Saturday, January 16, 2010

Brain development in children

The way we talk and interact with our children will affect them for the rest of their lives. It will mould them and set values and beliefs which will become the core of their being—these will either serve them well or hinder them. Which ever way they go, it is the adults in their lives which ultimately will be responsible for their well-being as they grow into the adults of the future.
A daunting prospect and one, none of us get a blue-print for when we sign up to be parents, let alone teachers, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters etc.
How many of us have heard those immortal words from a frustrated mother, “Right, that’s it. You’re going to bed when you get home!” or, “That’s it, I’ve had enough, your not having your Playstation!”
Threats wielded from an exasperated mother which render the child in tears (most of the time) but rarely get carried through. What is going on in such a situation as this?
To understand this we need to go back to the development of the brain and how this manifests itself in the growing child.
The brain begins its development whilst the baby is not much more than a foetus. The brain is very primitive, being no more than a small bulb of cells at the end of the emerging spine. Its main function at this stage is to separate out into the main parts of a functioning brain so the emerging organs will have something to drive and control them.
By 7 weeks the main areas of the brain can be distinguished and from then to birth a rapid expansion of nerve cells called neurons takes place.
By the time a baby is born there are approximately 100 billion nerve cells! Sounds marvelous and the capacity to learn is astronomical but at birth the cells are mostly un-connected and little happens except the very basic functions of breathing, eating, excreting and movement. In fact only three parts of the brain are fully operational at this time, the brain stem, the thalamus and the deep cerebellum and until the age of three, the part of the brain which makes memory is still in its infancy of production and will not have come on line as it were and cannot make memories or respond in anything other than an instinctive way - something I find surprising, especially if you watch a baby respond to its mother or its surroundings. Latest research has found that until a child is 3 years old it only responds because it is programmed to through the most primitive part of the brain. It is a response to survival and unless something happens which is highly significant, will not remember anything from that time.
However, for a child to go on and make memories and develop ideas those first three years are some of the most important ones for opening up and laying down pathways and connections within the brain.
At the beginning I said the adults are responsible for giving the child its values and beliefs as well as a code by which it grows up and then adapts in adult life. During these first three years the type and quality of stimulation given to the baby will determine how it will interpret stimulation after that age—in other words how it will learn, interpret and act upon what it senses from the world around.
The nerve cells the child is born with develop connections depending upon the stimulation they receive. More stimulation results in more connections and the number of cells which are killed off because they are unnecessary (because they have not been fired up and tied into the network) are reduced.
What happens after the initial period? The part of the brain called the cortex begins to develop and memories begin to be laid down. The more times something is repeated the stronger the connections for that pathway become until some behaviours and actions become second nature. They will develop by investigating on their own and by copying those they trust. Slowly they will develop skills that identify them as the child of… and their skills range will closely reflect the skills of the family.
In parts of Japan, apprentices are not allowed to do anything except watch the master for some time so they absorb the actions and movements the master performs. If you watch these apprentices they are copying the actions until they have them perfectly off pat and then they are allowed to try it for themselves.
So children will copy and mimic because it is a very good way of learning. When they have reached the point where they have some attention span built into their brain function (any where between 4 and 6 years of age) they begin to explore for themselves using the blue-print provided for them by their parents. If they have spent most of their time in front of a TV then this blue-print will be very poor and their skills reduced.
When I asked a group of children to write an imaginative story few could write as if they were part of the story. They had watched so much TV they saw the world from a distance and wrote in that style. I was reminded of a phrase a colleague of mine uses, ‘having a near life experience’ and began to wonder if these children were growing up as if their lives were just that and programmes such as East Enders more real than their own lives.
So the first 3 years of any child’s life is vital if it is going to utilise as many of the nerves it is born with. By the time the excess are killed off the connections have to have been made and once gone they are not replaced.

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