Helping children move from the comfortable and familiar, and take on new challenges.
How do children learn? What is happening inside a child the first time she ties her shoes, shares her lunch, or realizes that a sequence of letters is a word? In order for a child, or any of us, to learn, mature, or master a new skill, something has to change.
That something is the brain. Our brain mediates all of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. If the brain does not change, we will not learn. By understanding how a child's brain changes, therefore, we can understand how a child learns.
How the Brain Changes
Time and experience change the brain. Time pushes us through life, from one developmental stage to another. The brain develops, changing its organization and function from infancy to early childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood. We have little choice in this matter.
These changes in the brain, however, are dependent upon experience. Sight, sound, touch, taste and smell are turned into brain activity. This leads to the growth and development of our motor, emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and social functioning. The right experiences, in the right amounts, at the right times in life, can uncover the magnificent potential of our brain.
The Right Time
A key to optimal teaching, then, is timing providing the right opportunities at the right time and in the proper sequence. This can be difficult because what is "right" for the child changes during the day and from stage to stage of development. Introducing letter recognition to hungry 4-year-olds 30 minutes before lunch is not a good idea. Right thing, wrong time. And trying to teach a 2-year-old to build a tower of blocks before he has mastered the ability to control objects in his hands won't work that skill is for another time.
Learning starts in the safety of the previously learned and familiar our comfort zone. In order to learn, however, we must enter the developmental hot zone. This is where a child, reaching from the familiar, can grasp at new facts, concepts and skills. And with practice, the previously unknown becomes known and is added to our comfort zone. Spending time in this developmental hot zone adds new skills, concepts, and behaviors in a sequential and cumulative way.
Too Much, Too Soon
There is for each child, however, a set of presently impossible-to-master facts, concepts, and skills. It is unreasonable to expect the 4-year-old to learn calculus or to drive a car. He will fail if asked to do these things. These absurd examples illustrate the obvious mismatch between the expectation and ability. Yet, the very same sense of failure can come to a child facing a subtler but equally impossible, task. It is as much a mismatch to ask the 4-year-old with poor fine-motor control to write his name "neatly" as it is to ask him to drive a car. When we push children too far beyond their comfort zone, they will not meet with success.
We all hate to fail. When a child fails while trying to learn something beyond his grasp, the pleasure of learning diminishes. If a child fails repeatedly or in a spectacular fashion (for example, in front of classmates), he will be less willing to take on any new challenges even if these new challenges are well within his grasp. What is impossible to learn at any given moment is controlled by our previous physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development.
As you spend your days guiding children into their hot zone, keep the following in mind:
Dr. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., is an internationally recognized authority on brain development and children in crisis. Dr. Perry leads the ChildTrauma Academy, a pioneering center providing service, research and training in the area of child maltreatment (www.ChildTrauma.org). In addition he is the Medical Director for Provincial Programs in Children's Mental Health for Alberta, Canada. Dr. Perry served as consultant on many high-profile incidents involving traumatized children, including the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado; the Oklahoma City Bombing; and the Branch Davidian siege. His clinical research and practice focuses on traumatized children-examining the long-term effects of trauma in children, adolescents and adults. Dr. Perry's work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain. The author of more than 200 journal articles, book chapters, and scientific proceedings and is the recipient of a variety of professional awards.