Use it or lose it? Practical considerations for how to apply principles of neural plasticity.
In modern society, parents are constantly looking for ways to enhance their children’s development. It is a common thought the earlier parents can start their child’s cognitive development the sooner they will develop and be more knowledgeable. However, the desire to have their children progress quickly along their individual learning curves could potentially harm their progress in the future. This raises concerns on whether or not preschools should be teaching children how to read, write, and do basic arithmetic to aid their development before starting elementary school. The significance of the debate is related to how the learning curriculum of the current educational systems should be constructed, from preschool through high school, to provide the youth and future generations with the most beneficial path of development.
There are people who think literacy and numeracy do not need to be taught in preschool. It is common for young children to have cognitive immaturities that are considered to be, “well suited for their particular time in life rather than incomplete versions of the more sophisticated abilities they will one day possess” (Bjorklund and Causey, 2018, pp. 7). Even though the preschool age is the peak time for the creation of neural synapse connections for young children, not all individuals develop at the same pace. Immature development may lead to certain constraints that limit cognitive development such as chronotopic constraints or developmental limitations on the brain in the timing of maturational skills development like learning how to speak. This may develop because, “some areas of the brain might be most receptive to certain types of experiences at specified times, making it imperative that certain experiences occur during this sensitive period of development” (Bjorklund and Causey, 2018, pp. 27). These would also include architectural and representational constraints on how a child’s brain processing skills develop or knowledge that a child is born with, respectively.
If these sensitive periods are ignored and the cognitive development of a child is rushed it may disrupt their mental skills development and growth trajectories. However, Oppenheim (1981) stated that forms of early development can serve some function in helping young children adapt to their particular environment (p. 7). These individual variations during one’s development are created from their daily experience-dependent situations in their particular environment.
People who think preschool is the right time to start teaching literacy and numeracy make the argument children are in the “blooming phase” of the development of their central nervous system (CNS). During this time, the possibility of chronotopic constraints may be considered less of a risk dependent on individual’s growth trajectories. Some might say by the time a child reaches preschool they are close to mastering or have mastered most biological primary skills, and would be ready to begin developing biological secondary skills. Biological primary skills are universal acquisitions typically developing children become experts at and show intrinsic motivation to engage in such as speaking (Kleinknecht, 2020). Biological secondary skills are culturally determined skills that utilize primary skills and are acquired from tedious practice (Kleinknecht, 2020). In regards to architectural constraints restricting the development of a young child is less. Synaptogenesis is occurring during this phase and children are creating neural synapses that will continue to develop over time as they grow.
One reason parents may favor the idea of teaching literacy and numeracy, and other biological secondary skills, in preschool is because it could help reduce the fear of their child being slow developing during elementary school. Parents of young children should not worry about the possibility of their child developing slowly, but rather focus on making sure their child develops properly. This should not be as significant of a worry for parents because all children will go through experience-expectant synaptogenesis, or experiences all children go through.
During preschool, the main emphasis should be on developing experience-expectant synaptogenesis to help children build biological primary skills that will be needed for elementary school before beginning to develop biological secondary skills.
When it comes to the cognitive development of young children the idea of nature and nurture working interactively instead of separately, is similar to the bidirectionality of structure and function. In cognitive development, structure supports the function of the brain by allowing it to operate at optimal functionality, and function helps support the structure and development of the brain. A solid balance between nature and nurture should be the approach preschools use to help young children develop in a safe manner.
Early development of biological secondary skills such as arithmetic, reading, and writing during preschool can potentially offset the balance between the two and put too much emphasis on nurture. This relates to one of the six truths of cognitive development: cognitive development involves both stability and plasticity over time. Nurturing the development of biological skills is important for plasticity and creating effective neural synapses during the “blooming phase”, but it must be counteracted by stability and time for those biological skills to properly develop. Referring to one of Bjorklund’s previous studies, Bjorklund and Causey (2018) stated, “When animals receive stimulation from one modality earlier than ‘expected’… it interferes with this choreographed dance between gene-influenced neural maturation and perceptual experience. This change in the gene-environment relation… causes a species-atypical pattern of development” (p. 39). If stability is overlooked, rushing a young child’s cognitive development could lead to setbacks instead of enhancements. That is why biological primary skills should be mastered in preschool in order to prevent cognitive delays or setbacks.
Preschools should focus on the development of biological primary skills because it allows for children to develop those skills in a different social context from what they experience at home. As stated in Children’s Thinking, “the social environment plays a central role in determining a child’s development” (Bjorklund and Causey, 2018, p. 11). So, allowing children to develop these skills thoroughly, in different environments, during preschool would be more beneficial in their cognitive development and better prepare them for elementary school where they would start to develop biological secondary skills via experience-dependent synaptogenesis.
Experience-dependent synaptogenesis is the development of neural synapses that are unique to the individual. It makes sense to wait until elementary school to start developing biologically secondary skills because once children enter this level of schooling their development should be based on their own pace and mastery of secondary skills. Trying to generalize all children’s learning experience could be detrimental to slower developing children.
Preschools should focus on developing biological primary skills instead of literacy and numeracy to allow for proper cognitive development in young children. It is beneficial for children to work on these skills in different social contexts for better overall development and a greater chance of optimizing their cognitive development. For parents of children who chose to teach literacy and numeracy at the preschool level, it is possible to reverse any potential setbacks by helping their child develop biological primary skills they would like to work on, to the point of mastery. Following the mastery of these skills, it would then be okay to continue the development of literacy and numeracy.
Bjorklund, D.F., & Causey, K.B. (2018a). Introduction to cognitive development. In Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences (6th ed., pp. 7-11). Thousands Oak, CA: Sage Publication.
Bjorklund, D.F., & Causey, K.B. (2018b). Biological bases of cognitive development. In Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences (6th ed., pp. 26-28, 39). Thousands Oak, CA: Sage Publication.
Kleinknecht, E. (2020). Cognitive Development [PowerPoint slides], Pacific University, Forest Grove, OR.