Use it or lose it? Practical considerations for how to apply principles of neural plasticity.
Academic learning is one of the most important parts of an individual’s life. Skills in literacy and numeracy are critical for both the workforce and for everyday activities, and having an education plays a large role in acquiring well paying jobs and living a successful life. Preschool is an important time for developing children, and many debates have raged amongst developmental scientists and educators as to when critical skills such as literacy and numeracy should be taught. On one side are those who believe that preschool is the perfect time to start teaching literacy and numeracy, because preschooler’s are in the “blooming phase” neurologically speaking. On the other side are those who believe that while neural plasticity means preschooler’s can (under the right conditions) learn literacy and numeracy basics, in the bigger picture of development, early introductions to difficult skills can backfire. Understanding the debate fully requires a bigger picture of development, and figuring out which side is correct requires examining the evidence surrounding both sides.
Returning to the assumption that earlier learning is better, it is very important to work with children early on developing critical academic skills such as literary and math skills. Synaptogenesis (periods where neurons have the potential to form connections at a rapid pace) creates a blooming period of development where the child is capable of learning and forming connections more effectively than they will be able to once the period ends (Kleinknecht, 2020). Preschool starts during this blooming period in childhood, and as such seems to be the perfect time to start teaching kids literacy and numeracy. Doing so would give children a head start on such topics during a time in which they will neurologically be best able to learn them. Efforts to increase skills relating to such areas starting from an early age have led to some seemingly remarkable successes. For example, when her parents did everything that they could to stimulate her language growth, 17 month old Elizabeth was able to read words and even simple sentences long before most other infants are able to do so (redz220, 2008).
Living in an enriched environment has also been shown to increase synapse formation and lead to behavioral and brain benefits in animals, and it is not much of a stretch to assume that humans are also likewise benefited from an enriched environment (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, Chapter 2). The increased number of synapses in young children may be necessary for the rapid learning that they do during this time, and certainly assists in children’s ability to learn new information (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, Chapter 2). With all of this, working with children to develop early learning skills related to literacy and numeracy would seem to be the best possible option. Both of those skills are highly important ones to the children’s success later on in life, and learning them in the blooming period will give the child the best possible chance of mastering those two important skills.
However, there is evidence that suggests that such early learning is not free, and that a focus on pushing for early learning comes with opportunity costs for the child. While the brain’s high amount of flexibility during the first years of life, termed neural plasticity, might lead parents and teachers to assume that children can and should learn higher-level skills early, the introduction to such skills so early may actually backfire. In the long-term, it may be harder for the child to master the totality of those original skills, and other skill-development may be hindered (Kleinknecht, 2020).
In particular, a focus on developing biologically secondary abilities early during a time in which biologically primary abilities should be being developed may lead to costs for the child. Doing so may cause some of the biologically primary abilities to not develop to the extent that they should, leading to problems later on in the child’s life (Kleinknecht, 2020). Biologically primary abilities are abilities that are universally acquired, are relatively effortless to develop to high levels, and are rewarding to children such that they are intrinsically motivated to perform and engage in them (Kleinknecht, 2020). Such abilities are linked to threats to reproductive fitness, are naturally selected for, and include such things as walking, speaking, and very basic numeracy (Kleinknecht, 2020). Biologically secondary abilities require large amounts of effort for children to learn, are difficult to achieve high levels in, and are often tedious to acquire as children lack the intrinsic motivation to perform them that they have for biologically primary abilities (Kleinknecht, 2020). Biologically secondary abilities utilize biologically primary abilities as their basis, but which ones are developed and utilized is culturally determined (Kleinknecht, 2020). Biologically secondary abilities include acrobatics, reading, and calculus (Kleinknecht, 2020).
In general most children develop normally in terms of biologically primary abilities given a species-typical environment. However, just because children are predisposed towards biologically primary abilities does not mean that those abilities will automatically develop, and a focus on developing a biologically secondary ability can lead to that ability being developed sooner than it would otherwise, but not without costs in other areas. So for the 17 month old Elizabeth who is already capable of reading, her early learning of reading skills (a biologically secondary ability) may be coming with costs to her other skills and abilities. Her reading skills may be more developed, but that may well be coming with costs to her ability to actually comprehend what it is that she is reading.
Evidence also exists that forcing additional stimulation into one sensory ability may interfere with the development of other sensory abilities (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, Chapter 2). When exposed to too much stimulation, infants do not attempt to take all of the information in and instead turn away from the source of stimulation. The sensory systems of infants function poorly at birth, but this inefficiency in functioning actually serves to protect infants from sensory overload (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, Chapter 2). While infants need stimulation in order to develop, and such stimulation can greatly help with development, if stimulation is excessive, then it can serve to distract infants and young children from other important tasks. Excessive stimulation may also replace activities, such as social interactions, that are vital for development (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, Chapter 1). A focus on developing reading and math abilities early may lead to issues for the child’s social development, especially when it comes to children in preschool. Preschoolers often spend time playing with each other and interacting socially, this is part of how they learn skills to get along with others and interact with the world. Replacing a focus on this social learning with a focus on reading and writing may lead to the preschoolers failing to get this critical social experience.
Additionally, there is evidence to support the theory that attempting to teach a child or a young animal skills beyond what they are cognitively capable of may be detrimental to further learning in that field (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, Chapter 1). In their textbook “Cognitive Development”, Bjorklund and Causey discuss research from the Harlow lab, originally published in 1959, where Harlow and colleagues gave infant monkeys training on discriminating learning tasks. The tasks started at different ages, ranging from 60 to 150 days, with more advanced tasks starting at 120 days. The results of the Harlow study as discussed by Bjorklund and Causey, were that monkeys who began training early rarely solved more than 60% of the problems, and quickly fell behind monkeys who started the learning tasks later in development. Bjorklund and Causey concluded that despite having more experience with the problems, the monkeys who were trained earlier in development performed worse than monkeys who were trained later in development. Bjorklund and Causey discuss another research study where Papousek and colleagues found that when infants were conditioned to turn their heads to a buzzer or a bell, infants who began training at birth took many more trials and days to learn the task then did infants who began training at 31 and 44 days of age. While children are capable of learning things at a very early age, that does not mean that they should be learning or will be effective at those skills at such an age. 17 month old Elizabeth will likely struggle for significantly longer on tasks requiring reading comprehension than her peers will, due to her extremely early start on reading.
While the temptation exists to try and push children into learning such critical skills as reading and math as early as possible, doing so may actually be harmful to the child in the long term. This is not to say that we shouldn’t educate our children and raise them in enriched environments, as both are essential for success later in life. Rather we should instead focus on stimulating each child’s learning and growth once they are ready for it, and not try to rush the process. Although children can learn skills ahead of when they are supposed to, the potential drawbacks will have lifelong implications for the child’s future development. The cognitive immaturities seen in infants give newborns the learning ability to adapt to a complex and changing environment, and the immature cognition shown by children might actually make it easier for them to master certain critical skills during development. However, it should not be forgotten that the ability to master critical skills during development cannot occur if the child is pushed into developing a skill before they are cognitively capable of handling such a task.
Parents of young children, educators, and governments that fund or support early childhood education would do well to consider the fact that children who are pushed into learning things too early may struggle with what they are learning for far longer than they would if they had waited until they were older to start the process. Parents could instead focus on figuring out where their child is in development so that they can best support them at their level, governments could place restrictions on attempts to teach children those skills too early, while schools and educators could focus on age and developmentally appropriate tasks in preschools (particularly biologically primary ones) as a way of fostering development. Skills in literacy and numeracy are better left to be taught later when the children have developed enough to truly master them.
Bjorklund, D. F., & Causey, K. B. (2018). Children’s thinking: cognitive development and individual differences (6th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.
Kleinknecht, E. (2020a). Cognitive development week 3 [PowerPoint slides]. Moodle@PacU. https://sso.pacificu.edu/cas/login?service=https%3A%2F%2Fmoodle.pacificu.edu%2Flogin%2FFinde.php
Kleinknecht, E. (2020b). Cognitive development week 4 [PowerPoint slides]. Moodle@PacU. https://sso.pacificu.edu/cas/login?service=https%3A%2F%2Fmoodle.pacificu.edu%2Flogin%2FFinde.php
redz220. (2008, March 12). 17 month old baby readin! [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Vys9jvXwcU