Improving Academic Performance

Early Bird Gets the Worm: Taking Advantage of Brain Plasticity

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Mon, Feb 22, 2016 @ 09:00 AM

act-tutors-chicago.pngHave you ever met a child that knows a surprising amount of foreign languages. Has it ever amazed you how quickly a child can pick up new skills and learn new techniques? Turns out new evidence shows that children learn more and earlier than previously thought (Kuhl, 2011). However, at the same time, the rates of inattentive children in classrooms as well as the prevalence of learning disabilities have been on the rise. In my many years of tutoring, I’ve been able to witness firsthand how young children have the capacity to quickly pick up new information. This article will focus on the importance of introducing students to the concepts of learning and education earlier on in their development to leverage the phenomenon of neuroplasticity.

There is a direct relationship between how young your brain is and its fertile capacity to learn new information. Essentially, this can be thought of as how easily our brain can be molded like play-doh. When you keep play-doh sitting out for a very long time it gets harder to manipulate and handle (I think both parents and young children alike can sympathize with this). Similarly, the younger we are, the fresher and more malleable/flexible our brains are. Current research in this field can directly show that in many instances, success in school begins at infancy (Kuhl, 2011). But why is this the case? What is different about our brains at a young age than when we are older?

The younger we are, the more flexible our neural pathways act and it becomes more likely for certain brain cells called neurons to form and reform new connections that eventually establishes behavior and psychological/psychological patterns. Furthermore, the earlier we take advantage of this fertility our brains exhibit at such a young age, the better our expected performance is to be in the following year.

But what kind of things affect brain development and shape the way our neurons form? Turns out it’s a multifaceted issue that involves a lot more than we once thought!

The maternal environment in utero first influences the brains development. In the second phase however, the brain is very sensitive not only to the environment but also to the patterns of brain activity produced by experiences (Kolb et al., 2011). This means the way we think about our experiences also affects our brain development. Behavioral and brain studies on developing children show that children’s skills quantified and assessed very early during infancy, predict their performance and learning abilities later on in life (Kuhl, 2011).

It is probably safe to assume that introducing children to learning a new language or basic arithmetic can be very beneficial to them later on in life. Taking these steps is likely to help moderate problems associated with learning as well as improves scores and performance over the long run.

Indeed, a 2009 study by Rabiner et al. demonstrated that providing early age reading tutoring was associated with modest reading achievement benefits for inattentive children without early reading difficulties, and substantial benefits for children with early reading difficulties who were not inattentive. The study goes on to discuss how it is the inattentive nature of children with ADHD that makes it hard for them to learn, and not the hyperactive component of the disease (Rabiner et al., 2009). In the case of this particular study, providing reading tutoring, offered significant improvement to a number of subjects. Other studies show how beneficial learning music, art, and other fine arts can be to the developing brain.

We previously mentioned learning language is more efficacious in younger children and can also be more beneficial to them to learn at an early age. In essence, it seems all roads point towards increased benefits involved with starting to teach children at as early an age as possible. The benefits of early learning cannot be undermined. At the same time, I want to make it clear that other studies of academic success and come at the issue from different directions and arrive at very recommendations. For example, new research, from the likes of Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania, has demonstrated that character skills like grit, perseverance, patience, attentiveness, and conscientiousness correlate strongly with success in school. She argues that these are the types of things we should be teaching our very young children, not necessarily math and writing, perhaps because they are foundational to being able to sit still in class and learn academic skills. Other scholars point to creative play as the key to helping extremely young children blossom and grow intellectually.

In our view, to fully take advantage of the phenomenon of neuroplasticity, parents of young children should focus on introducing children to formal and informal education through exposure to ideas and concepts, and some formal skill building, in three broad areas:

  • Character building: perseverance, patience, grit, etc.
  • Academic skills: math, writing, reading, etc.
  • Creativity and exploration: make believe play, music, foreign languages, art, etc.

In this article we examined the phenomenon of neuroplasticity and how it may play a beneficial role in starting the educational process at an early age in children. From improved language acquisition skills to musical performance, it is truly a spectacle to see the incredible rate at which young children learn. With the rate of learning disabilities and disorders rising, it is important for us as a society to make a conscious effort to try and combat this problem by utilizing the brain’s gift of malleability. Or, more selfishly, if you are looking to give your child an advantage in school and in life, it makes sense to strategically introduce the above concepts to your young child.

 

About the Authors

By Gaurav Dubey (M.S. Biotechnology) Founder & Executive Producer of Biolitics and Mark Skoskiewicz, Founder of MyGuru

 Works Cited

Kolb, B., & Gibb, R. (2011). Brain plasticity and behaviour in the developing brain. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 20(4), 265-276. doi:ccap20_4p265 [pii]

Kuhl, P. K. (2011). Early language learning and literacy: Neuroscience implications for education. Mind, Brain and Education : The Official Journal of the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society, 5(3), 128-142. doi:10.1111/j.1751-228X.2011.01121.x [doi]

Rabiner, D. L., Malone, P. S., & Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group. (2004). The impact of tutoring on early reading achievement for children with and without attention problems. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 32(3), 273-284.