Remember the story of the Three Little Pigs? When the Big Bad Wolf got to the third little piggy’s house he huffed and puffed to no avail because that house was carefully built of bricks. It didn’t end well for the Big Bad Wolf! Developing the human brain is a lot like building a house. The more you pay attention to creating a strong foundation in the first years of life, the better the brain will function. You want that brain to be like a house of bricks! Let’s take a look at how we do that.
The most important thing that we can say about the human brain is that the brain grows through use. It does so most rapidly in the first year of life but continues to do so regardless of the age of the brain’s owner, which is good news for yours truly! The brain grows through use because of a basic law of nature that says that function determines structure. I wrote a post about this a while back and hope you found it interesting and informative. If you haven’t read that post yet I highly recommend you read it before proceeding with this post because understanding this law is critical to understanding how your child’s brain develops. You can find it here.
In this post I want to talk about what this law actually means in practice for your child. In order to do that I’ll focus on the function of mobility. There are two ways in which this law affects your child’s structure – the structure of the brain, a process that takes place unseen; and the anatomical structure of the body, a process that is very easy to see.
Function determines structure in the brain
First, let’s look at the brain. For our purposes, in order to keep things simple, we divide the human brain into four parts: the medulla, the pons, the midbrain, and the cerebral cortex. Every time your child’s brain is receiving stimulation from the environment, his brain is changing. Every single message (visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory) that the brain receives actually changes the physical structure of the brain. Likewise, every time your child moves his arms, legs, hands, fingers and toes, and every time he makes sounds, his brain is changing.
When your baby is born the main parts of his brain are already formed but not every part is fully functioning. There are still trillions of connections to be made in order for the entire brain to be fully functional. This is a process called neurological or brain organization. The function of mobility plays a critical role in creating brain organization. Here’s how that happens.
In the beginning, all of the movements your child makes are the result of reflexes being triggered. As those reflexes are used the brain changes as a result of that use. As the brain changes, as new connections are made, your child’s level of ability increases. Bit by bit, provided he is getting the correct kinds of opportunities, i.e. tummy time, he will develop more and more physical ability. First, he will learn to hold his head up. Then he might learn to roll over. Eventually he will learn to crawl on his tummy and later creep on his hands and knees.
When a baby is crawling on his tummy and creeping on hands and knees the parts of the brain that are being stimulated, developed, and organized are the pons and the midbrain, two primitive but very important parts of the human brain. Your child’s pons and midbrain are literally growing as he uses these functions. His brain is developing a richer network of connections and it is getting bigger just like a muscle does when you exercise. And, just like a muscle, it is becoming more efficient and effective.
All you need to do is make sure that you are providing the right opportunities. Mobility is key to brain organization because the brain works as a holistic system. Everything affects everything else. Primitive brain structures (medulla, pons, and midbrain) are connected to higher level brain structures (cerebral cortex). As in any system, it is important that each component of the system functions well for the entire system to function well.
Function determines structure in the body
Now let’s look at how the function of mobility affects anatomical structure.
The most obvious example of this law in the human body is that regular exercise results bigger and stronger muscles. The more we use our muscles the better the structure and the more effective they become. So what does that have to do with your child and her development? More and more people are recognizing the important role that movement and exercise play in brain function. However, precious little attention is paid to how movement develops in children. Many parents focus on when their child will begin walking and are not aware of the importance of the mobility stages that lead to walking.
At birth a baby has little to no head control due to underdeveloped neck muscles. The more opportunity you give a newborn to be on his tummy (function), the earlier he will develop neck muscles (structure) and the earlier and better he will hold his head up. When a baby is on his tummy his head functions just like the weights you lift at the gym (you know, for those parents who still find time to make it to the gym!). Eventually, with plenty of opportunity to be on the tummy, he will start tummy crawling from one place to another.
When a baby is tummy crawling there is a lot that is going on. First, he is developing the muscles in his neck, back, tummy, arms, hands, legs, and feet. He will need these muscles to be able to sit up straight, to push away from the floor into a creeping position, and eventually to stand up and walk. Provided he follows the natural pathway to walking he will develop beautiful posture. This process is how the law “function determines structure” relates to your baby’s physical function and muscle development.
Second, in addition to muscle development, children who tummy crawl a lot develop bigger chests and more mature breathing. Breathing is important because it is the primary way that we get oxygen for our brain. And later it will play an important role in the development of language.
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, today many babies skip the tummy crawling and/or creeping on hands and knees stages. Many babies spend hours sitting in chairs (Bumbo, etc.). Many spend a lot of time in walkers. All of these devices are detrimental to good brain development and organization because they deny the baby the opportunity to learn how to tummy crawl and creep on hands and knees and therefore interfere with the process of brain organization.
Many babies roll as a means of transportation. Many scoot on their bottoms. These movements by themselves are not a problem. However, they do not provide the same neurological and structural benefits as tummy crawling and creeping on hands and knees. Because they sidetrack children from learning to tummy crawl and creep on hands and knees, these forms of movement result in poor brain organization, less muscle tone and strength, poor coordination, and poor posture. This is because the opposite of the law is also true – lack of function results in lack of structure, poor function results in poor structure, abnormal function results in abnormal structure.
So, taking advantage of this law is actually really easy:
- Provide your child with the opportunity to go through the natural stages of mobility – tummy crawling, creeping on hands and knees, and then walking.
- Avoid all devices that deny your child the opportunity to go through these stages.
- Make sure that once your baby develops a function, he uses that function. In other words, your baby must practice! The more he uses the function, the more the structure will change, both in the brain and in the body.
The end result? Excellent brain organization and beautiful physical structure, just like a house of bricks. How cool is that?!
The REACH Family Institute and BrainFit Kids really exist for only two reasons… to celebrate human potential and to honor human dignity and respect for life. We celebrate human potential by empowering parents with cutting edge knowledge about child brain development and sharing our four decades of clinical experience with them. We honor human dignity by teaching respect for life, and by serving children of all levels of ability from all segments of society.
All of us at REACH/BFK see all of you as part of our very large international family. Because of that, I want to share with you some of the highlights of this past year, some of the challenges we faced, and some of the lessons we learned. I’ll wrap up with a peek at what we have in store for you in 2019.
This past year was, in many ways, a remarkable year as we celebrated some fantastic milestones in our history.
A Few Milestones
40th anniversary – In 1978, REACH co-founder and Director, Charles R. Solis, Jr. led a group of six brain-injured young adults (the Appalachian Trail Challenge Team) on a successful thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Starting on April 8th at Springer Mountain in Georgia, they traversed 13 states, enduring extreme heat and humidity, freezing rain and snow, dense fog and howling winds. They suffered through painful blisters, hypothermia and physical exhaustion. And those were only the physical challenges! Most people who thru-hike the Appalachian Trail do so alone because it is far more difficult to hike for months on end with a group. Under Charles’ leadership, the Challenge Team reached the summit of Mt. Katahdin in northern Maine on September 15th, his 25th birthday. They were the first group (able-bodied or disabled) in history to successfully thru-hike the entire Appalachian Trail as a group. Their record still stands today.
30th anniversary – In 1988, at Hacienda Santa Teresa in Venezuela, we launched the Programa Leopoldo Pilot Project, a volunteer effort to serve poor families with brain-injured children. Starting with just three families, the project quickly grew and within four years was serving 32 families with a waiting list of more than 500 families from all over Venezuela. In 1992, Programa Leopoldo officially began as a “train the trainer” program for Venezuelan professionals. From 1992 to 2002, Charles and Conceição trained more than 200 Venezuelan doctors (specialists in pediatrics and physical medicine/rehabilitation), physical, occupational, and speech therapists, psychologists, and special education teachers. Working together with Sra. Christine Vollmer, Association Provive, and the Alberto J. Vollmer Foundation they forged a unique partnership with the Venezuelan Ministries of Health and Education and opened 34 centers throughout Venezuela where children with developmental difficulties could be seen free of charge.
25th anniversary – In 1993, the mayor of La Victoria in Venezuela, Ismael Garcia, commissioned a study to determine the incidence of children with developmental difficulties in his region. Stunned by the high percentage of children with a wide range of neurological problems he sought our assistance in bringing badly needed help to them and their families. Later that year we inaugurated the Casa de La Mujer in La Victoria which was staffed by several recent graduates from our professional training program and funded by the city of La Victoria. This was the very first center opened in Venezuela where the initiative and funding came from the governing officials. Charles and Ismael, now a Deputy in the National Assembly, remain good friends to this day.
20th anniversary – In 1998, on the heels of a presentation on Programa Leopoldo at a conference at the Vatican, REACH was awarded non-profit status as an organization formed for charitable and educational purposes.
Launch of BrainFit Kids – In April of 2018, we launched our BrainFit Kids website, blog, and 7-day Free Email Course “Make the first three years count!” BrainFit Kids was years in the planning and creation and we are thrilled that hundreds of people are now taking our course each month.
This past year was also a year of monumental challenges for us, challenges that were personal but that were intricately woven with everything that we teach and have experienced throughout our professional careers.
The challenges involved family and stepping up when help was needed. Mom was suffering the effects of cancer and its treatment, Dad was in the downward spiral of Alzheimer’s disease. Because of failing health they could no longer care for themselves or live safely in their home unless someone could step in to care for them. The question was who? Without getting into the details (there are a lot of details!), after weighing all of the options, we told my mother that we would move in with her and my dad and care for them until the end of their lives.
So began a year of total devotion as Conceição and I took over responsibility for every aspect of their lives. Eventually this involved everything from cooking meals, administering medication, washing clothing, and cleaning the house; to bathing, changing diapers, dressing, and spoon feeding. We did this while simultaneously continuing our work with the children on the West Coast and in France, and traveling to Oregon to pack up our house for the move to the East Coast.
Once my mother knew that we were in it for the long haul, she was able to relax and give herself permission to let go. Mom passed peacefully at home surrounded by her sons and Conceição on the morning of January 22, 2018.
Caring for my father was a very different story. Over the course of the year, as his cognitive decline progressed we saw many different versions of him. At times he was like a hyperactive two year old. At times he was lethargic. Some days he slept until noon. Some days he was up at 5:00 am. Some nights he slept well, some nights he didn’t sleep at all. Most of the time he was very confused, occasionally he was incredibly lucid.
It was a constant roller coaster. Eventually, he no longer recognized either of us. When I would tell him I was Charlie Solis he would smile and say, “Me too!, How about that!” Winter turned to spring, and spring into summer. Dad slowly but surely lost more and more of his memory and his confusion got worse and worse. But, physically he was in great shape and so we planned on this being our life for the foreseeable future.
In July, Conceição went to California to help our daughter, Juliana, and son-in-law, Jack, and the grandchildren with their move from Chicago to the Bay Area. What started as a week or so long trip to help with the transition turned into a 6-week encampment as almost everything that could go wrong with the move, did go wrong. It was rough on everyone but it could have been a lot rougher if not for Vovó (grandmother in Portuguese). Conceição stepped in and lightened the load of caring for the children considerably, thus allowing Juliana and Jack to deal with the myriad issues confronting them.
And then summer turned into fall. In October, at a routine checkup with his cardiologist, we learned that Dad’s heart was failing. Still, he seemed to be doing well in general so life went on. I went to Oregon to pack our belongings for the move. Just as I was finishing up, on the day the movers loaded the truck for the trip to Pennsylvania, my father passed peacefully at home surrounded by my three brothers and Conceição on the morning of December 19, 2018. It still saddens me that I was not there but I have to believe that deep down Dad was OK with that. We had spent so many special moments together during the course of his last year. We had said what needed to be said.
Some Lessons Learned
- Principles are principles! – I spent a lot of time thinking about our decision and commitment to my parents and why, beyond the obvious reasons, we decided to do it. With time and reflection I realized that our entire careers involved work based on two fundamental principles – respect for life and honoring the dignity of every human person no matter their circumstance. We taught these principles for decades in many different situations from individual consultations with families to speeches at the Vatican and in Geneva. I came to understand that the real reason for our decision is that it was inevitable. If we were to remain true to our principles, we had to “walk the talk”!
- Our parents are HEROES! – Throughout our careers, we have always admired the incredible courage and dedication of the parents we work with who have brain-injured children on our Home Program. We often call them the “jewels” of society. They do heroic work with their children, with no recognition, often with little relief, often for decades. We had a taste of this many years ago during our training. We worked in a school with young adults and served as their surrogate parents. We lived with them, ate with them, served as dormitory supervisors, etc. When I took my group on the thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I was responsible for them 24/7 for nearly six straight months with almost no time off. So, we had a sense for what our parents live with on a daily basis. Or so we thought! Our experience living with and caring for my parents multiplied our admiration for them a thousand fold!
- Family is what really matters! – Author Steven Covey was fond of an exercise where you imagine yourself at your own funeral. What will people say about you? How do you want to be remembered? Covey also often said that when on their deathbed nobody wishes they had spent more time at the office. When people have regrets they virtually always involve family. Nothing mattered more to my parents than their family. I had many occasions over the past year to meet people who knew Dad well and every one of them told me that he was always most proud of his four boys. He considered being our father to be his greatest calling and his greatest accomplishment. He was a wise man. Conceição and I cared for my parents until the end of their lives, providing them with the love and support that they so generously gave to me and my brothers when we were growing up. RIP Charles R. and Alma M. Solis. No regrets!
A Peek at 2019
We can’t say too much yet because we are currently transitioning from our role as full-time caregivers. But we can give you some hints. Expect to see a lot more online presence from BrainFit Kids this year. Some of the things we’ve got in the pipeline – Online Video Courses, Online Consultations, Mentoring Programs, BFK Podcast, E-books…
I’d like to leave you with a small but important piece of advice. Teach your children to be flexible. Flexibility is critical when it comes to handling changes in life and life often changes. Also, teach them what really matters in life. People, especially family and friends, are important. They should be treated with love and respect! The rest is just stuff! If we all teach our children to love and respect the people in our lives we will have a much more compassionate world. So, let’s all do our part by beginning at home.
Apologies for the length of this post today. It was important to me to share these thoughts with you as all of it is so woven together as if part of a cloth.
I’d love to hear your thoughts as well. We have much to learn from each other! Share your stories, your struggles and triumphs. Send us your questions, and let us know what topics you want us to cover in the coming year.
Thank you everyone for your love and support this past year and cheers to a 2019 filled with promise and possibility!
GivingTuesday is today – a global day of giving that harnesses the collective power of individuals, communities and organizations to encourage philanthropy and to celebrate generosity worldwide. #GivingTuesday is an opportunity for you to show what values are important to you and connect with a community and an organization working together to make your values into reality – we’re most effective together.
This GivingTuesday, we hope you’ll choose to CelebrateHumanPotential by supporting the life transforming work of the REACH Family Institute and our vision of a world in which all children are valued, compassionate, and capable.
Starting at 8:00am ET (5:00am PT) on Tuesday, November 27, 2018 Facebook and PayPal will match donations up to a total of $7 million on a first come first serve basis. Please consider donating here to help us capitalize on this unique opportunity!
The REACH Family Institute is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching parents and professionals about the extraordinary human brain. REACH’s work applies to children across the entire range of function from little ability (profound brain-injury) to above average ability. International in scope, REACH works with individual families, professionals, and organizations to ensure a better future through more capable and compassionate children.
On April 9th 2018, after several years of hard work, the REACH Family Institute launched BrainFit Kids, our new online initiative designed to empower parents of young children with the knowledge and tools necessary to Parent with the Brain in Mind. BrainFit Kids consists of a website, a regular blog, and online consulting. As a service to all young parents in the world we created a free 7-day email course called “Make the first three years count”. Over the last six months more than 1,000 families around the world have taken the course and are raising their children with the brain in mind!
2018 was also a year of major anniversaries for our worldwide REACH family. We celebrated the
- 40th anniversary of Executive Director Charles Solis’s historic thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail
- 30th anniversary of our Programa Leopoldo Pilot Project in Venezuela
- 25th anniversary of the Casa de la Mujer (Programa Leopoldo) in Venezuela
- 20th anniversary of the founding of the REACH Family Institute!
So, you can see we have a long, proud history of serving children and families throughout the world. We’ve transformed the lives of a lot of children and a lot of parents. But there is still an awful lot to do. High on our list for the coming year is to produce a series of video courses about child brain development. We’d love to have your support in that effort. So, as you consider which organizations you will support this #GivingTuesday, we hope you will choose the REACH Family Institute.
Please Donate Now to help us capitalize on Facebook and PayPal’s generosity to match your gift!
“As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has – or ever will have – something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”
– Mr. Fred Rogers
We’ve finally arrived at the third core principle that we see playing out in child brain development. This principle says that each child is unique.
If you’ve been following along from the beginning, you know that the three laws that govern child brain development along with the three core principles we can easily observe during that development comprise the scientific underpinning of everything we do at BrainFit Kids.
If you are new to BFK then here’s a quick recap. I recommend you read through these in order so you understand what follows.
- First law – Function Determines Structure.
- Second law – Frequency, Intensity, and Duration.
- Third law – “Where there is a need, there is a facility”.
- First core principle – Brain development is Progressive.
- Second core principle – Brain development is Synergistic.
- Third core principle – now you’re all caught up!
So, the third core principle tells us that each child is a unique individual. And this sets up a bit of a paradox! The science of child brain development is universal. It applies to all children at all times. It has done so since the beginning of our species, Homo sapiens. It will continue to do so in the future because it is built into our biology. And yet, despite the fact that we all follow the same ancient pathway during the course of our development, there are a multitude of outcomes! Why is that?
The answer is found in the third core principle. Each child is a genetically unique individual. Never before in human history has that child’s combination of DNA been seen… and it will never be seen again. Think about that! Ever get the feeling that you are not so special? Well, get over it and take a bow! Human history may not be so ancient in geologic terms but we’ve been around for a pretty long time, about 300,000 years. And yet, not once in all of that time has there been another you. The you that is you has never been seen before and will never be seen again.
Each child’s unique genetic inheritance results in certain biological and physiological strengths and weaknesses that exist only in him or her. Sometimes, especially when looking at children who struggle with developmental challenges, we have a tendency to blame the difficulties on genetic weaknesses. Genetic inheritance is often seen as a prison cell trapping the child in a cycle of failure from which he cannot escape.
Science and forty plus years of clinical experience tells us that this is wrong because it ignores the reality that child brain development, and the resultant development of functional ability, is dependent on the interaction of genetics with the environment. So, while it is true that a child may inherit certain vulnerabilities, it is also true that everything in the environment and every developmental opportunity has a direct effect on the development and organization of the brain. We must always remember that biology is not destiny.
Genetics is a starting point. It is a springboard, not a prison cell. Genetics must interact with the environment and therein lies the possibility for a more compassionate response to the pain that children with developmental challenges experience. We can’t change genetics but we have complete control over the environment. There is no need to look for a magic bullet because the magic is already in the brain of every child.
“Today you are You, that is truer than true.
There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
– Dr. Seuss
Of course, there is more than just our genetics that makes each of us unique. That is simply the starting point. We are each born into different families with parents who are unique in their own right. Some of us have lots of brothers and sisters, some a few, some none. For those born into a family with several children there is the matter of birth order. The developmental experience of child number one is not the same as the experience of child number two, or three, or four. How can it be?
So, the point here is that each child will start with his or her unique genetic blueprint, mix that in with his or her unique set of environmental opportunities, and develop functional ability in such a way that it expresses his or her unique personality, interests, and gifts.
It’s instructive to look at this in terms of the development of mobility. We can take two children and give each of them the same amount of opportunity to learn how to move, and the same amount of opportunity to use the various stages of mobility (tummy crawling, then creeping, then walking) to get around.
While each child will follow a path that we all follow, provided we do nothing to interfere, how each child follows that path will be unique to each of them. For example, how long it takes for a child to learn to walk will be unique for each child even though there is an expected time frame for the development of that ability. Some children spend a few weeks creeping before they walk, some children spend a few months. Of course, what is important is that children follow the process, not how quickly they get to the end result.
Now, extrapolate what we see in this example from the development of mobility to the development of all of the other functions. Think of it in terms of the development of vision, hearing and understanding, tactile ability, language, and manual ability. I think you can easily see that, while each child is born with extraordinary potential, how each child manifests that potential will be determined by the delicate interplay of their unique genetic endowment with their unique environmental experience.
There is no one alive who is Youer than You! That’s a beautiful thing!
Last month, in another one of our posts looking at the science behind child brain development, we talked about the principle of synergy. Just to recap quickly, synergy is the creation of a whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts. It tells us that the functions of the human brain develop together influencing and supporting each other along the way. The synergistic nature of brain development is clearly visible when looking at the function of mobility at every stage in the process of its development. This week we’re taking a look at a very sophisticated and complex physical ability that is a sort of rite of passage for children all over the world… riding a two-wheeled bicycle!
Riding a bike is a great example of synergy in action. You use your vision to see where you are going. You use the auditory (inner ear) and tactile functions to orient yourself in space and to balance yourself. You use your hands to steer and, if the bicycle uses hand brakes, to stop. Like all of the major stages in the development of mobility (tummy crawling, creeping, walking, and running) riding a two-wheeled bicycle requires good coordination of movement and a certain degree of strength. But what really separates riding a bike from those milestone stages is the critical importance of the element of balance. In the end, the ability to successfully ride a two-wheeled bicycle hinges completely on the ability to balance oneself.
And this is where most of the mistakes are made and why many children struggle with learning to ride a two-wheeled bicycle. Most children are introduced to bicycle riding by learning how to ride on a bicycle with training wheels… and therein lies the problem. When you ride a bicycle with training wheels there is absolutely no need (zero, nada, niente!) to balance yourself because the training wheels prevent you from falling over, thus eliminating the natural consequence of not keeping your balance. You simply cannot fall down and hurt yourself. That’s a good thing if the objective is to not hurt yourself. But it’s a really bad thing if the objective is to learn how to ride a two-wheeled bicycle. This brings us back to the third law that governs brain development, “where there is a need, there is a facility”. By using training wheels we remove any need to use balance while riding the bicycle. Sure, the child has the illusion of riding a bicycle but that’s all it is, an illusion. Since the ability to successfully ride a two-wheeled bicycle hinges completely on the ability to balance oneself, that’s obviously counter productive and therefore a bad idea.
So, what to do? Well, the first thing you want to do is make sure that your little one is developing mobility correctly. Remember, we believe deeply that athletic talent is every child’s birthright. All of the good coordination and strength required to get started on a bike is easily acquired through the development of good mobility, which is to say first learning how to tummy crawl, then creep, and then walk and run. Along the way your child will be developing a decent sense of balance.
Then, as you approach the age at which you want to introduce the joy of riding a bicycle, you can get your little one ready by increasing the amount of time you spend on balance activities. Spend more time on the swings at the park, the merry-go-round, the see-saw, the sliding board. Learn how roll like a log, do somersaults (carefully), jump on a trampoline (even more carefully!). All of these activities develop your child’s vestibular system, the part of the brain that receives information about body position in space, processes that information, and then initiates a motor response to maintain balance and position in space.
Now, the only question that remains is what kind of bicycle should we use to actually learn how to ride? That’s a question we and some colleagues asked ourselves about 35 years ago while working with children with special needs. We realized that the way children were usually introduced to bicycle riding was just not going to cut it. Knowing that balance was key we analyzed what skills were needed to be able to ride a two wheeler and came up with the idea of hacking a bike that the kids might already have. We lowered the seat, cutting the shaft with a hacksaw if necessary, so that they could sit on the bike with their feet touching the ground. We removed the pedals. That put the focus on learning how to balance.
Then we began a gradual process of teaching them how to balance themselves on the bicycle as they coasted down a slight hill with their feet lifted slightly off the ground. If they started to tilt over they quickly learned to put their feet down to brake the bike and bring it to a stop. Bit by bit, as they gained more confidence in their ability to coast while balancing themselves we encouraged them to keep their feet up off the ground for longer distances.
Once they could navigate a decent hill without ever touching their feet to the ground, we replaced the pedals and then worked on learning how to pedal. Bingo! Suddenly, lots of our children who couldn’t ride before were learning how to do it successfully. Little did we know that we had invented the balance bike! Oh, if we had only had the minds of a smart businessman back then!!!
So, that is the key. You must have the right equipment in order to be successful. The right equipment to easily start learning how to ride a two-wheeled bicycle is a balance bike. So, if your little one is now at the stage where learning how to ride a bicycle is something of interest, stay tuned for our next post. We’ll give our recommendations for the best bikes to take your child through the whole process from learning how to balance, to pedaling, and then to riding with complete confidence.
We are now into our fifth month here at the BrainFit Kids blog. If you’ve been following along since the beginning you now have a pretty good grasp of the basics that go into creating a well developed and functioning brain. If you’ve been applying those basic concepts with your children you should be seeing some solid results in terms of their development.
Today, we’re going to look at another important core principle that the developing brain adheres to right from the start. Remember, the first core principle is that brain development is progressive. The second core principle that we observe at work in the development of the human brain is that brain development is synergistic.
Synergy is defined as the creation of a whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts.
There is a tendency in the biological and medical sciences to always reduce the whole into its constituent parts. It’s a way of looking at the world that dates to the 16th century and is most commonly known as reductionist thinking or the reductionist paradigm. Most of our modern medical miracles are the result of reductionist thinking. It’s a very useful way of looking at the world. But, it has its problems and it cannot explain everything.
Another way of looking at the world involves seeing how parts relate to one another and influence one another. This is called systems thinking or the systems paradigm. This is how we see the human brain and its development. The human brain is a system unto itself, that is part of the central nervous system, which interacts with and influences other systems (circulatory, digestive, respiratory, etc.), which comprise the human person, who lives in relationship with other human persons, etc., etc.
When thinking about these two seemingly contrarian ways of looking at the world, it is not necessary to reject one in order to embrace the other. Indeed a much fuller understanding of what is actually going on is only achievable when one is able to see the validity of both paradigms.
When we apply systems thinking to our understanding of the human brain we see the brain’s parts (medulla, pons, midbrain, cortex) as not merely individual physical structures with unique responsibilities but also as parts of a greater whole that relate to each other, that influence and affect each other, and that, when working smoothly together, provide for a level of performance that is only possible through the relationship that the parts have with each other. It’s a lot like a symphony orchestra!
By this I mean that as the different parts of the brain develop, all of the brain’s functions develop together simultaneously and work together to produce an overall level of ability. Each function influences the development of the others. If you improve one function, all other functions will improve to some extent. The opposite is also true. If a child loses ability in one area, other areas of ability will suffer. This synergy produces an effect that is different from and greater than the sum of the individual effects of each function alone.
So, what does synergy look like in the real world of young children? Imagine a young baby of between 3 and 7 months of age before you. Typically, assuming development is proceeding as it should, this baby will have a certain level of ability in every area of function.
In vision, the baby will have the ability to converge her eyes as she tries to focus them on an object, a face, etc.
In tactile ability, the baby will have a good appreciation of pleasant touch (caresses, tickling, etc.) as well as some sense of spatial awareness and balance. This spatial awareness will manifest itself in the form of the ability to hold a sitting position and the ability to push up onto hands and knees and then hold that “quadruped” position.
In mobility, the baby will begin to experiment with moving forward in that quadruped position eventually developing the function we call creeping.
Lastly, in manual ability the baby will now have the ability to reach out with one hand and pick up and object using the whole hand, a function known as prehensile grasp.
All of the functions that I just described are functions that are controlled by the part of the brain called the midbrain. Every time the baby uses any of these functions she is developing her midbrain. The more she uses them, the more her midbrain develops. If she is denied the opportunity to develop or use any of these functions, the development of her midbrain will be affected.
So, imagine this little baby is down on the floor getting some tummy time. She pushes herself up into a quadruped position and holds the position. She then looks at a little piece of lint on the floor a few feet in front of her. She may rock back and forth a few times as she focuses her eyes on the piece of lint. She then looks up and sees her favorite toy on the floor on the other side of the room. She starts to creep towards the toy. All the while she has her eyes focused on the object of her desire. Finally, she reaches the toy and with one hand reaches out and picks it up.
What you just witnessed is synergy in action. You saw the functions of vision, hearing (the auditory mechanism is involved in balance), tactile ability, mobility, and manual ability being performed simultaneously; and all the while this little girl’s midbrain is getting a ton of input and producing a ton of responses (output).
The beauty of this principle is that it gives us lots of clues about what to do when development is not proceeding as we might hope. Consider the function of convergence for example. Typically, children with convergence problems are treated with surgery, glasses, patches, and/or eye exercises. These are all reductionist approaches. When we see a child who has convergence problems we use a systems approach and apply the principle of synergy. Why? Remember, convergence is a function of the midbrain. Children cannot converge their eyes at birth. Their vision is monocular. They begin to develop convergence and binocular vision when their midbrain starts to develop. So, rather than focus our efforts on the eyes, we focus on the brain. Makes sense since that’s where the problem is. Specifically, we have the child creep, creep, and creep some more. Over the years, we have completely solved convergence problems in many children who were slated for surgery for strabismus (crossed eyes), just by having them creep… which is to say just by developing their midbrains!
Go ahead and watch some synergy in action! It’s a beautiful thing!
A few weeks ago, one of our followers on Instagram posed a great question – “why is it that some parents don’t see raising their child as something so complex, and that they just think that their children will be fine with whatever happens in life?”
Because it is a question that touches on a lot of important issues I promised in my Instagram response to answer it more fully in a blog post. So, @brookehilder, here goes! I’ll start by rephrasing and simplifying the question. Why do some parents leave their child’s development to chance rather than take an active role in promoting it?
Let me begin by talking about parents. Here at BrainFit Kids we have the utmost respect for and confidence in parents. We believe with our hearts and souls that the best chance that every child has in life rests with his or her parents. This is because of what we call the anthropological reality of the family bond. Woven into the very nature of what it is to be a human being is the love that exists between parent and child. This is no ordinary love but a special kind of love that only a parent can understand. There is no sense in trying to explain it to someone who is not a parent. You simply have to experience it for yourself. But once you experience it, you will never be the same person again. Ask any parent.
We’re convinced that parents really do want the best for their children. We have always taught that parents know their circumstances and their children best and they should decide what is best for them and their children.
We know that parenting is a tough job. Raising children often involves making sacrifices and establishing new priorities. Parents today face challenges and pressures and decisions that are unique to our modern era.
When two parents are working outside of the home, whether by necessity or choice, it can be difficult to reconcile their baby’s deeply ingrained biological and physiological needs with their own social and psychological needs. That is something that each family must figure out for themselves. We think that’s the way it should be.
So let’s get back to the original question – why do some parents leave their child’s development to chance rather than take an active role in promoting it?
I think it is safe to say that from the moment a couple learns they are expecting a child, they begin to have hopes and dreams for their little one. Some parents have really specific dreams but mostly parents dream that their child will grow up to be healthy, capable, successful, and happy. And so the little bundle of joy is born and then many parents cross their fingers and hope their dream comes true. Why? There are probably as many reasons as there are parents but here are two reasons that most parents share.
First, for most of recorded history the standard dogma about child development, particularly child brain development, has been that it is the luck of the draw. Remember, we have been at this game for more than forty years. As the popular Farmers Insurance commercial says “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two”! The phenomenon of neuroplasticity (the idea that the structure, chemistry, and function of the brain is influenced by experience) was proved and recognized as scientific fact in other mammals (dogs, cats, mice, rats), as early as the 1950’s. But neuroplasticity in human beings was denied. As recently as twenty five years ago, the medical, education, and psychology establishments taught that the human brain was not affected by experience or its environment.
While we now know that neuroplasticity exists in human beings, the popular belief remains much as it was forty years ago… if you are lucky enough to be born with a good brain you will do well in life; if you are unlucky and are born with a compromised brain you will struggle. So, it is no surprise that many parents assume their child will be fine. In a certain sense, this assumption is a bit of self-preservation because if it’s the luck of the draw anyway and there isn’t much you can do about it, much better to just think positive!
Second, the rise of the professional class (medicine, education, psychology) over the past hundred years or so has resulted in a shift of responsibility for many aspects of our lives. Generations ago, parents truly were responsible for every aspect of their child’s development. Without any fancy degrees or special knowledge, drawing on their personal experiences growing up and relying on wisdom passed down through the generations, parents managed to raise children quite successfully. Knowing nothing about neuroplasticity, mothers and fathers managed to bring us from the caves of the prehistoric age to the modern age. In the process they raised some pretty extraordinary humans. The philosophers of ancient Greece, the geniuses of the Italian Renaissance, the Founding Fathers of the American experiment in democracy are just a few examples of amazingly capable people who were once children who were raised lock, stock, and barrel by their mothers and fathers.
Sadly, some parents today feel insecure about this responsibility because, after all, they are just parents! What do they know about raising children? Part of the insecurity parents feel is due to the fact that generally we have smaller families today so many parents have little personal experience to draw on. Part is due to the fact that, as least in the United States, the family is not the close unit it once was and we are a much more mobile society. So parents often can’t rely on the wisdom of previous generations. So they turn to professionals!
Education professionals in particular are only too eager to capitalize on this. All one needs to do to see how far this has gone is to look at the push for universal daycare and universal early childhood education. After denying neuroplasticity for decades, professionals today try to justify having every child in daycare or school as early as three months of age on the basis that it is important to take advantage of neuroplasticity!
Now, please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. We believe that every child should get the best quality care and a good early education. Indeed, that’s what BrainFit Kids is all about! We’re all for taking advantage of neuroplasticity! It’s just that we believe that parents are perfectly capable of doing this and can do so much better than professionals. What parents need is knowledge and our support in making that possible.
So, what’s a parent to do? Well, that really depends on how parents see their role and how much of themselves they want to and are willing to invest in it. Again, that is something that only parents can decide. But for those who want to take an active role in fostering their child’s development, the answer is education. Unlike a new car, little babies don’t come with a manual that tells you how they work. We started BrainFit Kids to fill in that knowledge gap.
Parenting With the Brain in Mind is about parents having an awareness of two things – the absolute miracle going on inside the head of that little baby they love so much and the extraordinary influence they have on that miracle. Once parents have that knowledge and awareness they can never look at their child or themselves in the same way again. That leads to children who are more capable and struggle less.
Speaking about struggle, today we have an epidemic of children diagnosed with attention problems, behavior problems, and learning difficulties. More than 5 million American children take drugs for attention problems alone. These children suffer terribly as a result of their limitations. The tragedy is that much of this suffering is completely avoidable. When parents have more knowledge and awareness about child brain development they are in a much better position to help and make a difference!
I’ll end with two final thoughts. As you make your own personal decisions as to what works best for you and your family, understand that there is no such thing as perfect parenting. You can parent with the brain in mind, which is to say with a very important purpose, but you can’t possibly be a perfect parent. So cut yourself some slack and just do your best. And keep in mind that raising children is the ultimate responsibility because, as Wordsworth said, “the Child is father of the Man”; children are our future! So long as you recognize the importance of that responsibility, you and your children will be just fine and our world will be a better place.
Earlier this month, in looking at the science of child brain development, we discussed the progressive nature of brain development. As an illustration of this core principle, we looked at the progressive development of the function of mobility. Today, we’re going to put that process under the microscope in order to show you how even within the various stages of mobility we can see the phenomenon of progression at play.
One of the most interesting and amazing characteristics of the human brain is its ability to recognize patterns.
Patterns are readily observable throughout the natural world and the human brain is an absolute master at recognizing them.
We do this primarily with our sensory functions of vision, hearing, tactile ability, taste, and smell.
What is fascinating is that we also move in patterns. When we observe babies carefully as they develop mobility, we see clear patterns emerge during each stage as the brain develops and they learn more about their bodies and movement.
Patterns of Movement
In the beginning, movement is random and without any real purpose. It is the result of reflexes being triggered and the baby’s body responding. Gradually however, with sufficient opportunity and as a result of thousands of experiments (remember frequency?), children integrate those reflexes and learn that by moving their arms and legs in certain ways they can move more effectively and efficiently. Nobody teaches the baby how to do this. It is hard wired into the system. When we give a young child frequent opportunity to learn how to use their arms and legs; when we give them that opportunity without restrictions; and when we keep the duration of those opportunities just right; the process plays out exactly as it is designed.
If you pay careful attention to how your baby is moving, you will observe several distinct patterns of movement as he learns how to move. You will see at least some of these patterns at the crawling stage, at the creeping stage, and at the walking stage. There are four distinct patterns of movement that children will use. They are the truncal pattern, the homologous pattern, the homolateral pattern, and the cross pattern. Let’s take a look at each of them.
The truncal pattern involves very simple movement, flexion and extension of the trunk. This is how the baby moves in utero during fetal development. When Mom feels her baby “kicking”, she is feeling the baby move from flexion in to extension. It is a very primitive pattern of movement, the kind of movement that we can observe in the fish. In both the fish and the newborn baby, it requires the presence of a well-functioning medulla and spinal cord, the parts of the central nervous system that are fully functional at birth.
The homologous pattern involves extending both arms simultaneously to pull forward followed by flexing both legs simultaneously to then push backward. The result is forward movement. This is often how the baby will begin to crawl forward on the tummy. Sometimes it also makes baby go backwards for a time if the arms are used more than the legs! This is the kind of movement that we can observe in primitive amphibians like the frog and, in both the frog and the newborn baby, it requires the presence of a well-functioning pons, medulla, and spinal cord.
The homolateral pattern involves moving the arm and leg on the same side of the body simultaneously. Compared to the homologous pattern, this is a more effective and powerful pattern of movement for tummy crawling. This is the kind of movement that we can observe in the higher amphibians like the salamander and newt and it requires the presence of a well-functioning pons, medulla, and spinal cord.
The cross pattern involves moving the opposite arm and leg simultaneously. This pattern of movement is much more complex than the previous patterns and, although not as powerful as the homolateral pattern, it is much more efficient. The cross pattern is the pattern of movement we can observe in reptiles and mammals and requires the presence of a well-functioning midbrain, pons, medulla. and spinal cord.
The journey through these patterns of movement can be observed in babies at each and every stage (tummy crawling, creeping on hands and knees, walking, and running) in the development of mobility as the brain moves from function that is primitive and simple to function that is sophisticated and complex. These patterns are deeply ingrained in the human brain’s wiring as a result of the many millions of years it has taken for the human central nervous system to develop to its present state. They are essential for the full development of the brain because they serve the very important purpose of organizing the central nervous system, a process called “neurological organization”. All human functional ability is dependent on neurological organization.
This video demonstrates a great example of cross pattern tummy crawling:
It bears repeating that, obviously, in order for these movement patterns to be expressed the baby must be given the opportunity to move. A baby cannot learn how to move correctly, cannot develop through these patterns of movement, when she is lying on her back, strapped in a chair, or sitting in a swing. Only when placed in a functional position (i.e. prone, which is to say on her tummy) and given the freedom to move without any restrictions, and with the frequency, intensity, and duration appropriate for her age, can she fully express her physical potential.
What pattern is your baby using when he crawls, creeps, or walks?
Take the time to be a careful observer of your child’s development… you’ll be amazed because it truly is a miracle!
Today we are delighted to feature another guest post, this time by our dear friend and colleague, Gail Engebretson. We’ve known Gail for more than forty years. She taught Juliana how to play the violin and worked with us in France for many years. She’s really part of the family. Gail probably has more hands-on knowledge and practical experience teaching music to children and using music to develop the brain than just about anyone on the planet.
Gail Engebretson graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1974 with a BA in Music Education. She received special training in the Suzuki violin method and studied with Dr. Shinichi Suzuki in Japan. In 1976, Gail began training in Human Development at the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia. There she designed music programs for young children and babies. Gail later developed music and violin programs in California, Wisconsin, and Washington. She currently lives in the Seattle area where she teaches music and violin to a bunch of really lucky kids. Gail also volunteers her time in an after-school string program in a native American community. In addition to her music and teaching career, Gail is a life coach and a published author.
Music to Grow the Brain
What does music have to do with brain development?
Many people believe music, musical instruction and learning an instrument are nice but not very important – certainly not something crucial in a child’s development or critical to maintain in our school’s curriculums. But most people have not considered music as a way to enhance brain development in a child.
Music is a language, a very complex language. Music has pitch and tone and rhythm. It has texture and form. Learning to play a musical instrument requires fine-tuned listening skills, spatial awareness, tactile awareness, manual dexterity, and physical coordination.
The brain is made up of billions of neurons and as these neurons become stimulated they make new connections – synapses. If they receive stimulation and are used they become stronger. If they are not used, they die.
One of the three main pathways into the brain is the auditory pathway. This pathway is strengthened and grown every time a child listens to music. Listening to classical music, which has a more complex musical structure, uses even more neurons and creates more connections in the developing brain.
There have been numerous studies done in recent years about music and the impact it has on children’s mental, physical and even psychological growth.
When the brain is processing music, both the right and left hemispheres of the brain light up. It shows activity in the auditory, visual, cognitive, spatial and motor systems of the brain. Research has shown that classical music primes the brain to solve spatial problems faster. Children with music training have scored better in math and verbal skills.
Stimulating the brain through music enables a child to have better listening skills. They are able to differentiate pitches and sounds. This helps in language development and later, reading development. Even a little bit of music training can make a difference in a child’s listening abilities later in life.
There’s a window of opportunity for creating the greatest impact through music. This window exists between the ages of two and ten. This is also when the greatest growth of language and the parts of the brain responsible for language are occurring. It makes perfect sense that music has its greatest impact then.
So what can you do as a parent to enhance your child’s brain development using music? Here are eight simple but powerful suggestions:
- Put music on in your child’s environment, especially classical music, starting as early as possible – even in utero
- Encourage singing – sing to your child and with your child (even if you don’t have the greatest voice).
- Teach your child song games that involve movement such as “Pat-a-Cake” and “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes”.
- Have your child move to music, dance, clap or bang out the rhythm of the music – help them make that physical and kinesthetic connection.
- Start your child on a musical instrument such as violin or piano as soon as you feel they’re ready, preferably around age three or four.
- The Suzuki Method is an ideal place to start.
- Use music to teach numbers and letters or other information. We remember song lyrics!
- Encourage your schools to maintain music classes, singing, string programs and band programs.
It’s very important to keep all music activities fun and enjoyable for your child. Music is a wonderful thing when it’s not being forced on a child. Many of us have gone through music lessons that became excruciating. Keep the bigger picture in mind – you’re not out to make master musicians but rather, happy, smart and capable children.
We’re going back to the science of child brain development this week. Previously, we established that the development of your child’s brain is governed by three very basic laws of nature. Just to recap those laws quickly, they are:
- Function determines structure. This law explains why, just like a muscle, the brain grows through use.
- The frequency, intensity, and duration of an applied stimulus (eg. light) will affect brain growth. Increase the frequency, intensity, and duration of the stimulus and you accelerate its transmission throughout the central nervous system. This law tells us how to facilitate the process of brain development.
- Where there is a need, there is a facility. This means that before a baby can develop an ability there must first be a need for that ability. Increase the need and it is more likely that the ability will develop. Decrease the need and it is less likely that the function will develop.
Brain development is progressive
In addition to the three laws that govern brain development, there are three simple, core, universal principles that we can observe about how the brain develops.
The first core principle is that brain development is progressive.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines progressive as “happening or developing gradually or in stages”. This is precisely what one observes in the development of the brain in children. Brain structure (neurons, dendrites, myelin, etc.) gradually changes from simple to complex. As a result, it is also what one observes in the development of functional ability in children. Functional ability changes from primitive to sophisticated.
The progressive nature of brain development can be seen quite clearly in the development of human mobility. A child is not born with the ability to walk. At birth, from a neurological perspective, he functions at a reflex level. He can move his arms and legs but any movement that he has is completely reflex and involuntary. But, if he is exposed to adequate sensory stimulation and given adequate opportunity to experiment with his arms and legs, he will learn that certain combinations of movements have certain effects. Eventually, as long as we place him in the prone position (on his tummy), and as long as we do not limit or interfere with him, he will learn how to crawl on his tummy. He is now mobile! He can crawl for transportation! This is the first stage on the path to walking.
Now that this little one is crawling around the house on his tummy there are a whole host of things that are happening to prepare him for the next stage.
Most importantly, as he crawls around the house, his brain is becoming more organized, it is growing new dendrites, it is producing more myelin, and it is producing more brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which neuroscientists like to call call “Miracle-Gro for the brain” because of the proliferation of new neurons and dendrites produced whenever it is found in high concentrations. He is literally growing his brain!
But that’s not all! In addition, as he crawls around the house he is developing his muscles. First, he develops the muscles of his neck and trunk. Then, once he can move forward, he develops the muscles of his arms and legs, and his hands and feet. And there’s more! Crawling on the tummy is hard work, even for a little baby, and another result of that hard work is that the baby is developing his ability to breathe. This is important because it is through breathing that we supply most of the oxygen that our brain uses. Most people do not realize this but the ability to breathe is an ability that develops. The breathing of a newborn baby is totally different from that of a grown child. The breathing of a newborn is fast, shallow, and irregular. The breathing of a grown child is slow, deep, and regular. The driving factor in that transition is mobility.
Once our little one’s brain has developed enough, and he is strong enough, and his breathing is sufficiently developed, he will start to push himself off of the floor in defiance of gravity and into a creeping (hands and knees) position. Now he will spend some time experimenting with this new thing called balance. He will push up, maintain a quadruped position, and experiment with how far he can lean in one direction or the other as he learns about his body and how to keep himself upright. All the while, he continues to develop the strength in his arms and legs.
Eventually, once he has developed good enough balance and has enough confidence in his ability to stay upright, he will start moving forward on his hands and knees. Now he is creeping! Once again, provided we give him ample opportunity to use his new ability, as long as we do not limit or interfere with him, he will become an Olympic creeper.
In the process, he will develop much better balance and far more sophisticated coordination, which are the tools he will need to eventually take that final journey into the unknown, learning how to walk.
So, the process of brain development is progressive. It is a magnificently conceived process in which each level of ability provides the child with the tools that he will need to go on to the next highest level of ability.
The same process happens in all other areas of function. It can be observed in the development of vision, hearing and understanding, tactile ability, language, and manual ability.
Knowledge is power
Now that you know that brain development is progressive, you have a powerful tool in hand. The simple awareness that the brain adheres to this core principle will help you stay attuned to your child’s development. This is not something to obsess about. But it is good to be aware of it because when you are it is highly unlikely that your child will skip any important stages of brain development.
But, of course, life isn’t always so simple as that. Things do happen. That makes this knowledge even more powerful. Why? Because if the developmental process is changed to any significant degree, regardless of the reason, you already have the first step towards a solution. You know that the progression is essential to good development. Now you just need to ensure that it is followed.
The human brain is a magnificent thing. Knowledge is power.
Go hug your kids!