There are many different schools of thought when it comes to early childhood brain development.
There are tons of point of views from which to discuss early childhood development, learning and brain growth. Some scientists argue that there is no universal method for talking about brain development. Others believe that brains develop in very specific stages.
However, in this article, I am choosing to use Jean Piaget’s Constructivist Theory as my basis. This is the theory that is most commonly accepted among early childhood educators. It is also the theory that I always ascribed to when I was a teacher.
Piaget’s theory is really quite simple to understand. So, let’s dive in with our five things to know:
1Piaget and Schemas
Schemas are the basic building blocks of knowledge. They are both categories of information and the processes of acquiring that data. The scientist believed that we all have “schema” and we are continually learning new ones as well as changing the ones we have (but we will get to the change part in a minute).
You have a baby and a dog. The baby is born with no idea what the dog is. Eventually, he or she realizes that it is an animal, that it has a tail, that “it” (they may not have the word “dog” yet to describe the creature) barks… and so on. Later, he or she comes to understand that the dog is a pet. This brings us to our next point.
These processes are what enable the evolution of learning and thought.
• Assimilation: This would be when your child, who has now internalized the concept of dogs as pets, meets a new dog at Grandma’s house and immediately understands what the animal is and why it is there. This further information supports previously held schemas and strengthens beliefs about dogs that the child has already developed.
• Accommodation: Accommodation processes are necessary when an existing schema will no longer work. In other words, preconceived ideas are challenged.
For example, if Grandma had a cat. Now, your child’s schema about animals and pets might need to evolve. The realization that cats could be pets, as well, would need to “assimilated” into the existing schema about pets.
• Equilibrium: These are the processes that really build toward developmental milestones. Frustration might arise within your child, for example, if he or she was unable to understand why the cat hissed when touched when his or her dog loves to be stroked. They would then have to accommodate and assimilate the fact that not all pets like to be touched.
This process (which happens over and over again throughout life) aids in skill mastery. If a child, for example, who could read “sight words,” had to learn how to use phonics to sound words out, he or she would have to reach a new equilibrium about their perception of reading. If not, they would not be able to master reading.
3Piaget’s Stages of Development
Piaget divided child development into four stages. The last one never ends and continues into adulthood.
• Sensorimotor (birth to age two): The main milestone of this stage is object permanence. This is the ability to understand that an object exists even when unseen by the eye. This is why “Peek-a-boo” is so fun for babies. When children are tiny, theirs is an “out of sight, out mind” perception. The ability to form (and hold onto) a mental image of an object is one of the first schemas that they build.
• Pre-operational (from age two to age seven): At this point, kids can use or understand symbols, start to develop a sense of humor and are becoming aware of who they are. They, however, are also extraordinarily self-centered and have difficulty seeing things from other points of view. This is completely normal at this age.
• Concrete operational (from age seven to age 11): Children begin to be able to think abstractly and can work things out in their mind. That is to say, they don’t have to do everything to understand it. They can add sums without using counters or tally marks, for instance. Logical thinking is developing.
• Formal operational (age 11+ – adulthood): This is when abstract thinking takes off. Older kids and adults can think logically, make rational guesses and test their ideas (hypotheses). A kid who has never seen the Grand Canyon can read a book about it and assimilate that knowledge. They can then add to their own schemas about topics.
4How you can help your kids’ brains develop
• Focus on the process of learning. The process of obtaining knowledge is edifying in and of itself.
• Employ active methods that necessitate reconstructing “truths” (previously held beliefs and schemas).
• Formulate problems that will challenge schemas and generate disequilibrium in the child, then step back and allow them to problem-solve and recreate equilibrium on their own.
5No two kids are the same
Try not to get too hung up on what your child is supposed to be doing according to any one theory. Theories about child development are a great framework from which to begin, but your child is not exactly like any other child out there so he or she will learn and grow at the rate that works for them and their brain. I only wrote about one theory here because there are so very many. If you are sincerely concerned about your child’s development.
Bottom line: Kids need support at each stage of development, but they do not need for you to teach them as much as they need opportunities for independent learning that challenges schemas and pushes forward development naturally. But, most importantly, keep in mind that your child will assimilate, accommodate and equilibrate on their schedule.