What follows is a summary list of some of the conclusions we feel are reasonable to make between brain research and child development:
- Start early. The proper starting time for stimulating healthy brain development is conception, involving two healthy adults. If you wait until your child is in preschool or Head Start to begin, you have already missed the most formative period for some aspects of brain development.
- Spend lots of time playing with children. They need secure attachment or bonding with their parents. Disavow the misguided contention that a little so-called quality time compensates for extended parental absence. Healthy brain development does not take vacations or keep a calendar. There is no downtime. Both dads and moms are needed.
- Be positive, playful, warm, and nurturing. Activity is essential, but there is good activity and bad activity. Good activity supports healthy brain development. Bad activity programs unhealthy brain development, resulting in ability deficits and behavioral aberrations.
- Pay attention to children’s social and moral development. Even simple games carry moral overtones such as taking turns, sharing objects, and listening to others. Meeting children’s physical and emotional needs does not mean catering to their every whim. Parents, caretakers, and teachers should have clear moral expectations from the beginning, and these should be modeled and enforced. Ensure that toddlers have opportunities to play with other toddlers. This is important for developing social skills—friendships, sharing, negotiating, problem solving, concern for others—and morals. Some moral bases may be hardwired at birth, but patterns of brain chemistry, emerging in early childhood, appear to influence later moral behavior. Scientists who study neurotheology are now seeing connections between spirituality and brain structures and activity. “Spiritual experiences are so consistent across cultures, across time and across faiths that it suggests a common core that is likely a reflection of structures and processes in the human brain” (Begley, 2001, p. 53).
- Challenge children, but not beyond their range of abilities. Adults’ expectations should be difficult but doable. Infants and toddlers are far more capable than commonly realized, and adults, especially parents, are far more important in their development than generally acknowledged, even by leading professional groups.
- Hug children. Touching has health and therapeutic results. Touch, caress, pat, and cuddle infants. Gently rock them back and forth. People never outgrow their need for physical contact, including hugs. As children develop, engage in gentle wrestling, tugging, tossing, and chasing games. Such activities are essential in programming motor abilities and emotional behavior and in reinforcing related thinking abilities. Adults should be cautious not to shake infants’ or toddlers’ heads vigorously, for shaken-baby syndrome may include brain damage, developmental delays, or other injury.
- Talk to children. Respond to infants’ cooing and babbling. Use “parentese” (baby talk) with babies. Expand your vocabulary as children develop. Listen to children. Early language must be personal—between child and adult—and related to ongoing activity to best stimulate neural development. For positive results, language needs to be used in a positive emotional context.
- Introduce music, art, and dance early. Play soft, soothing music. Introduce children to singsong games during infancy. Introduce musical instruments. Make simple art materials and simple tools available. Cultivate art through simple manipulative activities, and expand to art appreciation activities.
- Substitute play, art, music, family outings, and field trips for television. Control television viewing. Select programs wisely. Do not use television as a babysitter, as a substitute for family interaction at home, or as a “time filler” at the child-care center or school. Play, art, and music may produce long-term changes in neural structures that influence thinking and reasoning abilities.
- Make homes, child-care centers, and schools drug free. Model drug-free behavior for children. Drugs, including tobacco, alcohol, and misuse of prescription drugs, can have a devastating effect on children’s development, in utero and later.
- Provide blocks, beads, sand, water, simple tools, pots and pans, dress-up clothes, and other simple and raw materials at age-appropriate times. No child-care setting need be devoid of stimulating materials, for the very young child does not discriminate between simple, inexpensive, natural materials and toys and manufactured, expensive ones. Free, cheap, and natural are good enough, assuming the toys are safe.
- Protect young children from stress and trauma, including extreme scolding, loud persistent noise, isolation, and physical and emotional abuse. The brain is acutely vulnerable to stress and trauma, and the consequences of extended exposure on brain development may be permanent.
- Don’t overstimulate children with too many toys, too much meaningless talk, too much noise, or too much activity. Provide plenty of time and interesting, safe places and materials to explore. Special toys or high-tech materials are unlikely to be more effective than talking with the child and making simple toys available. Very young children don’t need flash card drills, incessant babbling by a parent, or constant noise to get adequate stimulation for development (Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff, 2003). Indeed, overstimulation and trauma appear to have negative effects on brain development (Lipton, 1974; Shore, 1997).
- Read to children, sing with children, and play simple games with children. Do this every day.
- Extend your interest in healthy development to wherever children are present. Ensure that your children have good nutrition and outdoor physical activity at home, child-care centers, and schools. What people eat and how much they exercise affects brain function, ultimately compromising health, learning, and memory.
- Be wary of high-stakes testing leading to overemphasis of test skills over developmental based curricula. Don’t accept the growing pattern of deleting recess, playgrounds, physical education, art, and music (the so-called frills) from the school day. Consider another school for your child if such conditions exist.
- If a child has a birth defect or developmental disorder or has suffered a disabling injury, don’t give up. The human brain has an amazing capacity to compensate and, to some degree, regenerate, given proper care and therapy. This has been demonstrated in studies of Romanian orphans adopted by American parents.
- Children are primed by biology to acquire certain basic skills of language and thinking that are intricately wired in early childhood. This wiring is the basis for later complex, technical problem solving (e.g., mathematics, computer sciences) that will depend on strong cultural and social support for realization.
Adults should not give up on children. Expanding research is showing that so-called critical periods are not hard and bound to a specific time period for the development of many skills. For example, contrary to the notion that the brain is fully developed before puberty, maturation continues into the teens and 20s. The frontal lobes of the brain, responsible for numerous functions such as planning, judgment, and emotional regulation, grow rapidly around puberty, followed by pruning into the 20s (Begley, 2000). In other words, just as there is a period of rapid neural development during infancy, followed by pruning, such phenomena also exist during the preteen and teen years. Some scholars propose that “critical periods” should more aptly be called “sensitive periods.” Indeed, researchers are now seeing indications that the capacity to learn may increase into the later years of life.
Different regions of the brain develop on different timetables. The neural network isn’t completely installed in most people until they are in their early 20s. Among the last parts to mature are those that make sound judgments and calm unruly emotions (Brownlee, 1999, p. 46). According to Crenson (2001, p. A20), the immature brain development of adolescents appears to help explain why they are vulnerable to risk taking, traumatic experiences, and unhealthy influences. The prefrontal cortex, not yet fully developed, is responsible for goal and priority setting, planning, organizing, and impulse inhibition. Possible consequences of immature brain development include a number of profound statistics: Accidents are the leading cause of death among adolescents. They are the group most likely to become crime victims. The large majority of smokers start as teens and a quarter of all people with HIV contract it during their teen years.
More recent research (Sabbagh, 2006) also concludes that assumed irresponsibility of adolescents is not the full explanation for their getting themselves into easily avoidable trouble. Regions of the teen brain involved in decision making, behavior control, and impulsivity continue maturing well into their 20s. Whereas adults can call on other parts of the brain to support the maturing prefrontal cortex responsible for planning and voluntary behavior, teen brains are not sufficiently mature to do this. Studies of teens in various cultures (Schlegel & Barry, 1991) indicate that the behavior of American teens is different than in preindustrial cultures. Whereas American teens are seen as tumultuous, antisocial behavior is absent in over half the 186 cultures studied by Schlegel and Barry. Sixty percent of the cultures did not have a word for adolescence for they spent much of their time with adults rather than being segregated with their peers as seen in American culture. Environment changes the brain and may underlie the turmoil and troubled behavior of American teens. When adolescents are isolated from adults, they learn from and influence each other. Such findings may have implications for child rearing at various stages.
Lest you attach too importance to the role of environment on brain maturation and child or adolescent behavior, consider the compelling studies of brain structure and development by Shaw and colleagues (2006). Their 17-year study of 307 children, ages 5 to 19 years, indicates that brain development of highly intelligent children is different from that of more average ability children (measured by IQ tests). The prefrontal cortex, the location for many high-level mental processes, including planning and reasoning, thickens more rapidly for highly intelligent children during childhood and has a much longer period of development. Shaw and his colleagues conclude that such studies point to the need for studies in gene variants but also conclude that “the determinants of intelligence will likely prove to be a complex mix of nature and nature.”
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