How do babies learn things? How can we help them learn in the most conducive way possible? What does it take to create the best environment, conditions, and potential for the highest possible development of our children’s full mental (cognitive, non-cognitive, neuro-emotional and neuro-psychological, etc.) capabilities? And how do we fit whatever all that takes into our already very busy parenting lives?!
To begin with, let me reassure you, it’s a lot easier than you probably think, both to provide for that best possible brain development, and to fill that brain with all the necessary informational bits to succeed happily in life. If you’re a dedicated Natural Parent — practicing proper attachment, building and maintaining the parent-child relationship (and additional bonus points if you’re nursing) — then you’re already on the right proverbial track, and you’re already giving the brain what it needs most first in order to do well as it matures. Feeding that brain with enough of the right kind of information is something I’ll cover in more detail at a later date, but at present let me just say — if you’ve prepared the brain well enough, and you are willing to assist as it reaches for more, then you honestly won’t be able to stop it from devouring mountains more information than we are currently taught to think is normal for human development.
But before we go on to a proper discussion of what needs doing, let’s spend a little time exploring just what our babies’ brains are seeking and how they’re seeking it.
The first thing it’s important to know is that the human brain is an auto-adaptive learner. It is built to assess the learning potentials in the environment in which the baby is born and it then designs and continues to re-design a development plan for itself based on what the environment is like and what is available. If the brain receives positive information about the learning environment, it will open its various receptors and take in more and more and increasingly subtler levels of the input available to it. If the opposite occurs, and the brain ascertains that the environment is not as ideal, and/or that the human in which the brain is riding is not as safe and secure as is ideal, then the brain reorganizes it’s directives to secure those items missing from the environment, and/or the sense of safety that is optimal for proper development. If it cannot create the ideal conditions for optimal growth, then the brain is forced by it’s prime directive — of continual development per the conditions available — to develop as best as it can.
Another concept that is important to understand is that the brain is a time-sensitive aggregate learner. It’s extremely efficient in its processes, and uses what it learns en route to a new skill in order to facilitate that and future acquisitions. For instance, in an infant’s earliest days, the brain is simply looking to make certain that it and it’s human are both safe. Depending on how much it develops this baseline understanding/sensation, the brain will discern how open it can be to input, this in turn determines how much input it will begin to receive. Put more bluntly — if the infant brain is stressed, “it ain’t open for business”; and if it remains regularly or frequently in a state of stress, it gets further and further “behind in business”. Another example from early in development, is the set-up of mirror neuron reactions. I could write multiple posts about the function and importance of mirror neurons, but at present, you should understand that these neurons help children understand the emotions and intentions of others, and assist children in imitating new skills. In order to set these neurons up for prime functioning, the current understanding indicates that the brains of both parent and child encourage mimicking between them. The level of mimicry that happens seems to determine how developed the mirror neuron reaction is, which further determines how well the child will be able to learn about emotions, empathy, social etiquette, language and other complex motor processes, and self among many others. For each set of skills and precursors to new skills, the overall brain plan has allotted specific windows of time — some skills/process preparations have more precise windows than others — and after that time, the brain moves on with as much as it was able to handle in the time it had. If it gets more than/as much as is optimal then it moves on in a fully empowered manner; if it didn’t get enough input, or didn’t have the best conditions, then the amount of preparation and adaptation is less, and therefore the brain’s abilities to move forward are narrowed (not necessarily inhibited in reach, but lessened in scope).
Additionally, the human brain’s cognitive development is stage-specific — that is, it occurs in semi-discreet, overlapping, and cumulative episodes. As above, there are windows of time during which certain skills are ideally “developable”; and, as the saying goes, “you have to learn to walk before you can run”. Put together, that means there are optimal periods for developing particular cognitive skills, which ideally, flow in a succession building one on top of the other. In less ideal scenarios, an opportunity missed, or a cognitive skill not fully developed before the preferred window closes, then inhibits or “mis-serves” the development of the next skill(s) in the next (pre-set) stage.
In light of the above dimensions of brain development, one thing to keep in mind in approaching parenting is how best accommodate as many of the brain’s preferences as possible in order to be certain that it operates at its broadest possible spectrum of development. This refers both to choices we make in the moment regarding how to handle particular interactions, and more global choices that we make about how we approach parenting in general. So here’s my basic list of things to do to help give our children the best possible opportunities to develop robust, intricate neural networks, realizing and capitalizing on their brains’ brightest possible maturation scenarios:
- Our first job for assuring that our kids can learn as much as they are able to is create and maintain a secure bond with the new born and infant. If the baby (and brain, really) doesn’t feel secure, then the stress of that insecurity inhibits learning potential, and confuses the brain into hedging it’s proverbial bets and creating a less expansive educational program for itself. By making our babies feel safe, first and foremost, we unlock their broadest possible potentials, give their brains the full range of developmental choices, and prime their nervous systems for the greatest possible receptivity to input from all available sources.If we do that successfully (or to whatever degree we are successful at that…) then we can rely on the brain of the growing baby, toddler, and little kid to do it’s thing quite naturally. Given the right grounding, a baby’s brain is doing incredible feats of learning everyday — you can’t stop it (except by stress). Early on, a good bit of that development is about figuring out how to move this human body (as it doubles in size), how to understand and initiate communication, and how to get the body’s needs met (so that the brain can keep growing!).
- Our next most important job for brain development is to facilitate emotional processing throughout early development. Our babies come to us without the neural capability to mitigate or manage their own emotions. When children get upset (and they can get extremely upset about any-infinitessimal-thing, right?!) they lose their already limited access to their higher brain functions — like self-awareness, the ability to make good choices, impulse control, logic, and reason, among others. The thinking/learning brain shuts down until or unless they get help processing the emotion(s). So in order to help them get the upper brain back “on line” and return it to it’s receptive, learning state, we have to help our kids get through emotional upheaval as often as it occurs with healthy doses of empathy and hugs.By doing so, we tell our children’s brains to stop producing the stress hormone Cortisol, and start producing Oxytocin and Opioids to calm the brain and relieve the neural “pain” of duress, before reinitiating the cascade of neuro-chemicals that are optimal for receptivity and learning. In the moment, our assistance provides the vitally necessary help all kids require to get back to a calm, receptive state — our calm body/brain guides theirs to a similar calm by a co-regulation a/effect — and our empathy helps them manage the emotional content and begin “arcing” back into higher brain functionality. In the long run, our regularly helping them attend to their emotional processing means our kids are more in their “right minds” more of the time — that is, they are generally more available to receive information and sensory input, to think and act rationally, to control their impulses and motor actions, and to make sound and empathetically-informed choices. They can develop more “neural real estate”, exponentially faster, and with loads less work on everyone’s part — simply because we’re keeping the system “debugged” of “viral” emotional content.
- Another absolutely necessary thing for us to do is to “manage interest“. This sounds fancier than it is, but shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of its impact on neural development. It requires a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, we need to regularly show our interest — both in our children, and in their activities — this communicates our recognition of the importance of the things they are doing (every one of which is part of their development), but more vitally, it communicates the significance and belonging that every child needs to feel in order to develop ideally. And on the other hand (or prong…), we need to steer clear of interfering with our children’s interest in their explorations. That means — not rewarding or praising their successes (which interferes with their intrinsic motivation for learning), but encouraging their process and empathizing with their feelings throughout, instead.
By showing our interest, we show them that they and what they are doing/do matters. We assuage their need to feel personally important. We give wind to their wings simply by witnessing every manic attempt at flapping. We root their existence in meaning by celebrating their being with our attention and connection. And by withholding our valuations, and/or our critiques, and/or our coercive back-patting, we offer them the opportunities to be the measures of their own successes. We offer them the chance to remain dedicated to what interests them, rather than becoming dedicated to winning our favorable appraisal and attention (the latter of which they should have as a given, not a currency). We also offer them the awesome power to wade into new explorations and experiments without fearing all the inevitable and informative failures available to them along the way to mastery. The child whose parents don’t show enough interest (i.e. don’t clearly communicate significance and belonging), and/or work too hard to “catch them being good” and extrinsically reward successes, doesn’t get to feel safe exploring new terrain (physical or intellectual) and doesn’t get to feel like what he is doing actually matters, and doesn’t get to feel really excited about learning. And in all cases, we really want the opposite for our children.
- So, after making sure the brain feels secure (not to leave out the human who owns the brain, of course…) and modeling responsiveness and interest so that the brain takes on its best possible growth plan, then we need to start to put stuff in the perceptual range of that hungry brain! That means lots of playing and exploring with, talking (and signing) to, showing and sharing things, and reading to our kids.
Regularly reading to our little ones is one of the single best early education tools possible. Period. It gives access to a wide swath of the language(s) we speak in real time and context(s). Additionally, by simply hearing us and seeing our mouths move, our children’s mirror neurons make their brains run miniature simulations of speaking, practicing the neural habits of language production. Reading to/with our kids also introduces concepts about life to them in both a visual and auditory way — maximizing the input, and therefore, the reception of new information. It also happens to be calming and connective for most children, which means it’s not only teaching the brain, but priming it for learning too! Do it, literally, as much as you can both stand every-single-day.
Then the next and final part (for the current discussion) is making lots of room for play. Play is how kids and brains run simulations of all the tiny bits of input they’ve been given, and practice self-regulation skills. They will run countless pretend scenarios each day, trying out existence, and experimenting with what they know about life. It is absolutely essential that play be their most regular task on any given day until they are developmentally able to move on to other types of input (like reading on their own) — usually somewhere between 5 and 8. Independent play is, of course, vital, but develops differently for different kids and provides for only specific kinds of learning; so be sure to supplement (especially earlier in development when independent play has yet to emerge) with lots of co-play and with toddlers and older kids even rough co-play, which is especially good for developing neuro-emotional regulation habits.
These are the basics of priming the brain for and initiating the most comprehensive learning that the human brain is capable of doing. Given secure attachment, consistent emotionally-responsive care, a sense of significance and belonging, unencumbered intrinsic motivation, and plenty of rich input — our children can learn and do anything; their potentials are broad and high; and their brains are open for the serious business of becoming their best possibilities. If we get really good — not exceptional but dedicated — at providing what our children’s brains need for optimal development, then I believe we’ll see the emergence of a kind of human we would currently call superhuman; with abilities and skill levels that we can, now, barely even imagine. And at the very least, we can offer our own children the most fully empowered nervous systems possible just by attending to these few basic guidelines above.
So get in there! Lay those solid foundations, and provide those early resources necessary to make sure your kids’ brains are “open for business” and “primed to succeed”! And then stand back and witness in celebratory amazement as the empowered nervous system takes over and creates learning in places you would never have dreamed. Feed that brain and watch it grow like a magical beanstock!
Be well, my fellow para-educators.
P.S. — If you want more information or assistance on this, you can hire me to be your brain-facilitator trainer! And you can also check out this book for more background and ideas.