Dr. Dipesh Navsaria

Dr. Dipesh Navsaria presents at the 18th Biennial SAA Conference

Image by Libby Felts

Pediatrician Dipesh Navsaria delivered a fascinating keynote speech at the 2018 SAA Conference that revolved around what he referred to as “the world of the early brain.” He talked about many concepts that Suzuki teachers would find familiar, including the importance of early experiences during a child’s first 1000 days, the way environment shapes children’s development, and the role that parents, caregivers, and educators can play in helping children reach their full potential.

Dr. Navsaria admitted at the beginning of his presentation that he himself does not have any musical training. Instead, his expertise comes from decades of clinical practice delivering medical care to children and families (as well as a master’s degree in children’s librarianship and two children of his own). He made a powerful case that Suzuki teachers have a unique opportunity to contribute to the lives of infants, children, and families.

I wanted to highlight and share several statements from the keynote address where I saw a clear intersection between neuroscience, child health, and Suzuki pedagogy. The following are my top five “take home messages” from Dr. Navsaria’s talk for teaching colleagues, parents, and fellow scientists.

1. “Brains are built over time”

Children are learning and growing at an astonishing rate in infancy and childhood – some scientists estimate infants are building as many as 700 neural connections per second. Teachers and parents should note that this is happening long before children arrive at the doorstep of formal education between the ages of three and five! Shinichi Suzuki said that ability development begins at age zero, and certainly neuroscientific data suggest that some opportunity has been lost if we wait until the age of five, much less 10 or 25, to think about learning new skills. Of course, we continue to learn new things throughout adolescence and adulthood, but synaptic and cellular plasticity are highest early in life. Dr. Navsaria argued that taking advantage of this early plasticity to build the “brain infrastructure” of children in our communities is just as important as building bridges, roads, or airports.

2. “Play is the work of infancy”

Dr. Navsaria also pointed out that adults should never demean “the simple stuff,” because simple skills are needed to do more complex tasks. Although we are culturally conditioned to think of play as cute, silly, and inconsequential (literally, as so-called child’s play), skill building is occurring whether children are “just” playing around in a daycare or “just” singing simple nursery rhymes! To think that simple means unimportant is a profound misinterpretation of the role of play in a young child’s life. Play is how children move forward, learn, and progress in their development.

The sequential Suzuki repertoire is a thoughtful example of exactly how the mastery of progressive, simple skills can be used to scaffold ever more complex concepts and abilities. Allowing children a semi-structured chance to push the envelope and explore new skills at the edge of their current abilities (what scientists call the “zone of proximal development”) lets them build confidence by using what they already know to expand their skillset.

3. “Talent is equally distributed throughout the population, but opportunity is not”

Children’s development is influenced by both their genes and their environment, and a great deal of Dr. Navsaria’s talk focused on the effects (both positive and negative) that a child’s environment can have on their development. I have also presented scientific research at past SAA conferences on this topic showing that infants and children start learning the rules of language and music in their culture long before they can talk or sing. We were reminded, however, that “environment” encompasses a great many other non-musical factors. Basic needs like physical safety, nutrition, and loving relationships are crucial as well. Although children do not control the circumstances into which they are born, those circumstances affect every aspect of their lives. Or as Dr. Navsaria put it, often “a child’s zip code matters more than a child’s genetic code” to long-term outcomes.

The day after this presentation, I attended an excellent panel discussion about equity, inclusion, and diversity in the Suzuki community. We should remember that many children struggle with access to food, education, or a safe home, and certainly do not have the opportunity to take Suzuki lessons. Even in many households where basic needs are met factors like time, money, and teacher availability can be almost insurmountable obstacles to music learning. If we truly believe that “every child can,” then we as a community should think about ways we can have a positive impact on a diverse array of children and parents.

4. “Adversity is neurotoxic”

Practically speaking, all teachers know that children who are hungry, scared, or otherwise distracted lose their ability to focus on less urgent concerns like reading, writing, or music. But prolonged stress in childhood affects the developing neuroendocrine system and can have life-long effects. Small amounts of stress can be positive and more significant stressors are also tolerable if they are buffered by supportive relationships. But if children are not protected by supportive social and emotional relationships they can face toxic stress. Elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol will, over time, result in a brain tuned to have elevated “fight, flight, or freeze” responses when faced with perceived threats or stressors. These brain changes can also reduce the ability to control emotions, delay gratification, or control impulses.

When children’s brains have less of a chance to develop these important skills, parents might observe that children are impulsive, anxious, have trouble planning ahead, or can’t regulate their mood. Sometimes this is due to a condition like ADHD, but other times adverse childhood experiences (called ACEs) can cause an overdeveloped amygdala (the fear center of the brain) or an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex (the brain’s control center). Research has shown that as many as two-thirds of adults have experienced at least one adverse childhood event, so the consequences of ACEs are challenges faced by many children and families regardless of education, income, or socioeconomic factors. Using music to help foster loving, supportive relationships provide a buffer for children (and parents!) who might be experiencing challenges in other parts of their lives.

5. “The ‘serve-and-return’ relationship with a loving caregiver is the only thing that drives a young child’s development forward. Period.”

It is the combination of biology, socioeconomic environment, and interpersonal relationships that, together, influence the trajectory of a child’s health and development. Healthy interpersonal “serve-and-return” relationships happen when the parent-child bond is both highly sensitive and appropriately responsive. When a child “serves up” a cue that indicates they are in need and their caregiver reliably responds, this allows the child to feel safe, secure, and loved. Dr. Navsaria said that helping nurture parents’ connections with their young child to foster this responsiveness is critical for us as a society. However, that crucial back-and-forth interaction is a learned skill, and we all know children don’t come with instructions! Caregivers may need support from those around them (like teachers) to develop the skills that help build loving relationships.

Dr. Navsaria also quoted a colleague when he said, “There is no app to replace your lap.” No matter what marketers would like parents and teachers to believe, there is simply no toy, book, DVD, or app that will, on it’s own, push a child’s development forward without the presence of a responsive adult. He firmly claimed that there is no research evidence of any kind that children under the age of three will learn simply from being passively exposed to toys, books, or other pseudo-educational material, and the claims that older children learn from passive exposure are vastly oversold. Children need to engage in order to learn.

So what should a Suzuki teacher take away from these five ideas?

I think these ideas remind us that human learning begins at (or before) birth, and that it takes both time and repetition in order for children to play, grow, and learn. Children do not experience life with equal opportunities, and factors beyond the music lesson can have an enormous impact on children’s ability to develop skills and retain knowledge. Dr. Navsaria reminded attendees that, all else aside, “there’s no one group out there that has cornered the market on loving their children.”

Suzuki students, whether they realize it or not, are working with parents and teachers to pursue goals one step at a time, navigate small stressors, and incrementally push the boundaries of their ability. These are ways to “build brains” by learning through baby steps.

As Suzuki educators, we may find ourselves in a unique position to help parents learn ways to see and appreciate their child’s progress, methods to communicate more effectively, or strategies to support their child’s resilience.

This brain building is not limited to the instrumental studio, either. Dr. Navsaria noted that, while observing a Suzuki Childhood Education (SECE) class at the conference, he was impressed by the obvious serve-and-return relationships he observed even between very young infants and their parents. He could tell that even seemingly simple activities like rolling a ball across the floor were developing the pre-frontal cortex by requiring patience, delayed gratification, and complex skills. Developing these skills has the potential to protect against stress and adversity and promotes resilience in children. What parent would not want that for their child?

In the spirit of things parents and teachers can do to promote healthy child development and strong relationships, I will conclude with the “call to action” presented at the end of the keynote speech. These are The Five R’s of Early Childhood Education, as compiled by the American Academy of Pediatrics’Early Brain and Child Development program:

  • Developing routines lets children know what to expect.

  • Read together every day with your child.

  • Rhyme, play and cuddle with your child every day.

  • Reward your child with praise for successes and hard work.

  • Strong and nurturing relationships are the foundation for healthy development!