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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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