Use it or lose it? Practical considerations for how to apply principles of neural plasticity.
There have been questions raised about sending children off to preschool or being exposed to early education. Many people think that preschool is beneficial since it is the perfect time for children to start literacy and numeracy. Around this time, preschoolers are in the “blooming phase” and being in an environment where they are constantly exposed to a stimulus can help them develop skills. However, will developing these skills early on actually benefit our children? An early introduction to difficult skills can backfire in a way that creates issues and threaten some aspects of development. When there is too much exposure to academicor social stimulation, this could potentially cause delays in development or inability to master new skills in the future. Although having your child in an early learning program seems like an advantage, being introduced to a new set of skills too quickly or too early can be detrimental.
There is evidence that supports the positive and negative outcomes of early learning. For example, a benefit to enrolling your child in preschool is the opportunity for social interaction. When children are exposed to socialization at a young age, their interactions with their peers help them develop skills needed. Their social skills begin to develop as they interact with other children constantly. However, when children are exposed to too much social interaction, this can cause delay to their development pertaining to their behavior. This does not mean parents need to either isolate or overexpose their children to interactions; but finding the perfect balance to both is what is needed. It is important that parents, or soon to be parents, are well aware of both the negative and positive effects to early education. With the knowledge of both perspectives, this can help with decision making on what is best for their children. With that being said, let’s take a look at the two sides of early learning among young children.
The first chapter of “Children’s Thinking” by David F. Bjorklund and Kayla B. Causey discusses the need for both stability and plasticity in cognitive development. Stability refers to the degree to which children maintain their same relative rank order over time; while plasticity is described as the extent to which children can be shaped by their experience (p.14). When children are given the attention, stimulation, and experience they need, this is good for their development. An example given in this chapter is a case study that observed IQ levels of children who were deemed as intellectually impaired. Initially, these children were in an orphanage but were then placed in a new environment for this study. The orphanage had been both understaffed and overcrowded so some children were transferred to a different institution. In their new environment, the children were given a lot of attention by attendants. After several years, these children showed a normal level of intelligence compared to the control group, the children who stayed at the orphanage. Those who received attention from the attendants had a higher IQ than the control group, increasing by 27.5 points. The social interaction and relationships created throughout their time in the institution helped with their development. This study demonstrates that when children are given the attention, experience, and stimulation they need, this will benefit them.
In the first chapter of Children’s Thinking, the authors also discuss the need for social and physical stimulation for their development. Children need people to interact or speak with in order to acquire the skills they require (p. 8). Preschool is an environment that will give children the attention and experience they need for their development. Since they will be surrounded by their peers, this will give them the opportunity to gain experience that is necessary for their development. For example, children enrolled in an early education program will have a chance to interact with other children. This gives kids the opportunity to not only talk to their peers but also play with them. These social skills are essential throughout our lifetime and without them and it can affect the way we interact with others and our experiences in general. Children would not know how to connect with others or understand social cues and this knowledge is needed throughout our lifespan.
In regards to literacy, children can gain or develop these skills through early learning. Children have a sensitive period of development, which is around this time of their life, and this period in their life is essential for learning a language. At this stage, it is easier for them to learn and without exposure, there could be issues surrounding their literacy development. In the second chapter, Bjorklund & Causey say that the human brain is prepared to make sense of languages, therefore it is easy for children to acquire the language they hear around them (p. 28). The exposure to literacy during their sensitive period (7 months to 3 years of age for spoken language) is an advantage since it will be difficult for children to acquire language once this period is over. Through the help of early learning, kids will be able to practice literacy and simultaneously be exposed to it throughout their time in the program. Nora Newcombe (2011) also proposed an approach called neuroconstructivism. This approach is described as humans having significant learning capabilities and a strong capacity for reasoning since the beginning of infancy (p. 32). Acknowledging this approach, when are children placed in preschool, this is an advantage and will be beneficial since they already have these qualities. Early learning programs can help solidify and strengthen these learning capabilities and their reasoning skills.
Now that we have looked at the positive aspects of early learning, let’s dive into the negative effects. By now, it seems like there are a lot of advantages to preschool or other early education programs but there are downsides that need to be addressed. The evidence shown in the “Children’s Thinking” book also explains the potential consequences a child faces when they are exposed to learning at an early age. For example, looking at chapter 1, Bjorklund and Causey discuss claims that although children need stimulation and experience from their environment, excessive stimulation can cause issues (p. 8). Overstimulation can distract a child from other tasks and replace necessary activities such as social interaction. As mentioned earlier, without the social interactions, this can set children back later in life.
In chapter two, it is discussed that children have biologically primary abilities and biologically secondary abilities (p. 31). Biologically primary abilities are described as cognitive abilities that were selected over the course of evolution (i.e., language). Biologically secondary abilities are described as skills that build on primary abilities but are principally cultural inventions (i.e., reading and math). Children have limited cognitive abilities since they are still developing. With exposure to a new set of skills that exceeds their capabilities, this will only overwhelm them and delay their development. For example, children can speak because they were born with the ability to do so, but they were not born with the ability to read and write. The latter set of skills are what develops over time and it is something that cannot be learned all at once. Early exposure to these secondary abilities instead of slowly introducing it to them will only overwhelm them. It is important to not push these skills too soon due to the distress the children will be in. Instead, gradually exposing the secondary skills to children will benefit them in the long run. A child trying to master a skill that is too advanced for them will only be counterproductive.
Researchers speculate that premature infants experience too much sensory information too soon (p. 39). A neonatologist named Heielise Als suggested that the early sensory stimulation exposed to premature infants can affect their brain development. Research that has been done on quail chicks concluded that “premature stimulation” might enhance performance later on in life but eventually lead to learning disabilities. Premature children can potentially experience negative effects, such as delay in brain development or learning disabilities when exposed to excessive stimulation. Timing also plays a role in early learning and how it can impact a child’s development (p. 27). When exposed to early learning too soon, this will only do harm than good. As stated earlier, children have a limited cognitive capacity and some areas of the brain have not been fully developed yet.
In a case study done by Henry Harlow (1959), he trained infant monkeys to determine which age group performed well in the tasks given (p. 7). These monkeys had to choose which stimuli that varied in dimension were associated with a reward. The monkeys who were 120 days old received a more complicated learning task and looking at his data, it is shown that those who began training at an early life rarely solved more than 60% of the task. Likewise, the same group of young monkeys eventually fell behind those who were trained later. Overall, the early trained group performed poorly compared to the later trained group. In another study done by Hanus Papousek (1977), he conditioned infants to turn their heads when they heard a buzzer or bell go off. He trained these babies at birth or when they were 31 or 44 days old. As a result, the infants who were trained at birth took more trials to be conditioned compared to those who were trained later on. He concluded that learning difficult tasks at an early age can prolong the learning process since infants are not able to master them yet (p. 8). These two case studies demonstrate that early learning will not put children at an advantage or benefit them. Early exposure to the skills they are not yet capable of mastering will not increase their rate of learning or acquiring them. Instead, it will only prolong their learning.
Essentially, early education among young children has positive and negative side effects to it. However, with the evidence provided it can be assumed that early learning is not the best option for children. It is understandable that parents want their kids to have the best experience and gain the skills needed, however, too much exposure at such a young age can be a disadvantage. Stimulation and exposure to new skills can happen as they get older and the experience they gain as throughout their life can maintain the skills they gain. Overexposing your child to new tasks that exceed their capabilities can cause them more harm than good. Essentially, it is all about timing. Since they are in a sensitive period of their life where they are able to learn a new language, it should still be kept in mind that they also have limited capabilities. Overstimulation and early exposure can delay the development of mastering the secondary skills.
With that being said, preschool or early learning programs are not necessarily bad for children. These programs come with perks and advantages such as social interactions and building connections with their peers. However, it is a disadvantage to expose your child to learning at a young age. Intense early learning will only cause children to feel overwhelmed and cause issues with their development. Although it may seem like a good idea to have your child prepared for school by being in advanced or early learning programs, it is strongly advised to avoid this. Do not push your child to master secondary skills. Instead, be patient and slowly introduce them to it since they will eventually master them as they get older. It is important to be aware of this issue and make sure others know the harmful impact it can give to young children. The more a person believes that early learning will give their child an advantage, the more children in the future will experience a delay in certain aspects of their development. In essence, it is key to inform and be informed of the negative effects of early learning.
Bjorklund, D. F., & Causey, K. B. (2018). In Children’s thinking : cognitive development and individual differences (Sixth Edition) (pp. 7, 8, 14, 15, 27, 28, 31, 32, 39). SAGE.