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JOHN EGGERS: Our kids' brains: What's going on?

We can better understand what our kids do and don't do when we can understand their brains. Now that I have a granddaughter, knowing about how our brain works has become important to me again. (I taught a graduate class about the brain for many years.)

I have often said that every student in school should have to take a class on how his or her brain works. In fact, each year of their 12 years, students should be given bits and pieces about how the brain functions so that by the time they are seniors, they know a whole lot about why they can do certain things and why they can't do other things. Knowing this will also make them better parents.

For example, one thing that they should know is that their brain is kind of like the computers or phones they use every day. For everything we know how to do, there is a program in our brain that tells us how to do it. It's like an app on our phones or a program in our computers. If we don't know how to change a tire or do cursive writing, our brains haven't yet built a program to do that. Kids need to know it's not that they can't do something; it's just that they haven't yet built a program to do it. The more motivated they are to know how to do something, the quicker that program will form.

Parents and teachers and youth leaders help kids build those programs. Watching a video or reading a book also builds programs. You might say that the more programs a person has in his or her brain the more intelligent they are.

The 13 children belonging to the California family who were tortured and isolated for 20-plus years have a lot of learning to make up. Their brains have not experienced much of what you might say is "new learning." Consequently, through no fault of their own, their intelligence level would obviously be low compared to other children of the same age. When a person is prevented from learning, the brain stops forming programs.

My granddaughter will have many opportunities in her life where her brain receives a lot of stimulation and will form literally millions and millions of programs. At two months she is beginning to focus on small objects and rolling over. She is smiling and before long she will be grasping things. She is beginning to focus on something and stay focused. All of these signs indicate her brain is growing and maturing. Her parents will be good teachers. As well-known educator John Dewey said, "The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning." Parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors and teachers have the responsibility of nurturing this desire. I would like to think of it as developing a mindset for learning.

There are various periods of brain development when specific things are more easily learned. These periods are called "windows of opportunity." When these time periods close, the brain has a more difficult time in learning whatever should have been learned during that time. This is why early childhood education is so very important for kids.

The first window of opportunity is from birth to four years. Among other things the brain develops the ability to learn basic math concepts. Toddlers taught simple concepts, like one and many, do better in math. Music (i.e. listening, singing, dancing, playing) also helps to develop these skills.

The window of opportunity for learning languages occurs from birth to ten

years. The more words a child hears by 2, the larger his or her vocabulary will become. Since both my daughter and her husband are talkers, vocabulary development should not be a problem. It's important that kids hear conversation and it's important that children are encouraged to talk.

By the way, learning a second language after the age of ten can be very difficult. Our students often have trouble learning a second language because we start teaching the language too late. Schools that offer second language immersion classes like Ojibwa, Spanish or Chinese at an early age are precisely what the brain ordered.

The window of opportunity for movement is critical during the infancy and pre-school years. A child restricted from moving until the age of four, will learn to walk eventually, but probably never smoothly. I like to watch my granddaughter squirm as she is being held or lying on her bed. Her brain realizes the importance of movement and her brain is getting its exercise just like you and me when we take a walk or run. There is a strong connection between brain development and exercise and this is why our physical education classes are so important. No wonder kids like "gym" and recess so much. Their brains are doing the talking.

As my granddaughter grows older I will share more about what parents need to watch for during those critical early years of brain development. In the meantime I will encourage Alicia Marie's parents to keep her walking and keep her talking even though she can't do either—yet.

Riddle: What do you get if you say "Tornado" ten times backward and forward? (A real tongue twister!) Repetition for young people is key to learning. It works for us old folks as well.

John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.

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