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Cognitive Development in the first 20 years: A Child’s and Teenager’s Brain

(Edi­tor’s Note: What fol­lows is an excerpt from Dr. Robert Syl­west­er’s new book, A Child’s Brain. The Need for Nur­ture (2010) Cor­win. In this excerpt, Robert Syl­west­er syn­the­sizes the first 20 years of devel­op­ment and shows how it can be viewed as a “rhyth­mic four-six-four-six-year devel­op­men­tal sequence”)


Chap­ter 4: Devel­op­ment and Growth.

The First 20 years.

To sim­pli­fy a com­plex phe­nom­e­non, we can divide our 20-year devel­op­men­tal tra­jec­to­ry into two peri­ods of approx­i­mate­ly 10 years each. The devel­op­men­tal peri­od from birth to about age 10 focus­es on learn­ing how to be a human being – learn­ing to move, to com­mu­ni­cate, and to mas­ter basic social skills. The devel­op­men­tal peri­od from about 11 to 20 focus­es on learn­ing how to be a pro­duc­tive repro­duc­tive human being – plan­ning for a voca­tion, explor­ing emo­tion­al com­mit­ment and sex­u­al­i­ty, and achiev­ing auton­o­my.

The first four years of each of these two decade-long devel­op­ment peri­ods are char­ac­ter­ized by slow awk­ward begin­nings to a six-year nor­mal move toward con­fi­dence and com­pe­tence. For exam­ple, crawl­ing leads to tod­dling leads to walk­ing leads to run­ning and leap­ing.

We’ve designed our preschool, ele­men­tary school, mid­dles school, high school and ini­tial col­lege sys­tems around this rhyth­mic four-six-four-six-year devel­op­men­tal sequence. We tend to keep small chil­dren at home dur­ing their first four years to allow them to begin their devel­op­ment in a shel­tered fam­i­ly envi­ron­ment with­out state stan­dards and assess­ment pro­grams. They learn basic motor skills, how to talk, and how to get along with their fam­i­lies. In essence, they devel­op a basic under­stand­ing of how their shel­tered world works.

At about five years, we say, in effect, “You can do it with kin, can you do it with non-kin?” We then put them in a kinder­garten class­room with a non-kin teacher and a cou­ple dozen sim­i­lar­ly aged chil­dren, and this ratch­ets up the motor, lan­guage, cul­tur­al, and social knowl­edge and skills they have to mas­ter. For exam­ple, learn­ing to read and write are more com­plex than learn­ing to talk, the fac­tu­al infor­ma­tion they learn extends beyond their homes, and they have to learn how to get along with chil­dren who aren’t relat­ed to them. By the time they reach fifth grade (about age 10) and their sen­so­ry lobes are at a rea­son­able lev­el of matu­ri­ty, most have learned a lot about how the world works.

The mid­dle school and preschool years are devel­op­men­tal­ly sim­i­lar in that they both rep­re­sent the ini­tial awk­ward devel­op­ment of impor­tant brain sys­tems and cog­ni­tive func­tions: sen­so­ry lobe recog­ni­tion capa­bil­i­ties dur­ing the preschool years and frontal lobes response capa­bil­i­ties dur­ing the mid­dle school years.

We tend to be far more indul­gent of the inevitable devel­op­men­tal awk­ward­ness and errors of young chil­dren than of relat­ed ear­ly ado­les­cent awk­ward­ness and errors. Demand­ing adults tend to for­get that the mas­tery of some­thing as com­plex as reflec­tive thought or one’s sex­u­al­i­ty didn’t occur instant­ly and with­out errors in their lives, and it like­wise prob­a­bly won’t in an adolescent’s life.

Com­pe­tence dur­ing the first 10 years is char­ac­ter­ized by a move toward rapid auto­mat­ic respons­es to chal­lenges. For exam­ple, slow labo­ri­ous ini­tial read­ing tends to become rea­son­ably auto­mat­ic by age 10.

Lan­guage includes the auto­mat­ic mas­tery of a ver­bal tax­on­o­my of gen­er­al­ly accept­ed object, action, qual­i­ty, and rela­tion­ship cat­e­gories. Sim­i­lar­ly, moral­i­ty and ethics include the mas­tery of a social tax­on­o­my of cul­tur­al­ly accept­able behav­iors, such as to share and be fair.

Com­pe­tence dur­ing the sec­ond d10 years, how­ev­er, is often appro­pri­ate­ly char­ac­ter­ized by delayed and reflec­tive respons­es processed prin­ci­pal­ly in the frontal lobes. For exam­ple, the com­mon impul­sive, instant-grat­i­fi­ca­tion child­hood respons­es become less impul­sive as a matur­ing ado­les­cent learns to explore options and social impli­ca­tions pri­or to mak­ing a response.

In effect, cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment dur­ing the first 10 years focus­es on rec­og­niz­ing and under­stand­ing the dynam­ics of var­i­ous envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges that are process­es prin­ci­pal­ly in the sen­so­ry lobes, and cog­ni­tion dur­ing the sec­ond 10 years focus­es on devel­op­ing effec­tive and appro­pri­ate prob­lem-solv­ing strate­gies for such chal­lenges as are processed prin­ci­pal­ly in the frontal lobes.

The cul­tur­al strat­e­gy for deal­ing with chil­dren with imma­ture frontal lobes is to expect the adults in their lives to make many frontal lobe deci­sions for them –where to live, what to wear, when to go to bed, and so forth. Chil­dren with imma­ture frontal lobes are will­ing to let adults make such deci­sions. Infants who can’t walk are sim­i­lar­ly will­ing to let adults car­ry them. But, just as young chil­dren gen­er­al­ly don’t want to be car­ried while they’re learn­ing to walk, ado­les­cents don’t want adults to make frontal lobe deci­sions for them while their frontal lobes are matur­ing.

The only way we can learn to walk is to prac­tice walk­ing, and the only way we can mature our frontal lobes is to prac­tice the reflec­tive prob­lem-solv­ing and advanced social skills that our frontal lobes reg­u­late, even though young peo­ple aren’t very suc­cess­ful with it ini­tial­ly. Ado­les­cence thus becomes a chal­lenge for both the ado­les­cents and the sig­nif­i­cant adults in their lives.

To learn more:
About the book: vis­it A Child’s Brain. The Need for Nur­ture (2010) Cor­win
About Prof. Robert Syl­west­er’s views and work: “Par­ent­ing, men­tor­ing, teach­ing, and mass media are exam­ples of the cul­tur­al sys­tems that humans have devel­oped to help young peo­ple mas­ter the knowl­edge and skills they need to sur­vive and thrive in com­plex envi­ron­ments.” Read Full Inter­view Notes.

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  1. Vinod Mehra says:

    I have enjoyed your peri­od­ic emails and Blog. And would like to share four steps towards suc­cess in any sphere of life and i.e.

    Define the process = learn from gurus, books, men­tors
    Baby steps = suc­cess is mat­ter of com­pound effect
    dis­ci­pline = con­sis­tence and per­sis­tence wins the game
    Prac­tice = prac­tice makes you per­fect.

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