Use it or lose it? Practical considerations for how to apply principles of neural plasticity.
The earlier the better, right?
We know that children have exceptional abilities to learn and grow starting at an extremely young age, and many children have a wide range of abilities. Some people have tried pushing these ranges or boundaries by changing the child’s home environment to be very enriching, some people have tried starting children in school earlier, and others have tried changing what is taught in schools and accelerating what the children should be learning. The latter is a highly controversial debate in the educational and developmental world of what should and should not be taught to children in preschool as there has been supported research published for both sides.
How much should children start to learn and be exposed to, and at what age? Biologically and neurologically, do children have the capabilities for learning at such a young age? If children can learn at this age, why aren’t we teaching them more in school? Are there any precautions we should take before changing what is taught to preschoolers? All these questions address the concerns that people have on both sides of this debate which might make it seem difficult to choose a side at first. However, not only is taking sides in this developmental debate important, but it is also imperative that people are informed of key facts that help facilitate the right actions because of all the possible implications each side can have on a child’s development, learning, and growth.
One side of the debate says that preschool is the perfect time to start literacy and numeracy as the children at that age are, neurologically, in the “blooming phase” in brain development. The blooming period, also known as synaptogenesis, occurs from birth to around the preschool years and is a time where the brain has intense flexibility (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). In addition to flexibility, the brain is also organizing and developing its synapses (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018 p. 46). This synaptogenesis is important because if certain skills are not developed by an earlier age, they then will not be able to fully develop the skill later in life. This tends to be the main reason people advocate for early learning. Some think that because this process is at its highest, this is the time to take advantage of that, so it is better to start learning at that time.
To look further into this idea, we need to define biologically primary and secondary skills. Biologically primary skills are “cognitive abilities that were selected over the course of evolution” (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 31). These kinds of skills are acquired universally and children often have high motivation to do them. Biologically secondary skills are ones that are built on the primary skills but are culturally determined and often involve “tedious repetition and external pressures” which is usually necessary to achieve mastery of these kinds of skills (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 31-32). For example, some parents will try to get their children reading, writing, and developing other biologically secondary skills as early as eighteen months. They tend to engross them in extremely enriching environments as much as possible in hopes that the exposure will increase the likelihood they will do better in culturally and socially constructed situations such as school. Because secondary skills are built off of primary skills, there will likely be some asymmetries that develop. This means that a certain skill could develop due to synaptogenesis as it determines how to distribute the energy to develop specific skills (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). Although, without the proper foundation of primary skills, it will become difficult for the child to develop secondary skills, and can have an overall negative effect on later development.
However, as our brains adapt accordingly to new schemas developed, the process of synaptogenesis continues throughout our lives as our brains are thought to be experience-expectant and experience-dependent in the process of synaptogenesis (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 46, 50). Experience-expectant is the first part of the process where “synapses are formed and maintained when an organism has species-typical experiences…and as a result, functions will develop for all members of a species, given a typical environment” and experience-dependent is the second part of the process of synapse development where “connections among neurons are made that reflect the unique experiences of an individual rather than the experiences that all members of the species can expect to have” (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 50-51). These two are an example of the bidirectional relationship in developmental psychology and because of these theories, we can assume that we do not need to push the early learning of biologically secondary skills.
Children have lots of time to develop this learning later in life when they have fewer developmental constraints. Another reason not to worry about pushing these constraints is that the “functioning of mental structures promotes changes in the structures themselves” (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 5). This bidirectionality of structure and function, where “function is necessary for proper development to occur…and function is limited, of course, to the actions that structures are capable of performing…” affects our development and learning (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 4). It is important to keep these concepts in mind as children still have many opportunities later in development to learn and grow. Therefore, the other side of this debate says that while neural plasticity means preschoolers have the ability to learn basic literacy and numeracy skills, children still have lots of time to learn and develop as they go through experiences in their lives, and research on early introductions to difficult skills has actually been to shown to be detrimental in the long run.
Some argue that preschool is the time to start pushing children to learn because of the blooming period and synaptogenesis. However, just because children can learn some concepts and tasks very early in their lives does not mean that we should push them. In this debate, earlier is not always better, especially for the children’s overall development and learning. Humans develop on a specific timeline, as there is a reason for each stage in development (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). For example, babies, toddlers, and children at younger ages can only intake so much information at a time and if their system becomes overloaded, they will become overwhelmed and may even shut down which can lead to a lack of motivation and effort in the future. While having an enriching environment present and allowing children to explore and experience things is important for their development, it is crucial for later periods in development that we do not push difficult biologically secondary skills on them before they are developed enough as there can be detrimental consequences to their development and learning in the future. For children who have potentially already experienced an early push for learning, there may be consequences that are harmful to their learning, as some research has already shown the effects of early learning. For example, research has shown that some children who were taught literacy and numeracy early would soar past their peers academically at that time, but later in school would end up falling behind the rest of their peers, and some would even develop learning differences later in development (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020).
Stakeholders directly affected by this discussion are teachers, other educational figures, and developmental psychologists. Developmental psychologists are still conducting research on this subject, and still deliberating the effects and consequences on later development in children. Teachers and other educational figures are directly affected since they build their curricula off this developmental research. This debate makes it crucial for these stakeholders to support the growth of their students as the wrong choice could be a detriment to higher education, the professional world, and society as a whole.
If educators changed their preschool programs based on the belief that earlier is better, then found out it had detrimental consequences to their student’s learning and development, many would presumably be upset about the potential damage to their student’s development, the possibility that it could cause limitations in their development that might not be correctable after a certain age, and the rework required to correct this in all the programs. Therefore, we want to make sure, as professionals in the psychological and educational fields, that we know the correct timing, scope, and method throughout development and all the effects of early learning in order to optimize early education before we make a change to the preschool curricula. With the proper information from developmental psychology research, teachers could design their preschool programs according to the developmental research that supports the children’s long-term growth and learning of both biologically primary and biologically secondary skills.
Bjorklund, D.F. & Causey, K.B. (2018). Children’s Thinking: Cognitive development and individual differences, sixth edition. SAGE Publications.