Pat Wolfe – Mind Matters, Inc.
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Early Brain Development by Pat Wolfe, Ed.D.

(A position paper for the 9th Bridge Early Childhood Program in Las Vegas.)

Human infants are extremely helpless and quite dependent on adults much longer than most other mammals. For the first year they can’t walk or talk, nor can they feed or dress themselves. In fact they don’t appear to do much but eat and sleep and soil their diapers. Perhaps this is why in the past we tended to treat infants as if not much was happening in their brains. This view, however, has changed drastically over the past few decades. Studies have shown there are enormous, very important changes taking place in the brain of the young child that are important for parents and teachers alike to understand (Gopnik, Meltzoff & Kuhl, 1999)

Let’s start at the very beginning.  The growth of the brain begins about three weeks into gestation. From that point on brain cells grow at an astonishing rate, approximately 250,000 new cells a minute! All major structures are in place half-way through the baby’s journey in the womb. Not only is the brain growing new cells, it is beginning to make connections (synapses) between these cells.  These connections are the result of learning.  Yes, babies begin to learn before they are born!  They are born recognizing their mother’s voice and recognizing music they heard while in thewomb.

This brain growth before birth is influenced by the environment in the womb. For example it is well established that what the pregnant woman eats and drinks—as well her mental state—will impact the developing brain of the fetus.  Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is the leading preventable cause of mental retardation in the United States today. Maternal stress, poor diet, especially lack of protein, and ingestion of certain drugs can also have adverse effects on the brain of the developing fetus (Eliot, 1999).

The explosion of new synapses that began before birth continues in the months after birth. From birth to age two, the connections grow at an amazing rate. By age
two, PET scans done by Dr. Harry Chugani, Director of Pediatric Neurology at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, show that the energy use in children’s brains that equals that of their parents. It is estimated that by the age of two, 40,000 new synapses are being formed every second! Chugani speculates that this period of over-connectedness is responsible for what we call the “terrible twos” (Chugani, 2002).

But not all synapses remain. Starting around age two, excess connections begin to be cut back in a process called pruning. During pruning frequently used connections are strengthened and those used infrequently are lost. This process is just as important to brain development as is the initial growth of synapses; It makes the brain more precisely organized. It is not a matter of the more synapses, the better. For example, babies are born with cells that would allow them to hear and pronounce the sounds of every language in the world. However, the connections for the sounds of the language they hear everyday are strengthened while the ones that are not used are pruned away.  This allows children to adapt to and eventually speak the language of their parents or caregivers.

In the first year of life the child the brain doubles in size and weight. This is largely due to learning.  Children’s brains make millions of connections as they learn to walk, speak a language, engage in play and develop social skills.  The early years are critical.  Never again will the brain develop at this rate.  Never again will learning a language (or two) come so easily.

During these early years children’s brains have what is often referred to as “sensitive periods.”  When the brain is “ready” to develop in a certain area but the stimulus is lacking, normal development does not occur.  For example, if a child is born with cataracts and they are not removed very early, the opportunity to develop normal sight is significantly limited. The ability to speak a spoken language is lost by about the age of ten if children—because of deafness or lack of exposure to language—do not learn to speak a language in the early years.

Emotional development also has a sensitive period. Studies have shown that an infant or young child deprived of the opportunity to form a bond or attach to a parent or caregiver usually lacks the ability to form normal healthy intimate relationships with others later in life (Lewis, Amini & Lannon, 2001). This stunted emotional growth has been poignantly chronicled in the studies of Romanian orphans (Nelson, 2006). These babies, who had been reared in severely deprived conditions, were found to be delayed in nearly all their social, emotional and cognitive skills.  Scientists have also discovered that when a child perceives a situation to be threatening, learning is impeded.  Children not only need to be safe physically, they need to be in an emotionally safe environment.

So what do young children need to develop to their fullest potential socially, emotionally and cognitively? There has been much controversy in recent years around the concept of enriched environments, many believing that children need extra stimulation during the early years. Most scientists do not subscribe to this belief. Stephen Meltzoff, coauthor of the book, The Scientist in the Crib, states that it appears to be true that a normal environment leads to more connections than a deprived environment but extra stimulation is not necessary.  Children are innately curious and driven to master their world. Given a normal environment, barring any serious problems, this will happen without a lot of extra intervention on the part of adults.  But this then leads to the question, “What is a normal environment?”

What children need and enjoy is rich, varied input in natural settings. The opportunities for this type of input are everywhere from taking a walk through the neighborhood and talking about what they see to letting the child help with cooking or sorting clothes. Trips to the grocery store or the library are also great opportunities.  Play is incredibly important for children. In play they have ownership, exploring their own interests with the support of adults. Activity is critical; children do not like to learn through passive input.  Flash cards, workbooks, language tapes and “educational” computer games are not only inappropriate in the early years; they often deprive children of the natural interaction with the world so important to their development.  Exercise has been shown to play an important role in brain development as well as proper nutrition and adequate sleep.

Finally, one of the most important findings to come out o recent brain research is the concept of neuroplasticity.  In simple terms this means that while genes play a role in who we are, the brain in sculpted in large part by the environment.  Children learn what they do. Children who are talked to have larger vocabularies than those who live in language-impoverished homes.  Children who are raised in bilingual homes easily become bilingual.  Children who are appropriately praised for their accomplishments are more confident than those who are criticized.  Children who are taught nursery rhymes and
are read to become better readers.

We as parents, caregivers and teachers have a marvelous opportunity and an obligation to help shape the brains of children so that they become healthy, productive and happy adults.

 

What the Early Childhood Teacher Needs to Know about the Developing Brain.

Other than the child’s parents, you are the most important person in the preschool/Kindergarten child’s life.  Youhave the amazing opportunity to shape their brains!  It may sound a little scary; but it’s really not.  With the knowledge of how the brain develops in the early years and your own intuition, you’ll find this job exciting and rewarding.  This paper will outline the major brain research findings that provide the foundation for the Ninth Bridge’s early childhood curriculum.  They will provide ou with guidelines for your interactions with the children.

1. The child’s brain begins its development in the womb.  During the nine months it is accomplishing the amazing feat of growing 100 billion brain cells (called neurons.)  At one stage it creates 250,000 cells a minute!  Never again will the brain develop so rapidly.  Some of these cells begin connecting as the fetus learns to recognize its mother’s voice, music it is hearing, etc.

(Application: While you obviously cannot impact the prenatal brain development of the children you teach, you can educate parents who plan to have more children. They need to know how their behaviors while pregnant (especially drinking alcohol and ingesting drugs) affect the development of the fetus.)

2. At birth the brain weighs one pound and while smaller,  looks much like an adult brain.  During the first year of life, the child’s brain DOUBLES in size and weight!  This is evidence of amazing brain growth, growth you cannot see but is certainly taking place.  For example, even before children can speak, research shows that they are paying close attention to the lip, tongue and teeth movements of the adults and are literally practicing what to do when they are ready to speak.  They follow your gaze to begin to identify objects

(Application: Talk to young children even before they begin to speak.  Point to objects and describe them.  Maintain eye contact as you speak.  Smile to let them know you are happy.  These very young children are looking to you as a guide and a mentor.  They eventually will copy what you model.)

3. The human brain retains the 100 billion brain cells that it had at birth.  This number changes little.  Then what causes the amazing growth and development of the child’s brain?  The answer is learning.  As the child learns, connections (synapses) are formed between the cells.  Every experience either creates a new connection or strengthens an existing one. The number of connections being formed in the young brain is mind boggling! By age two it is estimated that 40,000 connections are being formed every second.  This period of over-connectedness is what we call the “terrible twos.”  However, not all connections are kept. At this point the brain begins pruning away the excess connections.  The connections that are used frequently are kept; those that are not used are pruned away. This pruning process is just as important to brain development as the initial growth of connections; it makes the brain more precisely organized and will continue throughout the life span but not at this pace.

(Application: The brain learns what it does.  The most exciting finding coming out of brain research is the concept of neuroplasticity. What this means is that the brain is largely sculpted by its environment.  The brain will strengthen the connections that are used most frequently.  Keep this in mind as you plan the children’s day,  Provide many options from which children can choose.  Watch what interests them and engage them in talk about their discoveries.)

4. Language development in the early years is amazing.  There are periods during the first three years when children learn up to 20 new words a day! Again, the environment influences how fast and how well a child learns to speak and eventually to read.  Research studies show that children raised in rich language environments have much larger vocabularies than those raised in language impoverished environments. Additional research reveals that teachers’ use of syntax (whether simple or complex) is mirrored by the children.

(Application: Talk, talk, talk!  Use increasingly complex syntax in your speech.  It is also important to include music in your daily plans.  Music and language are intertwined.  Nursery rhymes and songs help children to hear sounds that are alike and those that are different.  These rhymes and songs are actually children’s first phonics lessons. Your music instruction can be singing or producing simple rhythms with musical instruments such as rhythm sticks, bells, triangles, maracas, etc.)

5. Neuroplasticity allows the young child to adapt to his or her environment.  For example, babies are born with the ability to learn any language.  However, the sounds they hear repeatedly will be strengthened and those they do not hear will be pruned away. The same is true for many behaviors.  If certain skills and habits are encouraged and repeated, they become automatic over time.  When this happens, we say they are stored in what is referred to as Procedural Memory.  These skills and habits are carried out with no conscious thought. Think of how the skill of driving a car is automatic and unconscious for you.

(Application: Carefully plan and practice the routines and procedures that you will use in your classroom.  Repetition is necessary to get these skills and habits to the automatic level.  Point out to the children how well they are following these guidelines.  Several research studies have shown that when routines and procedures become automatic, discipline problems are greatly reduced.)

6. Young children not only develop cognitively, they develop socially and emotionally as well.  We are aware of when they begin to develop cognitive skills but often are not aware that during the early years the basic emotional foundation is being set for the rest of their life.  Research with Romanian orphans shows that extreme neglect in the first year results in children who are seldom able to form healthy, intimate relationships with others.

(Application: Infants and young children need to form loving attachments to parents and care givers.  They need to be held, cuddled, talked to, sung to, and provided a safe, happy environment.  They need to feel safe and secure.  When children are hurt or unhappy, the comforting of the care giver lets them know that these are people they can trust: that the world is a safe place. They also develop empathy for others who are hurting or unhappy.  Again, you are the model for these children;  they will copy your social and emotional behaviors.)

7. Emotion is a double-edged sword; it can impede or enhance learning.  When children perceive a situation to be threatening, cortisol is released in the bloodstream.  The body goes into a “fight-or-flight” response and all higher-level thinking shuts down.  (Think about your own experiences. Have you ever been insulted but unable to think of a response until the next day?)  At the same time any experience (negative or positive) with an emotional hook is remembered longer.

(Application: Be aware of children’s emotional responses.  What is frightening to one child is not to another.  The threat does not even have to be real.  We deal with the child’s perception, not the reality of the situation.  The emotional center of the brain has more influence on cognition than cognition has on the emotional center.  This why it seldom works to tell yourself not to be afraid.  Recall that anything with an emotional hook is remembered longer, Plan as many positive emotional activities as possible.  Field trips, celebrations, and being successful in a new endeavor usually result in morevivid and long-lasting memories.)

8. Young children learn best through concrete experience.  Recall the amazing growth of connections in the first two years of life.  None of this growth comes from passive input and formal instruction; it comes through concrete everyday experiences.  The brain soaks up the world around it.  Children are innately curious and driven to master their world.  Play is incredibly important.  In play they have ownership, exploring their own interests with the support of adults.

(Application: Provide as many hands-on, concrete experiences as possible.  Flash cards, workbooks and “educational” computer games often deprive young children of the natural interaction with the world so important to their development.  What children need and enjoy is rich, varied input in natural settings.  This doesn’t mean you ignore learning opportunities. They can count steps as they take a walk, name the colors of the fruits and vegetables at the supermarket, and increase One vocabulary by naming all the things they see in the room.  These rich interactions with you as a guide do more to enhance brain development than any workbook, CD or DVD.)

9. Research from Harvard University has shown that exercise plays a critical role in brain functioning. The brain uses 10 times more oxygen than any other part of the body.  When sufficient oxygen is available, the brain is more efficient. In addition, during exercise a growth factor (BDNF) is released.   One researcher calls this growth factor Miracle Gro for the brain.

(Application: As you plan your days for the children, include time for them to engage in various types of exercise.  Running games and simple calisthenics are obvious choices but you can also include stretch breaks, Simon Says and other movement activities throughout the day to increase oxygen to the brain.)

9, With the enormous amount of activity occurring in the young brain, it is not surprising that the child’s overall health plays a role in how well the brain develops.
An important part of the child’s environment is the quality of the diet.  Proper nutrition including fruits, vegetables, milk, fish and nuts will enhance the working of the brain….as it will for the adults who work with the children!

(Application: Not only should you make certain that the children have adequate nutrition at the school, but you should also attempt to educate their parents about healthy food choices.  You might include a unit on healthy eating  and invite parents to contribute to a Super Food potluck at the culmination of the unit.)

10. One of the most recent and interesting findings coming out of brain research is the concept of consolidation.  It appears that new learnings are not immediately “set” in the brain.  Time and rehearsal help but amazingly, it has been found that much of this consolidation takes place when we sleep.  Researchers have long known that during deep dreaming (periods of REM sleep) the brain is as active as when you are awake and solving a problem.  We now know that this period enhances the learning that took place when we were awake.

(Application: Toddlers and young children need 10 to 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night.  Teach this to your children as well as pass this information along to parents.)

 

10 Facts About Your Toddler’s Brain

  1. Your child was born with around 100 billion brain cells but his/her brain is far from being fully developed.  The birth-to-three period is the fastest rate
    of brain development across the entire human life span.  During the toddler years the brain is twice as active as an adult brain.  (If babies bodies grew at the same rapid pace as their brains, they would weigh 170 pound by one month of age!
  2. As a result of the child’s experiences trillions of connections (synapses) are made between the brain cells.  Every experience either creates a ne connection or strengthens and existing one. We call this learning and memory.
  3. Connections that are used over and over ar kept but those that are not used are pruned away.  (For example: Children are born with th ability to learn any language, but the language(s) that the child hears repeated will strengthen the connections for that language and the connections for other languages will eventually disappear.)
  4. Genes certainly influence brain development but the environment also plays a major role in shaping the brain.  The foundation for toddlers’ physical intellectual and emotional development is built in the early years.  A child’s environment during these years has an enormous impact on the strength of this foundation.  The richer the environment, the more connections the brain makes.
  5. Toddlers who are frequently talked to know 300 more words by age 3 than those whose parents/caregivers rarely speak to them.  Toddlers who are read to and taught nursery rhymes and songs learn to read more easily than those who come from a literacy-impoverished environment.
  6. Toddlers do not need special toys or “educational” videos and games to stimulate their brain development.  (Researchers suggest no TV or computer time before the age of two.) They do need many natural experiences such as walks, playing in the park, going to the grocery store, and talking about what they
    see. The child’s best toy is a person!
  7. Consistent relationships are necessary.  A child who has never been loved will not know how to love.  Be emotionally and physically available to your child, gently guide your child’s behavior, appropriately praising and providing firm consistent discipline.  Stress disables learning.
  8. The brain uses more oxygen than any other part of the body.  Exercise provides thisoxygen. The more active the body, the more active the brain.  Sandboxes, jungle gyms and playgroundequipmentarealways a hit with toddlers as is just running and playing with
    other children.
  9. When new synapses are being made by the minute, proper nutrition is vital.  Toddlers need healthy food for the brain to develop.  Limit junk food and provide fresh fruits andvegetables as will as omega fats such as fish and nuts.
  10.  Research has shown that during sleep, the brain rehearses what it learned during the day.  Toddlers need 10 to 12 hours of sleep each night for optimal brain development.  A bedtime story and quiet talk will help the child get to sleep more quickly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brain Research and Education: Fad or Foundation?

» — Appearing in

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It’s All Academic: A Few Thoughts on Brain Development in the Early Years

» — Appearing in

Recently I’ve been reading articles in the news about the large number of parents who are concerned about getting their children into what they consider the best “academic” preschools in order to make certain they do well when they begin their formal schooling. Some are even signing their babies up before they are born! This […]

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The Adolescent Brain: A Work in Progress

» June 2009 — Appearing in PatWolfe.com

One day a child is cheerful, loving and obedient, comes to a parent or teacher for advice, dresses in appropriate clothing, and turns in for the night at 10:00pm. Homework is done without nagging and parent/teacher conferences are a joy. Then somewhere between ten and twelve, a strange thing happens. Almost over night it appears […]

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