Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.

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:

    • Children need to be introduced to new tasks gently. Too much, too soon is overwhelming. If possible try to discover each child's "baseline." What can they do? How advanced are they in physical, emotional, cognitive, and social functioning? When introducing new material, start with the known and familiar and then move on, in small steps, to new content.

    • Learning requires focus, sustained attention and the capacity to tolerate frustration. All of these are very energy-consuming activities. During the most active phases of learning, children fatigue quickly. Remember that "new" translates into "stressful." Allow a child to work with a new challenge long enough to explore and practice, but not so long that she becomes fatigued and discouraged. The further a child gets from her comfort zone, the more difficult it becomes to maintain focused attention.

    • Most children develop faster in one domain (motor, emotional, cognitive, social) than others. Children tend to do choose activities that match their strengths and give them the greatest sense of achievement. Help children find private ways to practice their relative weaknesses. If they can practice them at home with parental help, they may often catch up to their classmates and no longer avoid that task or skill.

    • Mastery in one domain can't be generalized to others. For example, even if a child has mastered motor skills he may not have comparable mastery in emotional or social domains.

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Teaching in the Hot Zone

Teaching so that the challenges match the needs of each child can be a very difficult. Indeed, more complex physical, emotional, social and cognitive changes take place in an early childhood classroom than in a college classroom. However, we can teach children to love a challenge, to seek the pleasure of discovery, practice, and mastery. By providing the right opportunities at the right time you can make all the difference.

  • Encourage children to leave their "comfort zone" and take on new challenges. If a child never leaves his comfort zone and moves into his hot zone, where he is challenged, he will never learn.
  • Be sure that children have mastered the precursors to new skills before introducing them.
  • Know when and how far to challenge each child. This requires knowledge of child development and an understanding of each child's unique set of strengths and weaknesses.
  • Recognize that in each group of children there will be a broad range of capabilities and that each child will have a different comfort zone. Over time, each child's comfort zones will expand and their hot zones will shift as they master new challenges.

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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 ( 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.