It’s time for a paradigm shift in how we look at human functional ability. In his landmark book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, physicist Thomas Kuhn coined the term “paradigm shift” to describe the change in thinking that precedes dramatic changes in scientific models. The shift in the field of physics from the laws of motion of Sir Isaac Newton to the theory of relativity of Albert Einstein is a good example.
Traditionally, the medical, psychology and education establishments have assigned human beings to categories according to functional ability – what they can and cannot do, as well as according to how well they do what they can do. This remains the dominant paradigm today. It is most commonly seen in the diagnosis of disabilities – children are placed into categories according to their lack of ability and are then placed into categories within those categories according to the severity of their lack of ability. But it’s been a pervasive idea throughout society for a long time.
Here’s a personal story that shows how this played out in schools when I was young. When I enrolled at Archbishop Wood High School for Boys sometime in the last century, I was assigned to a “track” based on my IQ score and previous academic performance in elementary school. There were three tracks – first, second, and third.
The “first” track was for the kids who had high IQ scores and really good grades in elementary school. It was generally understood that the kids in these classes were going on to college after high school graduation and that most of them would go to top-notch colleges and universities.
The “second” track was for the kids who had average IQ scores and average grades in elementary school. That’s where they put me. It was generally understood that the kids in my “track” would also go on to college but the push for us was to aim for the smaller state colleges where the admissions requirements were not as stringent.
The “third” track was for the kids with below average IQ scores and below average grades in elementary school. It was generally accepted that the boys in the “third” track were not college material and therefore would go on to learn a trade like plumbing or auto mechanics.
Nobody ever told us that the divisions between “tracks” were made along these lines, but we all knew it. And it had a significant influence on how we saw ourselves and our potential and also how we saw each other. It was, in a certain sense, a caste system based on the belief that intelligence is predetermined and unchangeable. So we all thought that if you were lucky and born smart, you were dealt a good hand of cards; and if you were unlucky and not born smart, you were dealt a bad hand of cards. Stanford University psychologist Carolyn Dweck calls this the fixed mindset and when I was growing up the fixed mindset ruled!
The idea that any ability, including intelligence, is predetermined and unchangeable has always been a lousy idea and it has limited the potential of untold numbers of people. But during the last decade or so there has been a movement afoot in neuroscience circles that deserves our attention because it represents a significant departure from the traditional way of assigning children to fixed categories. It is called “neurodiversity”.
Advocates of neurodiversity view neurological conditions like autism and dyslexia as being the result of natural variations of the human genome rather than pathologies or disorders. On that basis, they argue, the traits caused by genetic variations should be celebrated and that there is no need for or possibility of a cure. The neurodiversity movement has seen it’s most ardent embrace amongst the autism community.
Let me give some perspective. Forty years ago, there was no such thing as the autism spectrum. There were simply children with autism and they were categorized as mild, moderate, or severe. That’s it. Some years later, those terms were replaced with autism, pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), and Asperger’s syndrome. Today, those terms have been largely replaced with the blanket term autism spectrum disorder and the children are all somewhere “on the spectrum”. While autism spectrum disorder is still a medical diagnosis that categorizes children according to sets of symptoms (and is therefore not acceptable to neurodiversity advocates) it is a term that nonetheless was greatly influenced by the neurodiversity movement.
While I have fundamental disagreements with both of these developments (neurodiversity and the autism spectrum), they do represent an encouraging trend. These concepts represent ways of looking at human ability that seek to find some commonality amongst all people or at least people with those traits rather than focusing on their differences. And they also at least imply the possibility that performance amongst people who are “neurodiverse” or “on the spectrum” is somewhat fluid rather than static. That’s a big difference from the classical approach of diagnosing a child with a disability and placing him in a box from which he cannot escape.
Nonetheless, these changes do not go far enough because they are still mired in a concept of human functional ability that is essentially based on the idea that ability is predetermined by genetics and therefore is largely unchangeable. This ignores all of the extraordinary advances in our understanding of the human brain and neuroplasticity of the past forty years. So, I propose that we take this notion several steps further.
We have worked with children whose abilities span the entire spectrum of human performance for more than forty years. Since the late 1970s, we have taught a concept that we call the Continuum of Human Functional Ability. A continuum is defined as a continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, although the extremes are quite distinct. The Continuum of Human Functional Ability ranges from little functional ability on the low end (as in a child in a coma) to superior functional ability on the high end. When we speak of functional ability we mean sensory, cognitive or intellectual, physical, emotional, and social ability. We mean ability in its most comprehensive or holistic sense. In between the low end and high end of the continuum, there are gradations of functional ability.
In order to understand the continuum, one must first understand that all human functional ability is the direct result of the development and organization of the human brain. You are able to do what you do and do it as well as you do because of the degree to which your brain is developed and organized.
Essentially, the idea is that all human beings can be placed on a continuum that is based on the degree to which the brain is developed and organized. You can see this in any classroom. There is always a range of performance (i.e. ability) amongst the children. That range of performance is, to a very large extent, the result of a range in brain development and organization. Same thing on the soccer team. Same thing in the band. Same thing with children who are diagnosed with disabilities – take ten children with Down syndrome and you will find a range of functional ability, take ten children with cerebral palsy and you will find a range of functional ability.
Remember, these differences in ability are based on brain development and organization not on genetic endowment. Because of that, one’s position on the continuum is fluid. It can change! Improve brain function and you can move up the continuum towards the superior end. Suffer a loss of brain function and you might move down the continuum towards the low end.
We have seen this happen more times than I can count in our work with children who have developmental difficulties. Back in the days before the “autism spectrum” we saw children start our Home Program with a diagnosis of autism. Two years later they came back and their diagnosis had been changed to pervasive developmental delay. Two years later their diagnosis had been changed once more, this time to Asperger’s syndrome.
After you’ve seen this scenario play out enough times you have to say to yourself, what is going on here? If each of these conditions is genetically determined how is it possible that we are changing the diagnosis every two years. Was the original diagnosis wrong? Well, if this experience were only confined to children on the “autism spectrum” perhaps that might be the case. But, it’s not. We have seen the same pattern in children with every diagnosis we work with – cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Sensory Integration Disorder, ADD, ADHD, and on and on. Over and over again, we have watched children start at one point on the continuum and, as their brain’s developed and became organized, they moved up the spectrum towards a higher level of functional ability!
So, here is the bottom line. We are all, each and every one of us, on the Continuum of Human Functional Ability. I am on it. Conceição, my wife and colleague, is on it. Juliana, our daughter is on it. Same for her husband, Jack. Same for our grandchildren, Jack and Adeline.
You are on the continuum too, and so are your children!
If you have been a regular reader of this blog you know that, as a parent, you have a significant influence on your children and their development. What you do as a parent matters a lot! You can play a role in helping your child find a place high on the continuum.
Finally, and this is the key, ALL of the children who are diagnosed with some type of developmental challenge regardless of the name that the doctors, or psychologists, or teachers have given it, are also on the continuum.
We are all on the continuum! Where we find ourselves is determined by the degree to which our brain is developed and organized. And that, at least as far as functional ability is concerned, is really the only difference between us! I have a great deal in common with the child who is diagnosed with cerebral palsy. I also have a great deal in common with the child diagnosed with Down syndrome. Each of those children has much in common with the other. We are all so much alike!
The beauty of the continuum is that it represents the hope contained in the miracle of the human brain – plasticity, growth, potential. And, best of all, it does this while simultaneously erasing the stigma associated with so many of the antiquated ideas of the past. Diversity is a wonderful thing but so is brotherhood and sisterhood. When it comes to the human brain and functional ability we are all brothers and sisters!
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?!
This past September after completing our work teaching The Reach Family Institute’s French families we were lucky enough to meet up with Juliana, Jack, and the kids. They joined us in France to celebrate the 20th anniversary of REACH, the 30th anniversary of the pilot project that became Programa Leopoldo in Venezuela, and the 40th anniversary of Charlie completing a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail with a group of young adults with special needs.
While at a train station waiting to go to Versailles a French couple with a baby girl sat by us. The kids were chatting and singing while waiting when they they noticed the baby and walked over to say, “Bonjour!” The baby girl was 9 months old. The mother asked how old Adeline was and when she heard she was just over 2 she said, “Is it true what they say? Do the terrible twos really exist?” Juliana gave her a quick answer as the train approached and I immediately felt bad that we could not answer her question more completely. I told her to check out the BFK blog and promised that we would answer her question. I loved how she put it! Do the terrible twos really exist? Are the terrible twos a myth or real?
The terrible twos can most definitely be real but it doesn’t have to be the long miserable year that many make it out to be. The “terrible twos” expression has been around for a long time. No one actually defines or describes the terrible twos. It is just understood. It’s the frequent tantrums and defiant behavior of the average 2 year old. Right? In addition to the terrible twos, many now refer to three year olds as “threenagers”, an expression that was not used 30 years ago when I was a young mother. Many parents now find the behavior of their three year old child to be more difficult than the 2 year old stage. So, real or myth?
Yes, the behaviors that drive parents to describe them as the “terrible twos” or the “threenager” stages do exist. And they are one and the same! In both stages parents are describing the same behavior. In some children it is mostly accentuated when they are 2 and in others is more apparent at the age of 3. For some this “difficult” stage can last for a couple of years whereas others move beyond this stage quite quickly. Why? Let’s talk about some of the reasons.
Let’s begin by understanding that what determines the timing of when you’ll start to see these outbursts relates to the child’s neurological age, not the child’s chronological age. They are not always one and the same! Chronological age has to do with time alone. Everyday the child is one day older. Neurological age is based on the child’s level of function. Neurological age therefore relates to the level of brain development achieved as a result of exposure to stimulation and developmental opportunities. When it comes to behavior and how a child relates to the world, her level of understanding and language are the most important neurological factors.
Understanding and Language
So, let’s look at understanding and language in relationship to behavior. A child who cannot follow multiple step instructions and who has no concept of time will not understand when you try to reason or negotiate with her. First, your child needs to have moved from understanding simple one-step instructions to more complex multiple-step instructions. The child should also be able to reasonably follow simple conversations that are not directed to them.
And finally, the child needs to have some concept of time. It will not work to say to a child, “You cannot have this candy now but I will give it to you later” if she doesn’t know what later means. This will most likely result in a temper tantrum. The child who does not understand “later”, wants it and she wants it right now! Immediate satisfaction is all that she understands. If your children is at this stage it is pointless to try to negotiate with them as they simply do not have the understanding level necessary for negotiation. All you can do is divert her attention to avoid or diminish tantrums.
In previous blogs, I have talked about the importance of speaking with your child from birth. Speak often and about everything that surrounds her. Sing songs, read books, and provide lots of opportunity for hands-on play. These are the best ways to develop understanding.
In order to begin negotiating with your child you first need to teach time concepts. You can do this by using concrete concepts. “Later” is too vague. Later can mean 5 minutes or 30 minutes from now to you, and 2 minutes from now to your child. So, how do you make it more concrete? Tell her “when we get to the car you can have it” or “after you eat lunch you can have it.” Relate it to a clear physical activity that is not too far off in time.
As your child’s understanding is developing, provided she has been given the right opportunity for good brain organization, her language will also be developing. Children who do not develop the language to express their feelings and desires will often have more outbursts out of frustration. Related to language development, the “terrible twos” are often more pronounced in two types of children.
- Those who do not have enough language to communicate and who learn that screaming or “acting out” is the only way to get their point across.
- Those who have very sophisticated understanding and language and who learn how to “turn the tables” on their parents. In these cases, the issue has more to do with how parents respond to the child rather than with the child’s level of understanding. They become so good at negotiating and reasoning that their parents too often give in to their wants and needs and when they don’t “win” they have a tantrum.
In all cases parents need to be aware of what could be causing their child’s challenging behavior which will determine how one should respond to them in order to minimize the tantrums and frustration.
Consistency in Actions
As parents you need to be consistent in your actions! Do not say one thing and then change your mind and do a different thing. You will be confusing your child and inadvertently encourage bad behavior. It is hard for your child to know how to respond to your requests, instructions, or wants if you are not consistent. How can they?
Let me use an example. Today you are in a good mood. Let’s say you are on the sofa reading something and your child comes running in and jumps on you. Because you are in the mood to play, you put your reading down and you begin to tickle your child. That was fun, right?
OK, now the next day you are tired and feeling a bit stressed. You are on the sofa reading something and your child comes running and jumps on you. He is expecting the same thing to happen. His assumption is that you will put your reading down and tickle him but instead you get angry because he jumped on you and could possibly hurt you. Do you see the picture?
We all have a tendency to be inconsistent in these types of actions with our children and it can be very confusing to them. This inconsistency can result in more problems especially with little toddlers who are just learning. They are constantly taking cues from us and mixed messages like this can be unsettling and confusing. We parents are human (gasp!) and we do and will make mistakes. We need to learn from them and do our best to be present and consistent with our children. And remember, you always have the option of walking away to take a breather for a minute if the stress is too much.
When dealing with a child who has immature understanding and/or language development (and therefore more difficulty expressing her needs and wants), you need to be even more attentive and sensitive to her. Pay closer attention to her actions. Is she throwing tantrums because she learned that it is the way to get your attention? Children at every level will do what works to get what they want. If acting out gets your attention they will use it every time to get what they want. So, if your child is in one of these stages pay attention to your actions and ask yourself, “Am I encouraging this behavior by giving it attention?”. If the answer is “Yes”, all you need to do is change your behavior. Change how you respond and your child will change how she behaves.
Each Child is Unique
Our last post had to do with the final core principle of brain development, Each Child is Unique. Each and every child is unique and that is a beautiful thing. So, when you are behaving with each child in your life in the same way but getting different results remember that Each Child is Unique and pay attention to the differences in your children! Again, be consistent, be observant, and most of all, be truly present and you will begin to see the gift that each child has within him or her and you will know how to best respond to them.
I would not be addressing all children and helping parents if I excluded this one. Tantrums are a normal part of development up to a certain point. However, if your child is having many tantrums per day on a regular basis and you are concerned please do not ignore your concern! We see many children whose parents refer to their tantrums as “meltdowns”. Frequent uncontrollable tantrums (we’re talking many in a day on a daily basis), are often of immature brain development and often problems of a physiological nature. Children who experience these types of tantrums are not brats. They simply cannot control it and they need help. In this case, changing your behavior or trying to change the child’s behavior by punishing or any other method will not stop them from having tantrums. In these types of cases children often have a neurological need that is not being addressed. When we fulfill those needs the tantrums go away. If your child is experiencing this and you want help please feel free to contact us and we will be happy to talk with you. We offer a free 30 minute online consultation to talk through your concerns and give initial advice.
All children have tantrums and not just when they are two or three years old. All children are trying to figure out where they have control and what to do in order to get their way. That is true throughout life, right? Aren’t we all trying to keep control?!
Now that the holidays are approaching, parents are feeling more stressed and so will the little ones. When stress is up, behavior is down! In a future post I will give some tips on how to keep you more in the “Zen Zone” to help you deal with the behavior issues of your little ones. In the meantime, begin by truly paying attention to how you act and react when your child wants something or is being testy. I bet you will be surprised how much you encourage the behavior that you are trying to stop by giving it so much attention! Begin by changing how you respond, and watch her changing how she acts. And remember, be kind to yourself and your child! We are all human and it is not about being perfect. It is about wanting and trying to do better! Give yourself grace. Give your child grace. Hug each other a little more and take a breath. We all have bad days from the littlest ones on up. Be there for each other and work to be better for each other. Those little eyes are always watching and learning.
“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.
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!
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!
If you’ve been following along since we started posting about the science of child brain development, you now know far more than most parents do about what is actually driving all of those amazing changes in ability that you see in children in the early years of life. So far we have looked at two simple laws that govern brain development.
The first law is the very basic law of nature that says that function determines structure. The end result of this law for us is that the human brain grows through use in very much the same way that muscles develop and grow when we get regular exercise.
The second law is a basic law of neurology that influences how effectively information (stimulation) can reach the brain. The law states that in order to increase the transmission of nerve impulses across the central nervous system, you must increase the stimulus in frequency, intensity, and duration.
By applying this law we can ensure the growth of new neurons and dendrites and the production of more myelin. This increases the speed with which the brain takes in and processes information, turning the brain into a neurological superhighway.
The third and final law that we want to look at is also something quite simple. Just like the other two laws it has a tremendous effect on brain development and the development of functional ability. The third law says… where there is a need, there is a facility.
Doctor Temple Fay, the brilliant neurosurgeon who pioneered many of the ideas that form the foundation for much of what we do, was one of the first people in the medical field to relate this idea to the brain. Speaking about the development of speech in early humans, Fay said, “Man came to speech and verbalized means of communication not by extra cortical cell layers alone but because of the physical contours of the face, jaw, teeth and tongue. Which came first – the chicken or the egg? We may be sure that first there was a need, and then a facility!* Nature is an opportunist! Can you blame her for wanting to put “words” to “song”? *my italics
When saying that nature is an opportunist, Fay was referring to the well established biological phenomenon known as opportunism. An opportunist organism is generally defined as a species that can live and thrive in variable environmental conditions, and sustain itself from a number of different food sources, or can rapidly take advantage of favorable conditions when they arise, because the species is behaviorally sufficiently flexible. The human species, homo sapiens, is a master at adaptability.
Here’s another way to think about this law. Remember Aesop’s Fables?
One of Aesop’s most popular stories is The Crow and the Pitcher. Here’s the text of the fable (translation by George F. Townsend, the standard in English since the 19th Century):
A Crow perishing with thirst saw a pitcher, and hoping to find water, flew to it with delight. When he reached it, he discovered to his grief that it contained so little water that he could not possibly get at it. He tried everything he could think of to reach the water, but all his efforts were in vain. At last he collected as many stones as he could carry and dropped them one by one with his beak into the pitcher, until he brought the water within his reach and thus saved his life.
Necessity is the mother of invention.
The expression “necessity is the mother of invention” is another way of saying that “where there is a need, there is a facility”! So, how does this law work in the brain and in the development of functional abilities? Basically, what the law means is 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 function will develop. Decrease the need and it is less likely that the function will develop. While the law applies to the development of both sensory and motor functions, it is particularly applicable to the motor functions of mobility, language, and manual ability.
To give you a sense for how this plays out in everyday life, here’s a scenario that we encountered many years ago. It’s happened a number of times since. A friend, the mother of three young children, contacted us concerned that her youngest child was not speaking. He was nearly three years old so she had some good reasons to be worried. Because functional problems rarely occur in isolation, we asked her about his other abilities. Was there anything else about his development that concerned her? No, everything else was going beautifully. He was well coordinated, bright, curious.
Basically, he was developing very well in every way… except speech. That was our first indication that the problem might not be in him but in his environment. So, we got together so we could spend some time observing him and the family dynamics.
We found that, just as his mother had said, his development looked really good in every way except for the fact that he didn’t speak. He could communicate with gestures and the occasional sound but didn’t say any words. We also found that his older brother and sister doted on him constantly, making sure that he was always happy, and serving as his interpreter.
He had virtually no need to speak because his brother and sister spoke for him! And he was perfectly happy to go along for the ride! So, the good news was that there was really nothing to be concerned about. He was, in fact, developing very well. He just needed more need to speak. We talked about that with his mom, gave her some ideas for how she could increase his need to speak, and within a few months she couldn’t keep him quiet!
One of the popular parenting trends today is teaching baby sign language. Sign language is a wonderful form of communication for children who are deaf and who do not have the potential to develop spoken language. It can also be helpful for removing frustration from children who are struggling with the development of spoken language. Of course, a baby can learn how to sign just as easily as they can learn almost anything else. Indeed, most babies will develop their own sign language all on their own. Pointing fingers and reaching out with arms are perfect examples. But, when used with a baby who has no hearing problems there is a very real risk of delaying spoken language when signs remove the need for speech. And there is really no reason to take this risk if your baby is developing and functioning well. It’s a fad that we discourage because of this.
The same process that happens in speech is also at work in the development of mobility and manual ability. Here’s another great example of this. Since the development of velcro, and its use in the manufacture of shoes and sneakers, the age at which children learn to tie shoes has been dramatically delayed.
Forty years ago most children learned how to tie their shoes by the time they were four years old. Today, few children learn to tie their shoes before six years of age and many do not acquire this ability until they are nine or ten years old! That’s a huge difference! Why? No need. It all boils down to removing the need to develop sophisticated manual ability.
Most likely you’ve heard the expression “dumbing down”. It means the purposeful lowering of standards and expectations and is usually used in reference to intellectual and academic pursuits. This is a physical version of dumbing down. The issue is further complicated by the fact that so many children today are using iPads and iPhones. We often hear people marvel at the fact that a young child can tap an icon on the screen of an iPad and knows how to swipe their finger from left to right. What?!! Seriously?!!
There is simply no comparison between the manual ability required to use an iPad and the manual ability required to build with Duplos / Legos, let alone tie shoelaces; no comparison in terms of the complexity of the task and no comparison in terms of the degree of brain development required to carry out the task.
So, the moral of the story is really quite simple. If you want your child to develop the sophisticated motor abilities that lead to independence, you have to make sure they have enough of a need to develop those abilities.
This means stepping back and allowing your child to learn through trial and error. It means slowing down and taking more time, because learning how to use motor ability takes time. It means you either have to allow more time to get ready to leave the house or you will probably be late occasionally, perhaps often, because letting your child button his buttons and tie his shoes (instead of you doing it for him!) takes time.
When you get anxious because you are not getting done what you think you should be getting done, sit down with a nice cup of tea and remind yourself that it is a good thing to slow down and smell the roses. And know that you are participating in the greatest adventure of them all, the miracle of your child’s brain under construction.
“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes myelin, and myelin makes perfect.” – Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code
In our first blog post about the science of brain development, we established that the brain grows through use. You will remember that, just like with muscles, it does so because it is subject to a very basic law of nature that says that function determines structure.
When we say that the brain grows through use, we are saying that its physical structure actually changes in the form of new neurons, new dendrites, new synapses, and… new, critically important, myelin.
Myelin is a substance produced in the brain that is composed primarily of omega-3 fatty acids. Ever wonder why everything from Corn Flakes to milk to eggs are now marketed as “enriched with omega-3 fatty acids”?
Well, now you know. It’s because science has proven that omega-3 fatty acids are important for your heart and your brain. That’s right, fat (the right kind of fat) is good for the heart and the brain. Indeed, not only is fat good for your heart and brain, it’s essential! Oh, and you don’t actually need to buy foods “enriched” with omega-3’s in order to get what you need… but that’s another story.
Myelin is critically important because it serves as a conductor of electrical impulses. Neurons connect to each other via a structure called the axon. Myelin covers the axon of each neuron in layers. You can see it in the drawing below labeled as the myelin sheath. Every time a neural circuit is fired, more myelin wraps around the axon on that circuit. The more myelin you have the faster information can travel from one neuron to the next.
Think of it this way, myelin does for your brain what the fiber-optic cable did for your internet connection. Back in the old days of dial-up modem connection, the internet was accessible but the connection was unreliable. It took time to connect, often the connection would drop, and even when there was a good connection it took a long time to transfer a small amount of data. That all changed with the fiber-optic cable. The connection became reliable, fast, and huge files of data could be sent at lightning speed.
Broadband internet allows a quantum leap in the efficiency of the internet communication system. The same thing happens in the brain when there is plenty of myelin. It creates a neurological superhighway built for speed.
Knowing that myelin is so important, the next logical question might be what is the best way to help the production of myelin? Indeed, what is the best way to grow the brain?
The answer lies in the second law that governs brain development, a basic law of neurology that says: in order to increase the transmission of nerve impulses across the central nervous system, you must increase the stimulus in frequency, intensity, and duration.
One more time… in order to increase the transmission of nerve impulses across the central nervous system, you must increase the stimulus in frequency, intensity, and duration.
First, let’s break that down and translate it into easy to understand concepts.
- Increase the transmission of nerve impulses – This simply means accelerating the speed with which a message is sent and arrives at its destination.
- Across the central nervous system – This is another term for the brain. The human nervous system is divided into two parts, the central nervous system or brain; and the peripheral nervous system or the entire network of nerves outside of the brain that convey information into and out of the brain via the spinal cord.
- Increase the stimulus – This means all sensory/environmental input that reaches the brain via the peripheral nervous system. This input is in the form of visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory information. Which is to say the things we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste.
- Frequency – How often the stimulus is sent.
- Intensity – How bright, large, colorful, loud, strong, etc., the stimulus is.
- Duration – How long, in terms of time, the stimulus lasts.
Again, the second law of brain development says: in order to increase the transmission of nerve impulses across the central nervous system, you must increase the stimulus in frequency, intensity, and duration. Yep, you’re right… that’s frequency!
Here’s how it works. Remember that all information coming into the brain does so in the form of electrical energy. In order for a message to register in the brain, its electrical energy must reach a certain threshold, known as the action potential. Without getting too complicated, the action potential is part of the process that occurs during the firing of a neuron. Either the threshold necessary for firing the neuron (the action potential) is reached or it is not. This is known as the all or none law. We can ensure that the threshold is reached by paying attention to the frequency, intensity, and duration of the stimulus.
We apply the second law of brain development in a number of ways. As a general rule, when the brain is immature (either because the child is young or the brain has been injured and is therefore not developed) we place more importance on the frequency and intensity of an activity, and the duration is kept short. As the brain matures we shift the emphasis and, over time, the frequency and intensity will decrease as the duration increases. Specifically, with regard to duration, imagine reading a book to a six month old versus a four year old. The six month old will listen attentively for a short while but soon enough she is interested in other things. Whereas, the four year old will sit for the entire book and then ask you to read it again, or read another, and then another, and then… you get the idea!
We use this principle every day in our work with children and young adults who have developmental and functional difficulties due to brain-injury or poor brain development. When brain function is compromised by injury there is a barrier of sorts that forms between the brain and the environment thus making it much more difficult to reach the threshold necessary for triggering the action potential to fire neurons. For this reason, the normal amounts of stimulation (which are quite adequate to develop a well functioning brain) are entirely inadequate for developing the injured brain. If this were not so then the problems of children who struggle would be solved very easily.
However, by applying this basic law of brain development carefully, we can accelerate development in the brain, often enabling the child to overcome the effects of their original injury or poor development and develop functions that previously were impossible. This is one of the reasons that there is always hope for children who have difficulties in development. The possibility of growth is built into the system!
For the child who has an intact, well functioning brain, application of the second law of brain development simply guarantees that the brain will grow as it should. As the child grows and develops it provides the basic framework for the development of all ability. Author Dan Coyle writes eloquently about this in his excellent book, The Talent Code, where he looks at the development of talent in a variety of endeavors, everything from sports, to music, to writing ability. His conclusion is that the bottom line for the development of any talent is brain development.
My wife is from Brazil so I particularly like Coyle’s examination of the reasons behind the astounding proliferation of talented soccer players from Brazil. Essentially it boils down to how Brazilians introduce the sport to children when they are young, the effect this has on the development of their young brains, and the level of skill they develop as a result.
Brazilian children never actually play on a real soccer field until they are in their early teens. When they are learning the game they play in a much more confined space, often indoors. It’s a game the Brazilians call futsal, which is short for futebol de salão (indoor soccer).
Learning to play the game in a confined space has several very important results. First, because the space is confined, the number of players is reduced from eleven to five. That means that each player gets the opportunity to handle the ball far more often. In other words, with increased frequency! That’s a surefire way to develop better skill. Second, because the space is confined the ball moves between players much faster and much more often. In other words, with increased intensity! A great way to develop the ability to control the ball and pass it under pressure. Third, because there are unlimited substitutions allowed, each player plays for a shorter duration of time which is more appropriate for their age and level of neurological development. All of this adds up to the development of a lot of soccer players of extraordinary talent.
Neymar Jr., one of the current group of Brazilian greats had this to say about futsal, “Futsal had a massive influence on me when I was growing up. It’s a very demanding game and it really helped to develop my technique, speed of thought, and ability to perform moves in tight spaces. I think futsal is a fundamental part of a footballer’s life.”
Does this mean that every child who plays futsal grows up to be a soccer superstar? Not at all. There is a difference between having talent and having superstar talent. And that is where things like passion, individual motivation, discipline, coaching, etc. come into play. But becoming a superstar in any endeavor, especially in childhood, isn’t the objective. At least it shouldn’t be the objective. It’s certainly not our objective. Our objective is to give children the opportunity to develop to their full potential whatever that might be. We do that by ensuring that their brains are well developed and functioning well. We’re happy to let them decide where that leads them!
One last thing. Now that you’ve focused your attention on this science stuff for a while, give yourself a break and enjoy watching this video of Neymar Jr.. It covers his career from the time he was a kid playing futsal to his present day professional career playing for the best soccer clubs of Europe and as the captain of the Brazilian national team. It’s a beautiful illustration of how that talent developed in childhood combined with all of those intangible ingredients (passion, individual motivation, discipline, coaching) can produce poetry in motion on the soccer field.
In Lewis Carroll’s classic novel, Alice in Wonderland, the White Rabbit asks the King, “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” “Begin at the beginning”, the King replies gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” And so we shall!
Raising a BrainFit Kid is a heck of a lot of fun and actually a lot easier than you might imagine. Because we want you to feel complete confidence in your ability to “Parent with the Brain in Mind” we believe it is important for you to understand the science that underpins everything we do. It’s absolutely fascinating and really important because raising a BrainFit Kid is really important. Here are just three reasons why. First, 85% of the human brain develops in the first three years of life! Second, there are only about 2000 days from when a child is born to when she starts kindergarten. Third, according to a study done by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, investment in early childhood development yields a 7 to 1 return (ROI) over a child’s lifetime. So you see, every day matters. Let’s get started!
The human brain is a great paradox, simultaneously complex and simple. It is, without question, the most complicated thing in the known universe. Yet, its development is governed by some very basic laws of nature. Today, we’re going to look at the first of those laws, a simple law of nature that says that function determines structure.
Function determines Structure
The relationship between function and structure is seen throughout nature and influences many fields of endeavor. The law is very easy to observe in the human body, particularly in the musculoskeletal system. If I work out regularly (lifting weights, cardiovascular exercise, stretching, etc.) my muscles will develop, becoming bigger and more effective, and my body will be well toned, flexible, and agile. How I work out will influence how my body looks. Just think of the different body types of long distance runners compared to sprinters. My body structure will change according to how much emphasis I place on one type of exercise or another.
Take this gymnast on the pommel horse. He didn’t get those muscles and that finely tuned body sitting on the sofa all day eating potato chips. He got that way working out in the gym. And he has the body type he has because of the type of exercises he does regularly. Function determines structure.
There are two important corollaries to this law. First, that a lack of function will result in a lack of structure. This is called atrophy. Let’s say you break your left leg while skiing. Your leg is placed in a cast to immobilize it and promote healing. When the cast is removed you see a big difference in the appearance of the left leg compared to the right leg. It’s smaller! Lack of function (due to immobility) has resulted in atrophy of your quadricep, hamstring, and calf muscles. The second corollary is that abnormal function will result in abnormal structure. We see this often in brain-injured children especially when their brain-injury affects motor development. Children diagnosed with cerebral palsy (read brain-injury) usually spend a lot of time visiting orthopedic surgeons because they often develop structural problems as a result of not developing proper motor function.
The magnificent thing about the human body is that the law, function determines structure, also applies to the human brain. You may have heard of the term, brain plasticity. Well, brain plasticity exists because function determines structure. So, the single most important thing you need to know about the brain is that the brain grows through use. It does so in much the same way as a muscle. Your child’s brain grows, it literally goes through structural and chemical changes, every time it is used. This is the key to understanding everything about the development of human ability.
Every face seen helps to develop vision, every sound heard helps to develop hearing, every caress felt helps to develop tactile ability… every experience changes the brain. It happens because it is a law of nature.
Let’s take a deeper look at brain plasticity. Brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, is the ability of human brain to change its physical structure and biochemistry as a result of stimulation from the environment (visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory), the use of motor function (mobility, language, and manual ability) and the presence of adequate nutrition. This change takes place in the development of new brain cells (neurons), new cell structures (dendrites and myelin), and new connections between neurons (synapses). The term plasticity is not meant to imply that the brain is somehow like plastic but rather refers to the brain’s malleability.
While interest in brain plasticity is all the rage these days, it was not always so. When we began our work with children more than forty years ago, the standard dogma amongst doctors and educators was that the brain could not be changed. We were often accused of being charlatans for suggesting otherwise. The story of how all of that changed is an interesting one.
Brain plasticity has been an area of scientific interest for more than a century. Boris Klosovskii, a Russian neurophysiologist, started his work in this field in 1934. He performed many classic experiments that demonstrated conclusively that placing newborn puppies and kittens on a constantly revolving turntable (think record player) increased structural development in the balance centers of their brains by an astonishing 32% in just 30 days! Neurophysiologists working with a variety of animal species, have known since the 1950’s that increased environmental stimulation creates structural changes in the brain along with improved ability.
For several decades in the latter part of the last century, brain plasticity in human beings was also suspected by many neurophysiologists and by a small number of people pioneering new approaches to the developmental problems of brain-injured children.
Glenn Doman, one of the great pioneers in work with brain-injured children, in his 1963 book, How to Teach Your Baby to Read, said:
“It had always been assumed that neurological growth and its product, ability, were a static and irrevocable fact: This child was capable and that child was not. This child was bright and that child was not. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that neurological growth, which we had always considered a static and irrevocable fact, is a dynamic and ever changing process.”
Neurophysiologist David Krech of the University of California at Berkeley was one of the giants of his profession. Over the course of his career he studied the effect of environmental enrichment and environmental deprivation on the brains of young rats. His research clearly demonstrated that enrichment resulted in larger, heavier, more complex brains, and ‘smarter’ rats; and deprivation resulted in smaller, lighter, simple brains, and ‘dumber’ rats.
Krech proved that neuroplasticity existed in rats, but he knew in his heart that the phenomenon had to extend beyond rats. In a 1966 paper, he wrote:
“Although it would be scientifically unjustified to conclude at this stage that our results do apply to people, it would, I think, be socially criminal to assume that they do not apply – and, so assuming, fail to take account of the implications. For, if our findings do apply to people, then we are crippling many brains in their very beginnings by not providing them with an adequate, stimulating, psychological environment. And I would not use the term ‘crippling’ in any metaphoric sense but in a palpable physical sense.* We must not assume that what psychological impoverishment does to the brains of young rats cannot have some effect on the brains of children.” *My italics.
Unfortunately, it took more than thirty years for the medical and education establishments to catch up with Doman and Krech.
The difficulty was that Doman couldn’t turn his children into rats, and Krech couldn’t turn his rats into children. Plasticity in human brains was very difficult to prove scientifically without actually doing a physical examination of the brain. There was a veritable mountain of empirical evidence in favor of plasticity in humans but it was all circumstantial evidence and therefore unconvincing to most medical scientists. The breakthrough came with the invention and later refinement of CAT, PET, and MRI scanning technology, which allows one to see the brain in great structural detail and to see it in action as it is performing its functions. Everything changed in 1997, when a group of neuroscientists convened in Washington, D.C. to present their research at a conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning. Their conclusion about the brain at the end of the conference was very simple. The brain grows through use! Scanning technology proved beyond any doubt that, as Doman and Krech suspected so long ago, neurological growth is a dynamic and constantly changing process.
Throughout this month, the focus of our posts is the development of the function of understanding. Recently, a study done with 4 to 6 year olds at MIT using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) provided elegant proof that talking to children, and particularly how we talk to them, grows the brain. Building on a previous study that measured the number of words children hear, this study focused on the number of times children were engaged in conversation. Using fMRI imaging, the research team was able to identify clear differences in the brain’s response to language and correlate those differences with the number of conversation opportunities the children had experienced with their parents. The children who experienced more conversations, who had not just input but engagement, had significantly more activity in Broca’s area, the part of the human cortex directly involved in language processing and speech production. According to John Gabrieli, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and senior author of the study, “It’s almost magical how parental conversation appears to influence the biological growth of the brain.”
The importance of the biological reality of brain plasticity for all of us is incalculable because it means that functional ability can be created. It means that functional ability can be improved. It’s important because it represents hope for the future. It means that every child born has far more potential than anyone ever realized. It means that your child has far more potential than you realize!
At the start of this blog we said that raising a BrainFit Kid was a heck of a lot of fun and a lot easier than you might imagine. Now you have the first piece of the puzzle.
So, our hope is that you will begin your journey of Parenting with the Brain in Mind filled with the hope that brain plasticity offers. As Andy Dufresne said to Red in The Shawshank Redemption, “Remember, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”