6 Brain Developmental Stages and Learning Strategies for Children

Young parents are always concerned about giving their children the best possible education, the best possible nutrition etc. The journey of a child’s brain development is a largely complicated process and there are many nuances to it.

It’s good to know about the changes your child undergoes in order to cater to their needs and understand why they do the things they do.

To understand the brain development of a child in detail, we first need to understand the basics of how the brain works.

How the Brain Works

The brain stem, shaped like a widening stalk, connects the spinal cord to the upper brain and this controls reflex actions (ex.breathing, heart rate). The cerebellum controls balance and coordination. The cerebrum, the largest part of the brain, controls comparatively complicated processes like memory and learning. The cerebrum’s outer surface, the cerebral cortex, is where the brain’s most advanced activities like planning and decision-making occur.

The limbic system which is in the inner brain beneath the cerebral cortex, controls instinctive behaviours like emotional reactions, stress responses, and reward-seeking behaviours. The hippocampus controls memory formation and spatial learning. The hypothalamus controls stress systems and regulates the release of stress hormones like cortisol. The amygdala evaluates threats and triggers stress responses.

Brain

The brain processes information through neurons, which communicate with one another using electrical and chemical signals. Dendrites receive incoming signals, electrical charge arrives at the axon terminal, vesicles carrying neurotransmitter molecules then fuse with the terminal’s cell membrane and spill their contents out of the cell into the synaptic cleft. Axons are sometimes coated with myelin, a substance which insulates the axon, increasing communication efficiency.

Now that we have familiarised ourselves with the basics, let’s take a look at the 6 brain developmental stages of children in detail.

#1: FIRST TO THIRD TRIMESTER

(A) FIRST TRIMESTER

The neural plate forms a layer of specialized cells in the embryo, which transforms into a tube-shaped structure which then eventually develops into the brain and spinal cord. In 7 weeks, after conceving the first neurons and synapses develop in the spinal cord, which allows the foetus to make its first movements, can be detected by ultrasound. These movements, in turn, provide the brain with sensory input that amplifies development.

(B) SECOND TRIMESTER

The cerebral cortex grows in thickness and complexity, synapse formation begins and myelination begins.

(C) THIRD TRIMESTER

Reflexes such as foetal breathing and responses to external stimuli become increasingly regular, and the cerebral cortex supports early learning.

The womb is a sensory playground for the baby. It will be able to hear its mother’s voice, and respond to sounds by moving around more. As a young mother, you can help with your baby’s natural cognitive development by interacting with him or her. Any form of interaction would do, like, singing, talking, reading stories, playing music, etc.

#2: BIRTH

This might be bizarre, but it’s a fact that the way your child is born affects the cognitive development of your child. And by ‘way of birth’ we mean, either a natural delivery or a caesarean birth which could have involved complications like trauma, toxicity exposure, anaesthetics etc.

Uterine contractions cause the pressure to increase, rupturing the amniotic sac, and further contractions will force the foetus down the birth canal. The head is subjected to pressure from all sides and the baby’s skull (which is still forming) accommodates to this by allowing the head to shape itself for the opening. The baby goes through descent and flexion, internal rotation, extension, restitution, external rotation and finally expulsion. The spinal galant reflex is instrumental in the foetus making its way down the birth canal. At the time of birth, all reflexes are of brain stem origin with minimal cortical control.

Children who have not undergone natural births are at a higher risk of having retained reflexes that will require specialist intervention for either transformation or inhibition. Retained reflexes are evidence of delayed motor development that if left unattended, it can further inhibit normal sensory-motor development, which affects subsequent learning capability.

For the following four stages of children brain development, let’s use Piaget’s theory to understand this better.

#3: SENSORIMOTOR STAGE (1-2 YEARS OLD)

The brain continues to develop at a fast rate in the first year. The cerebellum become triple in size, which appears to be related to the rapid development of motor skills that occurs during this period.

At this stage, children observe their surroundings and they react according to their reflexes. Children constantly experiment by meddling with objects, which means they are learning through trial and error.

Language circuits in the frontal and temporal lobes become consolidated in the first year, and children are influenced strongly by the language he or she hears.

Hence, it is essential to talk to babies, as vocabulary words will be subconsciously stored in their minds. When they grow up, it will then be much easier for them to perform well in their languages.

#4: PREOPERATIONAL STAGE (2-7 YEARS OLD)

There will be dramatic changes in the brain’s language areas, which are developing more synapses and becoming more interconnected. A child’s vocabulary will quadruple at the beginning of the stage.

There is a major increase in the rate of myelination, which enables the brain to perform complicated tasks.

Children’s thinking is mostly intuitional and illogical at this stage. Their world lacks dimensions, they may not be grounded in reality, inhabiting a disparate world of thought.

Children may ask a lot of questions like why, how, where, etc, they may be obstreperous and out of control. Hence parents must have lots of patience to answer their questions and in fact, this is crucial, because parents’ responses contribute to shaping the way children think and perceive information.

#5: CONCRETE OPERATIONAL STAGE (7-11 YEARS OLD)

At this stage, children are able to do seriation, which means distinguishing objects according to their colour, shapes or sizes. They would understand transitivity but will find it difficult to engage in deductive reasoning.

Children can now recognize complicated relationships between different categories and schemas. A key development at this stage is the concept of reversibility. In other words, children would be able to understand that 3+4 and 4+3 yield the same answer.

In spite of the fact that children have a greater ability to learn and understand, they may not be able to grasp abstract ideas and internalise certain concepts that has intricate details.

To widen your children’s horizon, travel to other countries with them, introduce them to new cultures and experiences and push them out of their comfort zone. The unique experiences would enable them to be ahead of their peers in terms of perceiving information and forming informed opinions and decisions.

#6: FORMAL OPERATION STAGE (11 YEARS OLD AND ABOVE)

At this final stage, children can think about abstract and theoretical concepts and use logic to come up with creative solutions to problems. Skills such as logical thought and deductive reasoning emerge during this stage.

Children can also comprehend hypothetical situations, use meta-cognition to assess their thinking and perform ‘inner-engineering’ which helps them analyse themselves.

Children who struggle with understanding, internalising and processing information can get help from their tuition teachers. The early help provided by private tutors beyond school will help children be more confident in their learning and perform well in their studies.

According to Piaget (Swiss psychologist known for his work on child development), lifelong intellectual development exists and though formal operational stage is the final phase of cognitive development, intellectual development continues in adults through the accumulation of knowledge.

IN CONCLUSION, early years of a child is highly influenced by parents, caregivers, and communities and hence it is essential for the environment to be positive. As parents, you have the best interests at heart for your child and in order to fulfil that, you need to know what your child’s needs are, and cater to them.

Author Bio: Steffen Carter is a Singapore Math tutor, he works for ChampionTutor – One of the best tutoring agency. He enjoys working with students very much. He has a positive attitude and a passion to assist and motivate struggling learners

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