Inside the kindergartner's brain

What insights can neuroscience offer parents about the mind of a kindergartner?

By Hank Pellissier

The kindergartner's brain

"Let me do that! I'm all grown up now."

Kindergartners can be swollen with self-esteem, thanks to graduating from preschool into "big kid" school, where they mingle with older role models. Indeed, the kindergarten range of four-and-a-half to six years old is often bossy, belligerent, and boastful about newly-acquired motor skills like sprinting and monkey-bar tricks. The kindergarten brain also features many mental upgrades from a preschooler's: superior memory, beefed-up attention span, a tighter grip on reality, improved self-control and social skills, and a firmer grasp of knowledge codes — i.e., numbers and the alphabet.

Even so, kindergartners are burdened and blessed with brain activity that's wildly alien to adult intelligence. A five-year-old noodle has 100 billion brain cells (neurons) with 77 percent in the furiously-networking cerebral cortex — the zone that constructs language, math, memory, attention, and complex problem-solving. The neurons are maniacally sprouting dendrites, skinny octopus arms that slither out to receive data from up to 15,000 other cells, and axons that transmit information to other cells. Links between neurons — or synapses — build cognitive pathways that create every individual's specialized "brain architecture" that allows them to comprehend, accumulate, and retain knowledge.

Harvard's Center for the Developing Child notes, "early experiences in brain architecture make the early years of life [ages 0 to six years] a period of both great opportunity and great vulnerability for brain development." In other words, these are crucial years for building the foundation of "brain architecture" — a time when, as a parent and caregiver, you can have a significant impact on your child's development. Kindergarten is also a critical year because you want your child to enjoy the educational process. How can you help your child navigate the new world of "grown up" expectations? Start by following the guidelines to come.

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Talk, sing, and read

Talk, sing, and read books frequently to your kindergartner. Steady exposure to verbiage enables their cerebral cortex to develop strong neural circuitry for swift acquisition of language. Parents also would do well to be active listeners, asking open-ended questions that initiate thinking, such as, 'If you could have any superpower in the world, what would it be?' or, 'What do you like most about going to the beach?' Plus, explain how things work, use high-level vocabulary, encourage writing, and include your kindergartner in adult conversations. Kindergarten is an optimal year for introducing new words and a second language. Children's book author Tomi Ungerer recently opined in the New York Times that, "between the ages of three and seven, children can learn three languages a year. If you're not teaching them another language, you can always develop their vocabulary."

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Reading help in kindergarten

Learning to read by "sounding out" letters in words is difficult for many kindergartners, even if their brain's auditory development is excellent. One reason, notes Jeannine Herron, Ph.D., author of Making Speech Visible, is that memorizing the alphabet is misleading, because letter titles — A, B, C, etc. — don't sound precisely like the sounds they represent. For example, the letter G has a J sound, H is way off-base with its "AAACH" pronunciation, and all the vowels can be utilized with more than one sound. This difficulty delays thousands of struggling readers. To circumvent this, Herron recommends teaching kindergartners to "pay attention to what their mouth is doing" when they learn phonemes.

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Be gentle in kindergarten

For their learning ability to flourish, kindergartners need to feel safe and confident. A 2007 Stanford University study indicates that traumatic stress and fear can release toxic levels of the hormone cortisol; this can destroy neurons in the hippocampus, a region that supports factual and episodic memory. To protect your kindergartner's self-assurance, give your child positive, loving, and encouraging feedback. Minimize reprimands, avoid unnecessary power struggles, and don't use shouting or spanking in discipline. Express sympathy if they're afraid of nightmares or the dark, and be patient about bed-wetting: Many children continue enuresis until age seven or longer.

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Tiny inventors

Find a great elementary school for your child with a kindergarten teacher who comprehends the learning process at this age. Kindergarten brains thrive on exploring, playing, inventing, experimenting, constructing, and tinkering with three-dimensional materials. Their brains actually grow in response to novelty and challenge because curiosity secretes dopamine, a chemical that stimulates the dendrite expansion that wires the brain. For these reasons, it's worth finding a class where children's physical activity is encouraged and teachers truly understand the developmental needs of the age group. Your child's kindergarten teacher also needs to be encouraging, understanding, and supportive to help him learn best. At this age, the big academic topics they need to master — reading and math, most notably — should be presented as fun, with minimal and enjoyable homework.

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Stimulate the senses

Experiences this year will have a huge impact on your kindergartner's absorbent brain. When not in school, children benefit greatly from activities that pique their curiosity. Expose your child to hands-on interaction with three-dimensional materials and take them on sensory-rich outings to festivals, zoos, museums, concerts, and outdoor natural areas.

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Let's focus in kindergarten

A kindergartner's attention span is about five to15 minutes long. To bolster your child's concentration level, engage her in activities that require focus, like meditation and board games. Teaching self-control and delayed gratification will also help your child academically: The correlation between self-control and GPA is twice as high as the correlation for IQ and GPA. You can also boost your child's patience by modeling it in your own behavior — by speaking and acting calmly. Finally, limit TV watching to an hour per day — studies suggest TV over-stimulates young children's neurological systems, resulting in hyperactivity and shortened attention spans.

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Body building in kindergarten

Ideally, kindergartners should have at least 30 minutes a day to run and play outside. Columbia University research discovered that exercise builds brain cells in the dentate gyrus. According to John Ratey, MD, author of Sparkexercise elevates a chemical he dubs "Miracle-Gro for the brain" because it builds the brain’s infrastructure. Full-body exercises like soccer, swimming, gymnastics, and dance are recommended. Plus, for optimal brain growth, feed your child a balanced, nutritious variety of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, dairy, and meat, and limit ingestion of candy, cookies, fruit juice, and sugary, salty junk food. Egg yolk, fatty meat, and soybeans contain choline, the building block for the neurotransmitter acetylocholine, which is crucial in memory function. (Learn more about healthy brain foods kids love.) 

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Tuning up in kindergarten

Expose your children to music, and if they show any aptitude, get them an instrument. Play structured, melodic music for them and sing songs. UC Irvine's Gordon Shaw gave 19 children piano or singing lessons for eight months, and found that the kids demonstrated dramatic improvement in spatial reasoning. Shaw, who regards music as "a window into higher brain function," has published numerous studies indicating that children who study music are ahead of their peers in math.

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Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer whose fiction and essays have been been widely published and anthologized. A former columnist for Salon and SF Gate, he is a regular contributor to h+ Magazine.