Evidence is conclusive that emotions re-sculpt neural tissue. In situations of high stress or overwhelming fear, social judgment and cognitive performance suffer from compromise to the neural processes of emotional regulation. Some nominal stress is essential to meet challenges and can lead to better cognition and enhanced learning, but beyond a certain level of stress, the opposite effect occurs (Barrett et al, 2007).

Being able to self-regulate emotions is a key element of learning. Self-regulation is one of the most important behavioral and emotional skills that children need to learn. Emotions direct psychological processes, such as the ability to focus attention, solve problems, and relate to others. Neuroscience has identified critical brain regions directly related to the development of self-control (Bogdan et al, 2012).

Healthy emotional development depends on the quality and reliability of a young child’s relationships with the important people in his or her life. The development of a child’s brain architecture depends on the establishment of these relationships. In early childhood growth-promoting relationships are based on give-and-take interaction with a significant adult. A young child experiences the world as an environment filled with relationships. These relationships affect all aspects of a child’s development. The quality and stability of a child’s human relationships in the early years lay the foundation for later developmental outcomes such as:

  • self-confidence
  • mental health
  • motivation
  • the ability to control aggressive impulses
  • the ability to resolve conflicts in non-violent ways
  • knowing the difference between right and wrong
  • having the capacity to develop and sustain intimate relationships (Bierman et al, 2008).

Nurturing and stable relationships with caring and responsive adults are essential to healthy social-emotional development in the first three years of life. Secure attachments contribute to a love of learning, healthy self-esteem, positive social skills, understanding of emotions, the ability to make and keep commitments, and a sense of morality. Interaction between an infant and at least one primary caregiver that is responsive so that when an infant reaches-out for interaction through babbling, facial expressions, and gestures the adult responds with echoing and mirroring the same type of vocalizing and gesturing is vital for emotional development. A young child who has a healthy relationship with a primary caregiver is more likely to develop sensitivity to the feelings, needs, and thoughts of others. This will tend to form a foundation for cooperative interactions with others and an emerging sense of social consciousness. Responsive adult-infant relationships are associated with stronger cognitive skills in young children and enhanced social competence (Messinger & Fogel, 2007).

Emotional responses to others

The most important relationships in life are the first relationships an infant has with the adults that play a significant role in that infant’s early care and education. When a young child reaches out for interaction through babbling, smiling, verbal utterances, gestures, or crying and an adult responds by mirroring or echoing the infant’s vocalizations or gestures brain circuitry is stimulated.  Decades of research indicate that mutually rewarding interactions are essential prerequisites for the development of brain circuits that will lead to increasingly complex social skills. The important influence of healthy relationships in shaping the architecture of the developing brain indicates that better trained early care and education staff working young children is vital for providing an emotionally healthy environment conductive to learning social competence (Thompson & Raikes, 2007).

Language acquisition depends on the capacity to link meaning to specific sounds and words. It also depends on the ability to concentrate one’s attention on details that facilitate engagement in constructive social interaction. Emotional health, social skills, and cognitive-linguistic capabilities that emerge during early childhood are prerequisites for developing healthy relationships. Brain architecture influences the development of the affective domain in tandem with the psychomotor domain and cognitive domain (Pluess & Belsky, 2011).

Cognitive development is directly tied to social competence, interpersonal sensitivity, and awareness of how the self relates to others. During the first three years of life, young children begin to develop an understanding of how the expression of emotion impacts others. Research suggests that infants and toddlers understand social interaction in direct response to their experiences with the adults in their environment. This includes an infants’ understanding of what to expect from others, how to engage in social interactions, and which social interactions are appropriate for which situations (Taumoepeau and Ruffman, 2008).

Development of empathy

Young children need experiences of empathy to learn how to be empathic toward others. The mirror neuron system plays a critical role in social learning (Geake, 2009). Social learning is important for the development of empathy. Empathy is the ability to experience what another person is feeling and compassionately being able to respond to that person’s distress (Mosier, 1987). Empathy is fundamental to interpersonal sensitivity and successful human relationships (Barrett et al, 2007) (Gordon, 2009). Evidence of this is often seen in children’s pretend play when acting out family roles. Humans are born with the capacity to be empathic. However, a young child needs to experience empathy to establish a neural network for expressing it. A secure attachment relationship between an infant and primary caregiver, where emotional attunement exists, provides adequate experience to facilitate the learning of empathy (Mosier, 1987). The identification of the mirror neuron system validates that social aspects of the environment can affect biological functions such as gene expression (Chong et al, 2008). These findings provide strong evidence for the social interaction theories of Bandura and Vygotsky.

Empathy reflects a social aspect of emotion. Empathic understanding is being able to link one’s feelings to another. Since humans are social animals, a vital function of empathy is to strengthen social bonding. Research demonstrates a strong correlation between empathy and social competence. Prosocial behavior, such as helping, sharing, and comforting another person, illustrate how empathy evolves. The experience of empathy is strongly linked to the development of moral behavior. During the first three years of life, young children begin developing the capacity to understand the emotional expression of others.Adults modeling empathic behavior leads to young children manifesting the same behavior towards others. The way to support the development of empathy in young children is to create a culture of caring in the child’s immediate environment. Helping young children to understand the feelings of others is an essential component of social competence and moral reasoning (Quann & Wien, 2006).


Self-regulation is the ability to adapt one’s emotional responses, thinking, and behavior according to the appropriateness of the situation. It includes the ability to start or stop doing something even if one doesn’t want to (Bogdan et al, 2012). It is a key component of learning. Being able to direct or disrupt attention for problem solving and communicating ideas to others are by-products of self-regulation. Self-regulation is critical to being able to create and maintain positive relationships. It begins to develop during infancy and has long-lasting effects on a child’s relationships with others (Saarni et al, 2006). The learning of self-regulation is a primary task during toddlerhood and is only possible within the context of a nurturing relationship. By providing appropriate stimulation in response to an infant’s moods, and interests, a caregiver can help an infant manage his or her arousal level and build a neuro network for self-regulation (Thompson & Raikes, 2007).

When a human is born, the brain has relatively few emotional circuits (fear, discomfort, joy, and curiosity) and a limited ability to control them. Control is learned from watching others. In nurturing relationships, an infant’s primary caregivers provide experiences that build pathways of neural connections through one-on-one stimulus and response. However, if this process is interrupted by stress or a caregiver’s inadequate responses, the neural connections may be weak and compromises the infant’s ability to develop self-regulation. Self-regulation is a process of executive function. Executive function processes are the most critical components of emotional development and social competence. Research indicates that half of all children by age five lack socially competent levels of emotional and cognitive self-regulation (Szalavitz & Perry, 2011).

Learning to self-regulate emotions is a vital component of early education. The ability to regulate emotions is important for being able to communicate one’s needs in a socially competent manner. Limited ability to regulate one’s emotions can impair problem solving and compromise judgment necessary for effective decision-making. Emotional regulation involves the interaction of emotions, cognition, and behavior. A young child’s skill in the use of language is of vital importance for learning how to use words to express emotions. Helping young children to negotiate socially competent outcomes during emotionally charged situations is a critical adult responsibility. Emotional regulation is strongly influenced by adult role modeling of emotional regulation. The relationship between a young child and her caregiver provides a model for interactions between a young child and other children. Adults can best help young children learn how to manage their emotions by demonstrating socially competent ways of expressing their own emotions (Strathean et at, 2008). A young child’s capacity for impulse control is important for being able to successfully adapt to social situations that require self-control. As infants mature they become increasingly capable of exercising voluntary control over their behavior such as waiting for needs to be met or following safety rules. Responsiveness to an infant’s signals contributes to the development of healthy emotional regulation Lipina & Colombo, 2009).

Nurturing social competence

The earliest messages that the brain receives have an indelible impact on a child’s affective domain. Early brain development is the foundation of human adaptability and resilience. Because experiences have such a powerful impact on brain development, the very young child is especially vulnerable to persistent negative influences during this period. However, on the brighter side, that mean experiences that occur during the first three years of life provide an opportunity for positive early experiences to also have a huge effect on a child’s coping skills and ability to express emotions in a socially competent manner (Bogdan et al, 2012).

The debate about whether genetic predisposition or nurturing experiences has the greater influence on a young child’s development is a moot argument. Brain research indicates that emotion and cognition are profoundly interrelated processes and both are intimately tied to genetic predisposition and environmental stimulation. Social-emotional development is intimately tied to a young child’s early experiences, such as how caregivers express feelings and manage their emotional responses to the environment. The ability to establish and maintain emotionally healthy relationships with others involves both intrapersonal and interpersonal processes (Durston & Casey, 2006).

Young children are particularly attuned to social and emotional stimulation. Infants perceive emotions before they can understand them. They learn to recognize emotions by observing adult caregivers. The capacity to express emotions in a socially competent manner is learned by observing the behavior of others. Healthy social-emotional development unfolds within an interpersonal context. Without positive ongoing relationships with nurturing adults, the young child’s ability to express emotions in a socially competent manner will be compromised. Healthy emotional development includes the following abilities acquired during early childhood:

  • the ability to identify and understand one’s own feelings
  • the ability to accurately read and understand the emotions expressed by others
  • the ability to manage emotional expression in a constructive manner
  • the ability to regulate one’s own behavior
  • the ability to express empathic understanding for others
  • the ability to establish and maintain healthy relationships (Szalavitz & Perry, 2001).

Play and emotional development

Play promotes the healthy development. All learning is accelerated by play. This includes learning in the affective domain. The neurobiological drive to explore sparks play activity. Exploratory play stimulates neural activity and is responsible for the construction of complex neural networks. Play encourages engagement and the repetitive actions that engender confidence, a sense of accomplishment, and mastery. Play engages attention that promotes skill development, creative problem solving, and relationship building. Pretend play nurtures brain development by involving emotions and cognition in executive function, sensorimotor activity, and language expression. Pretend play stimulates the formation of synaptic connections (Szalavitz & Perry, 2011).

A young child pursues skill development through three strategies: trial and error practice, observation, and imitation. Learning through observation and imitation engages a neurophysiological system referred to as mirror neurons. A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires not only when a person performs an action but also when the person observes an action performed by someone else (Chong, et al, 2008). The mirror neuron system is involved in the cognitive processes of social cognition and social interaction, the social use of language, understanding of actions, observational learning, theory of the mind, and empathic understanding (Chong et al., 2008).

Neuroscience has found that repeated observation of an action increases brain activity resulting in experience-dependent changes in neuro clusters (Chong et al., 2008). The mirror neuron system facilitates the ability to understand the actions of others and to imitate their actions (Frey & Gerry, 2006). Because mirror neurons are used to learn from what is observed, these neurons can facilitate learning through imitation, rather than relying on learning through trial and error (Geake, 2009), (Chong et al., 2008). The human infant has the ability to imitate actions within an hour after birth. For example, a newborn can imitate protruding the tongue, while observing it being demonstrated by an adult. The ability to imitate helps young children learn by observation, without the need for direct instruction (Frey & Gerry, 2006). Young children eventually become selective in what they choose to imitate. If a person being watched makes a mistake or stops before completing an action, a toddler will typically perform an action that he or she thinks was intended, not what was actually done. Toddlers are able to understand the relationship between observed actions and the effects of those actions. They benefit from observation of others’ actions to assist organizing their own actions. Because children learn through imitation, antisocial models and events (such as portrayed in the media) are a potentially dangerous source for observational learning (Frey & Gerry, 2006).

The stress factor

The development of emotion and cognition both rely on the maturation of the complex neural networks in multiple areas of the brain. The integration of efforts from different areas of the brain result in more efficient functioning necessary for learning. Neuroscience is able to demonstrate how the connections between emotions, memory and attention improve problem solving and self control, and how chronic stress can raise chemical levels of stress hormone that interfere with memory, attention and learning (Thompson & Raikes, 2007).

A young child experiencing consistent, predictable nurturing develops neurobiological capabilities that increase the chance for having stable mental health. However, if there is an absence of nurturing relationships in the first three years of life, long-lasting deficits in neurodevelopment will occur (Szalavitz & Perry, 2011).  Infants with a secure attachment to a primary caregiver tend to have lower levels of stress hormone (Wiedenmayer et al, 2006).

If an infant is exposed to persistent chaos and unpredictability the developing neural system and functional capabilities will reflect this disorganization (Szalavitz & Perry, 2011). Unpredictable environments cause stress. Stress affects emotional development. Children who chronically experience abusive environments develop more defensiveness than children experiencing a nurturing environment (Anda et al, 2006).

Hormonal changes associated with pregnancy and childbirth prime mothering responds to an infant and neurochemical responses tend to become shaped by the experience (Amelie et al, 2009) (Kringelbach et al., 2008). The process allows biologically based attachment needs to develop between infants and non-maternal caregivers, including fathers, grandparents, and child care providers (Saarni et al, 2006). Competent caregiving functions as a regulator of the stress response (Schechter, 2012). The caregiver-child relationship is a stress buffer. Consistent and responsive attention to an infant helps build the neurobiological capacity to tolerate future stress. Attachment to a caregiver in a secure relationship provides a sense of safety and elicits biological responses important for being able to cope, adequately to stress and is critical for forming neural connections related to feeling a sense of belonging and confidence in self and developing a sense of the needs and feelings of others, social relatedness, access to autobiographical memory, and the development of self-reflection and narrative (Szalavitz & Perry, 2011).

Stress during early childhood can be either growth promoting to the brain or damaging to the brain, depending on the intensity and duration of a stressful experience. Individual differences in physiological responsiveness to stress and the extent to which a significant other is available to an infant for providing emotional support during periods of stress will influence how an infant is able to cope with stress. Without adequate nurturing an infants’ ability to cope with stress and develop healthy emotion regulation may not occur (Wiedenmayer et al, 2006).

A young child will alternate from reaching-out to the primary caregiver and exploring the environment. A sense of security grows out of a nurturing, predictable environment. Young children who experience a responsive relationship feel more emotionally secure and have greater stress tolerance than young children that have a less emotionally secure relationship. Secure attachment plays a pivotal role in the regulation of the stress responses (Johnston et al, 2009).

All stress is not equal. Some stress can have a positive effect on development. This is typically the case when exposure to stress hormones is time-limited and related to discovery learning. A positive stress occurs when an infant is attempting to reach a toy that is just barely out-of-reach. The stress induced by straining to obtain the toy, can actually provide the motivation to sustain effort in reaching for the toy until it is secured. This assists an infant in developing coping skills necessary for adapting to change Schechter, 2012).

A level of stress experience that could be tolerable stress, is associated with physiological responses that could possibly disrupt brain architecture if not kept in check. Appropriately supportive relationships can facilitate adaptive coping and restore stress hormone levels to within normal limits. Common early childhood experiences, such as stranger anxiety, separation anxiety, and receiving immunizations can produce stress. However, these stress-inducing experiences, if short-lived, may not result in enough stress to damage the brain. Stress that occurs within the context of a stable and supportive relationship with a significant adult can be tolerable stress. The support of a responsive adult can facilitate bring stress hormone levels back to within a normal range. Stress such as being startled for a prolonged period before being receiving comfort can, potentially be tolerated, even though significant levels of stress are involved. A level of stress that could have long-term negative consequences can be tolerable if its occurrence is time-limited by a supportive adult helping to mediate an infant’s stress response. Timely intervention allows the brain to recover from the potentially damaging effects of the body’s stress management system being over-activated Wiedenmayer et al, 2006).

The most threatening kind of stress experience is referred to as toxic stress. Toxic stress is associated with an intense and prolonged activation of the body’s stress management system in the absence of adult support to provide buffering protection from the release of stress hormones. Precipitants can include chronic depression of an adult significant other who becomes emotionally unavailable, reoccurring physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, parental substance abuse, and/or repeated exposure to violence (Lipina & Colombo, 2009).

Toxic stress is associated with effects on the nervous system that can, over time, damage the developing architecture of the brain and lead to negative mental health consequences. Research indicates that remediation interventions that are provided after age eight will tend to produce a less favorable outcome than developmentally appropriate interventions done prior to age three in children who are particularly vulnerable to mental health instability. Activation of the body’s stress management system produce elevated levels of stress hormones (e.g., cortisol) and proteins associated with inflammation (e.g., cytokines). These responses prepare the body to deal with threats. They stimulate the “fight or flight” response. The consequence of persistently elevated cortisol levels can be toxic to the developing architecture of the brain. When these physiological responses to stress remain activated at high levels for too long a period of time, they can have a devastating effect on brain development (Wiedenmayer et al, 2006).

The essential feature of toxic stress is the absence of consistent, supportive relationships to help an infant cope with distress so that the body’s physiological response to stress remains at dangerously high levels. Chronic elevated levels of stress hormone releases brain chemicals that disrupt the healthy architecture of the developing brain. This can lead to difficulties with learning and emotional modulation that affect metabolic regulatory mechanisms leading to a permanently lower threshold for distress. Young children experiencing toxic levels of stress may develop greater susceptibility to stress-related mental health problems (such as depression and anxiety disorders) that persist into adulthood (Schechter, 2012).

Toxic stress can damage the developing brain. Sensitive and responsive caregiving is a requirement for the healthy neurophysiological and psychological development of a child. Young children who experience abuse and neglect will tend to have lifelong problems with emotional regulation, self-concept, social skills and learning. This can lead to mental health problems (Anda et al., 2006). Young children who have been exposed to violence will be at risk for acting-out in violence, under stress, because of adverse effects on their early brain development (Smyke et al, 2012).

Chronic stress during post-natal development has been found to lead to dis-regulation of the stress response system, disruption of neural plasticity and atypical synaptic connectivity (Pluess & Belsky, 2011). Stress can be overwhelming for young children without supportive adult relationships and can lead to changes in brain functioning, including chemical responses, impaired cell growth, changing the kinds of proteins and other molecules produced by the brain, death of neurons, and the interference with the formation of healthy neural networks. Prolonged stress leads to an elevated level of noradrenalin, a hormone that increases arousal and aggression as well as lowering the levels of serotonin (a mood regulating hormone that affects learning and memory), which can result in depression and low impulse control (Szalavitz & Perry, 2011).

The effects of prolonged stress (persistent altered levels of the impulse modulating and stress hormones serotonin, cortisol and noradrenalin), can become a process characterized by hyper-sensitivity to signs of danger, including hyper-vigilance and a short fuse for the body’s stress response which can lead to lifelong problems with learning, behavior, and mental health by actually changing brain chemistry, as well as interfering with attention and memory (Geake, 2009). Emotions, learning and memory are closely linked. Emotions influence a person’s capacity to attend, to be involved and to take action, all of which are essential for learning. A child’s motivation  is underpinned by having a sense of security that develops from nurturing relationships. If children feel excessively stressed, fearful or anxious, maintaining engagement can become difficult and neural processes are compromised (Schechter, 2012).

The effects of environmental deprivation

Neuroscience has provided compelling evidence that brain development in the first three years of life is extremely vulnerable to environmental deprivation. The longer-term negative outcome is a significant decrease in the victim’s capacity to trust. Early experiences either enhance or diminish an individual’s potential for trust, empathy, efficient problem solving, and rational decision-making. All development and learning is significantly impacted, for better or for worse by experiences occurring during the first three years of life. Knowledge from neuroscience, cognitive science, the social and behavioral sciences, and psychology provide a broad understanding of how learning is not just about school readiness. The impact of early experiences on brain architecture and brain function profoundly influence social and emotional development (Anda et al, 2006).

The evidence is clear that individualized, consistent human contact can have a profoundly positive therapeutic effect on an infant even after suffering emotional neglect.

Emotional neglect most commonly arises from parental psychiatric conditions, such as a history of major depression and anxiety disorder, (both of which are associated with attachment disturbances during infancy and demonstrate consistent patterns of corticolimbic dysregulation that is visible on neuroimaging. Documented enlarged amygdala volume in young children of a depressed caregiver/parent, suggests the need for further research of the intergenerational transmission of psychopathology to infants raised in such an adverse situation. Neuroscience validates the importance of prompt intervention with a neglected child; ideally within the first three years of life (Bogdan et al, 2012).

Neuroscience provides evidence that early experiences impact mental health and social skills. The longer a child stays in an unhealthy environment the more difficult it is to apply interventions that can reverse damage to mental health. Attempts at intervention will require more resources, more time, and potentially be less effective for minimizing the damaging effects of an emotionally unhealthy environment when interventions are attempted after the end of early childhood (Smyke et al, 2012).

Neuroscience affirms that all behavior that controls the learning of how to express mood and emotion is mediated through the brain (Schechter, 2012) (Levitt, 2007). The assertions of neuroscience are deductions made from scientific experiments, descriptive studies of children who have suffered environmental deprivation and even from neuroimaging and electroencephalograms (EEGs) done on adult brains (Bogdan et al, 2012).

Findings indicate that if, during the first three years of life, a young child experiences neglect that is characterized by inadequate sensory input (i.e. lack of touch, lack of social interaction, and poverty of exposure to language) there will be underdevelopment of the brain (Szalavitz & Perry, 2011). The development of the brain and its functions are severely compromised in an environment that does not have adequate stimulation. Studies are conclusive that the longer children experience environmental deprivation, the more pervasive and resistant to recovery the detrimental effects will be. Hard scientific data collected through brain imaging technology is continually being modified, refined and built upon to enhance understanding of the negative effects of environmental deprivation. These neuroscience findings complement what has been understood about environmental deprivation for over thirty years (Szalavitz & Perry, 2011).

Neuroscience highlights the fundamental importance of early experiences on the developing human brain and the associated risks of environmental deprivation during the first three years of life. The neurosciences have increased our understanding of the genetic factors that interact with the environment contributing to individual outcomes that are favorable for either emotional resilience or psychopathology. Genetic and environmental studies have explored what can be done in an attempt to limit some of the devastating effects of emotional neglect that might occur to a young child in the first three years of life. The hope exists of eventually finding intervention strategies that can foster greater plasticity in the social-emotional life of a child suffering from environmental deprivation. However, a solution is far from easy and not something that will occur in the near future. The more practical pursuit is prevention (Schechter, 2012).

Some individuals may be at risk for heightened symptoms of depression and anxiety by virtue of a genetic predisposition. Other children may have a genetic predisposition for being more resilient in the face of environmental depravation. Genetic research challenges our thinking of risk versus resilience and gene variants that promote different degrees of plasticity (Gilmore, et al, 2007). Young children who suffer more pervasive emotional neglect show clinically significant reductions in the severity of attachment disorder after early psychosocial intervention (Bogdan, et al, 2012).   Young children who are grossly neglected display delays in motor development and cognitive ability and many are never able to catch-up, even with remediation. Just as serious is the fact that environmental deprivation can lead to a blunted affect from which the child will tend not to recover. It is clear that children require adequate stimulation to manifest “normal” development. However, research does not provide any evidence that “extra” stimulation is helpful for augmenting what would be in the range of normal development. There is definitive evidence that environmental deprivation will have a devastatingly negative influence on brain development. However, neuroscience does not  suggest that adding “extra” stimulation will enhance synapse formation (Szalavitz & Perry, 2011).

Addressing mental health issues

The emotional health of a young child is closely tied to the social and emotional characteristics of the environments in which he resides. A young child growing up in an environment where mental health problems, substance abuse, and family violence are observed on a regular basis faces significant risk of damage to his emotional development. Chronic maltreatment has been documented as producing measurable changes in the brain of a very young child. Although these children are at greater risk for later problems with aggression, they can be helped substantially if provided with early and adequate intervention that must include a reliable and nurturing relationship with a supportive caregiver. Young children who have experienced significant maltreatment exhibit a predictable array of clinical symptoms. Young children can have mental health symptoms such as anxiety and/or depression and demonstrate the same kind of brain changes seen on electro­encephalograms in clinically depressed adults (Smyke et al, 2012).

A healthy wellbeing incorporates the integration of physical, social, emotional, and cognitive aspects of development. Neuroscience provides evidence of the interrelatedness of emotions and cognition. Social and emotional capacities are equally as important as cognitive capacities as indicators of healthy brain development and predictors of academic achievement (Schechter, 2012).

Evidence from neuroscience links a sense of wellbeing with learning. A healthy sense of wellbeing is identified as a cognitive characteristic of executive function. The neural networks associated with executive function have been found to be highly interactive with those involved with regulation of emotion. Research has identified a strong connection between emotion and cognition and how they enhance learning through the release of endorphins. Endorphins are the neurochemicals in the brain that contribute to pleasure, feeling positive and acting with optimism (Geake, 2009).

The fact that significant emotional distress can affect the architecture of a young child’s brain is difficult for society to accept. Despite extensive knowledge on the emotional and social development of young children and its underlying neurobiology, the current early-childhood focus is on cognition, language development, and early literacy.

The gap between what is known about emotional development of young children and the management of behavioral difficulties demonstrates an uneven availability of support for addressing mental health problems. Limited mental health training for caregivers and early childhood educators on how to deal with children who present significant emotional and/or behavioral problems in early care and education programs is an alarming problem that must be addressed (Lipina & Colombo, 2009).

Minimal expertise in early childhood development and infant mental health within child-welfare agencies that assess and treat children who have been the victims of maltreatment is a major drawback to appropriate intervention. Despite evidence that young children can experience debilitating anxiety and depression from the trauma of parental abuse and neglect or from witnessing violence in their family or neighborhood there are limited competent resources available to provide treatment. This is the case in spite of the data illustrating that early interventions can significantly moderate the negative effects of these types of trauma (Schechter, 2012).

Neuroscience provides a well-documented rationale for early intervention. There is compelling evidence that all early childhood programs should balance the focus on cognition and literacy with equal attention to emotional and social development. Young children need to develop social competence just as much as they need the cognitive skills required to master the reading and math. Services to support parents and child care programs that are struggling to manage the disruptive and aggressive behavior of some young children need to be readily available in order to prevent social and emotional problems from becoming more severe (Thompson & Raikes, 2007).  Providers of early care and education must have sufficient training to help children with behavior problems at the first sign of a problem. Greater emphasis must be placed on the social and emotional development of children in both pre-service training programs and through continuing education via in-service training. Additionally, early childhood care and education programs must have direct access to mental-health professionals who specialize in working with young children. Expertise in early identification, assessment, and clinical treatment must be incorporated into existing intervention programs to address the needs of young children with mental health problems (Smyke et al, 2012).

Practical application

The challenge that needs to be addressed is the significant gap in the quality of early childhood care and education and the responsibility to close that gap is a moral imperative. The difference between what is known from systematic scientific inquiry about what is in the best interest of young children and what is actually practiced is unacceptable from a moral perspective. Neuroscience provides a sound framework for establishing the appropriate actions necessary to meet the emotional needs of young children. All that is lacking is a stronger commitment to acting on the research that is available.

The essence of high quality early childhood education is embodied in the ability of early care and education practitioners to build positive relationships with young children. A significant shortage of adequately trained early childhood education staff indicates that society does not recognize the importance of having highly trained and highly qualified early childhood professionals working with young children.

Quality in early childcare and education programs is often defined in terms of adult-child ratio, group size, physical facilities, and curriculum. But “quality” is perceived differently when viewed as a feature of the relationship a young child develops with an adult. The importance of ensuring that relationships in childcare are nurturing, stimulating, and reliable requires that the emphasis of high quality childcare should be on the skill and personal attributes of caregivers, and on improving the wages and benefits that affect staff turnover. Having a better understanding of early childhood education and brain development can provide impetus for the design of early childhood programs that have a more positive impact on the lives of young children.        Unfortunately, the generally poor quality of childcare available in America does not support this view. High caregiver turnover, poorly designed programs, inadequate preparation of staff, and low wages are the norm. Research suggests that the amount of time spent in out-of-home care during infancy may be associated with a tendency to display oppositional and aggressive behavior by the time a child enters kindergarten. Other research indicates that a child who develops a warm and positive relationship with her kindergarten teacher are more excited about learning, more positive about coming to school, more self-confident, and displays more academic achievement in the classroom.


Certain major themes consistently emerge from the neuroscience literature in relationship to the affective domain. Knowledge acquired from neuroscience, cognitive science, the social and behavioral sciences, and psychology provide a broad understanding that learning is not just about cognitive development related to school readiness. The impact of early experiences on brain architecture and brain function also have a profound influence on social and emotional development. The intimate interaction between genetic predisposition and experience shapes the architecture of the developing brain. Each child’s engagement in relationships with his/her parents, other primary caregivers and even media exposure will have an indelible impact on his or her developing mind. Emotional, social and cognitive abilities are inextricably intertwined and cannot be separated, even though rhetoric is often employed to make it seem as if it is possible to isolate cognition from emotion, it is not possible. The brain is an integrated organ and all its functions operate in a coordinated effort. Emotional health and social competence provide the foundation for emerging cognitive abilities. This provides the foundation for what it means to be human.

  • References

    Anda RF; Felitti VJ; Bremner JD; Walker JD; Whitfield C; Perry BD; Dube SR; Giles WH. (2006). The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood: a convergence of evidence from neurobiology and epidemiology. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci, 256:174-186.

    Amelie, D., Dale, M., Fogel, A. (2009). A longitudinal investigation of maternal touching across the first 6 months of life: Age and context effects. Infant Behavior & Development 32:344–349.

    Barrett, L., Mesquita, B., Ochsner, K., Gross, J. (2007). The Experience of Emotion. Annual Review of Psychology, 58:373–403.

    Bayley, N. (2006). Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development (3rd ed). San Antonio, TX: Harcourt Assessment, Inc.

    Bierman, K et al. (2008). Promoting Academic and Social-Emotional School Readiness: The Head Start REDI Program, Child Development, 79(6):1802–1817.

    Bogdan R; Williamson DE; Hariri AR (2012). Mineralocorticoid receptor iso/val rs5522) genotype moderates the association between previous childhood emotional neglect and amygdala reactivity. Am J Psychiatry, 169:515-522.

    Brodsky BS; Mann JJ; Stanley B; Tin A; Oquendo M; Birmaher B; Greenhill L; Kolko D; Zelazny J; Burke AK; Melhem NM; Brent D (2008). Familial transmission of suicidal behavior: factors mediating the relationship between childhood abuse and offspring suicide attempts. J Clin Psychiatry, 69:584-596.

    Bull, R, Espy, KA & Wiebe, S. (2008). Short-term memory, working memory, and executive functioning in preschoolers: longitudinal predictors of mathematical achievement at age 7 years, Developmental Neuropsychology, 33 (3):205–228. Carter, R, Aldridge S, Page M, Parker S. (2009). The Human Brain Book. New York, NY: DK Publishing.

    Chong, T, Cunningham, R, Williams, M, Kanwisher, N, Mattingly, J. (2008). MRI Adaption reveals mirror neurons in human inferior parietal cortex, Current Biology, 18 October:1576–1580.

    Dinstein, I; Gardner, JL; Jazayeri, M; Heeger, DJ. (2008). Executed and observed movements have different distributed representations in human aI PS, Journal of Neuroscience 28 (44):11231–11239.

    Dirix CEH, Nijhuis JG, Jongsma HW, et al. (2009). Aspects of fetal learning and memory. Child Development, 80(4):1251-1258.

    Durston S, Casey BJ. (2006). What have we learned about cognitive development from neuroimaging? Neuropsychologia, 44:2149-2157.

    Farroni T, Massaccesi S, Menon E, et al. (2007). Direct gaze modulates face recognition in young infants. Cognition, 102:396-404.

    Fogel, A, King, B, & Shanker, S. (eds). (2009). Human Development in the 21st Century, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Frey, S & Gerry, V. (2006). Modulation of neural activity during observational learning of actions and their sequential orders, Journal of neuroscience, 20 Dec, 26(51):13194–13201.

    Geake, J. (2009). The Brain at School: educational neuroscience in the classroom. Berkshire, England: OUP.

    Gilmore JH, Lin W, Prasatwa MW, et al. (2007). Regional gray matter growth, sexual dimorphism, and cerebral asymmetry in the neonatal brain. Journal of Neuroscience. 27(6):1255-1260.

    Holmboe K, Pasco Fearon RM, Csibra G, et al. (2008). Freeze-frame: a new infant inhibition task and its relation to frontal cortex tasks during infancy and early childhood. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 100:89–114.

    Imada T, Zhang Y, Cheour M, et al. (2006). Infant speech perception activates Broca’s area: a developmental magnetoencephalography study. NeuroReport,17(10):957- 962.

    Johnston MV, Ishida A, Ishida WN, et al. (2009). Plasticity and injury in the developing brain. Brain & Development, 31:1-10.

    Knickmeyer RC, Gouttard S, Kang C, et al. (2008). A structural MRI study of human brain development from birth to 2 years. Journal of Neuroscience, 28(47):12176-12182.

    Kringelbach, M. L., & Berridge, K. C. (2010). The Neuroscience of Happiness and Pleasure. Social Research, 77(2): 659-678.

    Lagattuta, K. H., and R. A. Thompson. (2007). The Development of Self-Conscious Emotions: Cognitive Processes and Social Influences. In The Self-Conscious Emotions: Theory and Research. Edited by J. L. Tracy, R. W. Robins, and J. P. Tangney. New York: Guilford Press.

    Lenroot RK, Giedd JN. (2007). The structural development of the human brain as measured longitudinally with magnetic resonance imaging. In Coch D , Fischer KW, Dawson G, eds. Human behavior, learning, and the developing brain: Typical development. New York, NY: Guilford Press. 50-73.

    Levitt, P., & Campbell, D. (2009). The genetic and neurobiologic compass points toward common signaling dysfunctions in autism spectrum disorders. The Journal Of Clinical Investigation, 119(4): 747-754.

    Lipina SJ, Colombo JA. (2009). Poverty and Brain Development During Childhood: An Approach From Cognitive Psychology and Neuroscience. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    Marsch R, Gerber AJ, Peterson BS. (2008). Neuroimaging studies of normal brain development and their relevance for understanding childhood neuropsychiatric disorders. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 47(11):1233-1251.

    Messinger, D., and A. Fogel. (2007). “The Interactive Development of Social Smiling,” in Advances in Child Development and Behavior (Vol. 35). Edited by R. V. Kail. Burlington, MA: Elsevier.

    Mosier, W. (1987). The effects of empathic listening skills training on child care providers. Dissertation Abstracts. University of Southern California.

    O’Rahilly R. and Mueller F. (2008). Significant features in the early prenatal development of the human brain. Annals of Anatomy, 190:105-118.

    Pluess M. and Belsky J. (2011). Prenatal programming of postnatal plasticity? Dev Psychopathol, 23:29-38.

    Quann, V., and C. Wien. 2006. “The Visible Empathy of Infants and Toddlers,” Young Children, 61(4):22–29.

    Saarni, C., Campos, J., Camras, L., & Witherington, D. (2006). Emotional Development: Action, Communication, and Understanding. In Handbook of Child Psychology (Sixth edition), Vol. 3, Social, Emotional, and Personality Development. Edited by N. Eisenberg. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

    Schechter, Daniel S. (2012). The Developmental Neuroscience of Emotional Neglect, Its Consequences, and the Psychosocial Interventions That Can Reverse Them. Am J Psychiatry, 169:452-454.

    Smyke AT; Zeanah CH; Gleason MM; Drury SS; Fox NA; Nelson CA; Guthrie D. (2012). A randomized controlled trial comparing foster care and institutional care for children with signs of reactive attachment disorder. Am J Psychiatry, 169:508-514.

    Strathearn, L, Li, J, Fonagy, P, & Montague, PR. (2008). What’s in a smile? Maternal brain responses to infant facial cues, Pediatrics, 122:40–51.

    Szalavitz, Maia & Perry, Bruce D. (2011). Born for love. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

    Taumoepeau, M., and T. Ruffman. (2008). “Stepping Stones to Others’ Minds: Maternal Talk Relates to Child Mental State Language and Emotion Understanding at 15, 24, and 33 Months,” Child Development, Vol. 79, No. 2, 284–302.

    Thompson, R.A., & Raikes, H.A. (2007). Early socio­emotional development and the roots of school readiness. In J. Knitzer, R. Kaufmann, & D. Perry (Eds.), Early Childhood Mental Health (pp. 13-35). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

    Tsai, J.; B. Knutson; and H. Fung. (2006). “Cultural Variation in Affect Valuation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 90, No. 2, 288–307.

    Wiedenmayer CP, Bansal R, Anderson GM, et al. (2006). Cortisol levels and hippocampus volumes in healthy preadolescent children. Biological Psychiatry, 60:856-861.

Suggested citation:

Mosier, W. A. (2013). Addressing the affective domain: What neuroscience says about social/emotional development in early childhood. In L. H. Wasserman & D. Zambo (Eds.), Early childhood and neuroscience: Links to development and learning (pp. 77–104). New York: Springer.

  Related Posts