Brain Hierarchy: When Your Child’s Lower Brain Levels Are Weak, they Can’t Learn

Did you know that the brain of an infant contains essentially all the brain cells that they will ever need for learning throughout their lifespan? Add this to the knowledge that a newborn baby’s brain is about a third the size of an adult brain, but has all the mechanics it needs to develop speech, language, balance, coordination, executive functioning and sensory input. The growth and development of the brain and its functions are fascinating. When a baby is born, the arm and leg movements resemble more of a jellyfish motion than a mature human being. But the truth is, the brain develops at an astounding speed, especially because it’s needed for higher learning functions in school. The brain development during the first six months of life is focused on motor skills and sensory processing for improving our five senses (hearing, taste, sight, smell and touch). All of this work is setting up the brain for higher learning.

The Brain Develops in Layers

Why is it important to know how your child’s brain works and which parts are responsible for learning? Although the brain is complicated, the more you understand about how your child or student’s brain functions, then you can target those specific areas with activities and exercises to improve their learning development in the classroom. For instance, if we want your child to improve their receptive and expressive language, we want them to do front to back brain-building exercises, like you see here, as a way for them to listen to the teacher and then express what they learned on paper when they take a test.

The brain doesn’t automatically know how to tell the body to sit down, pick up a book and to begin reading in one day. This process is learned in layers, building upon each other, day after day with sensory experiences, motor planning, and cognitive development. The brain is a very complex structure with neurons, blood vessels and synapses constantly growing, developing or shutting down, as is the case with synaptic pathways. The area of the brain that is responsible to keep the heart beating is not the same place where active learning and memory skills take place. There is a hierarchy to the brain, which is comprised of four working levels that all cooperate to control the basic life needs of time management.

Why it’s important to develop the lower levels of the brain

When a baby is born, the active part of the brain is the brainstem. During the first six months, higher regions of the brain including the cerebellum start developing to control movement and expand their motor skills (crawling, walking, lifting their head).

In The Well Balanced Child, it describes one of the tasks of early childhood is to build neural connections within the brain to connect the “learning dots.” For instance, if your child skips developmental milestones or is delayed, it could be why they experience gaps in learning. The links between higher and lower regions are important, but forming connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain (creative and organizational) are even more critical. This is why crossing the midline exercises are so important for your child’s learning development.

The development of higher functioning skills (reasoning, reading, language, problem solving, critical thinking) in the prefrontal cortex or frontal lobe cannot work in the classroom if your child’s lower systems that control automatic movement, emotions and survival impulses are not working properly. And, it doesn’t end there. The consistent use of the lower systems for sensory stimulation, motor skills, visual, vestibular and proprioception (balance and movement) and positive emotional experiences directly affects your child’s attention, focus, fidgeting, behavior, social skills and critical thinking in school.

This development all takes place within six months to three and a half years of your child’s life. Jean Piaget, clinical psychologist who developed the Piaget theory, described this crucial term as the sensorimotor period. During this time, the cerebellum is the all-star in the brain and is what regulates your child’s movement, balance and coordination. The cerebellum kick starts what we call muscle memory, even though it has no cognitive memory of its own. These skills are developed through practice of motor movements such as kicking a ball, picking up and throwing an object, playing an instrument, and building structures with blocks. As these muscle memories develop, they build neural connections for higher learning. The cerebellum is linked to the brain’s involvement of memorizing the alphabet and multiplication tables.

Exercises to Help Lower Brain Levels

As you monitor your child’s development, if you notice your child has issues with their sensory, auditory, vestibular, or visual systems, which prevent them from fully developing, they will need exercises to help their learning behavior, attention and focus, and fidgeting in the classroom. Without these exercises, you may continue to notice delays in your child’s learning or side effects that can cause toe walking, W-sitting, bedwetting, poor balance and coordination, underdeveloped vestibular and proprioceptive systems, and trouble with motor planning. If your child struggles with any number of these issues, it could be an indication that the nervous system is underdeveloped.

This article is from "Integrated Learning Strategies Learning Corner" website. Click here to read the full article

Danni Ridley

Centre Director

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