Introduction Link
Appendix A
Local Contacts and Services
Importance of the Early Years                

Early Brain Development     • Self-regulation     • Domains of Development
Early Learning     • Holistic Concept     • Importance of Observation

Early child development sets the foundation for lifelong learning, behavior, and health. The experiences children have in early childhood shape the brain and the child’s capacity to learn, to get along with others, and to respond to daily stresses and challenges.

    Early Brain Development
  • There are some important concepts that help us understand early brain development:
    • At birth, newborns start with very similar brains and brain structures.

    • Beginning in the last trimester of the prenatal period, brain pathways are formed by developing new connections. This growth increases after birth and follows a predictable sequence (McCain, Mustard & Shanker, 2007; National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2007)


  • Self-regulation is the critical, interlocking component of social, emotional, language, cognitive and physical domains of development.

  • Early experiences shape early brain development and set the stage for the acquisition of self-regulation skills.

  • Self-regulation is a child’s growing ability to regulate his emotion, behaviour and attention. This characterizes his growth from a helpless newborn to a competent child. By the time a child is 4 or 5 years old he has established basic voluntary regulatory systems to adapt his emotions, behaviour and attention according to the situation.

  • This ability is the foundation for the skills needed to plan and problem-solve, understand other’s intentions, emotions, desires or beliefs, interpret behaviour and regulate social interactions. The regulation of attention is essential for a child’s learning disposition and habits, such as persistence, curiosity and confidence (Shanker, 2010)

  • The child’s environment and interactions can promote or hinder the brain activity where self-regulation skills are developed. Adults can seek out opportunities to enhance a child’s strengths and build strategies to address challenges.

Domains of Development

Human development is complex and all aspects are interconnected. Yet, in most texts and writings, early human development has been artificially divided into developmental domains. This categorization can assist professionals in ensuring that all areas of the child’s development are observed and supported, thus furthering his whole development. Professionals must keep in mind that all domains or areas of development are interconnected. For example, learning to talk is usually placed in the language domain, but involves physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. In this resource, children’s development has been grouped into the following domains:

Early Learning

In the past decade, there has been considerably more interest and investment in the early years both in Canada and abroad. By supporting young children and families now, society will benefit later with “healthy, educated, confident and productive adults” (Expert Panel on the 18-Month Well Baby Visit, p. 2). Dr. Charles Pascal’s report, With Our Best Future in Mind (2009), provides Ontario with an action plan to implement a comprehensive vision for investing in the early years. His report can be found at:

Children are cared for as their families provide nutrition, shelter, nurturing, stimulation and protection. The care they receive enables children to learn and develop to their full potential with increasing influence from the world outside the family.

   Parents want to understand how their child develops and learns. Prenatal and parenting classes, drop-in
       programs, home visiting and many other opportunities can be explored to support parents from various
       cultural, educational, geographic and socio-economic backgrounds.

    High-quality child care settings and pre-school education improve
       children’s developmental outcomes. Two longitudinal studies, the
       High/Scope Perry Preschool project and the Carolina Abecedarian
       project, compared children who received high-quality, early-years
       programs with children who did not.When comparing the two groups
       of children over several decades, key differences emerged. The
       children who received the quality program scored higher on language,
       literacy, and numeracy tests throughout their schooling; finished more
       years of school; and had higher rates of employment (Campbell &
       Pungello, 2000; Schweinhart, 2004). In Canada, Quebec has developed
       an educational program adapted from the High/Scope model that
       fosters full and holistic development of children through an evidence-
       based curriculum and has demonstrated positive results
       (Gouvernement du Québec, 1998). Other studies have also found that
       participation in quality early childhood education and care settings
       has been positively linked to child outcomes such as improved
       language, literacy, and numeracy development, school readiness and
       social skills (Barnett, 1995, 2004; Barnett, Lamy, &. Jung, 2005;
       Berlinski, Galiani, & Gertler, 2006; Boethel, 2004; Magnusen et al.,
       2004; McCall, Larsen and Ingram, 2003; Shonkoff and Phillips,
       2000; Ziegler & Styfco, 2003).

   Parent participation in early childhood education and care settings not only improves children’s development
       (Greenspan & Shanker, 2004; Mustard 2006), but also strengthens families and parenting skills through
       connecting and sharing with other families (Gordon, 2005; Wilson, 2006). When parent and family involvement
       is planned into the early childhood education and care setting, and relationships between professionals and
       family members are built on trust and respect, the greatest benefits are reaped (Bernhard, Freire, & Mulligan,
       2004: Gonzalez-Mena, 2005). Clearly, when children have access to quality early childhood environments and
       experiences, it can set the stage for positive trajectories later on in life.

Holistic Concept of Healthy Child Development

There are many interrelated factors which influence a child’s overall healthy development. Education, health, social status, access to quality health and social services, housing, access to stimulating early learning environments, adequate nutrition, clean water, and a secure and nurturing parent-child relationship all play a role (see section 2- Developmental Health). Given the importance of the early years in shaping a child’s brain development, every child has a right to an enriched and supportive environment in order to reach his full potential.

To meet the needs of children and families, an integrated and holistic approach to service delivery is essential.

Families of young children need access to health care, quality and affordable child care, parenting supports, and education within their local community. The concept of a ‘community hub’ is not a new one. More than a decade ago, McCain and Mustard (1999) called for centres which operate using “a ‘hub and spoke’ model” (p. 17), to provide “seamless supports and access to early intervention for families in need” (p. 17). In a few communities, this holistic, seamless approach has been used with success (e.g., Toronto First Duty sites, integrated Best Start sites). But the goal of “An integrated continuum of early child development and parenting centres to serve all Ontario children” (McCain & Mustard, 1999) is still a work in process.

In keeping with this holistic approach to service delivery, care must be taken to address the needs of the whole child. Within this holistic concept of healthy child development, paying attention to the social, emotional, physical, cognitive and language domains of each child’s development serves as a guide for professionals to ensure all areas of a child’s development are included. The On Track Guide also contains information about a child’s sensory, aesthetic, and ethical or moral development.

Although children’s development follows a sequence, there are many variations within the continuum of development. Children develop skills at similar ages and stages, but there are many growth spurts in a child’s development. With these peaks and valleys in growth, some children may reach some developmental milestones earlier than others. Every child is different and unique, and the environment in which each child develops is also different and unique. Through careful and regular observation, professionals working with young children can monitor the child’s development over time.

The Importance of Observation

As a child’s development occurs on a continuum, the most effective and comprehensive way to assess children is through observation. Observation is “the process through which data are gathered about a child’s overall development, learning styles, interests, attitudes, and behaviours” (Vaclavik, Wolanski, & Wannamaker, 2001, p. 10). Its use is endorsed by the Ontario Ministry of Education (2006). Jablon, Dombro and Dichtelmiller (2007) describe observation as “an ongoing cycle of asking questions; watching, listening, and taking notes; reflecting; and responding” (p. 93).

Through careful observation of children, some atypical patterns of development may arise. By using the information in the On Track Guide, professionals may be alerted to some concerns in a child’s development and provide additional support to the child and family. These concerns should be followed up with the appropriate referral, which may then lead to early identification of a specific difficulty and subsequent early intervention. Some services can be accessed without a formal referral; others may require a referral from the child’s primary health care provider. In some cases, the professional may want to consult with a particular specialist (e.g., physiotherapist, speech/language pathologist, psychologist, psychiatrist, paediatrician, occupational therapist, child protection worker) for either additional information or a referral.

  • Referral is the first and most important step to supporting
    children and families when concerns arise. As a professional,
    your role may include:

    •  Writing a referral
    •  Encouraging parents to seek a referral from the appropriate
        specialist or program
    •  Supporting parents through the process of obtaining a

Parent engagement has been identified as an important element in supporting healthy child development and is linked to improved outcomes. At any level, professionals working with young children will also be working with parents. This is particularly important when supporting a family through the identification of an atypical developmental pattern and the resulting referral. A section of the guide has been dedicated to Supporting Parents and Professionals.