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Birth-3 Brain Hacks

Just like you, I worry almost every day about the future of kids ages 0-3. Maybe for parents, it’s finding childcare, finding a way to stay home for longer with their child, or making sure they’re safe and can learn in a safe environment. Maybe it's affording the type of childcare our young children deserve.

Maybe for teachers, it’s keeping a decent job in childcare that pays enough to live or trying to figure out how to get more education to get a better job while caring for their own children at night and someone else's children during the day.

Maybe you worry about bullying.

Whatever it is, know that you are important to the world and you deserve more help with those very important early years. I’m here to do what I can for you because I know how much it matters to the world. For starters, join together and ask for more. Even if it's hard for caregivers to do so.

Here’s one idea that’s worked for children that I've had the privilege to teach over the years:

Want to raise smart, happy problem-solving kids? Good, then you're going to want to start as early as you can. That might seem like a lot of work and responsibility but the good news for parents, teachers, and caregivers is that it just might be a little easier than what you're used to doing. It all boils down to using a very special philosophy.

I know because I've been using this concept for over 40 years as an early childhood and parent educator. According to the hundreds of parents I've worked with over the years, it works like a charm.

Young children are eager to play, learn and become problem-solvers. We have to learn to let that happen and encourage it the best we can. Most of us know that. The question is, how?

One answer is a unique approach to problem-solving that developmental theorist Lev Vygotsky identified as scaffolding. If you've studied educational theory, you'll have heard of this method because it's the foundation of so much of today's thinking about learning.

But just in case you don’t have time to look up Vygotsky today, here’s a synopsis in my own words after 40+ years of using this method in the field.

When a child is solving a problem, any problem, including how to reach for a toy, a finger, or working on algebra, hold back a bit and watch what they do. Instead of rushing to do things for them, find out where they’re at. If they ask for help, help them learn more by giving them the least amount they need to accomplish their goal.

You might talk them through it or just be close enough to help if they really need it. Or you might step away for a minute or two. Then when they accomplish what they are trying to do, notice with 3 simple words. You did it!

It’s also nice to add specifics with more simple language like “ You did it, you climbed up onto the chair safely!”

You might also give them a tiny bit of help if you think they need it and see if they can continue solving their problem with that.

Take note of the look on the child’s face when their goal is met and you say “You did it!” You’ll immediately know that learning is taking place because the child feels a sense of mastery and you’ll see it in their eyes. This is the type of emotional learning connection that we all need more of.

Quick ideas

Let them play more and help them a little less, respond to requests but not whining. Treat them like you would want to be treated. Follow the link to see why I believe play is the ultimate learning experience.

Instead of sleep training, focus on teaching them to fall asleep on their own.

Instead of assigning blame when a child aggresses on another focus on the problem itself, not the behavior. Why are they fighting? Do they both want a turn with the same toy? Do they need more space?

How can you help them to learn what to do in those situations?

They’ll probably need help to solve their problems when they’re toddlers and try it on their own by the time they are at the developmental level of around 3-4. That’s OK.

Encourage them but don’t do it for them.

If they ask for help with a simple puzzle, try putting the piece in carefully, then taking it out and handing it to the child. Keep giving them the least amount of help they need to finish the job.

When they ask for help, but might be able to figure it out on their own, tell them you'll help them, when you’re done washing your hands, changing a diaper, or straightening out a bookshelf.

Be creative, you might even have to use the bathroom or comb your hair. Parents and teachers are people too! And the reward is that they figure it out themselves while waiting for your help. And you can feel good about delaying help instead of refusing or immediately doing it for them.

Teach them emotional words to help deal with things like frustration or anger. Remember this:

All feelings are OK, all actions are not. Denying emotions isn’t a good idea in the long run.

Problem-solving with young children is hard when you’re overextended or the children are under the weather or tired or sick. It’s easier when you have enough time. Allowing them to practice really makes them good at it and when that happens they need you less and everyone feels better about the day.

The answers to this and other common development questions are found in my 22-page slideshow, How To Get Kids To Listen Without Yelling or Time-Outs. Everyone who cares for young children deserves these answers. Get your copy here.

Want to live in a world with less blame, bias, and bullying Join us here and you’ll discover the steps to take.

I hope this brightens your day a bit and reinforces what you’re already doing well. My point is that we need to support and respect people who care for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.

This is why:

In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second. After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, which allows brain circuits to become more efficient. In light of these findings, focusing on early childhood only makes sense. -Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University-

I hope you pass this information on to people who make decisions. The Harvard Center For The Developing Mind Website is in the citations below. I think you'll find it fascinating.

Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI.


Vygotsky, Lev Mind In Society Ed. Michael Cole et al., Cambridge, MA Harvard Univerity Press, 1978

Center on The Developing Mind, Harvard University

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