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How to Make the Most of Your Child’s Critical Growth Period

Unsplash :: Josh Applegate

All parents want to prep their children for a success-filled future. But, according to renowned pediatrician and parenting educator Dr. Laura Jana, many go about it in the wrong way. They ready their kids for, say, the grade school hurdles-to-come instead of the fine art of being a human down the road. And by doing this, she says they’re missing out on a critical developmental window that happens during the toddler years.

Eighty-five percent of brain growth is thought to occur during the newborn-to-toddler years, and the basic circuitry for higher cognitive functions such as thinking, reasoning, and communicating is largely in place by age 5. It’s the strength of these early brain connections that matter. And, as Jana explains in her latest book The Toddler Brain: Nurture The Skills Today That Will Shape Your Child’s Tomorrow, focusing on such things as STEM education isn’t going to shape them in meaningful ways.

“It’s such a huge and important window of opportunity that I think we overlook in the context of things people don’t realize are related, whether it’s educational outcome, health outcome, or workforce development,” says Jana. “Instead we focus on STEM education in middle school, or reskilling a workforce and forget to look further upstream. In terms of life outcome, we’re not looking early enough.”

So how do you look further upstream? By doing pretty much what responsive parents do innately and frequently each day: talking, singing, cooing, making eye contact, and reading books to your babies and toddlers.

It’s these frequent and diverse “caring interactions” that trigger neural development at a rate of thousands of new connections per second. What ultimately follows from this approach for your child, says Jana, is a well-built “21st Century toolkit” that’s filled with critical abilities she calls QI skills (pronounced key) because they’re the complement of IQ scores. These include self-management skills, people skills, self-motivational skills, and physical and intellectual restlessness. A full breakdown of the skills is here.

Jana’s technique comes down to helping your child cultivate a set of core cognitive skills as early in life as possible. Such skills as communication, critical thinking, empathy, and an ability to bounce back from failure, which CEOs all routinely identified as the most desirable.

“In terms of ‘big picture parenting,’ there’s no better way to set them up for success than that,” says Jana, adding that the emphasis on linear thinking that was a part of the 20th-century industrial revolution now extends “to an equal emphasis on emotional intelligence.

“Overall, I’m trying to empower parents to believe that they don’t have to have all these extra skills or buy anything in this approach,” says Jana. “They have the ability, regardless of socio-economics or literacy levels, to provide their children with something that will set them up for life success. The good news is that they can play that role well and be really successful if they do what they like to do anyways.”