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Your Child’s Amazing Brain: Implications for Parenting

October, 2010
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Beginning about four weeks after conception, your child’s brain cells were already developing at an amazing rate of 250,000 per minute, resulting in about 100 billion neurons at birth. Already, there were trillions of connections between nerve cells to insure that he or she could eat, breathe, and respond to the environment - and these connections continued to accelerate dramatically.
By two years of age, there was a messy overproduction of neural connections and the beginning of a “pruning” period to get rid of some of the weaker pathways in order to build a speedier and more efficient brain.
Until children are about 16 years of age, “weeding out” of less-used neural connections continues to take place. Stronger connections of the most-used pathways continue to build in a series of plateaus (where there is little brain growth) and acceleration periods. Girls may enter these acceleration periods earlier than boys, although 85% all children experience accelerated brain growth during particular two-year periods.
What Does It Mean to Be Smart?
It’s a myth that higher IQ always equates to success in life – and there are a lot of ways define what it means to be intelligent. Scientists who favored IQ tests tended to believe that we were born with a certain amount of intelligence, and that couldn’t be changed. Today, we know that IQ can grow over time by as much as 10-20 points with high quality experiences and can be weakened as well by high levels of stress and negative experiences. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, believes that building emotional intelligence (EQ) in a child is critical. It includes having the child learn to understand himself and others well; being able to regulate self-management skills (learning to control our emotions and bounce back from disappointment); growing in responsible decision making; and building a good store of relationship skills.    
What Do Gifted Children Look Like?
If you’re wondering if your child is gifted, there are three elements that are essential. If any one of the three is missing, the child cannot be considered truly gifted. The elements are above average intelligence (top 3%), creative thinking (asks interesting questions and finds inventive uses for ordinary things), and high motivation to stay at a task. In other words, you can have a smart child, but if that child is also a lazy or passive child (too much TV and video contribute to this), giftedness is unlikely.
Other characteristics seen in gifted children include an excellent memory (which appears early), strong problem solving abilities, compelling motivation to focus and persist at tasks they enjoy, and speedy, accurate thinking. Often, they have an advanced vocabulary at an early age. They may be highly sensitive, challenge authority when they believe they are right, and be introverted at twice the rate of typical children.
What Do ALL Children Benefit by Knowing?
Your child will benefit by building four solid banks of knowledge: 1) Physical Knowledge (How do things in my world feel, smell, taste, sound, and act like when I do something with/to them); 2) Logical-mathematical Knowledge (How are objects and people in my world similar and different? How do they behave differently sometimes?); 3) Representational Knowledge (How can I get my ideas across to others – through expressive and written language, drama, dance, music, visual arts, and so forth); and 4) Social Conventional Knowledge (what do I need to learn from others that I cannot learn by myself – ex. that polite people don’t cough in other people’s faces; that China holds a mid-autumn festival every year; that I shouldn’t interrupt others when they’re talking).
How Can Parents Maximize Their Children’s Intellectual Development?
Eric Jensen, author of Enriching the Brain, has said that there are 7 golden maximizers for early childhood enrichment. They do work if parents monitor each of the following:
* Physical activity – Turn off the TV (none for children under 2; a maximum of 2 hours daily for children over 2) and get children outdoors. Motor stimulation leads to better attention, listening skills, and later reading and writing scores.
* Novel, challenging, and meaningful learning – Children need active exploration, things to ACT on, things to change, pull apart, reassemble, objects that invite figuring something out. Think about this when buying toys. Spend time with your child; focus on and support their interests, allowing them to pursue what they are interested in along with your guidance.
* Language and literacy development – Children who have parents interacting with them very little are more likely to develop weaker thinking capacities; those who have parents talking with them a lot, playing games with them, and reading to them daily develop more highly complex abilities.
* Managed Stress Levels – Children who constantly live with high levels of stress experience damage in terms of cognition, health, and social development.
* Social Support – Children need parents who provide clear boundaries for behavior, parents who help them understand how other people feel and behave, and parents who model good social conventions and celebrate life experiences.
* Good Nutrition – Babies need a high-fat diet up until the age of 2 and then plenty of water, whole fruits (not juice), sufficient and balanced proteins, and complex carbohydrates. Children should not have soft drinks or MSG, and foods like French fries, hot dogs, sugar, candy, potato chips, donuts, and cookies should be very limited if offered at all.  
* Sufficient Time – Is your child TOO busy? Jensen notes that enrichment is not about cramming in as much as possible every minute that children are awake. MORE, FASTER, EARLIER – All that is not necessarily good and can promote burn out, resistance to learning, and lost opportunities for children to reflect and explore. Avoid filling up all their time with extra-curricular activities and find other children for them to play with and build friendships. Supervise but don’t interfere. 
 
By Anne K. Soderman, 3e International
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