NATHAN WALLIS IS OFTEN ASKED how he got his start on the road to becoming what he is today: a developmental neuropsychologist. (Now that’s a mouthful!)
After an early apprenticeship as a babysitter (which began his quest to unlock the mysteries of human behaviour), he studied human development – which led to his first career: a primary school teacher. It was here he realised that he liked working with naughty kids … which sent him back to university to learn about them! He got a master’s degree in child psychology and worked as a child trauma specialist, which got him interested in all the ‘brain stuff’.
He then retrained as an early childhood teacher, because research at the time was revealing the importance of brain development in kids. However, he tells us he didn’t last long in ECE – “I realised what hard work it is, with low pay, and little professional development available … so I became a university lecturer for 15 years, because that was way easier!”
Now an experienced developmental neuroscientist and highly sought-after speaker, Nathan has graciously agreed to share his insight in an ongoing series for Grapevine. In this edition, he shares about The Early Years.
On setting babies up for good brain development and wellbeing:
What parents need to know is that the connection between them and their baby is the real gold – THAT’s what drives brain development. It’s not supposed to be complicated – it’s about quality interaction: slowing down to your baby’s pace … making eye contact with them … imitating their facial expressions and being responsive.
Don’t stress about flashcards, or exposing them to different languages. Just remember: the more you can get down and create that intimate zone between you and your baby in the first year of life, the better all their outcomes will be in adulthood.
I tell Dads, especially (as they sometimes struggle with how to interact with their infants) the research shows that the more words you speak to your baby in that first year, the more money they’re earning at 32!
On the toddler years:
My top tip for toddlers is to give them to their grandparents as often as you can. It’s such a win-win. Your toddlers are thrilled … their grandparents are thrilled … and you get a break!
I know how hard the toddler years are. I still find that stage challenging. But as an encouragement, remember that, as they get older, they’ll become more logical and more reasonable – just don’t expect it to happen at once!
There’s no point trying to plead with a toddler to see reason because they simply can’t. What’s more useful – because they’re in their limbic system (their emotional brain) – is to teach them how to label their emotions. When their emotion is heard, they feel heard, and that helps them calm down.
On choosing childcare or an Early Childhood Education Centre:
I realise this is a complicated decision for families. But, in general if a child’s under three, they’re better off in home-based care – because that one-on-one relationship with a carer is the number one driver of their development at that stage of life. Peers don’t really become important until after that.
In terms of choosing a childcare centre for your child aged 3-6, definitely select a play-based centre. Parents are often tempted to choose somewhere that makes them feel their child’s clever – which they do when their child can read and write early, for instance. But what’s far more likely to actually improve your child’s success in life is for them to feel clever. So you’re better off having a six-year-old who can only count to 20 but thinks they’re a good learner, than a six-year-old who can count to 100, knows how to write his name, knows the alphabet, but thinks “I’m not quite as clever as I should be …”
On preparing kids for school:
Play is far more important to a child’s academic success than you’d think. The needs of kids at four, five and six years are largely social and emotional needs. So, if you understand the research, getting your kids ready for school isn’t about getting them to learn their colours and numbers; it’s about them being confident enough to have an opinion … about them being able to apply themselves to something … about persevering for longer periods of time, even when it gets difficult!
And those skills will be better learnt in a self-directed play-based project than they will doing schoolwork.
Imagine a group of kids at a Playcentre trying to dam a stream. They’ll probably focus on that project for about three hours, and it’ll require them to be little scientists – testing out ideas about how to build that dam, trying one idea and, when that fails, trying another idea. This process involves perseverance, collaboration with others, and autonomy in their work on the project – and these are the things that set someone up to be a life-long learner.
On building resilience:
To build resilience means to allow creative thinking. A black-and-white thinker produces one answer, and that’s either right or wrong. The End. But if you want someone who’s able to provide multiple answers – creativity is essential! When you ask “What colour is this?” or “What number is this?” you’re focused on getting a specific answer – but children under eight need their brains stimulated to make them creative.
If I’ve got two five-year-olds in the back of the car and I say, “I wonder why the sky’s blue …” one of them might say, “Because blue is the first visible colour in the light spectrum.” That’s the correct answer – but the five-year-old probably doesn’t really understand why. They’re just parroting back something they’ve been taught. And, from a cognitive point of view, it’s not that intelligent – an actual parrot could be taught to say the same thing.
But another child – maybe one who’s come from a free-play environment – might say, “The sky’s blue be-caaauuuse …”
and you can tell from the long way he says ‘because’ that he’s making it up as he goes, “… because this whole world’s a dream I’m having, and in the dream I’m me but I’m also the sky, and I said can I have an ice block and you said no it’s nearly lunchtime, and that made me sad, so I’m blue – and so’s the sky!”
Now, that’s not at all why the sky’s blue – the answer’s absolutely incorrect – but from a human development point of view, I’d put all of my KiwiSaver on that second five-year-old being able to support me in my old age! A five-year-old who’s got that ability to be creative, to think on the spot, has got what it takes to succeed. And research shows that after the age of eight we can’t tell whether a child learned to read at seven or at four – there’s no difference. So it doesn’t set you up for a lifetime of success by learning to read early.
In fact (and this sounds harsh), the only thing that the research indicates you’re likely to do by getting your child to read early, is to increase his or her chances of experiencing anxiety and depression as a teenager. It’s far more likely that his ‘success’ at reading or whatever has come at the cost of your child learning problem solving, cooperation, perseverance, and all those social-emotional skills.
NATHAN WALLIS HAS DEVELOPED A REPUTATION AS A LIVELY AND ENGAGING SPEAKER. HIS HUMOUR AND PLAIN LANGUAGE MAKE THE COMPLEX TOPIC OF NEUROSCIENCE BURST INTO LIFE! FIND HIM ON FACEBOOK AND LOOK FOR AN EVENT NEAR YOU …