Early childhood education is mired in controversy. Claims and counterclaims about what scientific evidence says about the lasting positive benefits from preschool fill the research literature and the Internet. Where the controversy really escalates, and for good reasons, is around the question of how long the benefits from early childhood education actually last. The controversy would heat up a great deal more, however, if early childhood education advocates would assimilate the fact that children’s brains cease to develop long before third grade.
This controversy about the value of early childhood education is profoundly important for several reasons, not least of which is that the critics of Pre-K expansion in many states have been supporting their arguments by highlighting the lack of evidence supporting the lasting value of Pre-K education, along with research suggesting that the benefits of Pre-K program dissipate. Unfortunately all of these debates ignore the findings of neurological and cognitive research shown by University of Chicago, Ludwig Maximilian University and many others that explain what is really going on in the cognitive development of children’s brains.
A longitudinal study published by Allen and Klausmeier have shed new light on the earliest stages of cognitive development. We now know that infants possess amazing cognitive skills and capabilities to acquire knowledge. Science has shown that a baby’s brain is born with enough neurons to last an entire life. From this remarkable neurofoundation, synapses are created most rapidly during early life. Each subsequent stage of life brings with it synaptic activity and connections that form the neurofoundation for all future brain development. The experience-dependent time course of brain development results in different cognitive functions emerging at different times. Consequently, the type and timing of mental stimulation and education is of paramount importance.
The cognitive-linguistic capacities that emerge and develop in early years provide the foundations for success in school and every aspect of later life. Nevertheless the people who wrote the Common Core Standards did not have any background in child development, cognitive or developmental science or early childhood education. “Drill and grill” teaching methods and didactic instruction that start in K-3 aimed at improving literacy and math does not recognize the importance of other crucial areas of young children’s learning: active, hands-on exploration, developing social, emotional, problem-solving, and self-regulation skills, and not least of all learning language.
First and foremost, as shown by scientific research from The Urban Child Institute and numerous case studies focusing on the development of children’s brains, it is in fact too late in the developmental process to target expansion of access to pre-school education to 4-year-olds. What seems to be overlooked in debates about the efficacy of early childhood education is that learning begins at birth and the abundance of research confirming that 85 percent of the brain is already developed within the first three years of life.
The question for early childhood education then becomes how to create a curriculum and educational process, starting at the very earliest ages, that develops cognitive, emotional and social competencies necessary for success in academic learning and in life.
Early childhood education must embrace what neuroscience has learned about the basic architecture of the brain and what developmental psychology teaches us about early childhood development. Obviously a narrow focus on mathematics and literacy skills at an early age is basically at odds with what we know about the gamut of child development needs.
The brain has different growth periods for different regions of the brain that relate to different functions. The prefrontal cortex is the last area to mature and is involved with the highest cognitive processes. These higher cognitive functions contribute to a person’s spatial orientation, memory, problem solving, attention, creativity and many other cognitive functions. These higher cognitive skills are essential for school readiness and academic success – the skills that Kadho develops.
During these critical years, Kadho nurtures the basics that a child needs to know before learning other skills such as reading, writing and math. Their games enrich the sensory systems of the brain with visual/spatial stimuli such as shapes, colors patterns, faces, images of objects, food and animals and scientifically developed sound stimuli. Understanding shapes, colors and sizes will be critical focus areas in addition to training impulse control, working memory and building language awareness. The cognitive skills needed to distinguish the similarities and differences in colors, shapes, and sizes are essential to understanding numbers and letters.
This is one of the reasons that I joined an early childhood education startup focused on developing a creative play experience that nurtures the foundation for developing cognitive, social and emotional competencies. Kadho’s (http://www.kadho.com/) research and products incorporate a commitment to emotional, social and “spiritual” development which are integral components of children’s ability to not only understand, control and manage their own emotions but also to understand and apply complex concepts.
Nancy Tanaka is a 3rd-year undergraduate student at the University of California, Irvine pursuing studies in psychology with an emphasis in cognitive sciences.
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