The Key to Healthy, Successful Kids (and Adults)

“… if we want to improve children’s opportunities for success, one of the most powerful potential levers for change is not the children themselves, but rather the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of the adults who surround them.” From, “To Help Kids Thrive, Coach Their Parents,” in the NY Times Sunday Magazine.

What we have learned from longitudinal research is that children who grow up in stable environments in which they feel confident attachment to caregivers (usually, but not always parents), are much more successful and well-adapted as older children and adults. In fact, to the contrary, young children (infants and toddlers) who grow up in highly stressful environments with poor attachment to caregivers experience some of the greatest handicaps later in life, with often poor academic and employment outcomes and challenges with personal relationships—and they’re more likely to drop out of school and run afoul of the law. This is because the stress they experience in such environments often negatively affects the neurobiological development necessary to lay down a solid foundation for what are often called non-cognitive capacities.

These non-cognitive skills are the emotional and psychological habits and mindsets that enable children (and eventually adults) to negotiate their daily lives, both in and out of educational settings. This development affects things such as the ability to persevere for extended periods of time, self-concept and self-regulation of behavior, and socially appropriate interactions with others. In fact, even in the absence of any identifiable educational interventions, children whose caregivers receive support and training to provide healthy, low-stress environments with effective attachment, out perform children in research control groups in purely cognitive/academic performance as well!

What this research tells us is that we are likely to get much more benefit out of supporting parents and caregivers in high-stress, unstable settings with intensive coaching and in-home or institutional resources than we are from interventions directed at young children themselves. In fact, this research suggests that such interventions for care-givers seems to be even more important that nutritional interventions for children themselves.

One of the unstated, but critical take-ways of this otherwise intuitive research is that human beings are hardwired to be voracious learners from birth. In fact, the most important thing we can do in the earliest years of life is to simply provide a stable, loving, and safe environment in which adults engage infants and toddlers in stimulating interactions with the world around them. If we can do that, children’s brains will do the rest on their own.

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