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2009-09-24 digital edition

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2009-09-24 / Church

Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson

Intellectual Stimulation Has Good Effect on Kids' Brains

Question: What causes a child to be a "slow learner" - one who just doesn't learn like other children in the classroom?

Dr. Dobson: There are many hereditary, environmental, and physical factors which contribute to one's intellect, and it is difficult to isolate the particular influences. For many children who have difficulty in school, we will never know precisely why their ability to learn is limited. Let me tell you what is now known about intellectual development that may explain some — but not all — cases of learning deficits.

Accumulating evidence seems to indicate that some children who are slow learners and even those who have borderline retardation may not have received proper intellectual stimulation in their very early years. There appears to be a critical period during the first three to four years when the potential for intellectual growth must be seized. There are structural changes in the brain that must be activated during this brief window. If the opportunity is missed, the child may never reach his capacity.

Children who grow up in deprived circumstances are more likely to be slow learners. They may not have heard adult language regularly. They have not been provided with interesting books and puzzles to occupy their sensory apparatus. They have not been taken to the zoo, the airport or other exciting places. They have not received daily training and guidance from adults. This lack of stimulation may inhibit the brain from developing properly.

The effect of early stimulation on living brains has been studied in several fascinating animal experiments. In one study, researchers divided littermate rats into two identical groups. The first was given maximum stimulation during the first few months of life. These rats were kept in well-lit cages, surrounded by interesting paddle wheels and other toys. They were handled regularly and allowed to explore outside their cages. They were subjected to learning experiences and then rewarded for remembering. The second group lived the opposite kind of existence. These rats crouched in dimly lit, drab, uninteresting cages. They were not handled or stimulated in any way and were not permitted outside their cages. Both groups were fed identical food.

At 105 days of age, all the rats were sacrificed to permit examination of their neurological apparatus. The researchers were surprised to find that the highstimulation rats had brains that differed in several important ways: (1) the cortex (the thinking part of the brain) was thicker and wider; (2) the blood supply was much more abundant; (3) the neurochemicals necessary for learning were more sophisticated. The researchers concluded that the stimulation experienced during the first group's early lives had resulted in more advanced and complex brains.

It is always risky to apply conclusions from animal research directly to humans, but the same kinds of changes probably occur in the brains of highly stimulated children. If parents want their children to be capable, they should begin by talking to them at length while they are still babies. Interesting mobiles and winkingblinking toys should be arranged around the crib. From then on through the toddler years, learning activities should be programmed regularly.

Of course, parents must understand the difference between stimulation and pressure. Providing books for a three-yearold is stimulating. Ridiculing and threatening him because he can't read them is pressuring. Imposing unreachable expectations can have a damaging effect on children.

If early stimulation is as important as it now appears, then the lack thereof may be a leading cause of learning impairment among schoolchildren. It is imperative that parents take the time to invest their resources in their children. The necessity for providing rich, edifying experiences for young children has never been so obvious as it is today.

Dr. Dobson is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80995 (www.focusonthefamily.org).

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