Critical Brain Growth

What factors must you consider for classroom instruction and management in relation to periods of critical brain growth?

There are a number of ways child development should impact classroom instruction and management strategies.

First, in some cases development is very difficult or even impossible to accomplish outside of a certain time frame (the “critical period”). This long observed phenomenon has been scientifically documented in humans or other animals in such varied areas as motor systems, visual systems, the auditory system, the somatosensory system, the taste/olfactory system. It also occurs in “multimodal functions” such as imprinting, stress and anxiety, sleep and language (Hensch, 2004). To the extent this is true, it is obviously essential to provide the appropriate stimulus at the appropriate time. Likewise, and more frequently, development may be most easily accomplished in certain time frames (the “sensitive period”). Again, teachers and curriculum designers need to be aware of current research and incorporate that knowledge into classroom stimulus.

Second, these critical periods of brain growth are reflected in major changes in capabilities (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 97). As a teacher or curriculum designer it is important to understand the developmental growth taking place in children of the relevant age. It is a kind of abuse to ask and expect children to perform tasks (educational or behavioral) which they simply lack the capability to perform. This knowledge is complicated by the fact that children enter these periods of growth at varying times. Also, the year or more age differences of children in the same grade further exacerbates this capability differentiation. Thus, some students may be fully capable of a task while others many not be. The ability to perform assigned tasks also has knock-on implications for the sense of self-worth of the students and their social status. Teachers need to be aware of these factors and monitor the classroom accordingly.

Finally, there is a nutritional component to many stages of growth (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 96-97). While there is a limit to what school officials can accomplish in this regard, giving students the knowledge, opportunity and support for proper nutrition is often overlooked and quite helpful.
Having said all that, I agree with Bee & Boyd, “Most neuroscientists agree that it is far too soon to form conclusions about how knowledge of brain development might inform ‘brain-based’ teaching strategies for students of different ages” (2007, p. 96). I think that thinking about ‘critical stages of growth’ and other neuro-biological concepts with regard to school aged children is best done in context with other developmental theories. It is absolutely essential for teachers to understand human development, especially as regards behavior and learning, but applying this knowledge in the classroom is best done with a very broad brush rather than a surgical scalpel. Observing each individual student and their learning experience, in the context of a wealth of developmental knowledge, is the way to help each child achieve full potential.

Bee, H., & Boyd, B. (2007). The developing child (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.
Hensch, T. K. (2004). Critical period regulation. Annual Review Of Neuroscience, 27, 549-579. Retrieved from
Wikipedia. (2009). Critical period. Retrieved February 11, 2010, from

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