Brain Development 101

Being the oldest of six children I have seen first hand the stages of child development, especially since my siblings and I were home schooled.

Now that I am in child development classes, I look back on my past dealings with my siblings with feelings of shame and regret. Why? Because I would get extremely frustrated with my younger siblings. I would tell them not to do something and a few minutes later they would do the exact thing I told them not to do (!!!). When they were angry they would bite, hit, scream, and/or kick and I would occasionally treat them like little demons, perhaps because they didn't act (or think) the way I thought a person should act.
 I measured them by my own yardstick, and I am now beginning to realize this was a big mistake. My only comfort is that I will be able to apply this knowledge to my future experiences as a mother.

I'm going to share a few things I have learned in my class (developmentally appropriate practices) in case you are struggling with your own children, or in case you just find this kind of stuff fascinating like I do.

I promise, they are useful.

FACT: Infants have more brain cells (neurons) than adults. Neurons slowly die off during the first three years. If a brain cell (neuron) is not used, it will eventually die. The infant has to experience something for the neuron to be used.  Playpens (cages), car seats, swings, (pretty much anything that restrains an infant from exploring) are what my professors call, "sensory deficit entrapments." Brain scans of actual infant brains show that babies who were contained and not allowed to explore had brains that looked similar to an 80 year old's brain with Alzheimers.
APPLICATION: Let your infant explore! Make the house a baby-friendly place so they can smell, touch, taste, and see the world around them.

FACT: The brain stem is the part of the brain that is in control during the first 15 months of life. The rest of the brain has not fully developed yet. The brain stem is responsible for fight or flight and motor regulation, and it does not like to debate with the body (the body is at the mercy of whatever the brain stem tells it to do). You can tell when an infant or toddler is being controlled by their brain stem when they lash out, become angry, mad, upset, and are inconsolable. Sound familiar?
APPLICATION: When you see that your child is being controlled by their brain stem ask them to b-r-e-a-t-h-e (cliche, but super important). Get them to do something active like walking or jumping up and down, especially crossing their right and left sides (crossing feet, arms, etc.). By crossing both arms and/or legs they are transferring control to higher parts of the brain.
Remember, before 15 months, most babies are at the mercy of their brain stems. They react and rarely have control over what they do (bite, hit, scream). Imagine if someone scared you and you reacted by punching at them, this is your brain stem taking over. This is what happens when an infant/child gets mad; they react without even thinking about it.

FACT: The limbic system is in charge of our emotional state, feelings, and memory. This part of our brain develops during the ages 15 months to 4 years. This part of the brain is responsible for a child's emotions, boundaries (rules) and motivation. When a child is learning how to use this part of the brain he/she will be whiny, cranky, and irritatable.
APPLICATION: The "terrible twos" are a symptom of this brain development. The child is being flooded with all kinds of emotions and is learning how to regulate their newly found limbic system. Be patient and know that they are trying really hard. Same thing as the brain stem; help them learn how to breathe and move around. Sometimes it may seem like they are irrational and intend to misbehave, but most of the time they know no other way. It doesn't help to be demeaning or treat them like they broken, just be patient and realize this is how they learn. Since memory is also being developed during this stage, it helps to realize that even if you tell them something 150 times, they will most probably forget it. Do not get angry with them, they do not have selective memory :) They simply have not fully developed their brain.

FACT: The cortex of the brain is responsible for the executive state, reason, and logic. This doesn't develop until 4 to 8 years old. Some children may develop faster than others, while other children may take longer. Some symptoms of cortex development include analysis, language, and compassion and empathy. It is also responsible for taking memories and using them in proper context and situation. They will remember from past experiences and understand why they shouldn't try to flush a whole roll of toilet paper down the toilet. By 8 years old, most children have the mental capabilities to regulate their emotions (limbic), recall important events (cortex), analyze situations (cortex) and put it all together!
APPLICATION: Although their brain has fully developed the most important parts (stem, limbic, cortex) they are still learning how to completely use everything together. The brain is a very complex organ and takes years to master (the human brain does not stop growing until 25 years of age). There is a reason that children are not held fully accountable until they are eight years old, so remember this when your 3 year old spills latex paint all over the living room carpet or decides he wants to experiment by cutting an electrical cord to see how it makes a machine work (my nerd did this as a child).
Children are not an inconvenience nor a problem that needs to be solved; they are simply programmed to learn as much as they can about the world around them in a very short amount of time (their brain is pliable for only so long).

If you are interested in more about brain development, here to a video that is really, really good. It is broken up into short segments, making it easy to watch the whole thing over a few days.
Ten Things 

P.S. the cute little boy is my younger brother Spencer (he is 19 years old now).

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