Soup or structure: How does a toddler's brain process information?

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POSTED: Thursday, December 27, 2012 - 3:24pm

UPDATED: Monday, December 16, 2013 - 3:52pm

Working with kids in any capacity, at some point requires you to try and get your head around how toddlers’ minds work. What appears utterly disorganized to an adult observer is actually the bi-product of how a toddler’s mind is growing and developing.

Understanding the physical process that a child’s brain goes through during development helps educators to know how to interact with a toddler on a level they can understand. This knowledge will be incredibly valuable to you once you've taken an early childhood education degree and started your career.

Lower and Higher Brain Function
The brainstem and midbrain are the first areas of the brain to develop fully, reaching most of their potential by the time the baby is born. They regulate the autonomic functions of a toddler’s body, such as breathing and sleeping. The cerebral cortex and limbic system, considered the “higher” regions of the brain, take much longer to reach full maturity. The limbic system is the part of the brain that regulates language, emotions and thought processes.

Synapses and Myelination
Brain development is the literal process by which children learn and it is accomplished by the creation, bolstering and elimination of synapses. Synapses are connections between neurons. These pathways connect one part of the brain to another; they govern everything people do from digesting food to carrying on a conversation. Toddlers, at the peak of brain development, are creating synapses at a rate of two million per second!

Myelination, the process by which mature brain cells are insulated, has only just begun in toddlers. Myelination has the primary function of providing clear and swift transmissions across synapses. As a result, very young children process information more slowly than older children and adults.

Forming Memories Equals Learning
Synapses ultimately allow for memory to exist. Humans learn through the process of storing and retrieving memories. An average adult, for example, can store up to seven pieces of data in their short term memory at a time. A toddler can handle about two, in comparison. A toddler’s memory is underdeveloped, meaning that it takes them longer to retrieve information they have stored or prevents them from storing it at all.

Synapses are formed and maintained by repeated stimulation. A toddler learns to walk by repeating the same “lessons” in coordination over and over again. Once the act has been repeated enough times, the synapses are strong and well-formed and the child walks easily. The same can be said for learning boundaries such as why it is not acceptable to hit someone or that a particular toy must be replaced from whence it came. This is why a child can be told the same thing 15 times and still need to be told the same thing again the next day.

Understanding brain development brings the apparent chaos of a toddler’s mind into focus.
Now you may recognize toddler behaviors for what they are: an exploration of the world around them and the process of breaking down and storing the information gained from that exploration.

Toddler thinking can appear utterly chaotic without this understanding of normal neurological development. While you earn an early childhood education degree you will find it helpful to keep this developmental process in mind. Any parent would, too.  

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