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Foundations for life: what works to support parent child interaction in the early years

The first five years of life are a significant period in human development. During this time, the infant grows into an individual who can walk, talk and express an opinion. This dramatic transformation is facilitated by a highly malleable brain that rapidly matures as a result of neurological processes triggered in large part by the child’s environment. Young children thrive in environments that are predictable and responsive to their needs. Children struggle, however, in environments that are neglectful, unpredictable or overwhelming.

The quality of the young child’s environment is heavily influenced by his or her parents or carers. The basics of a good environment include a healthy diet, a safe and stable home and unconditional love and affection. Most parents provide these basics with enthusiasm and ability. Their motivation comes from knowing what to
provide and the confidence they can provide it. Parents gain this confidence with support from their family, friends and the services available within their communities. However, all parents benefit from support and advice that is well timed and sensitive to their needs and aspirations.

This review is about how to help parents improve how they relate, engage, communicate, play and live with children so as to improve children’s experience of childhood and hopefully enhance their capability to flourish and avoid harm. It is founded on the dynamism of the parent–child relationship. It is dynamic in the moment and changes over time as children mature. Development is interactive in the way genes, neurons and children react to context and the experience is integrated into further development. So how parents interact in the first stages of life is vital to the way children develop. By focusing support on the quality of interaction we are addressing a primary driver of life chances rather than just treating symptoms. Always influenced by wider contexts and endowments, nonetheless activities that can enhance the quality of parent–child interactions can generate real opportunity and reduce risk.