Annie Keeling: How young children learn |

Annie Keeling: How young children learn

Annie Keeling, MFA

Sometimes young children seem like a separate species from the adults who parent them. Conflict can occur just because the parent and child see the world very differently.

This is partly due to the way the brain develops, creating certain learning tendencies and preferences in young children.


The relationship between brain structure and function is never simple, and even elementary mental activities involve multiple brain regions. I'll simplify here so you can follow along regardless of your knowledge about that gray matter inside our heads.

The early years between 0-6 are critical for brain development. Each brain structure is in place at birth but not fully developed in size and function. The brain grows from the bottom up — from the least complex (hindbrain and brainstem) to the more complex areas (cerebral cortex and frontal lobe).


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— The hindbrain, including the brainstem, is the only area of the brain that is almost fully developed at birth.

— The cerebral cortex, slower to develop, contains 80 percent of the neurons in the brain.

— A 3-year-old toddler's brain is twice as active as an adult's brain


The hind and midbrain house structures that regulate automatic processes like breathing and swallowing, as well as stress responses of fight, flight or freeze. That is why a young child's reaction to, well, almost everything seems to happen on a large scale … as if their very life depends on the outcome. The smallest disappointment or thwarted action can feel, to the child, like their existence is in danger.

How Parents Can Help:

Peaceful, playful. One of the best reactions is not to react. Parents are often triggered by their child's emotions. When parents respond to a child's big emotion with another big emotion, this usually creates chaos and division. The healthier goal is to create an environment of safety and connection. Children often respond better to humor and play, rather than yelling and anger.

Safe Environment vs. The Happy Dance. Many parents will try to do anything to keep their child from experiencing what they perceive as a negative emotion. This can be termed 'The Happy Dance' as the parent cajoles, bribes, gives in, or conforms to their child's desire — anything to keep them happy even if it goes against the parent's better judgment. Instead, try on the view that the parent's job is to keep the environment safe and not "fix" their child's emotion. This includes physical safety (baby proofing, teaching rules of safety, etc.) as well as creating an environment where kids can explore their emotions safely.


In general, the left and right hemispheres of our brain process information in diverse ways. The small child's brain develops preferences of the intuitive right brain earlier than the more logical left.

Left Brain Preferences (develops more slowly): Logic, rules, think in words, facts, linear thinking, mathematics

Right Brain Preferences (often predominant in early childhood): Creativity, chaos, think in pictures, feelings, motor skills, arts

How Parents Can Help:

The right brain tends to like the non-verbal, visual approach. Keep this in mind as we look at a variety of suggestions to "talk" to this part of the brain without words.

Movement. When a child is upset, distracted, anxious or having difficulty learning, channel the energy into action: jumping jacks, bounce on a trampoline, hands-on exploration, twirl a scarf, run around the kitchen, push the wall, etc. Movement helps stress hormones move along more quickly.

Touch. Human touch is vital to healthy brain development. Proprioception — which is the sense of where one's body is in space — is an important kinesthetic skill that is encouraged through touch. For example, it's important for a baby to be held, especially when crying. Loving touch through hugs, holding hands, the sitting-in-lap connection, massage and wrestling, tumbling floor play are some of the best ways to connect in with your child's right brain.

Music. Use a favorite song to sing good-bye when you leave the park, give directions to get in the car seat, or ease a difficult diaper change. (Plus, it's hard to be angry or frustrated when YOU sing.) While it calms you, music will also calm your child. This is an all-around win!

Breathing. Smell a flower. Blow a bubble. Teach a child slow, deep breaths in through the nose, as if smelling a flower on the end of her index finger. Then she can hold an imaginary bubble wand to her lips as she blows out — as if trying to whistle. Another great method is taking 5 slow breaths. Use a finger to count off each breath. The visual of the finger and the kinesthetic action of moving each one appeals to right brain development.

Sign Language. If the right brain likes pictures, then sign language is a bridge between images and words. Since kids can usually sign before they can talk, this decreases communication frustrations. Learn some basic sign language for common concepts or expectations. Milk, Sleepy, Hungry, Potty, More, All Done, and Stop are especially useful.

Draw it Out. Draw out (or use photos, Google Images, etc.) to show what you want to communicate to your child. Children as young as 18 months can understand that you are trying to teach them something using a picture. One mother was having trouble warding off the continual snack requests she received throughout the day, especially for sweet treats like yogurt. She made snack cards and gave them to her son. He could turn in a snack card throughout the day but there was only one of each snack he could choose. The visuals helped him have a tangible understanding of what the mother wanted him to learn.

Learn more about these techniques and others to better teach and communicate with your child in the upcoming six-week Foundation for Parenting Class taught locally at The Nest, starting April 23 (see box).

More Resources: To find out more about the benefits of touch or learn new connection games, see this article on the Start Small Parenting website: To find out more about how music aids parenting, see this article:

Annie Keeling of Grass Valley teaches parenting classes at The Nest. Connect with Keeling at or 530-210-1100.


WHAT: Foundation for Parenting class for parents of young children

WHEN: Sundays, 3 to 5 p.m., 6 weeks, April 23 – June 4(Skip May 21)

WHERE: The Nest, 107 W. Main St., Grass Valley


COST: $80 person / $120 per couple

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