How do children learn? What is happening inside a child the first time she ties her shoes, shares her lunch, or realizes that a sequence of letters is a word? In order for a child, or any of us, to learn, mature, or master a new skill something has to change.

That something is the brain. Our brain mediates all of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If the brain does not change, we will not learn. By understanding how a child's brain changes, therefore, we can understand how a child learns.

How the Brain Changes

Time and experience change the brain. Time pushes us through life, from one developmental stage to another. The brain develops, changing its organization and function from infancy to early childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood. We have little choice in this matter.

These changes in the brain, however, are dependent upon experience. Sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell are turned into brain activity. This leads to the growth and development of our motor, emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and social functioning. The right experiences, in the right amounts, at the right times in life, can uncover the magnificent potential of our brain.

The Right Time

A key to optimal teaching, then, is timing - providing the right opportunities at the right time and in the proper sequence. This can be difficult because what is "right" for the child changes during the day and from stage to stage of development. Introducing letter recognition to hungry 4-year-olds 30 minutes before lunch is not a good idea. Right thing, wrong time. And trying to teach a 2-year-old to build a tower of blocks before he has mastered the ability to control objects in his hands won't work-that skill is for another time.

Learning starts in the safety of the previously learned and familiar - our comfort zone. In order to learn, however, we must enter the developmental hot zone. This is where a child, reaching from the familiar, can grasp at new facts, concepts, and skills. And with practice, the previously unknown becomes known and is added to our comfort zone. Spending time in this developmental hot zone adds new skills, concepts, and behaviors in a sequential and cumulative way.

Too Much, Too Soon

There is for each child, however, a set of presently impossible-to-master facts, concepts, and skills. It is unreasonable to expect the 4-year-old to learn calculus or to drive a car. He will fail if asked to do these things. These absurd examples illustrate the obvious mismatch between the expectation and ability. Yet, the very same sense of failure can come to a child facing a subtler, but equally impossible, task. It is as much a mismatch to ask the 4-year-old with poor fine-motor control to write his name "neatly" as it is to ask him to drive a car. When we push children too far beyond their comfort zone, they will not meet with success.

When a child fails while trying to learn something beyond his grasp, the pleasure of learning diminishes. If a child fails repeatedly, he will be less willing to take on any new challenges-even if these new challenges are well within his grasp. What is impossible to learn at any given moment is controlled by our previous physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development.

Entering the Hot Zone

As you spend your days guiding children into their hot zone, keep the following points in mind:

  • Children need to be introduced to new tasks gently. Too much, too soon is overwhelming. If possible, try to discover each child's "baseline." What can they do? How advanced are they in physical, emotional, cognitive, and social functioning? When introducing new material, start with the known and familiar and then move on, in small steps, to new content.
  • Learning requires focus, sustained attention and the capacity to tolerate frustration. All of these are very energy-consuming activities. During the most active phases of learning, children fatigue quickly. Remember that "new" translates into "stressful." Allow a child to work with a new challenge long enough to explore and practice, but not so long that she becomes fatigued and discouraged. The further a child gets from her comfort zone, the more difficult it becomes to maintain focused attention.
  • Most children develop faster in one domain (motor, emotional, cognitive, social) than others. Children tend to choose activities that match their strengths and give them the greatest sense of achievement. Help children find private ways to practice their relative weaknesses. If they can practice them at home with parental help, they may often catch up to their classmates and no longer avoid that task or skill.
  • Mastery in one domain can't be generalized to others. For example, even if a child has mastered motor skills, he may not have comparable mastery in emotional or social domains.
This article originally appeared in the November, 2000 issue of Early Childhood Today.