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School of Education at Johns Hopkins University-Determinants of Academic Success

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What are the Determinants of Children's Academic Successes and Difficulties?

by Marian Cleeves Diamond, Ph.D

Environmental factors can influence both the pre- and postnatal brain. Most of us are aware that in the Eastern world the concept of "intrauterine education" goes back in Chinese literature over 2000 years.

I could find one reference published in the Ming Dynasty in 1237 when women were advised to behave favorably during pregnancy so that their offspring would be bright and survive well. Good behavior included: "Sit and walk dignified and sedately; maintain a good temper and with a mind at ease; do not look at evil happenings and ugly pictures; etc. In the Western world Omraam Aivahov stated in 1938 that the State should concentrate all of its attention on its pregnant mothers. In our laboratory we have been able to demonstrate the effects of enriched environments on the prenatal rat brain. So when one addresses determinants of academic successes and difficulties in today's world, one really should take into consideration pre- as well as postnatal conditions for forming healthy children and their precious brains.

How can parents and teachers provide conditions that will most effectively promote growth and change in our children's nerve cells with their branching dendrites? Dendrites are like the trees of the mind, growing like poplars in the sun. How can parents help a child to develop his or her full potential and set a pathway of lifelong learning? Parents and teachers should create a climate for enchanted minds to obtain information, stimulate imagination, develop an atmosphere to enhance motivation and creativity and discover the value of a work ethic.

Innately, children are very adaptable and feel natural in any comfortable pattern a parent may set. In spite of what has been said, parents can play a very active role in developing a child's behavior, for children spend far more time outside of school than in, reportedly 80% more.

Our recipe for an enriched environment to determine academic success:

Includes setting the stage for enriching the cortex by first providing a steady source of positive emotional support - love, encouragement, warmth and caring. Our old rats live longer with tender loving care.

Provides a nutritious diet with enough protein, vitamins, minerals and calories. We have shown that with a low protein diet during development the branches on the nerve cells in the cortex do not flourish to be able to respond to an enriched condition.

Stimulates all the senses, but not necessarily all at once. A multisensory enrichment develops all of the cortex; whereas, an input from a single task stimulates the growth of only a precise area of the brain. One example, growing up responsibly on a farm surrounded by clean fresh air with all of its multisensory input supplies a wealth of varied stimuli to develop a cortex

Has an atmosphere free of undue pressure and stress but suffused with a degree of pleasurable intensity

Presents a series of novel challenges that are neither too easy nor too difficult for the child at his or her stage of development

Allows for social interaction for a significant percentage of activities; there is no doubt peers are intrigued with and enjoy each other.

Promotes the development of a broad range of skills and interests that are mental, physical, aesthetic, social and emotional

Gives the child an opportunity to choose many of his or her own activities. Allow each unique brain to choose.

Gives the child a chance to assess the results of his or her efforts and to modify them. As he builds sand castles on the beach and admires his construction before a wave destroys them and he need to earn to start over and resculpt.

An enjoyable atmosphere that promotes exploration and the fun of learning; rats living in enriched environments are more exploratory than those living in impoverishment.

Above all, enriched environments allow the child to be an active participant rather than a passive observer; a healthy body will have the energy to become involved.
A nonenriched, impoverished environment, which can cause difficulties and a lack of success, will tend to be opposite in most of these ways, including:

A vacillating or negative emotional climate

A diet low in protein, vitamins, and minerals, and too high or too low in calories

Sensory deprivation

High levels of stress and pressure

Unchanging conditions lacking in novelty

Long periods of isolation from caregivers and/or peers

A heavy, dull atmosphere lacking in fun or in a sense of exploration and the joy of learning

A passive, rather than active involvement in some or all activities

Little personal choice of activities

Little chance to evaluate results or effects and change to different activities

Development in a narrow, not panoramic, range of interests
We should also not underestimate the importance of supporting creativity with imaginative toys, fantasy friends, a rich language environment, the value of music and art, and the value of a mentor who cares and listens and will remain in her mind when she later needs support.

Let me take one example, when it comes to providing toys and activities for young children, there is, in general an inverse relationship between the specificity and elaborateness of a toy and its ability to excite the imagination. A cast-off cardboard box can become a doll house, a puppet stage, a school or an alien planet. Tools for exploring, a magnifying glass, an old tape recorder, a map, can open doors in the mind, as can the artifacts of make believe. The more pressure the parent puts on a child to produce something specific, the harder it is for the child to express creativity and imagination.

All of these have their role to play in brain development. BUT we have also learned that too much stimulation is detrimental. The cerebral cortex does not show significant growth with too much stimulation as it does with a moderate amount. The brain needs time to transfer information into its association cortex. Allow the child time to think about what is happening and what is coming next. Allow for ample free time too. Creative efforts need time to utilize what has been stored in the brain. DO NOT OVER STIMULATE.

In conclusion, I would like to cite an example from one of my own four children. I recently had the courage to ask them the positives and negatives of having a working mother. Ann, who majored in geology at Harvard, then after graduating, played soccer for half a year before entering medical school at UCSF, provided the following positives: you gave us the freedom to choose what we wanted to do; you served as a role model showing if we worked hard we could succeed; and we are proud of you. What parent/educator could ask for more?

About the Author

Marian C. Diamond, Ph.D. is a neuroanatomist in the Department of Integrative Biology ay the University of California, Berkeley. She is co-author of Magic Trees of the Mind. She is also a member of New Horizons for Learning's International Advisory Board, advising us on the development of the News from the Neurosciences area of the website.

What are the determinants of children's academic successes and difficulties? is excerpted from a presentation by Dr. Diamond at an invitational conference Getting it Right About Children's Development: The influences of nature and nurture, sponsored by the Harvard Children's Initiative, Friday, February 5, 1999.

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