Use it or lose it? Practical considerations for how to apply principles of neural plasticity.
The world, and especially America, is obsessed with early on-set perfection. Parents feel like their children have to learn how to read and write earlier and earlier. Though it may seem like a reading two-year-old is a miracle of education, the strain that it takes for that two-year-old to read may actually be harming her. The debate on whether to introduce early-learning material to preschoolers will presumably go on for as long as there are preschoolers, but one thing is clear: healthy development should take precedence over early literacy and numeracy. We have a responsibility in both research and real life to look out for children and confirm that what we are doing is really for them, and not for us. Children should only be exposed to biologically-secondary skills after they have mastered the necessary biologically-primary skills first.
When babies are born, they possess three different kinds of restraints on their learning: architectural restraints, chronotopic constraints, and representational restraints. For all intents and purposes, I will be focusing on chronotopic restraints. The concept of chronotopic restraints is the idea that there are “limitations on the developmental timing of events,” (Bjorklund et al. 27). In other words, it’s the age at which a certain neurological system creates constraints on what is consciously available at a certain point in time. For example, all infants acquire the ability to recognize language and babble phonemes at about the same time, but only if they are exposed to language; exposed too late, they will have detrimental development of language later on. Exposed too early, and they will not have the skills/biological ability to understand language. Along those same lines, preschoolers do not possess the executive functioning to fully understand literacy and numeracy, and if we try to force these concepts upon them too early, then they could be missing out other key developmental features.
There is also the difference between biologically-primary skills and biologically-secondary skills: children become experts in biologically-primary skills with little to no effort because there is universal acquisition, while biologically-secondary skills utilize biologically-primary skills, but the way they utilize them is culturally determined, and the acquisition of these skills usually requires tedious practice and repetition, like that which occurs in a classroom (personal communication). Society’s main goal, with regards to schooling, should be to make sure that children are fully utilizing and developing their biologically-primary skills, like walking, speaking, and awareness of numeracy; however, there are some merits to teaching reading/mathematics during the preschool age. During this age, children still have not gone through the entire synaptic pruning process, meaning that they can build a larger epistemology that can last a lifetime (personal communication). They have more neural plasticity that allows them to create schemas for the things they learn, which includes reading and complex numeracy. But just because we can teach children something, does not mean that we should.
Children, while in preschool and the beginnings of kindergarten, should not be taught complex reading and numeracy. We should focus on honing their biologically-primary and conceptual skills. Visual perception in children is an important and necessary skill that we use to build other perceptions, so schooling should be utilized to focus more on helping children develop and master that skill (Bjorklund et al. 99). Audition and vision work together to help a child learn about the world about them, and form the patterns, expectations, and concepts that keep the child alive (personal communication).
We also need to nurture a child’s natural abilities and active effects, and respect the aspects in which they may not thrive and act accordingly, not force intense schooling on them from an early age. Active effects between a child’s genes and behavior occur when a child’s genotype influences the type of environments with which they choose to engage (Bjorklund et al. 41). These certain environments are compatible with their genetic constitution, and these environments are what shapes the child’s cognition (Bjorklund et al. 41). Some children are simply not able to fully comprehend complicated reading and numeracy because of their genetic make-up, and school systems should not force that upon them if the children do not feel comfortable. Children are well aware of what makes them feel comfortable or not, as shown by the Goldilocks Effect. The Goldilocks Effect is the phenomenon where “infants take an active role in sampling their environment,” looking longer at stimuli that is not too simple nor too complex (Bjorklund et al. 105). Premature complex schooling for children has the potential to harm their natural cognitive abilities, and we need to recognize that and take action.
There are many different pathways that we, as a nation, can take to rectify the school system to accommodate children and their natural abilities. Preschools could set up programs to expose children to language (both written and verbal), but mostly to build their social abilities and teach them how to be, well, people. Preschools should also mostly be about watching the children to see who may be lacking developmentally so they can decide whether it needs action, and then act accordingly, either by intervention or different level classes. Preschool should prepare children for the world as a whole, not just the world of school.
Bjorklund, D. F., & Causey, K. B. (2018). Children’s thinking: cognitive development and individual differences. Los Angeles: SAGE.
Kleinknecht, Personal Communication, February, 2020