How to ‘bridge minds’ with a child to stimulate brain development
This article, written by Nina Sokolovic, Jennifer Jenkins and Michal Perlman, first appeared on The Conversation, on February 15, 2018.
A three-year-old boy struggles to thread beads on a string while his older sister watches. She could ignore him or take over the task to get it done quickly. But if she observes him closely, and realizes that he is struggling to hold the string steady, she could offer to hold it for him and praise him for any beads he threads.
This approach—which includes awareness of the child’s cues, clear communication, back-and-forth reciprocity and guidance that adapts to where the child is at—would be an example of the sister ‘bridging minds’ with her brother.
Our research team at the University of Toronto has spent the past five years working to measure and teach the specific behaviours that promote children’s language and cognitive skills. We have defined supportive interactions as those in which two minds are ‘bridged.’ We also call this ‘displaying cognitive sensitivity.’
Our research shows that children who grow up with siblings who display this type of sensitivity often tend to have stronger language skills and are better able to see things from another’s perspective.
It also shows that when parents and teachers adapt their own behaviours based on what a child is thinking, they help that child to learn and grow.
Serve and return interactions
Specifically, it’s the ability to determine what the other person knows, what interests them in a given moment, what they are capable of doing, what types of instructions or support they need, and then to respond accordingly.
This concept moves beyond early work on the topic of sensitivity, which focused on the need to be responsive to how children are feeling in order to support children’s emotional development.
Instead, it draws on more recent research from the field of neuroscience, which has highlighted that responsive serve-and-return interactions are just as critical for stimulating children’s early brain development. Indeed, building bridges is about building brain connections.
Applying the science
The breakthrough of our research is that we have come up with a reliable and efficient way to measure the extent of ‘mind-bridging’ occurring in such interactions.
This involves trained researchers using simple checklists to evaluate interactions of children with siblings, parents or early-childhood educators—based on live or video-recorded interactions of pairs or groups.
The whole process can be completed in less than 10 minutes.
Our next challenge is supporting people to use the ‘bridging minds’ approach more often in their interactions with children. Many parents and professionals know that ‘early experiences matter’ and ‘zero-to-three is a vital period for human development,’ but still need more practical tools to make the most of these early years.
Our research team is currently conducting intervention studies with home-visiting nurses in Brazil and, in collaboration with colleagues at George Brown College, with early childhood educators in the Toronto area.
The goal of these studies is to help these populations build more bridges with children on a daily basis.
Maximize brain nutrition
In moments of play or daily routines, parents, guardians and early learning professionals can consider:
What is this child looking at and thinking about? How can I engage them, following their lead?
Start a conversation by commenting on what they’re doing. Then, try adding on to what they are already thinking about to extend their learning.
For a child playing with blocks: ‘What are you building there? A tower! Oh that’s a big tower. It’s already one, two, three bricks high with three different colours. Let’s see what you will do next with the tower?’
Let children try things themselves
It’s helpful for parents and early learning professions to wonder: What is this child capable of doing? How can I help him/her learn and succeed based on their interests?
Offer a hand to help them expand what they can do by themselves. And keep the interactions going back and forth without taking over.
Letting children try things themselves and providing positive feedback can reap real benefits.
For a child who is having trouble scooping water with a bucket: ‘Oh dear. It’s hard to get the water, isn’t it? I hold the bucket with both hands to make it easier for me. Want to try? Great job, you did it!’
Every interaction is an opportunity to expand what a child knows. To help build brains, parents, educators, siblings, grandparents and other caregivers can all try ‘bridging minds.’
About the authors
Nina Sokolovic is a Doctoral Student in Developmental Psychology and Education, University of Toronto.
Jennifer Jenkins is the Atkinson Chair of Early Child Development and Education and University of Toronto and runs the Kids, Families and Places research study. She teaches in the Collaborative PhD Program in Human Development, the School and Clinical Child and the Developmental Psychology and Education graduate programs at the University of Toronto.
Michal Perlman is Associate Professor at the Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
Downtime: Necessary for Children’s Mental Health and 21st-Century Skills
Rae Pica, Child Development Expert
Think back to your own childhood and the amount of downtime you had. Do you remember lying on your back outdoors, looking for creatures in the clouds? Playing outside with friends and having the freedom to choose whatever game you wanted to play, or whatever drama you wanted to enact? Being alone in your bedroom, curled up on the bed and reading a beloved book, or quietly acting out a story with your dolls, action figures, or stuffed animals?
I remember all of those things. But today’s children won’t have such memories, because they aren’t being granted the same opportunities. Instead, too many of today’s children are leading overscheduled lives, with no time just to be.
Intuitively, we know that everyone, including children, needs downtime. No one, even the most energetic among us, cares to rush through their waking hours, day after day after day. We know how stressful it is to be overscheduled, over-pressured, and overwhelmed. We’ve witnessed the toll it takes on adults (on us!) – and it’s horrible to imagine children feeling this way.
Despite this, many parents are afraid to let their children simply “do nothing.” They worry that if they don’t keep their children busy, busy, busy, they will have résumés that look sparse in comparison to their counterparts.
Then, of course, we have policy makers like the Maryland school chief who declared it was time to do away with the “baby stuff,” referring to naptime in preschool. Similar attitudes throughout the country have resulted in preschoolers and kindergartners being forced to power through their exhaustion in order to spend more time on “academics.”
Unfortunately, such policies fail to take into consideration the research (again!). Dr. James Maas, an international authority on sleep and performance, has said that, among other things, being overtired leads to:
- Reduced ability to concentrate
- Reduced ability to remember
- Reduced ability to be creative
- Reduced ability to make critical decisions
None of that contributes to optimal performance in a classroom! Moreover, Dr. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Sleepless in America, contends that “a very significant percentage of challenging behaviors are actually the result of tired kids.”
Yes, we want to help prepare our children for their future. But living an overscheduled, over programmed life isn’t the way to do it. That kind of childhood is laden with stress. And, according to Dr. Peter Gray,
Rates of depression and anxiety among young people in America have been increasing steadily for the past 50 to 70 years. Today, by at least some estimates, five to eight times as many high school and college students meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or anxiety disorder as was true half a century or more ago.
He attributes these mental health issues to a decline in free play – which, of course, is only possible when children have downtime.
We have to keep in mind, though, that even if mental health issues don’t arise, a lack of downtime means that a child will never learn to entertain herself. Will never be able to live inside her own head. To deal with solitude or quiet time — essential for problem solving and restoration. She may feel she absolutely has to be in the company of others, even panicking at the idea of keeping herself amused.
Imagination and creativity – ideas – arise from having time to think, to ponder and reflect, or just let the mind go. A child with downtime will engage in authentic play (self-chosen, self-directed, and without extrinsic goals) – alone and with others. Because play employs divergent thinking (a much-needed 21st-century skill), his problem-solving abilities will grow. If he has the time to carry out his plans and bring them to a conclusion, he’ll experience the satisfaction that comes from thinking things through and working them out. A child without such time develops only the ability to do what he’s told, when he’s told to do it. And that child isn’t likely to become an adult with initiative.
If we want children to grow up to be resourceful, they will have to start practicing now. You may no longer be allowed to include naptime as part of the day, but you can ensure that the children get some time to rest. You can also ensure that they get as much unstructured time as possible.
On the surface, downtime may look like wasted time. But, below the surface, there’s a whole lot going on. And it’s below the surface that truly counts!
- Ask about how your program makes children feel comfortable as they start.
Many programs have a system in place for sharing about the beginning of school and gathering information from families before the start of the school year. Ask for the name of your child’s primary caregiver and how you can share information about your family, routines, caregiving choices and culture.
- Review the daily schedule with your child.
Tell your child what will happen next using their posted daily schedule: Pictures of the day’s routine help your child “tell time.” If your child’s classroom does not have a daily schedule posted, ask if the teacher could share one. You could even offer to make one.
- Help your child get to know the primary caregiver first before you leave:
Taking the time to introduce your child to the new caregiver and join the caregiver and your child in play will pave the way to a strong relationship between them.
- Establish a predictable goodbye routine:
This will let your child know what will happen next, making it easier to cope with the transition. Wave from the window, watch the pet fish, play with a favorite toy, share a hug, read a book, or sing a goodbye song.
- Give your child tools to use when missing family:
A special lovey, a photo of your family, or an item like your watch can help your child cope. If the lovey can’t be shared with other children, ask your child’s teacher if it can stay in the cubby and come out when your child is sad.
- Share at least a few words of your home language with your child’s teacher:
Hearing that “mama or papa will come back” in your child’s home language makes a bridge between home and school, and helps your child feel understood. A word list that contains phrases that your family or your child uses for eating, diapering, sleeping and family members can help a great deal.
- Share your child’s favorite things to do with the teachers:
When your child is ready to play, the teacher can point out similar things in the classroom.
- Make homemade books:
Books that you make for your child about the daily routine including the transition from home to school can promote coping for children who need to rehearse the day’s plan to cope.
- Talk about feelings:
It’s ok to cry and miss a parent. It’s ok to feel angry at parents for leaving. Don’t be offended if your child is upset at you – strong feelings are normal. Don’t shame your child for feeling sad and scared; no one feels that way on purpose.
- Create a reunion ritual, checking in with your child’s teacher about the day:
Find out what went well and stress those successes to your child. “I heard that you loved playing with the balls!” Talk with your child about the day as you leave.
- Be timely:
Returning at the same time each day prevents your child from worrying if you have forgotten him or her when you are late. This makes drop off the next day easier; your child trusts you will not leave him or her at school forever.
By: Julia Luckenbill, NAEYC website
National Association for the Education of Young Children
Article by: Susan Brown, Assistant Director and Parent Educator, Commonwealth Parenting
In the early months and years of life children learn by getting their hands on and in all kinds of things. This early sensory motor stage is a wonderful time to introduce your child to science and math concepts through activities such as floor time, finger paint and water play.
Neurologists know that when children engage in sensory play they are stimulating neurons that fire, causing synapses to connect. I like to think of children’s fingers as if there are little brains on the tip of each finger. When these little brains get stimulated through play, neurons begin to fire. This firing of neurons excites the brain, causing it to grow bigger, stronger and more facile, setting the brain up for higher levels of cognition. One of the simplest ways to provide sensory play is through water activities.
Water play is not only incredibly fun for a small child, but it also enhances a child’s physical, cognitive, and social skills. When children pour water, they are improving their physical dexterity and hand-eye coordination. They extend their vocabulary as they learn new words and talk about what they are experiencing. They explore elements of science such as buoyancy and volume as they experience why some objects sink and others float. Children begin to experiment with math concepts such as greater than and less than, empty and full, and even fractions as they explore things that may be half full or quarter full.
Water play is easy to do at home. Just gather up a variety of plastic cups, toy boats and fish, a funnel, a turkey baster, some clean paint brushes – and watch how your child has fun pouring, playing and painting with water. You can also set up a water play area in your kitchen or backyard. Just pour two inches of water into a shallow plastic tub and add things that measure, float and sink. Having a little food coloring handy, to experiment with what happens when you add it to the water, is always fun. When children are playing with water it is always important for there to be constant adult supervision.
This simple and pleasurable play sets the foundation by preparing the brain for more complex concepts in math and science. Make water play an important part of your child’s day.
Hello, I am Mabry Agnew. You may remember me from the Employee Spotlight on Brendan Agnew. I am the lead teacher of the Adventurers classroom, which I helped to open in early 2014. This class has been one of the big adventures in my life ever since. About a year ago, my biggest adventure arrived on the scene: my daughter Marian Agnew, who is currently next door in the Wanderers classroom.
Family is the core of my life, but I have several families. There’s my immediate family Brendan, Marian, and my adoptive sister Ms. Robin (from the Troopers classroom). We all live together in a little brick house with two cats and a greyhound. There’s my extended family (Dad, little brother Michael, the best in-laws anyone ever had, an assortment of aunts, uncles, and cousins). There’s my Middle Earth family, my AOA family (more on that later), plus a few other friends who absolutely count as family. All of these people helped me to weather the loss of my mom four years ago, which is still a very fresh heartache.
Outside of my working hours, I am always busy. I read (a lot), write (less than I would like), and cook (as creatively as I have time and energy for). The other hobby about which I am passionate is performance. Both my parents were/are theater people, and I was infected with a dramatic streak from birth. These days I fulfill this passion through working with the Arthurian Order of Avalon, a local educational and performance group. This past year, I directed the chessboard, but most years I perform on it or help to write the script.
My undergraduate degree is a Bachelor of Arts in the College of Letters at Wesleyan University (with a semester at the University of Edinburgh). I have a Master of Library and Information Studies from the University of Oklahoma. Life led me in a different direction, however, and after a year working in Middle Earth’s infant room, I sought out more education in child development, completing my Certificate of Mastery online through OSU-OKC.
My perspective on child development is best summed up by the Donald Barthelme quote, “The distinction between children and adults, which is probably useful for some purposes, is at bottom of a specious one, I feel. There are only individual egos, crazy for love.” Working with infants and young toddlers, the most important thing I can do to help children learn and grow is to give them that love.
As a teacher, my goal is that the children who move on from my room succeed. I am helping to build the foundations they need to do amazing things. (I absolutely believe that a child I have taught will one day build a rocket to Mars. I won’t know which of them until they do it.) As a parent, I hope to raise a child who is braver than I am. Finally, as an individual, I would really like to write a best-selling book and never have to worry about money again.
My name is Claire Malone. I’m the lead teacher in the Detectives Pre-Kindergarten (4-5 year old) classroom soon to be the teacher of the Preschool (3-4 year old) classroom and have been working at Middle Earth since January 2012.
My family consist of my husband, David, myself, and our two furry pups, Abby and Zoey. We met while attending Norman North High School in 2007, happen to take a debate class together and have been best friends ever since. We recently got married in June of 2018 and life hasn’t slowed down since!
I love to spend time outside, camping, swimming, walking my dogs, thrift store shopping and live music. I also really enjoy being cozy at home, watching movies, playing board games, hanging out with friends and just spending time with the ones I love the most.
Within the community, I usually find myself enjoying local festivals that explore music and the arts. I have begun to explore local political activism and can’t wait to see where that leads me.
After completing high school, I took a year off and traveled the United States with my husband, meeting new people and learning a lot about myself. Once we came back, I got a job working with children and got accepted to the University of Oklahoma. After a few years, I took a break from school and began to work full time at Middle Earth as the Explorers Preschool teacher. Over the years, I became the Pre-Kindergarten teacher and can’t wait to see where my next journey leads me. I’m currently finishing up my Certificate of Mastery and will continue to pursue my education in the future.
I love that Middle Earth helps individuals thrive with what makes them unique in the world. We like to engage in activities weekly that help them learn life skills along their journey here with us. I like to give the children a safe space that they can take pride in and call their own. I teach from a place of love and respect and I truly believe that if you treat children as equals they will rise to the occasion and impress the heck out of yah!
One day to hope to teach other teachers how to teach from from their heart and with kindness in their classrooms. My goal as a teacher is to teach children to ask questions, get messy and know that the only thing holding them back is their own imagination.
As a parent, you likely quickly learned that ignoring a behavior or redirecting your young child often helps to reduce undesirable behavior. Conversely, praising a behavior helps children to learn to repeat it. Your child wants to please you and follow your lead. However, using “wonderful”, “great”, “nice”, “good”, “excellent” over and over doesn’t let the child know exactly what you liked.
Your child picks up a toy and throws it into a pillow on the couch. You tell him or her to put it in the toy box. You leave the area and return a few minutes later to find the child has put away the toy and is now playing with a train on the floor. “Good job,” you say to praise the child for putting away the toy. However, it is a few minutes later and the child might think you mean to congratulate his use of the train. Use specific language: “You did a nice job by putting away the toy like I asked.” Now the child understands the reinforcement was for doing what was asked and will be more likely to follow the direction in the future.
Listen to yourself and see how you can alter your “atta boy” to let the child know exactly what you like. Your child will know how to please you.
Developed by Suzanne Gellens for the Southern Early Childhood Association
Copyright © 2018 Southern Early Childhood Association, All rights reserved.
I came to Middle Earth in July, 2016 as the Lead Teacher in the Rangers classroom. Each week I map out a Lesson Plan loaded with daily Yoga moves, playful books for growing vocabulary and lots of one on one interactions. The young Toddlers in my room delight me with their daily milestone accomplishments. I teach them to comfort each other when one of their friends are sad and encourage their new words. The Toddlers amaze me and bring me great joy. After an engaging day at Middle Earth I like to read outside or play with my dog, Rosco.
I really love summer time. My summers are filled with adventures around lakes, streams and rolling hills. On the weekend you may find me under a tree reading a novel and imagining myself as one of the characters. Winter is my least favorite season.
I surround myself with close friends that are song writers and musicians. Routinely in the spring, summer and fall we load up the trucks with our kayaks and camping gear and head to music festivals. My hobbies have changed from childhood memories of sports and cheerleading to string bands, bluegrass and an intense love for nature.
I earned my Certificate of Mastery in Early Care from Rose State and I am currently working on my associate Degree. Eventually, I would like to operate my own in-home day care.
In years to come you may find me in the country on a warm summer day, by a river reading a book as I rest in a hammock. I am pretty laid back.
The Complex Lives of Babies
By Emily Deruy
The idea that new babies are empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge
of the world around them doesn’t sound unreasonable. With their unfocused
eyes and wrinkly skin, tiny humans sometimes look more like amoebas than
Yet scientists have built a body of evidence, particularly over the last three
decades, that suggests this is patently untrue. “When kids are born, they’re
already little scientists exploring the world,” said the filmmaker Estela Renner
via a video conference from Brazil before a recent screening of her new documentary
The Beginning of Life (streaming on Netflix) at the World Bank in
That’s something Renner, a Brazilian mother of three, discovered as she spoke
with early-childhood experts and parents in nine countries around the world
about the impact a child’s environment in the first few years of life has on not
only her physical development, but her cognitive, social, and emotional development,
too. “I didn’t know that kids were not blank slates,” she said. “It
changed the way I look at babies.” If more people recognized that fact, the way
communities and policymakers think about and invest in the early years of life
might be different.
Exquisitely shot and hopeful-without-being-sugary, the film focuses on the day
-to-day lives of babies and parents and on the opportunities for learning in
even the most mundane activities. “Babies are the best learning machines in
the universe,” Alison Gopnik, a psychology professor who has spent decades
studying child development, said in the documentary. “They’re the world’s
original inventors,” echoed Patricia Kuhl, the co-director of the University of
Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.