Appreciating A Child’s Brain Development

Part of becoming a better and more effective disciplinarian involves appreciating some of the principles of brain development that impact how well a child can listen, understand and control his or her behaviors. This knowledge can contribute to parents being fairer with their children, a key component of disciplining effectively.

Understanding a child’s brain development helps a parent discipline

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and GrandmotherDevelopment

I remember being struck by an illustration of the dichotomy within a child who is beginning to understand the rules set down by parents while not yet having inner self-control. In the classic book, The Magic Years, author Selma Fraiberg shares the following illustration of the struggles children have to control themselves, when they have been told to do or not to do something.

Thirty-month-old Julia finds herself alone in the kitchen while her mother is on the telephone. A bowl of eggs is on the table.

An urge strikes Julia to make scrambled eggs. She reaches for the eggs, but now the claims of reality are experienced with equal strength. Her mother would not approve. The resulting conflict within the ego is experienced as ‘I want’ and ‘No, you mustn’t’ and the case for both sides is presented in a decision arrived at within the moment.

When Julia’s mother returns to the kitchen, she finds her daughter cheerfully plopping eggs onto the linoleum and scolding herself sharply for each plop, ‘No, no, no mustn’t dood it. No, no, no. Mustn’t dood it!’” [Page 135]

This information helped me make more sense of what looked like blatantly disrespectful behaviors and helped me be more tolerant and accepting when my young child did something she was told not to do, understanding that it was most likely her highly immature abilities to be self-controlled.

Fast forward to the present, and neuroscience backs up what Selma Freiberg shared in her book with regard to the ups and downs of the development of self-control and self-regulation.

In the 2013 book, Flourishing in the First Five Years: Connecting Implications from Mind, Brain, and Education Research to the Development of Young Children, authors Wilson and Conyers state the following: “Self-control is an important achievement of the developing brain. It’s part of a cognitive processing system, known as the executive function, which enables us to process the information we receive through our senses and then use that information to make decisions and solve problems.

Executive function is what allows individuals to inhibit inappropriate responses and to control impulses, but this is something that is not readily achieved by the immature brain of an infant or toddler. The prefrontal region [of the brain] matures more slowly than the other parts of the brain. Thus, in young children, emotion and impulse often take precedent over cognitive reason. This lag in executive function is the reason the children’s attention spans are shorter, why they throw tantrums when they don’t get their way, and why they are more prone to crying in reaction to frustrating situations.” [Page 96].

How long does it take for the brain to mature?

Add to that, for those of you with older children, that the brain does not fully mature until the age of 31 [statement made by child psychiatrist and neurobiologist Bruce Perry at a 2014 conference in New Jersey]. That means that often children and adolescents struggle with self-control because the part of the brain that provides executive functioning is still being developed.

The bottom line is this. Often children are not being purposely disrespectful. Rather their behaviors reflect an immature brain.

When parents incorporate an appreciation for this information into their disciplining, they can be calmer, clearer, more compassionate and fairer while still being appropriately firm and direct.  We still may not like the behaviors but can appreciate that it is not our child’s fault or willfulness when he or she lacks self-control.

Invitation to reflect:

  1.  How can appreciations that children often are not neuro-biologically mature enough to control impulsive behavior help you feel more understanding and less frustrated when your children do the very things you have told them not to do?
  2. How can you blend this understanding with your responsibilities to set and enforce limits?
  3. To what extent do you notice that other parents often discipline and sometimes punish their children for behaviors that are the result of their child’s immature brain functioning?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network


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