Understanding Your Child, One Neuron at a Time
Child development expert tells parents to help their children by stretching their neurons.
JoAnn Deak stretched a rubber band held between her thumb and forefinger to illustrate a point about the brain and learning.
Every brain has a different number and arrangement of neurons. Talent development is influenced by how those neurons are “stretched,” she said.
Deak, who holds a doctorate in preventive psychology, is an author and heads an Ohio-based educational consulting organization. She encouraged an audience at The Prairie School Thursday evening to stretch their children’s brains by judiciously taking advantage of opportunities.
“Kids don’t get to choose the rubber bands they have. But parents and educators can be involved in the ways those rubber bands get stretched,” she said.
Researchers have found that as children’s brains develop there are two windows for learning capacity—ages 0 through 10 and ages 11 through 20. The initial window, particularly ages 0 through 3, is best known as the optimal period for language development, said Deak, adding that those early years are when a child is most likely to start to comprehend his or her native language.
In addition, researchers have learned that if a child doesn’t hear a second language by age 9, they will never completely understand all of that language’s nuances, she added. That’s a big factor in bilingual education.
“Chinese is the language that is being added the fastest in schools these days, but unfortunately, it’s most often added in high school,” said Deak.
But, Deak also cautioned against emphasizing the acquisition of specific knowledge over an atmosphere that encourages learning. “Parents, we don‘t care if your child reads early or does math early. What we care about is that they’ll develop the ability to pull neurons together.”
In the second window—after age 10—children develop the portion of their brain that determines judgment. Parents and teachers need to be available during this crucial period, she said.
“Adolescents need to weigh things and make decisions—and sometimes fall flat on their face,” said Deak.
Male and female: from the neck up
Parents and educators should be aware of and responsive to the significant differences between the brains of males and females, she said.
Deak noted that research shows that 80 percent of the time, males have well developed spatial neurons while females have well developed language neurons. In general, this means that boys are generally attracted to hands-on activities while girls more readily take to reading.
When natural chemicals within the brain are considered, the differences may be broader. Boys tend to have high levels of testosterone, which diminishes fear and leads to risk-taking. By contrast, high levels of oxytocin in girls cause a surge in caring and a tendency to avoid risk.
Deak added that physiological differences between the sexes are also important factors. For example, female eyes generally have the ability to see more color and detail than male eyes. “Females see more variations. That’s why girls frequently prefer pastels and can identify various shades of white,” she said. And, females tend to be better at observing facial expressions than males.
The female sense of hearing is designed to be bothered by loud noises, Deak added. That requires teachers to strike an even tone of voice to reach a co-ed class. It’s also why fathers, when angry, are less effective if they shout at their daughters.
Advice to parents, educators
Citing brain development research, Deak offered several suggestions to parents and educators to effectively guide children:
Sleep—Nine hours of sleep is recommended for children and adolescents. However, because most adolescents get a second wind in late evening and middle and high school start times tend to be as early as 7 a.m., insufficient sleep is an issue. Deak recommended that adolescents do their least taxing homework assignments about 30 minutes before bedtime and that parents prohibit the use of computers and electronic devices after midnight.
Nutrition—The brain accounts for about 2 percent of body weight yet consumes about 30 percent of nutrition in children, Deak said. To achieve good brain function and growth, children need a diet with adequate amounts of protein, fat, calcium, omega 3 fatty acids and vitamins.
Exercise—Physical exercise early in the day gives students “a brain boost,” said Deak. That’s it’s recommended that physical education classes be scheduled for first period of the school day.
Video games/television—Deak is disturbed by the effect on brain development from heavy exposure to hand-held video games and television. “Get those videos out of your cars and vans. Put in books on tape, she said.
Music—“It’s been shown that kids who learn to play a musical instrument before age 10 can increase their IQ by at least 10 points,” she said.
Social media—Deak urged parents to be vigilant about their children’s use of social media, such as Facebook. Social media’s anonymity and potentially huge reach can be damaging to adolescents who are still developing judgment skills. She recommended that parents check on their child’s social media activity at least monthly and be available to “help them handle it.”
Strike a balance—“Please don’t sign your children up for everything,” Deak said. “Doing too much is as harmful as doing too little.”
Deak added that spending time with children goes in tandem with helping them stretch their brains. “The research says to stick with them,” she said. “Give them your time and don’t disappear when they reach adolescence.”
In addition to the Thursday presentation, Deak spent Friday with The Prairie School staff and students. To learn more about brain development and find resources for parents and educators, visit Deak’s website: www.deakgroup.com