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'Positive stress' is crucial for babies' emotional and intellectual development

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Attention to young childrens' emotional lives may be as important to brain development as emphasis on facts and concepts, the latest science on early childhood learning indicates.

Ever wondered what is going on in a baby's or toddler’s brain? It's a topic that's fascinated researchers and neuroscientists for years. In recent decades, sociologists, psychologists, and even economists have devoted time to this research. Along with findings that the brain is more plastic than previously believed — meaning it has the ability to change itself — researchers have been studying the impact of stress on the developing brain.

Some surprising new findings indicate that helping babies and toddlers develop emotional control can postition them better for healthier and more successful lives than emphasizing only academics.

USC neuroscientist Pat Levitt draws from a common preschool experience to explain what this means. “Maybe circle time is a little nerve-wracking for some kids who are a little bit shy," he says. "Their heart rate goes up, they sweat a little bit, and over time they learn how to control that and speak and tell their classmates about something they did over the weekend.”

Levitt calls this “positive stress” and says that parents and teachers need to help toddlers through moments like this, rather than try and protect children from these stresses. This is critical, he says, because the developing brain needs to learn from these early experiences how to self-soothe, so it can overcome, “When the challenges may be more significant.”

Dealing with stressful incidents begins at birth, and journalist Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed,” says that “attuned parenting” is the key to building the healthy brain architecture of a baby.

Levitt describes the “serve and return” actions of “attuned” caregivers as the most beneficial to the developing brain. He says this begins the process by which the brain learns how to deal with positive, tolerable or toxic stress levels. “So learning and cognition develops better when it’s connected to emotions and motivation, when the child is really motivated to pay attention to what is going on.” Motivation - one element of emotional control - has to be taught and learned, Paul Tough adds.

Tough’s interviews with experts in the field led him to the conclusion that “we have been emphasizing IQ too much” in early childhood development. He calls the sole focus on academics and cognitive skills for babies and toddlers “misguided,” offering that “we should be paying more attention to these other skills that are harder to measure, harder to teach, but clearly have a lot of correlation with success -- skills like grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, self control, optimism.”

One application of this fuzzy neuroscience in the real world happens every day at the South East Rio Vista YMCA preschool, where staff blend the teaching of emotional control with all-important academics.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified LA-UP as Los Angeles Unified Preschool. It is in fact Los Angeles Universal Preschool.

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