Early years science - brain development

This resource describes the science of children’s early development, which should underpin all child protection practice with infants and young children.

Early years science

A strong scientific evidence base underpins the whole of government emphasis on protecting and promoting early childhood health, learning and development. This evidence base now shows that:

  • Early childhood safety, development and wellbeing is the foundation for learning, behaviour and health through school years and into adult life.
  • Negative experiences in the first three years of life can have long-lasting effects on brain development.
  • Children who experience persistent stress and trauma in early years are more likely to experience behavioural and learning problems, substance abuse, involvement in crime, poor physical health and subsequently demonstrate poor parenting in later life.
  • Adequate nutrition and positive nurturing enhances physical, emotional, social and intellectual wellbeing.

Researchers have identified the intersection of neuroscience, developmental psychology and the economics of human capital formation and how this can advance the healthy development of young children. Nurturing and responsive relationships build healthy brain architecture, which creates a strong foundation for learning, behaviour and health. When protective relationships are not present, elevated levels of stress hormones disrupt brain architecture by impairing cell growth and interfering with the formation of healthy neural circuits.

The impacts of strong and prolonged activation of the body’s stress management systems in the absence of the buffering protection of adult support can be significant. Precipitants include extreme poverty, physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, severe maternal depression, substance abuse and family violence. Any disruptions to brain architecture can lead to stress management systems that respond at relatively lower thresholds, thereby increasing the risk of stress-related physical and mental illness. This affects children throughout the course of their life-from infancy through adolescence to adulthood – and affects learning, behaviour and physical and mental health.

Our increasingly complex social environment contains many families who face growing issues raising their children, including family violence, mental illness and alcohol and drug abuse. Ongoing social, economic and demographic changes place further burdens on families, making them more vulnerable due to a lack of support.

Risk and protective factors

The management of risk factors and the provision of opportunities to maximise development and enhance individual and family resilience are central factors to ensuring the safety, development and wellbeing of children.

Risk factors make a negative event more likely. They can be person-specific, be attributed to families, arise in response to the availability (or lack) of support and services or be found in the local community. Examples of risk factors associated with parental capacity include:

  • relationship to child
  • disabilities
  • parental isolation
  • parental education and unemployment
  • welfare dependence
  • lack of parental discipline
  • poverty
  • inadequate parenting skills
  • poor health
  • substance abuse
  • mental illness
  • family violence and conflict
  • offending and imprisonment
  • history of abuse and neglect
  • grief and loss
  • trauma
  • stolen generations with previous history of removal.

Risk by itself is not causal. Whilst these factors that have been shown by research to be strong predictors for child abuse and neglect, no studies have been able to develop reliable predictors of future harm. The best guidelines cannot predict the future risk of an individual child with complete accuracy.

Risk and protective factors have a complex interaction. Risk factors often co-occur, and may have a cumulative effect over time. The presence of several factors early in life that may be protective for children include the presence of a competent, stable caregiver attuned to the child’s needs, who can provide sufficient nurturing to allow the child to establish a basic sense of trust.

The best interests case practice framework provides practitioners with guidance on risk and protective factors that need to be analysed in making assessments and forming judgments about actions that are in a child’s best interests.

Practice implications

The early years science underpins the focus within on:

  • earlier intervention and prevention
  • protecting and promoting children’s wellbeing and development, as well as their safety
  • cumulative harm and longer term (as well as immediate) risks to children’s safety, development and wellbeing
  • meeting children’s treatment needs to address the impacts of abuse and neglect as quickly as possible
  • supporting vulnerable children’s inclusion in high quality early years services to support their care, support, education and health needs
  • maintaining children’s relationships and sense of identity.

Considerations for good practice

The evidence base on early years development reinforces the importance of holistic assessments that focus on:

  • the developmental impacts (including cumulative impacts) of abuse or neglect on a child
  • parental capacity and opportunities to strengthen this capacity
  • parental patterns and history
  • opportunities and likelihood of future harm
  • the child’s developmental timeframes and needs.

It also underscores the importance of earlier intervention and prevention. The earlier disruptions to healthy brain development are addressed and the sooner remedial action begins, the higher the likelihood of success.

Finally the evidence base confirms the importance of focusing on permanency for children. Permanency needs to be understood as encompassing children’s relationships with their primary carer, as well as their relationships with their friends, extended family and connection to kindergarten, school and other social and recreational activities.

In order to provide children with the positive, nurturing relationships they need, permanency must be considered throughout the continuum of intervention and planning options. Permanency can be achieved in a number of different ways on the continuum, including supporting children in their own homes, returning them home to their parents or providing long term out-of-home care.

The child’s best interests and developmental needs, and assessment of harm and future risk and parental capability should be at the core of all decision making, planning and action for family preservation, family reunification or long term out-of-home care.

Where a child is living away from home, the most significant and key factor to the likelihood of family reunification, regardless of the child’s age, is the quality of the parent-child relationship. This is important given the growing recognition that child abuse and neglect is a product of a poor parent-child relationship, which often occurs in the context of other forms of family breakdown.