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Epigenetics evidence for early learning experiences

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Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child has released an information package including the below infographic explaining the emerging science of epigenetics (not to be confused with eugenics).

Epigenetics sounds very complicated and science-y, and indeed it is, but we decided to share this research package because it is a field that’s starting to shed fascinating light on the impact of our earliest years which is an area of deep concern to everyone working with children.

This field of study looks at how our environment affects our genes, and it claims to resolve the Nature vs Nurture debate once and for all by proving that we are always, or nearly always, shaped by both, and not for the reasons that you may think you know.

This is because epigenetics researchers have seen that our genes can change, not just over time and in the combinations our parents have created, but in our own lifetimes our genes may alter by turning ‘switches’ (or epigenetic tags) on and off in response to our environment. That’s environment in its broadest sense, including all of what we might consider under ‘nurture’.

EpigeneticsInfographic_FINAL

Switching lanes

You might be thinking this is still within what you know about nature and nuture, so here’s an example provided by the team at Minute Earth (see video link listed at end of this post).

Boys who suffered in winter famines in Overkalix, Sweden, in the 19th century, went on to father boys with extraordinary good health. The sons and grandsons of the famished boys lived up to 32 years longer and with far greater health than the sons and grandsons of boys from the same era who were not affected by the famine. Epigenetics explains this sudden transmission of good health by proposing that while suffering the famines, those Swedish boys’ genes were turning on epigenetic tags in cells that would boost not only their own resilience, but also pass it on to their children and grandchildren.

Most research, however, is with rats rather than humans. This means generational changes can be observed quickly and accurately. Studies include the effect of different standards of maternal rat nurturing behaviour (see TEDx Talk link at end of this post) and how it affects babies whether or not they are raised by their biological mothers.

Not set in stone

The take-home message from this Center on the Developing Child package is that our genes are not ‘set in stone’. They can adapt to stressful changes in our environment in our lifetime, and, importantly, we can pass those adaptations on to our children.

Despite the misconception that genes are “set in stone,” research shows that early experiences can determine how genes are turned on and off — and even whether some are expressed at all. The healthy development of all organs, including the brain, depends on how much and when certain genes are activated to do certain tasks. The experiences that children have early in life, therefore, play a crucial role in the development of brain architecture.

Source: Center on Developing Child ‘Deep Dive’

What does it mean for you?

The knowledge that genes respond to changes in our nurture environment and especially to ‘toxic stress’ means we need to be more than ever aware of the effect of our adult behaviour on children, and how to respond to children who have experienced trauma. We aren’t just looking after that traumatised child’s needs, but in a very real sense we are caring for the next generation of that child’s family.

The social and economic cycle of disadvantage may present a further risk to children, potentially hard-wiring a genetic response to an environment of stress and vulnerability which is handed on to children yet to come. Caring, informed educators have a part to play, as does community support and government investment to reduce and perhaps eliminate the effect of disadvantage on children in the years when their brain development is at its peak.

See the Amplify article links below for additional resources around working with vulnerable or traumatised children and families.

The fact that genes are vulnerable to modification in response to toxic stress, nutritional problems, and other negative influences underscores the importance of providing supportive and nurturing experiences for young children in the earliest years…

Source: Center on Developing Child ‘Deep Dive’

Related resources

Video

Our bodies change our DNA destiny – explores nurturing changes (16 minutes)

Minute Earth animation – explains the genetic switches (two minutes)

Garvan Institute illustrated video – explains research for the scientifically minded (four minutes).

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Bec Lloyd

Bec Lloyd is the founder and managing director of Bec & Call Communication, providing professional writing, editing and strategy services to the school and early childhood education sector since 2014. In 2018 she launched UnYucky mindset and menus for happier family mealtimes. Formerly the communications lead at ACECQA and BOS (now NESA), Bec is a journo and mother of three who produces Amplify for us at Community Early Learning Australia.

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