by JoAnn Deak, Ph.D.
Over the past ten years, all of my professional time has been devoted to keeping up with the staggering onslaught of research on the brain and its implications for parents and schools. Imaging live, healthy and working brains via computer has increased our understanding of how pliable and changeable brains are during childhood and adolescence.
Without getting too technical, recent research is highlighting periods called “windows of neurological sensitivity or opportunity.” I use the term sweet spot to capture the essence of this important concept: plasticity of the brain. If we use certain parts of the brain at certain ages, we get more ‘bang for the buck’ or growth than we would at a later stage, even if we put in the same amount of time and effort. And if we do hit the sweet spot, there is growing evidence that this enhances the brain’s plasticity and aptitude for a lifetime.
Here are some tips to make the most of our knowledge of the baby brain:
Talk directly to your baby. In the first year of life, language input into a baby’s brain [someone talking to her/him] enhances the growth of the language centers ONLY if that talk comes directly from a person, not a video or audio machine. In other words, person-to-person contact is what is needed, while what we are loosely calling ‘distance communication’ has no growth effect on a baby’s brain. This is because the language centers of the brain are exceptionally responsive and plastic in the first three years of life.
Since this technology has only recently become available, the question becomes, when does the use of distance communication like TV, iPads, etc. have a positive effect on the brain? Much more study is needed. Until then, spend time communicating in person with your children. Let them plug into the TV or iPad when you need that infrequent break to charge your own system.
Encourage your child to engage in creative pursuits. This point helps us understand why there are sweet spots in the first place. We know that the brain does not come into the world a ‘done deal,’ so to speak. Each section of the brain needs to be used when it becomes ready. That’s really what is meant by windows or sweet spots. For example, research shows that learning how to play a musical instrument before age ten actually enhances intelligence and problem solving later in life. Frequent exposure to a foreign language before age nine enhances the learning of that language (or another with a similar phonemic system) for a lifetime. Using just these two examples, you can see the implications for parenting and educational choices.
Do not push your child beyond what he or she is capable of. Talk of brain growth can sometimes lead to overloading children with experiences, classes, etc. The brain acts like a collection of muscles and each part needs to be used, not just the parts that work well. If any parts are overworked, they will not grow in a healthy way.
In summary, research suggests that there is a sweet spot for use of the brain in certain areas and at certain ages during childhood and adolescence. If we take advantage of these sweet spots, we can reap a lifetime of benefits. To recap ways to do so, consider the following examples and suggestions. First, if you want your child to be multilingual, make sure s/he hears at least one foreign language before age nine. You can do this by having bilingual neighbors and friends speak the language to them and teach them songs or word games. Enrollment in a preschool or school that has early foreign language experience is another option. Second, having early music experience before age ten enhances thinking skills later in life. Parents and caregivers can look into preschools that offer class time focused on movement and music. You can also investigate Orff instrument experiences for young children or beginning individual instrumental music lessons before age ten.
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