Monday, May 13, 2013

The ABCs of Neuroplasticity

Juliana has mastered the ABCs. This was taken right before bedtime and she loses interest in our "game" after a few minutes, so you'll just have to take my word for it: she knows all of her letters.

As if that weren't exciting enough, it's also exciting that she is repeating the name of each letter, that she can see the letters well enough to differentiate between them, AND that she can hear the sound clearly enough to know which letter I am asking her to find. 

We honestly didn't spend a lot of time drilling her prior to this pop quiz. In fact I am not sure whether I should feel chagrined over our lack of preparation (ABCs have been on my list of things to do, but we rarely got around to it) or if I should just feel amazed that she learned so quickly with such little guidance from us. I would estimate that we did the ABC flashcards approximately a dozen times, maybe a few more. She really loves these flashcards and pays apt attention to them. She also began to point to letters and wait for us to name them. 

This ABC knowledge isn't just a parlor trick to impress people; this kind of exercise forms new synapses and physically changes the brain. This is important because "processes that are not used or are inhibited during their critical period will fail to develop normally later on in life" (1). It is experience that determines which synapses will be strengthened and which will be pruned; the connections that are activated most frequently will be preserved (2). 

Time is of the essence if you want to minimize pruning. Early learning is better than later learning because the younger the child, the more plastic (i.e. moldable) the brain. Dr. Abdeldayem, Professor of Pediatric Neurology, describes brain plasticity as "the capability of the brain to alter its functional organization as a result of experience... plasticity includes the brain's capacity to be shaped or molded by experience, the capacity to learn and remember, and the ability to reorganize and recover after injury." Why can young children easily pick up a second language (and sound like a native speaker in the process)? Because their brain is so plastic. It is easy for a young child to learn. Neuroplasticity has a clear age-dependent determinant (2). This is hardly a disputed fact. Early intervention programs exist precisely because the brain of a young child is so plastic that it can be changed at an early age. Intervening later in life is far more difficult (just ask any therapist!). 

Children naturally learn easily and what's more, they enjoy the process. We can use this to their advantage, helping them learn new things that will literally grow their brain and serve them for the rest of their lives. Of course this is great for any child, but for the child with special needs it is simply amazing. 

I feel like Juliana lost a lot of time in this critical window because of all the health challenges she faced in her first year of life. However I am also confident that we've slowly moved from one side of the spectrum to the other. We still have more time - her brain is still plastic! I've been pulling from various resources and putting together a new list of daily exercises. Fire away, neurons!

(2) Brain Plasticity - fascinating slideshow

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