The eternal nature versus nurture debate. Is a person's behaviour the result of their genes or their environment? It's an argument that's been going on for centuries, and now a relatively new area of scientific research offers up some fascinating insights which indicate once and for all that it's both.
Epigenetics is an emerging science which shows how environmental influences affect the expression of genes, in other words, how a child's experiences modify their inherited genetic DNA makeup. This therefore proves that what kids are exposed to in their early years, including before birth, has a direct impact on their development.
Epigenetics further explained
As we all know, we inherit genes from both parents and exactly which genes are present or emphasised is completely unique to each person. It's our very own genetic code or genome, unless you happen to be an identical twin.
What most people don't realise is the other complex element responsible for making us who are we, called the epigenome. It sits within each of the cells in our body alongside the genome. While our inherited genes set the scene, our epigenome responds to the experiences we have during foetal development and childhood, and decides which parts of our DNA or genes are activated or switched off. This is the reason why genetically identical twins with identical DNA can often develop different personalities, traits and interests.
The power of environment on development
The epigenome can therefore be affected by positive experiences, such as supportive relationships and opportunities for learning, and negative influences, such as stressful life circumstances or environmental toxins. This explains why early experiences we have as a child can have a lifelong impact on how we behave or think.
Recent research does demonstrate that there may be ways to reverse certain negative changes to the epigenome and restore healthy functioning. However, scientists believe the best strategy is to simply support positive, responsive relationships and reduce stress right from the beginning, in order to build strong brains and help children grow into healthy and productive members of society.
Lifelong impacts and beyond
It's now known that supportive environments, good nutrition and rich learning experiences generate positive epigenetic marks or signatures which activate genetic potential in individuals. For example, the stimulation that occurs in the brain through active learning and memory can result in changes to the epigenome that establish a foundation for more effective learning capacities in the future.
While the epigenome can continue to modify as we grow older and have new experiences, science tells us that the chemical signatures imprinted on our genes during foetal and infant development have the most significant influence on our brains long-term.
Therefore, a child who experiences epigenetic changes due to stress is more likely to be at risk of stress-related health issues as an adult. Even more alarmingly, these marks on the epigenome can be passed onto future generations. So, the effects of negative or positive influence during development go way beyond the individual.
Epigenetics and early childhood educators
Experts believe that it's important for teachers and school policy makers to understand the key concepts of epigenetics in order to sufficiently support children during the crucial early years of their life.
As early childhood educators, how do we go about creating positive experiences for the children in our care that will help strengthen their brains and set them up for life? Here are a few suggestions:
Offer rich learning opportunities
Apparently, it's not as simple as playing Mozart to babies in the womb. Children need to actively exercise their cognitive skills like learning and memory. 'Serve and return' interaction is a great way to do this, for example taking cues like pointing or excitement and 'serving' back an opportunity for learning by naming what they're looking at, asking questions, giving more information or, encouraging action.
Be supportive and nurturing
Always be kind, supportive and understanding. If children seem upset, ask them what's wrong and let them know they're safe and understood. Remember, every child is important and unique.
Create a green environment
Ensure the children are getting plenty of fresh air and exercise with enough space to explore, and that they not being exposed to outside toxins such as car fumes or excessive dust or mould.
Encourage good nutrition
Poor diet can be associated with negative imprints on the epigenome, including from the mother when pregnant, so it's important that children not only have healthy and nutritious food under your care but that they're educated about nutrition as well.
Thanks to Harvard University's Centre on the Developing Child for their papers here and here explaining epigenetics and how it affects children's development.