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Has science shoved parents out of the nursery? Judging from the steady stream of headlines, one would think biologists have discovered a gene for every aspect of behavior. Now, Winifred Conkling reassures us that there's still room to help our children reach their personal best. In clear, compassionate language, Conkling tells parents how to make practical use of the latest research on early brain development, offering invaluable advice on how ...
Has science shoved parents out of the nursery? Judging from the steady stream of headlines, one would think biologists have discovered a gene for every aspect of behavior. Now, Winifred Conkling reassures us that there's still room to help our children reach their personal best. In clear, compassionate language, Conkling tells parents how to make practical use of the latest research on early brain development, offering invaluable advice on how to:
With specific, sound advice; readable charts and timetables; and clear, easy-to-understand language, Winifred Conkling translates the latest scientific discoveries into useful ways to help your child live up to his or her fullest potential.
A baby's brain cells begin to grow three weeks after contception. These cells then multiply faster than any other cells in the body. This astonishing rate of brain growth continues throughout early childhood. At birth, a child's brain is about 25 percent of its adult weight; by age two the brain weighs fully 75 percent of its adult weight.
While the brain grows at a relatively predictable rate in healthy children, intelligence itself -- what the brain can actually do -- is neither predictable nor predetermined. Your child's intelligence can be changed -- either for better or for worse -- by the environment and experiences you provide for your child in the first three years.
Research has established that the brain needs appropriate stimulation at certain critical periods of development to mature and fulfill its potential. This concept of critical periods has been demonstrated by animal research. Consider the experiments done on kittens who were blindfolded for four days during the second month of life. Researchers found that these animals were permanently blind because certain cells in their visual cortex were not activated at the appropriate time during their brain development.
Of course, it is harder to investigate critical periods in humans, but experience shows us that they exist. For example, we know that babies born with cataracts on their eyes will develop normal or almost normal vision if the cataracts are removed before the babies reach the age of two months, but if the surgery is delayed -- particularly past the age of six months -- vision is permanently impaired. Like the blindfolded kittens, children who do not receive adequate visual stimulation at the appropri ate times do not develop normal vision.
Studies done on children who were reared in orphanages further illustrate the importance of enviromnent. A classic study conducted more than thirty years ago by Dr. Wayne Dennis, a former professor of psychology at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, examined the impact of the environment on children living in three orphanages in Tehran, Iran.
At one facility the infants were kept flat on their backs in individual cribs. They were not moved, held, snuggled, or massaged. They did not even spend time on their stomachs until they learned how to roll over on their own. The babies were fed using propped-up bottles; the older children were fed semisolid food by an overworked employee who did not take time for nurturing conversation. The children had no toys; they did not have an opportunity for any kind of recreation. or play. Once the babies could sit alone, they were lined up on a piece of linoleum on the floor or positioned on a bench with a bar across the front to prevent them from falling. At the age of three, the children were moved to a second orphanage but the conditions were no better.
Not surprisingly, the researchers found that these neglected children experienced serious developmental delays. Of the children between the ages of one and two, fewer than half could sit up and only one could walk. (In comparison, almost all healthy children in the United States can sit on their own by the age of nine months.) Of the two-year-olds in the orphanage, less than half could stand, even when holding on to a chair or a hand, and less than 10 percent could walk. By the time they reached age three, only 15 percent had learned to walk.
The researchers also looked at a third group of children who stayed at an orphanage for children who were believed to be retarded. At this facility, the children received far more personal care and attention. They were held during feedings and given toys to play with. As a result of the contact and stimulation, these children-who were considered to be retarded -- developed more skills than the normal, healthy children at the other facilities. All of the two-year-olds at the third facility could sit up, creep, and walk holding on to a hand or other support. Clearly, the environment dramatically altered the physical and mental development of these children.
While few children in the United States are forced to endure the magnitude of deprivation and neglect that the researchers found in the Tehran facilities, not every child receives the kind of intellectual and emotional stimulation she deserves in early childhood. The consequences of intellectual impoverishment can be devastating. Researchers have found that early stimulation can actually alter the size, structure, and chemical functioning of the brain. Experiments with rats, dogs, cats, monkeys, and other animals have shown that animals become more intelligent when properly stimulated in infancy, compared with animals that do not receive the added stimulation, and their brains grow more rapidly. The more stimulation the animals received and the earlier they received it, the more intelligent they became.
Of course, intelligence is not entirely a matter of environment and early stimulation. A child may inherit a genetic predisposition toward certain skills or talents, such as those in music and mathematics. Natural ability is no guarantee of future success; environmental stimulation and appropriate training may be required to fully develop these inherent talents. An average child may be able to become a proficient musician with training, but a child with natural musical ability may be able to become a gifted musician with the same training and experience. The challenge as a parent is to discover and reinforce your child's natural abilities.
Even geniuses such as Mozart, Einstein, and Shakespeare would have been destined to a life of mediocrity and unfulfilled promise if they had been raised in environments like those found in the Tehran orphanages. Nature will provide your child with the potential for growth and achievement, but it's up to you to provide an environment that will allow your child to grow and to flourish...
Posted August 1, 2011
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