Have you ever wondered how to help your child learn faster, become smarter, have a leg up on others? If so, you are probably not alone. Parents often try to give their children every opportunity to blossom; such as providing piano lessons with the hope it will encourage better math skills, offering art lessons with the intent of fostering “the creative side”, or possibly enrolling their child in after school enrichment programs to provide specialized academic opportunities. Although these additional activities are planned with the best intentions, the foundation for your child’s learning is laid well before the child is old enough to actually start these activities; the foundation starts long before their first word is spoken!

The ability to learn begins in infancy through interactions and engagement with parents or responsible caregivers. Babies learn to build emotional and cognitive skills through a “serve and return” process, such as when a baby coo’s or focuses their attention on something and the caregiver acknowledges this and responds. The coo would be the serve, and the acknowledgement, the smile or gentle touch to the baby’s face, is the return…an action and a response. “Serve and return” is the fundamental adult/child interaction which is critical to a child’s early development. Each interaction creates a connection, a neural memory trail which is strengthened over time. The more interactions, the more neuro connections form in your baby’s brain. 

As each part of a child’s brain develops, the “serve and return” interactions connect and reinforce the different parts of the brain to work as a unified whole. Our brain has many specialized areas with a diverse range of functions, from basic life sustaining functions, such as breathing, to controlling our body movements, to memory, language and advanced thought; however, these functions need to work as one. Through repeated reinforcement these connections become stronger and stronger and provide the foundation for all future learning to occur, including logic and behavioral control, as well as emotional and cognitive skill development.

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The greatest amount of growth in a child’s language and communication skills occurs within the first four years of a child’s life. In fact, a child’s reading level in grade three can be predicted by age two.  Communication skills, such as reading and writing have their foundation strengthened from these early “serve and return” interactions. (Center on the Developing Children, Harvard)

“Serve and return” interactions provide many benefits and is neither difficult nor time consuming.  Everyday interactions can have a huge impact on your child’s development. If your baby shows an interest (the serve), focus in on their interest and return the serve. Supporting and encouraging their interest provides interactions which are more than a shared bonding moment, it encourages a child’s interest and natural curiosity. If your child is staring or reaching for something, give it a name. Is it a toy car, a puppy, or a lampshade? This creates the connection for learning by sharing that words have meaning, items have names and that these are connected. Take turns with “serve and return”. Taking turns teaches a child early social skills, such as self-control. As adults, when we wait and allow the child to respond, we are displaying self-control and taking turns, as well as supporting the early stages and development of self confidence in their actions. Lastly, recognize endings and beginnings. If a child puts down a toy and heads to something else, or looks away, that is a clear sign interest has been lost. A change of focus and the next serve is on the way…get ready. 

A child’s healthy development starts from day one, built with responsive and nurturing caregivers and parents who provide stimulation to support a sturdy foundation from which their child can grow. Want to help your child learn faster, become smarter, and have a leg up on others?  “Serve and return” …from day one.

Lisa Smith, M.A., D.E.V.M., Teachers College-Columbia University, is an Educational Consultant, specializing in customized workshops supporting child development through Play, Mindset + Academic Success, and Study Skills, and an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at U.C.C. She can be reached at Ljs2198@TC.Columbia.edu

For additional information on this topic;

Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University

Brain Architecture and Executive Function

Megan Gunnar, Ph.D., University of Minnesota