Use it or lose it? Practical considerations for how to apply principles of neural plasticity.
Individualism and hard work are core values in Western cultures. While most people think of these concepts in terms of adult life and careers, Western cultures tend to extend these concepts to child development as well. It is now common in preschool programs to push developmental milestones earlier than previously pushed; some popular toys, activities and programs for parenting do this as well. Learning in preschool is thought to be especially important in early development, trying to help children get a head start on concepts taught in elementary school. However, while from a Western perspective, helping kids master academic skills at an early age may seem to help them get ahead in their education, this perspective is debated in cognitive development literature. While there is evidence on both sides, there is more compelling evidence for helping children along gently in their developmental processes and providing assistance when they reach sensitive or critical periods for each skill. Some of this evidence includes concepts of chronotopic constraints, the Bayesian statistics theory of infant learning, and evolutionary developmental theory.
The side of the issue that argues for pushing early academic milestones includes biological and cognitive evidence. One of the main arguments for pushing developmental milestones involves children’s high metabolism in early years, which is primarily used for brain development. The metabolic rate devoted to brain development between the ages of four and five are 150% higher than that of an adult (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 48). Since a child’s body is devoting so much energy to the development of the brain, this finding suggests that a child’s brain would be prone to accepting new information and learning during these years.
Another piece of biological evidence for early learning is synaptogenesis. The first two stages of neuronal development are neurogenesis and synaptogenesis. Neurogenesis is the creation of new neurons, which mostly occurs in utero (p. 55). Synaptogenesis occurs after birth, which involves lengthening of dendrites, axon terminals, and the increase of synaptic connections (p. 49). The height of synaptogenesis, also called the “blooming period,” is active in infancy and early childhood (2020, Kleinknecht). This is the reason why metabolism is so high in early childhood, since the majority of brain development is occurring. Since this is when the majority of neural growth occurs, it leads some to consider this a prime period for helping children learn as much as possible—if one can help children master skills in this primary time of growth, perhaps they are more likely to retain and develop those skills more with time.
There are also cognitive psychology theories that support this side of the argument. For example, the core knowledge theory argues that infants are born with some knowledge of the world, which primes them for mastering concepts such as reading and writing (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 125). The main core knowledge theory, primarily developed by Elizabeth Spelke, contains three categories of knowledge that infants have: 1.) Objects, 2.) People, and 3.) Numbers and quantities (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 125). There are sub-categories within each of these categories; for example, “objects” includes object cohesion, contact, continuity, and number limitation (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 126). The two most important sub-categories under “objects” are cohesion and continuity, which refer to objects remaining the same at all times, and objects moving along certain paths and only being able to be one place at once, respectively (2018, “Infant perception and cognition,” p. 126). Similar sub-categories are found in the people and numbers categories.
This theory is backed by significant research with both humans and nonhuman animals, showing that some skills in the theory, such as basic mathematics and object representation, are shared between human and nonhuman animals (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 126). Research methodologies typically used with infants, such as measuring looking time between two stimuli or two events to measure the infant’s understanding or preference, are used to support this theory as well (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 97). However, some opponents of this theory claim that some infant research methodologies, like measuring looking time, do not reflect innate knowledge, and rather point to skills and mental processes created by experience (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 145).
All this information and research can be used to support the argument for pushing academic milestones earlier. Since children’s metabolism dedicated to the brain and synaptic blooming period is highest during the preschool years, proponents of this side would argue that these abilities should be taken advantage of, and the excess energy and brain growth should be dedicated to learning academic skills as early as possible. Further, Spelke’s core knowledge theory would seem to support this side, considering it provides so many categories and subcategories that infants and children are born with an understanding of already—it would seem to prime them for earlier learning.
However, the other side of the argument also contains considerable biological, theoretical and research-based evidence. One of the most important theories to support this side is evolutionary developmental theory. According to the evolutionary perspective on cognitive development, evolved skills must have both an adaptive and reproductive benefit to the species (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 27). While some skills with adaptive ability include language and writing, the cognitive immaturity of infants and children may actually be an adaptive ability as well (2020, Kleinknecht). Because humans’ developmental timeline is so long, their cognitive abilities are much higher than that of nonhuman animals. Therefore, the length of the developmental timeline likely served an adaptive function, as it allowed humans to complete high-level processes that helped them survive.
Based on the idea of a long, adaptive developmental timeline is the idea of developmental constraints, the most relevant of which are chronotopic constraints. According to Bjorklund and Causey (2018), chronotopic constraints “refer to limitations on the developmental timing of events,” such as neural structures developing at different times, causing certain skills to be acquired at certain times (Bjorklund & Causey, p. 27). This leads to the idea of the sensitive or critical period, a time when the brain is most primed to learn a certain skill (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 28). Before or after this period, it is much more difficult for an individual to acquire that skill. It could also be theorized that by learning a skill before the sensitive period arrives, it prevents the individual from filling other critical periods.
A quote from Harry Harlow, a key developmentalist who contributed significantly to attachment theory, displays this nicely: “There is a tendency to think of learning or training as intrinsically good and necessarily valuable to the organism. It is entirely possible, however, that training can either be helpful or harmful, depending upon the nature of the training and the organism’s stage of development” (Harlow, 1959, cited in Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 7). One could argue that if the brain is more primed to learn a skill at a specific time, such as reading in kindergarten and the early elementary years, it may actually cause harm to the child by pushing the acquisition of that skill earlier.
Another developmental theory to support this side of the argument is based on the concept of Bayesian statistics, affectionately referred to as the “baby stats” theory. This theory opposes core knowledge, and proposes that infants are born with the skills necessary to make statistical inferences about the environment around them (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 141). This theory uses a domain general approach, while the core knowledge theory uses a domain specific approach. Essentially, the core knowledge theory assumes that there is a domain for each skill, while the “baby stats” theory assumes that individuals learn using one general skill. The “baby stats” theory suggests that in an applied setting, children should be allowed to make sense of the world around them and arrive at skill acquisition when they are individually ready. This implication directly opposes pushing for earlier academic milestones.
Yet again, the side of the argument opposing earlier academic milestones is supported by significant biological, theoretical and research-backed evidence. However, one side wins in terms of evidence and logic. While it may seem that children’s metabolism and synaptogenesis would prime them for earlier academic learning, these pieces of evidence can actually be used to support the other side. Using the concept of chronotopic constraints, it would seem that during the preschool years, children’s brains are working on developing certain parts of the brain more fully. If these areas are not adequately developed yet, spending a significant amount of metabolic energy on learning one skill could potentially direct metabolic energy away from developing other functions of the brain. The brain and body is working incredibly hard during early childhood, so it seems counterintuitive to push reading, writing and mathematics earlier than when they are normally taught. Here, Harlow’s earlier-cited quote comes to mind.
The core knowledge approach, also, makes less sense than that of “baby stats.” While both are very complicated, and the Bayesian statistical formula is difficult to understand, it seems more likely that children are born with a framework to process information from a domain general approach as opposed to being born with a set of concepts already hard-wired into the brain. The “baby stats” approach accounts for more differences in development across cultures and contexts, since development is significantly influenced by the environment.
Overall, the evidence shows that pushing for earlier academic milestones is not always—if ever—the best route to take. Instead, parents, teachers and caretakers should be educated about sensitive periods for different types of skill acquisition, including reading, writing, and mathematics. If a child happens to pick up a skill earlier than research suggests, without significant assistance, it is probably not harmful and should be fostered along in a healthy way. However, it is important to make sure that during such a critical time in human development, children are not pushed too far—their brains and bodies are already working incredibly hard to hit their regular developmental milestones; why push further?
Bjorklund, D., & Causey, K. (2018a). Biological bases of cognitive development. Children’s thinking: Cognitive development and individual differences (6th edition, pp. 23-64). SAGE Publishing.
Bjorklund, D., & Causey, K. (2018b). Introduction to cognitive development. Children’s thinking: Cognitive development and individual differences (6th edition, pp. 1-22). SAGE Publishing.
Bjorklund, D., & Causey, K. (2018c). Infant perception and cognition. Children’s thinking: Cognitive development and individual differences (6th edition, pp. 92-146). SAGE Publishing.
Kleinknecht, E. (2020a). Chapter 2 lecture. Unpublished manuscript, Pacific University, Forest Grove, OR.
Kleinknecht, E. (2020b). Chapter 4 lecture. Unpublished manuscript, Pacific University, Forest Grove, OR.