Serve & Return: How Brain Building Starts at Home

Before children are old enough to walk or talk, their brains are being wired in ways that will impact how they learn later in life. Parent-child interactions serve as the earliest building blocks for physical, cognitive and emotional development, particularly during the first three years of a child’s life. Parents can build stronger foundations for their children by actively participating in attentive and reciprocal exchanges. These exchanges are commonly referred to as “serve and return” interactions.

Serve and return is much like a game of tennis. When a child babbles, gestures, or cries, it is up to the parent to respond appropriately with words, a hug, or attentiveness. This creates a back-and-forth between parent and child that strengthens the child’s developing social and communication skills and reinforces the neural connections being built in the child’s developing brain.

In examining socioeconomic disparities, a 2019 study by the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University found that the number of back-and-forth interactions had a great impact on children’s linguistic development. Children who participated more frequently in serve and return-style interactions showed greater activity in the relevant areas of the brain than children who simply heard a wide variety of words each day.1

This further supports the idea that responsiveness plays a key role in brain development. In examining and compiling data from 37 studies on parenting and language development, researchers found that responsive, engaged parenting produced better language skills regardless of socioeconomic standing.2

Serve and return mimics adult communication and interaction by making children feel heard, cared for, and respected. While it may seem easy to dismiss very young children as not understanding or simply babbling, the reality is that children under three understand language, tone, and gestures long before they can express them. They are constantly learning each day as they test and explore the world around them. At the center of that world are their parents. When parents take the time to participate in thoughtful, responsive interactions with their children, those children learn how to be better listeners and speakers themselves.

These parent-child interactions aren’t just a key part of neural development–they also make for fun bonding moments and wonderful memories. Check out this video featuring Tennessee-based comedian DJ Pryor and his son Kingston, demonstrating an effective serve and return style “conversation” between parent and child:

Tennesseans for Quality Early Education (TQEE) is an organization dedicated to making an impact on the education of children during these formative years. We aim to support parents to be effective teachers for their children. We also focus on policies that help expand access to high-quality childcare and preschool, and that improve instructional quality from Pre-K to 3rd grade. It takes a village, and TQEE wants to be the support system that parents and children need for successful early education.

Read more about serve and return at Harvard.edu, or donate to TQEE today to drive our mission forward.


1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30919945
2 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-parenting-speech/responsive-mothers-may-have-kids-with-better-language-skills-idUSKBN1W92ZI

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