Brain Research and Child Development (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

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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