Educators continually complain that students are not ready to learn. They show up for school underfed or malnourished, angry or apathetic, stressed, threatened, and sleepy. Naturally, this makes the roles of both teacher and learner much more difficult. This article considers how educators and parents can better prepare their children's minds and brains for school.
Although research shows that school readiness, indeed, begins at conception, we'll concentrate first on those critical first months and years after birth. We now understand that the first 48 months of life are critical to the brain's development. While researchers have always known that infant development was important, they never knew just how important. Wayne State neurobiologist Harry Chugani says the experiences of the first year "can completely change the way a person turns out."
The brain is literally customizing itself for your particular lifestyle from the day you're born. It's a time of enormous selective receptiveness. The question is, "For what are you customizing your brain?" For educators, the question is even more pointed, "Exactly what talents, abilities, and experiences are students being exposed to and, on the other hand, what are they missing out on?"
Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington says that, in their first year, infants develop a perceptual map of responsive neurons in the auditory cortex. This map is formed by hearing early sounds, and accents and word pronunciations are a big part of it. These phonemes alert infants to the particular inflections like a Spanish rolled "r" or a sharp Japanese "Hi!" As a result, the brain dedicates special neurons to be receptive to those particular sounds.
This developing map is so customized for the household that children are "functionally deaf" to sounds outside of their home environments. The greater the early vocabulary children are exposed to, the better.
Children must also get early exposure to a wide variety of objects and games. Neurobiologists tell us that much of our vision develops in our first year, particularly in the first four to six months, with a major growth spurt at age two to four months. (This window is much earlier than previous studies indicated.) With more than 30 distinct visual areas in the brain, including color, movement, hue, and depth, the growing infant must get a variety of stimulating input, including plenty of practice handling objects and learning their shapes, weight, and movement.