Hardwired to Learn

How your baby's experiences affect how they learn

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As discussed in my previous blog post, parents are a powerful influence over child development; YOU can help your child become the best that he can uniquely be. But to do that, first you have to understand how your baby’s brain develops.

Your baby’s brain cells

The core component of the nervous system and the brain is the neuron (brain cells), and your baby is born with roughly 100 billion of them. They don’t divide, they don’t die, and they aren’t regenerated when they are lost. When they are lost, they’re gone forever.

Neurons play important roles in processing and transmitting information. They do this through the synapses, or synaptic connections, that connect them with each other. Your baby is born with over 50 trillion synapses and, by age one, he will have more than 1,000 trillion synapses! Some experts have estimated that this is like having a computer with a 1 trillion bit-per-second processor. That is some impressive thinking ability!

A typical neuron fires or sends information to other neurons 5 to 50 times every second. The more signals sent between two neurons, the stronger the neural connection grows.

These connections and the increased activity they enable, make possible faster and more complicated patterns of thought – the very patterns associated with gifted children. Unlocking your child’s gifted potential comes down to stimulating these patterns during optimal windows of growth.

Synaptic Pruning

Your baby’s experiences determine which neural connections are formed and strengthened, and which are weakened and discarded. This process is called synaptic pruning, meaning that with each new experience and each remembered event or fact, his brain’s physical structure is slightly re-wired.

The resulting networks of connections, in turn, influence his abilities to sense, act, communicate, compute, and, overall, make sense of and interact with his world. And although synaptic pruning will continue throughout his lifetime, most of it occurs during early childhood, before he turns four! Thus his experiences – especially those in the first three years –will strongly influence what neural pathways form; what habits, traits and competencies (both good and bad) are created; and what these mean for his future. Thus, we can safely say that babies are hard wired to learn.

Still, your baby’s experiences will have a profound influence on what learning transpires. Either your baby’s environment or experiences will spontaneously alter his brain architecture, or you will. You are the key decision maker about his environment, and your child needs your attention. Because it’s only when you watch and listen to your child that you are able to recognize when your child is ready to learn, and provide the right support at the optimal time. If you are watching and listening, you will not only recognize when your child is ready to learn, but you’ll also be better able to spot problems as they arise and to address them speedily.

After researching children with reading problems, The National Institute of Health’s Child Development and Behavioral Branch found that a 12-year-old child needed four to five times as much intervention time as a 5-year-old with similar reading problems in order to address the issues. Early intervention is the key to successful remediation.

There is Only One You

Unless you’re cloned, it takes an egg and a sperm to make a child. And it takes two parents to raise one. That means you have to be there so that you can bond with your child and support his needs. You are your child’s touchstone. Even more than that: Your baby sees you, the parent, as part of himself – he doesn’t think of you as a separate person. Instead, you are his appendage.

As indicated earlier, every experience, including simple acts of love, kindness, bonding and touch, as well as the ways you stimulate him (by playing with him, talking to him, reading to him, and so on) influence the way your child’s brain grows. In fact, you can enhance your child’s intelligence and cognitive development simply through the environment you create and the way you interact with your child. In her book, The Handbook of Child Psychology, Florence Goodenough says that parents can impact their child’s I.Q. (a measure of intelligence) by 20 to 40 percent.

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