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Sunday 31 May 2020

How does the brain develop: An overview by Esther P-K

Esther fascinatingly writes:
Brain development continues from infancy to adulthood, but many parents underestimate how much a child’s brain changes from year to year, and how those changes can influence behaviour. Decades of scientific studies have shown even an immature brain is capable of extraordinary feats. Yet a fully developed brain is necessary for actions that adults take for granted, such as risk assessment and self-control. According to developmental psychologists, parents who better understand the stages along the way can help guide their child over the hurdles.
Babies, for example, are surprisingly good at communicating. They are looking, listening and imitating from the time they are born. Stick your tongue out at a baby, even an infant just hours old, and he or she may do the same back at you. Rachel Makepeace have a go with you new little bundle of joy!
Yet many parents don’t realise how quickly infants begin to develop social and emotional awareness. Parents underestimate how sensitive a child is to their emotions. As early as six months old, a child can be affected by a parent’s depression or anxiety, and by marital squabbles. Babies also look to their parents for guidance in uncertain situations. e.g. if you’re in a shop and start interacting with a little in a buggy one next to you, the baby may turn to the parent to see how to respond to you. This process is called “social cognition” or “social referencing”, and it is not so different from when adults at a party wait to respond to a joke when they’re unsure whether others will find it funny or offensive.
To help infants learn, parents should frequently look at what they’re talking about, and change their gaze slowly. This important social cue helps with language development; babies who follow gazes closely having a more diverse vocabulary by the time they’re two.
All languages sound the same initially to a newborn, and then a tuning process begins. By about 10 months, babies start to specialise in the language they are used to hearing. (Rachel, make sure you talk to your baby in French or German!). It is vitally important parents talk to their child during the first year.
While we typically underestimate babies’ ability to understand and communicate before they begin speaking, we tend to overestimate the brain power of walking, talking toddlers. Toddlers are seemingly mentally incapable of sharing and self-control. In a survey conducted in 2015, nearly half of parents believed their children could learn to share by the time they are two. But according to the cognitive psychologists, this skill does not typically develop until a child is three or four. That may be because they have not yet developed what is known as “theory of mind”.
Theory of mind is the ability to differentiate one’s own perspective and preferences from someone else. A classic experiment in theory of mind is known as the “Sally-Anne test”. A child is told Sally has a basket and Anne has a box. Sally puts an object in her basket, then leaves. While Sally is gone, Anne moves the object to the box. The child is then asked where Sally will look for the object when she returns. Correctly answering that Sally will look in her basket signals the child understands they have a perspective that is different from Sally’s.
Theory of mind is important for developing empathy, making friends and even doing well academically. Parents can help their children develop perspective by talking them through scenarios like the Sally-Anne test, or reading books that help them to build cognitive parallels. For example, in a book where a character goes to a doctor, they can compare the situation to when the child went to the doctor and discuss how the experiences were similar or different.
According to that 2015 survey, the majority of parents also believed two-year-olds can control their emotions and impulses. Yet children have very limited self-control abilities until they are about four. When toddlers won’t stop throwing a fit, do something forbidden or refuse to share, the are not being willfully obstinate.
We can help young children with self-control – for example, by distracting them with a favourite toy while sweeties by the supermarket checkout. And when dealing with a tantrum, acknowledge a child’s feelings by putting them into words. A lot of their frustration is the feeling of being misunderstood.
It helps giving the child the impression that they have some control. In my own case, when my grandchildren stay over and don’t want to go to bed, I will ask them whether they want to play for a few more minutes and then go to bed. Parents or grandparents in my case, who understand how their toddlers’ brains work (or don’t work) will find it fairly easy to outsmart them. It’s good to tell a child “no” because they’re learning language, but you can’t expect them to change their behaviours.
Teenagers do not think with the same parts of their brain as adults. For some parents, a seemingly erratic teenager can make those long-ago toddler days seem like a walk in the park. Understanding how teens think can improve the experience for both sides. 

Connections in our brain develop from the back to the front, and those important for higher-order thinking continue to form and strengthen into a person’s twenties. Teenagers have good connectivity up to about their ears. And at this age, the midbrain – important for emotion – sexual function, learning and memory, is hyperactive.
As teens transition into adulthood, connections in the front of their brain are strengthened, while those in the other regions are pruned. A fully developed frontal lobe is essential for planning, decision-making, impulse control and risk avoidance.
These stages of development showed up in a 2006 imaging experiment. Researchers discovered adults trying to identify fearful facial expressions used more of the front of their brain, while teens used the emotional centres in the midbrain – meaning teens literally think using different parts of their brain.
The finding might explain why some teen behaviours surprise adults. Teenagers are actually more susceptible to stress. If a teeneger comes home distraught because someone made fun of their hair, you might be tempted to say it’s no big deal. But the activity in their brain likely resembles an adult brain’s response to news of a major international incident.
The plasticity of teen brains – their ability to lose, form and strengthen connections – also makes adolescents especially susceptible to addiction, to everything from video games to cocaine. Activities such as binge drinking and chronic weed use can be especially damaging at this age.
It is  good to give teenagers a “frontal-lobe assist” by helping them to plan, prepare and even rehearse for situations that require higher judgement. Help them develop and learn phrases to use as excuses to avoid making a bad decision amid social pressure, for example. And if they do make a bad decision, we could use the situation as a teachable moment instead of lecturing or alienating them. Throughout a child’s life, parents who understand some basics of brain development can adjust their expectations, and better come up with strategies to prevent frustration for everyone.
Children growing up in a household where parents are not interested. Where there is violence (verbally or physically) will not be prepared to rationalise age related expectations.   Children who suffer trauma (neglect or abuse in any form)  during early childhood will suffer later on in life.  A child only needs to experience a combination of three triggers from their early childhood abusive period, to have a full blown melt down or simply put up a barrier to progression.
Eg if a child lived in a household where someone had brightly dyed hair, always wore overalls, smelt of cigarettes, used a particular vocabulary and had a high pitched shrieking voice and they are in a situation where only three of these triggers are witness together, they can suddenly go into fight or flight mode and create an almighty scene. In a classroom situation, when one of our pupils suddenly loses the plot, we would be wise to ask ourselves what happened to create this meltdown. 
In other words, a little understanding goes a long way.  Consequently, I think I am a much better grandparent than I was as a parent. And being the head of specialist provision for young people in Swindon, many of whom will end up in prison and previously managing the 600 young people set up for Kids Company in Bristol, has taught me to be so much more tolerant than I was as a newly qualified teacher many moons ago!

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