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Technology and Early Learning: Part Four Grey Matter: Child Development and Technology

Susan Magsamen is the Senior Vice President of Early Learning at global learning company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH). She is a member of the Educational Advisory Board for The Goddard School and senior advisor to The Science of Learning Institute and Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
This piece was originally published on 02/25/2015 on the 
HMH blog.

At the beginning of this year, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center published Ten for ’15: Education Reform for a Shared Promethean BoardFuture, a list of ten takeaways and resolutions designed to give educators inspiration as they plan for a successful 2015.

Number five on that list is a call to rethink the brain. It may sound like a strange concept, but new, cutting-edge research on early brain development can help us gain a deeper understanding of early literacy and related behaviors.

So, let’s rethink the brain today.

First, some brain basics: Beginning in the prenatal period, the brain develops in a predictable sequence, accommodating a range of functions from the most basic to the most complex, from the birth of new nerve cells to the formation of intricate networks of transmitters that allow those cells to communicate.

The brain undergoes astonishing growth during early life. In fact, it doubles in size during a child’s first year, and by age three, the brain reaches 80 percent of its adult volume. We also know that genetic inheritance and interaction with the environment, including human interactions with family and others, profoundly impact the wiring of the brain. This, in turn, impacts a child’s developing sense of resilience and his or her cognitive abilities, achievements, health and happiness.

Dr. Patricia Kuhl, Co-Director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Science at the University of Washington, is currently expanding our knowledge about how young brains develop. She has been studying the period between eight and ten months of age — a critical time for early brain development — focusing specifically on language acquisition.

Her research confirms that by the time that babies are eight months old, they can discriminate all sounds of all languages. They are truly “citizens of the world.” Then, at around ten months of age, there is an important shift. They start to become “culture bound” listeners.

In a TED talk on the subject, Dr. Kuhl explains that as babies are busy collecting information about the world, human contact is essential for translating that data into language. Put simply, human interaction — the social brain function — plays a dramatic role in language acquisition. Very young children need human contact for learning and communicating. They won’t learn from a screen.

The research leads us to important questions: How exactly does technology impact developing brains, especially in the earliest years? What are the long-term implications as children grow? Is it too soon to tell?

Gary Small, M.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UCLA has noted that the brains of digital natives are “wired to use [technology] elegantly.”  But he also cautions that young people between the ages of eight and 18, many of whom spend 11.5 hours a day on digital devices, are lacking in ability to use human technology.  They may struggle with face to face conversations, non-verbal cues and eye contact – the same type of human interactions that are so critical for initial language acquisition.

Technology isn’t going anywhere. To ensure healthy developmental growth for little ones, balance is key. Here are a few tips to help families find that equilibrium:

  • Seek Expert Advice: The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests avoiding television and other forms of electronic entertainment for infants and children under the age of two.
  • Go Screen-Free: Create screen-free zones in your home, and use them! Create areas to read books, draw, play board games, dance and perform plays and music, and schedule time outside for physical activities.
  • Make Family Time Count: Avoid using digital devices during family meals, especially dinner; use family time for real-time, face-to-face communication.
  • Maintain a Digital Diet: Be thoughtful about the digital content your children consume. Check out our previously recommended resources to help select quality digital content.
  • Be a Role Model: Remember that children model YOUR behavior. Are you distracted by digital devices when you’re with your children? Do the majority of your family interactions include a screen? Plan an unplugged weekend! Be aware if you are using technology as a babysitter — such habits can creep in quickly.

When it comes to screen-time for kids, the choice of apps, games and films may seem endless. But just a little knowledge about the developing brain provides a golden rule – above all, human interaction and connection are the greatest learning tools we have.