The Implications of Neural Plasticity for the Developing Brain

In order to understand how we can change cognitive processes and promote children’s social and emotional intelligence, first we must understand the connections between the ‘hardwiring’ and ‘software’ of the brain.

The fundamental ‘hardwiring’ of the brain came about due to evolution, for example the amygdala causes the fight or flight reaction in response to a threat. This was important when humans needed to quickly assess life or death situations, however, nowadays the risks we face are much less imminent but perhaps more constant. Therefore, it is important for us as social human beings to write the neural ‘software’ or learn new coping mechanisms in order to avoid severe reactions by this amygdala, the evolutionary ‘hardware’. For example, at work, if your team does not complete a task properly, it is not appropriate to start ranting and raving, which might be your first thought, as sparked by the amygdala. Instead, the ideal outcome requires employing emotional intelligence which integrates the emotional centre with the executive or ‘thinking’ centre, the prefrontal cortex. You can imagine this as writing adaptive ‘software’ that can connect the neural ‘hardware’ in order to develop positive skills.

As adults, this is important, however it needs to be realised that children and adolescents also require the skills to build their emotional intelligence. This is because emotional intelligence positively impacts on effective socialisation and stress management. Through Goldman’s study called the ‘marshmallow test’, the emotional intelligence related skill of self-management was measured in four year old children. This study involved telling the children that they could have one marshmallow now or alternatively, if they waited until the experimenter came back, then they could have two. It was revealed that around one third could not wait and immediately grabbed the marshmallow, whereas another third were able to wait the full seven or eight minutes to receive the full reward. After a fourteen year follow up, it was revealed that the children who could not employ self-regulation and immediately grabbed the marshmallow could not cope effectively under pressure and did not have effective social skills. In comparison, the children who waited the full time revealed significantly improved high school results.

However, these results do not need to cause concern or panic for children with poor self-regulation. This is because it has been found that the prefrontal cortex continues to undergo massive development through childhood and adolescence. As a result, the developing child requires positive influences that will foster neural development and the desired emotional skills which will help them throughout their life. Moreover, due to the increase in understanding of neural plasticity, we now realize that a child’s cognitive abilities and emotion intelligence are not by any means fixed; therefore it is important to intervene during this critical period of development in order to promote positive skills. In addition, this particular region of the cerebral cortex is not only responsible for self-regulation, it is also critical for overall higher order processes such as decision making, mental flexibility, inhibiting impulsivity and so on. Therefore, by taking advantage of the remarkable plasticity in this cortical region, we can provide children with the skills necessary to cope with stressful situations, promote positive socialisation and appreciate their own strengths and abilities.

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An Analysis of the Australian Early Development Census: How Does Queensland Compare?

This article is based on publicly available AEDC data retrieved from www.aedc.gov.au/data

Since 2009, the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) has measured the development of children in their first year of full-time school across five areas: physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills, and communication skills and general knowledge. This is because children with a positive early childhood experience are more likely to achieve a higher educational attainment as well as demonstrate high self-esteem and social development, and fewer social and health problems. This data is gathered every three years, therefore, the aim is to inform the development of policies and programs to improve early development and help evaluate long-term strategies.

The AEDC measures five areas or ‘domains’ of early childhood  which are closely linked to the predictors of good adult health, education and social outcomes. These domains include:

  • Physical health and wellbeing domain – physical readiness for the school day, physical independence, gross and fine motor skills
  • Social competence domain – overall social competence, responsibility and respect, approaches to learning, readiness to explore new things
  • Emotional maturity domain  – pro-social and helping behaviour, anxious and fearful behaviour, aggressive behaviours, hyperactivity and inattention
  • Language and cognitive skills (school-based) domain  – basic literacy, interest in literacy/numeracy and memory, advanced literacy, basic numeracy
  • Communication skills and general knowledge domain

Percentage of children developmentally ‘on track’ in 2009 and 2012

Throughout both 2009 and 2012, a smaller percentage of Queensland children were found to be ‘developmentally on track’ as compared to the Australian average. These figures spanned all five domains however the largest divergence appears to be occurring in the ‘physical health and wellbeing’, the ‘social competence’ and the ‘emotional maturity’ domains.

There was a massive increase in the percentage of children ‘on track’ in the language and school-based cognitive skills domain (from 60.9% to 78.5%). While this is an impressive and worthwhile improvement, this may indicate a lack of importance placed on the other four domains. Moreover, the evidence has indicated that positive improvements in these other domains, particularly that of social and emotional competence and maturity, can create broader positive changes which typically result in academic success.

Table 1: Percentage of children developmentally “on track” in 2009 versus 2012

Children on track AECD 2

(click on the table above for a larger version)

Percentage of children developmentally ‘vulnerable’ in 2009 and 2012

The developmentally ‘vulnerable’ children are those who score below the 10th percentile in the national population. Hence these children demonstrate a much lower than average ability in the various domains and require additional support. Australia wide, the largest improvements occurred through the language and cognitive skills domain with 4.1% less children developmentally vulnerable. Queensland’s improvements are in line with this, yet appear to be even greater with an improvement of 6.5% from 2009 to 2012. Therefore Queensland’s improvement has surpassed that of the national average, although it appears that this has left areas of physical health, social competence and communication skills with either no improvement or an even greater percentage of vulnerable children.

Therefore, these figures may suggest that educators are placing a disproportionately high focus on literacy and classroom-based cognitive skills and neglecting the importance of the other domains. Moreover, when directly comparing New South Wales indicators, it can be seen that there were small yet dispersed improvements across all indicators. Perhaps Queensland policy makers and educators need to follow suit and place a broader focus on all domains, especially that of the social competence and communication skill based competencies.

This argument is also reinforced by the concern that Queensland is lagging behind the Australian averages in all domains. Moreover, there are a greater percentage of children vulnerable in 1 or more and 2 or more of the five domains. Therefore, although these indicators have improved within Queensland from 2009 to 2012, our state is falling behind the majority of Australia.

Table 2: Percentage of children developmentally vulnerable in 2009 versus 2012

Children  Vulnerable AECD

(click on the table above for a larger version)

In summary, these figures indicate some promise, as Queensland has improved the prospects for our young children from 2009 to 2012. However, it is very apparent that significant improvements need to be made across all five domains in order for broader, perhaps more enduring changes to be realised.  Moreover, Queensland is lagging behind both the national average as well as those of New South Wales and Victoria, therefore this provides striking evidence for educators and policy makers to implement targeted changes throughout the state. As mentioned, the purpose of this research is to help promote positive development and outcomes in young children, therefore these results should not be undervalued. Nevertheless, as the 2015 AEDC data is released in the future, we will be able to further understand which areas are improving and which areas require more targeted education and resources.