The brain development of a child occurs in spurts called ‘critical periods’. The first critical period appears at approximately two years old. The second happens during adolescence.
Our brain is made up of neurons, and between these neurons are synapses (in other words, synapses are the connections between our brain cells). Communication between neurons occur at these synapses, and this significant process allows for messages to be sent to other cells. These connections link with each other and influence a wide range of abilities such as movement, emotion and language. Therefore, these synapses are where the magic of learning happens.
At the beginning of these critical periods, the synapses between neurons doubles. This means that two-year-old children have twice the number of synapses compared to adults. Because of this, they are able to learn faster at this period than any other stage in their life. We want to be aware of their experiences as it will have long term effects on their development.
Research shows that a three-year-old child has approximately 1000 trillion synapses. As they continue to develop, these brain connections are selectively pruned. In their teenage years, they will have around 500 trillion synapses. This number of synapses remains relatively the same up until adulthood. The synapses needed to form more complex and important abilities such as self-regulation, motivation, decision-making and problem solving are either developed or not developed in these first years. It becomes increasingly more difficult for individuals to establish these essential brain connections later in life.
The cerebellum plays a highly significant role in the learning and shaping of a child’s development. Not only is it responsible for necessary motor skills such as balance and coordination, but it is also a major contributor to a vast range of cognitive and emotional functions. During childhood and adolescence, due to the high amount of synapses present, these skills are the most susceptible to dramatic changes. Although the cerebellum is just a small structure that takes up only 5-6% of a neonate’s brain weight and 11% of an adult’s, it holds up to 80% of our global brain neurons. This makes our cerebellum an essential home for our cognitive functions to take place.
Firstly, to promote the optimisation of a child’s critical periods, there are a few methods we can adopt. It is important to place an emphasise on the joys of learning rather than the performance. Encouraging a young child to try new activities and enjoy the process of learning, will have far better outcomes than focusing purely on their results and performance. Therefore, instead of using statements that labels one’s ability, such as “you are so intelligent”, utilise a technique that embraces mistakes and persistence, which helps the child to understand that trying is the key rather than the result. This will aid with the establishment of their growth mindset, and will help them to begin to understand that abilities and talents evolve over time through efforts and perseverance, rather than being innately fixed with what they are born with.
Secondly, the exposure to a wide range of skills and activities is fundamental for a child’s development. Skill development relies more on the introduction to a variety of different fields rather than the specialisation of just one. Our children should be given the opportunity to explore a well-rounded set of areas such as music, sports, mathematics, art, languages, science and reading, before diving deeper into a single activity later in life. Research shows that those who are exposed to multiple fields and think creatively are the ones that thrive best in our fast, ever-changing world. This ties back to our children’s plentiful supply of synapses that allow them to be eager and ready to soak in an abundance of information and skill sets.
Furthermore, we should highly regard emotional intelligence in our children, as interpersonal skills are just as important as learning how to read and write well. Maximising their rapid ability to learn, we should teach them important emotional skills pivotal for their development, such as kindness, team work and compassion. An effective way to practise this, is to encourage our children to label their feelings and story-tell why they are feeling this way. Once they understand their emotions, it paves a way for them to easily understand and consider others’ feelings too.
Considering how fast our brain develops, especially how quickly our cerebellum grows in the first eight years of our lives, we should create the most opportunities for our children to develop a starting point that enables healthy learning and skills. These will set a foundation for their future growth, success and health. When children reach the age of five, 90% of their brain is already developed. The relationships and experiences that children go through in the earlier stages of their life have a massive influence on building neural circuits that become the foundation for their development later in life. Providing positive experiences and having healthy relationships will allow for the optimisation of their brain development, whilst ongoing and excessive stress can be toxic for their growth.
Maximising our child’s evolution by supplying healthy environments and appropriate experiences during the right time (their critical periods) is paramount for the valuable wiring and good health of their brain and its development.