Tag Archives: brain development

Gray Matters


As a part of Dave’s clinical psychology studies, he’s learning about the brain. In a class recently, students toured the structures of the brain and got a peek into how they grow and what they do. Much of our brain (parts that are shared with certain animals) develops fully by a few years of age, enabling us to move and eat and communicate enough to get along. But there are a few bits and pieces that undergo a second growth spurt around the time of puberty, and continue to develop throughout the teen years. The most notable of these is the prefrontal cortex, which, when healthy, handles functions like attention span, judgement, impulse control, organization, critical thinking, and self awareness. This part of our brain (the front, top part) might not fully mature until the mid twenties. When the prefrontal cortex is injured (by stroke) or undeveloped, we see problems that include short attention span, distractibility, impulsivity, disorganization, etc. These might be symptoms of a problem in a healthy adult. Should we even call these “symptoms” in a child?

A student in that class raised a concern: can current childhood psychiatric diagnoses be explained partly as a response to children simply not fitting into adult structures and expectations that require a level of brain function that they don’t have the brain structure to support? To put the problem another way: we are finding more fault than ever in our kids (if the increase in diagnoses is any measure) … Do we expect too much of them? Do we expect adult control and attention from a brain that is not neurologically optimized for these things?

But kids are smart, and they have a killer ability to learn. So even while we recognize that they don’t think like us, they can think deeply and intelligently, and are capable of great leaps of insight (sometimes even greater than in adults, we must admit). We don’t think we should treat children like children, if you know what we mean. But while we challenge them, and expect great things from them, and lead them into adulthood, we want to remember that our standards of behavior tend to be, in fact, adult standards. Kid’s are wired for growth and challenge, but not necessarily wired for constraint and consistency. As educators and parents we want to remember to challenge our children to take on more difficult things, while giving them the freedom to still be children.

What do you think? Are we expecting our children to exercise adult restraint? Do we diagnose lack of adult control in our children? Give us your opinion in the comments.

[Post first appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula blog]

The Preschool’s Secret Weapon

There is a prejudice about learning that preschool teachers face, especially in our hard-driving academic culture.

This prejudice is the belief that an environment designed around play and exploration is not academically stimulating enough to prepare children for later school success. Couple this belief with the slippery slope of always wanting to start “preparing” our children at earlier and earlier ages so that they will never be behind, so that they will always be ahead of the game, and preschools come under a great deal of pressure to introduce more and more conventional academics.

But the secret weapon of the preschool is that early childhood education is a holistic deal—learning happens in a social/emotional/intellectual landscape. Young children learn (find meaning) through their senses, relationships, perceptions, and emotions. There is no way at this age to isolate an academic subject from this contextual field and present it as symbols on a piece of paper (as is common in later education).

Take language: when many children first encounter preschool at around age two, they have a vocabulary of roughly 350 words. As they enter the ‘school’ world, they find themselves in new environments, they face new problems, and they experience a sudden increase in the number of relationships, all of which leads to an explosion of language. By the time this two-year old reaches 1st grade, they will have multiplied their vocabulary by 4 or 5 times.

But it makes no sense to say that academics don’t start until elementary school, or that preschools don’t focus on cognitive development. The foundations of later cognitive success are laid in the holistic learning environment of the preschool. In fact some of a person’s most important cognitive growth is happening during these early years. Language itself is the basis for communication, and communication is the basis for learning. Communication skills are first learned in relationships, because relationships require young children to make sense of competing agendas, and language is the essential skill here, because the way that children negotiate emotional and social complexity is with words. Language won’t be mastered unless it is first mastered in the context of developing relationships and social interaction, which are the first and best curricula of the preschool classroom.

Even solo fantasy play is critical to the development of these social/emotional/intellectual skills … because it provides the social and relational contexts denied to a child by reality, enabling them to practice at things that are not possible in the ‘real world’. Where else, after all, can a child practice being a hero, a warrior, part of the royal court, or that most challenging role … a parent. In fantasy play, the child is learning the basic languages (social, emotional, and yes, academic) of roles they will not be qualified to fill for decades. Talk about being ahead of the game!

So, as the debate on academics continues, look on the giant playroom of the preschool as a laboratory for the scientific advancement of foundational cognitive skills. You can see the beginning of a great education here. You just need to know what to look for.


This post originally appeared on the Parenting On The Peninsula blog

Parenting Is Like Oxygen

Holding a baby feels powerful. We feel it, and at some level we know that the infant experiences it too. Our heart warms. Our belly fills with butterflies. Stress melts away. The skin tingles. We know something important is happening and that there are physical implications, for us and for the child. It feels healthy. For a parent, there may be no words for what is happening, though science is increasingly able to provide words for those who want them.

From a story on NPR, new evidence that a lack of parenting and attachment effects the growth of the brain. We know that a lack of attachment to a parent or parent-figure can lead to several problems, including under-functioning immune systems, emotional disorders, and difficulties with relationships. In the worst cases, neglected children can fail to thrive, experiencing severely inhibited growth, unable even to take advantage of calories when there is enough food. Now, researchers are discovering that the physical structure of the brain is effected by the level of care a child receives in the early years. While it is not irreversible, a child with no parent-figure to bond with may have significantly lower growth in several areas of the brain.

While the science is encouraging and provides for deeper understanding, most parents we know are way ahead of the game. The expert’s findings add little to what we know when we hold a baby in our hands: our children need us. We know this at a deep level, even though we don’t have the x-ray vision to track brain development. To hold a child is to know, for all the miraculous insight that technology provides, that scientists have probably only just begun to scratch the surface of what is made possible by a parent’s love.

“Parents are playing a really big role in shaping children’s brain development. Parenting … is a bit like oxygen. It’s easy to take for granted until you see someone who isn’t getting enough.” –Nim Tottenham, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles

This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog