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Professional Corner

Doomed before Kindergarten?

As an early interventionist, concentrating on children 0-3 years of age, we have been taught about the importance of the early years of life. The plasticity of the brain, and its ability to learn is at a rate unmatched at any other time of life. Now, some information that points to the fact that the brain continues to be able to expand and is better at it than previously believed. The teen years may present a second window of opportunity.

Julie Loe

On Growing Brains:
Infant Years, Teen Aged Years

A scientist rebuts the claim that a child's brainpower is determined by age three. "The Myth of the First Three Years", book. From the National Education Association website, http://www.nea.org/neatoday/0005/fyi.html.

Doomed Before Kindergarten?

In recent years, the media -- and marketers -- have emphasized "brain-based research" to advance the notion that children's minds must be especially stimulated in the first three years or their future learning capacity is in peril. But have children's most critical learning years truly passed before they even start school? A new book says: No.

"re some kids doomed before kindergarten?

There's never been any evidence that experiences before kindergarten mold a person's brain for life, says John Bruer, author of the recently released The Myth of the First Three Years. "There's no magic cutoff," says Bruer, who heads the James S. McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis, which funds research in neuroscience, developmental psychology, and education. Early experiences and stimuli may benefit a child, but children who lack early intellectual stimulation can still do very well.

"Good teachers can have profound effects at any age," Bruer says, "from pre-school to university to the people you work for in adult life." What about "critical periods" of learning? A "critical period" is a window of opportunity, a limited time during which experiences have a permanent, irreversible effect. Bruer says research shows there are critical periods in a child's development, but only for a few very basic abilities.

These time-sensitive abilities include seeing, hearing, acquiring a first language, and possibly some areas of social and emotional development. The stimulation that people need in these areas is present in any normal human environment, and there's no value in adding more, Bruer notes. For example, in those rare cases where children have been completely unexposed to language in their early years, they were not able to learn later. Clearly, small children do need people to talk to them. But there's no evidence that extra talk at an early age automatically leads to superior language skills as an adult.

In most areas of learning, the effects of deprivation are reversible. "It might take some effort," says Bruer, "but the child's life isn't forever ruined. Later experiences can have a huge effect." "Everybody's favorite example of critical periods is Henry Kissinger," Bruer adds. "He arrived in the United States around age 12 and speaks English with a German accent. His brother, two years younger, has no accent." Henry Kissinger may have missed the critical period for learning to speak English without an accent, but his English grammar and vocabulary are rich and learned.

Doesn't brain research tell us pre-school is all-important? No. There is evidence--from outside of brain research--that young children from disadvantaged backgrounds can benefit from good, early school-like experiences: These students do better in school afterward. "But this is not a 'critical period' phenomenon," says Bruer. "We all benefit from experiences throughout our lifetimes."

Haven't studies shown that nerve dendrites proliferate between birth and three years? Dendrites, which form connections among nerve cells, do grow rapidly during the first few years. But the proliferation of dendrites, Bruer notes, seems to be controlled by genes--dendrites proliferate regardless of whether a child is in a rich environment.

What's more, Bruer adds, skills seem to develop later, when excess dendrites are pruned. It's the pruning, not the growth, that's affected by environment. What about research showing that rats raised in enriched environments are smarter?

"Putting rats in an enriched environment has good effects no matter what their age," reports Bruer, citing work by Bill Greenough at the University of Illinois. "Greenough's work shows we can and should think about providing experiences at any age."

What should educators know about current brain research? Caveat emptor--be a wary and wise consumer whenever the popular press reports on the "latest brain research." "I hope educators gain some understanding of what science does and doesn't say," Bruer muses. "They need to critically appraise the claims they read about brain-based research."

Research in developmental and cognitive psychology, says Bruer, can help teachers do their work better. For example, research shows children don't come to class with mental blank slates. Children may come with misconceptions that are hard to change. So, to help students learn, teachers need to start by finding out what students already know, or think they know, about the subject at hand. But brain-based research, at least where it stands now, won't offer any fact-based insights.

"One real danger of over-emphasizing the early years is that this can cause parents and teachers to give up," says Bruer. "A teacher may say, 'Development is done by age three. There's nothing I can do.'" Says Bruer: "That's not true." It's Never Too Late To Learn

Language skills can be continually acquired and developed well beyond the early childhood years. The exception: Those rare children who aren't exposed to language at all in their early years can't catch up.

On Brain Growth in the Teen Age Years

These observations come from FEAT Newsletter associated editor Catherine Johnson. The Newsweek article she references is reproduced in the next Newsletter posting.

I heard Gary Mesibov speak on adolescence yesterday. It was a terrific talk -- but he made one comment that was revolutionary: he alluded to new research showing that there may be a second "intensive intervention" window in the lives of children with disabilities.

The classic notion of early intervention, he said, may be seriously incomplete since children undergo a second burst of brain cell growth as they enter puberty; in terms of brain development puberty is a re-play of the first years of life. Mesibov said, "We don't know what this will mean for autism, but with autism we do know it will be interesting."

I went straight home and found the Newsweek article covering this research (it was still sitting in my to-read stack) and there it was: "Maturation does not stop at age 10, but continues into the teen years and even the 20s," says Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health. "What is most surprising is that you get a second wave of overproduction of gray matter, something that was thought to happen only in the first 18 months of life."

"The teen years are, then, a second chance to consolidate circuits that are used and prune back [eliminate] those that are not-too hard-wired an ability to hit a curve ball, juggle numbers mentally or turn musical notation into finger movements almost unconsciously." "Think of it as nature's way of giving us a second chance."

" couple of other observations on brain development: Martha Denckla, who is the Chair of NAAR's Scientific Advisory Board and an authority on neurological development, told me that in fact brain development does not end until age 35 when myelination is finally complete. Martha said people know this intuitively; that's why the Constitution forbids anyone under the age of 35 from running for President.

By the same token, it is at age 35 that criminals released from prison can and do become rehabilitated. Before 35, released prisoners almost always commit more crimes. A related observation, in terms of autism: both Ed Ritvo, and Gary Mesibov said that people with autism have a much steeper learning curve in early adulthood than do non-autistic people. Where our learning curve flattens, theirs continues to rise. This reminds me of a story my friend Lisa told me about the 22-year-old daughter of friends of hers in New York City. The girl acquired no academic skills at all throughout her years of schooling, but now, at 22, had suddenly decided to learn to read.

Her mother was trekking out to Barnes and Noble every day to buy elementary school reading workbooks for her. She'd bring them home to her daughter, and the girl would sit on her own with them and work her way through.

She had also decided to talk. I don't know whether she had been considered nonverbal before, but now she was talking all the time. Of course her pronunciation was dreadful since she'd had so little practice over the years, but her goal was to talk to people, and she was working on it.

It's important we not give up--and that we not allow educators, therapists and clinicians to give up--after the "miracle years" of early childhood. A good book on these issues as they relate to typical children is John T. Bruer's The Myth Of The First Three Years: A New Understanding Of Early Brain Development And Lifelong Learning.

Not to sound sentimental, but every year in our children's lives - autistic or not - is a miracle year. It ain't over 'til it's over.

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Last modified: January 26, 2013