How you can boost your child’s cognitive abilities

How your toddler maps her surroundings reveals much about her, her behaviour and yours as well. Here’s what you need to know. By Kim Bell

Our visual working memory is what allows us to make short-term mental maps of our surroundings. According to the American Psychological Association, psychologist John Spencer of the Delta Center, University of Iowa, and his colleagues have looked at the visual working memory as it develops. As Spencer shares: “It’s important for gluing our perception of the world together.”

Your three-year-old can keep an average of 1.3 items in this visual working memory at any one time. Children’s brains, says Spencer, do things differently to adult brains. “As adults remember a mounting number of items, activity in this network increases before it levels off at about four objects – the working-memory limit for mature brains.”

However, the researchers found that activity in this area continues to increase in children, even when they are presented with more objects than they can keep in their visual working brain. “As new information comes into children’s brains, it may disrupt the data they’re already holding in working memory. There’s a lot of chaos in the three-year-old brain.”

The importance of this research is more than just advancing our understanding of how a child’s memory develops as this can help in picking up attention problems in young children. Certain signatures or markers have been found in those brains of children who tended to hold more items in their working memory, which signalled more activity in the right front cortex. This may serve as early warning signs of attention deficit disorder, as those children who are easily distracted, tend to have lower working memory scores.

ALSO SEE: Everything you need to know about attention hyperactivity disorder

A further study, this one led by Stanford University, has found a child’s ability to regulate their attention, behaviour and emotions are also linked to their capacity to cope with difficult situations.

Stanford Graduate School of Education Professor Jelena Obradović explains: “We chose to study executive functions because they’re an important set of skills that promote adaptation and resilience.”

Professor Obradović heads up the Spark Lab at Stanford, a project that looks at the impact of adversity on children’s learning and wellbeing.  She believes that executive functions have become a good marker for children’s capabilities.

These executive function skills help your child to control her impulses, ignore distractions, remember relevant information and shift between those demands for her attention. Studies in high-income countries have linked strong executive function skills to lower levels of behavioural and emotional problems and stronger academic skills as your child grows. However, this latest study has identified several factors that appear to promote these skills in those children from developing countries that have high rates of poverty, malnutrition and infectious disease.

ALSO SEE: How childhood trauma affects the developing brain and what you can do to help

One of the elements that is of benefit, is good nutrition, as this is related to brain development, but equally so, good nutrition, particularly in the first two years, helps children develop self-regulatory capacities.

Another element is family and in particular a mother’s parenting behaviour, such as verbal support, information and problem-solving strategies.

This supports research out of Brigham Young University, which has found that mothers with high emotional cognitive control can benefit their child’s behaviour. “When you lose control of your life, that impacts how you parent,” said lead author Ali Crandall, assistant professor of public health at Brigham Young University. “That chaos both directly and indirectly influences your child’s behaviour.”

Our children become our mirrors, acting out their own frustrations in line with our own.

Clear signals are when we are distracted, irritable or tired. We need to learn to recognise these signs and give ourselves a “time-out”.

“Getting enough sleep, exercising enough and eating well are all things that impact our executive functioning,”  Professor Crandall said. “We should create healthy environments that help us operate at our best.” This will not only be of benefit to ourselves but our children as well.

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