Early Childhood Modelling
In this series of Newsletters we are examining the impact the early childhood environment has on the expression of behaviour in later life. We do this with an emphasis on those factors that contribute to the development of displayed dysfunctional behaviours. In the last Newsletter we discussed the impact neglect has on a child’s future disruptive actions. In this we move on to the second cause of the destructive, dysfunctional conduct that interfere with the teaching and learning in our classrooms – the modelling of behaviour.
Our species has an extraordinary ability to imitate the behaviour of others. This has allowed us to learn new behaviours just through watching others display particular actions. This capacity is well known in all areas of teaching and particularly in coaching sport. Demonstrations enhance the speed in which students or players learn to perform new skills.
What is really significant is that there is a considerable amount of imitation that takes place in the early years of development. The celebrated child psychologist Jean Piaget observed the ability of infants to mimic the behaviours they observed in their caregivers. This early work has been extended but not disputed by Andy Meltzoff author of ‘How Babies Think: the Science if Childhood’ (published by Weidenfielf & Nicholson – 1999). He first observed what is a frequently sighted example of this when he described a new-born baby’s ability to poke out their tongue in response to their caregiver poking out their tongue, a demonstration of how infants were able to imitate behaviour only a few hours after their birth. This is an example of the actions of mirror neurons!
Mirror neurons were first observed at the University of Parma in 1996 when a group of neuroscientists were busily mapping the neural pathways associated with hand movement in Macaque monkeys. The team of Rizzolatta, Gallese, and Fogassi uncovered what is potentially the most significant neurological component in human behaviour for our understanding of learning.
The discovery was made by accident. The breakthrough came when Fogassi returned to the laboratory and casually picked up a raisin from an experimental bowl. A Macaque monkey, who was still wired to electrodes used in the planned experiment was observing Fogassi and as he lifted his hand, the neural activity being tracked in the monkey’s brain displayed the same neural activity as if the monkey itself was reaching for the raisin, yet the monkey had not moved.
After replicating the experiment several times, the researchers realized that something new and significant had accidentally been uncovered. As a result of the series of papers following this discovery, the active neurons became known as mirror neurons. Subsequent research is progressively validating the significance of motor neurons, and they are shown to be present in most primates. In humans, they are particularly abundant and complicated.
More supporting evidence of the significance of mirror neurons emerged when Gallese and Rizzolatte found that when people listen to sentences describing actions, the same motor neurons fire as would have had the subject performed the action themselves or witnessed it being performed. The cells responded to an abstract representation that described a visual or visceral state. This infers that watching others as well as listening to them influences the creation and the alteration of memories.
The existence of mirror neurons can explain:
- How we learn through mimicry, this is the heart of this essay.
- How we develop empathy, there is an inverse relationship between the display of dysfunctional behaviours of damaged children, particularly those who attract the diagnosis of Conduct Disorder and Oppositional, Defiant Disorder.
- Acquisition of physical skills, as mentioned above in regards to coaching sport.
- Language – the early effort to speak are manifested in the child’s attempts to reproduce the sound of the language prior to any attempt to communicate content.
We have to keep in mind that our brain’s primary purpose is to allow us to predict what will happen when we are confronted with a threatening or potentially supportive situation in the environment. In early childhood we are building the store of memories that we will refer to later in life; mirror neurons accommodate this predictive requirement.
In 2005, Iacoboni described two types of motor neurons: ones that respond to observed actions and ones that fire in response to the perceived purpose of that action. Iacoboni had volunteers watch films of people reaching for various objects in a dinner setting (teapot, cup, jug, plate of pastries, napkins) in different contexts. In every instance a basic set of neurons associated with the reaching for the setting fired, but different additional sets of mirror neurons would also fire depending on what expected action was suggested by the setting. For example, neatly set tables prepared for tea versus a setting that looked as though tea had been finished had disparate results. In the first instance, as the observer expected the person to pick up a teacup to drink, one set of neurons fired. However, if the viewer expected the hand to pick up a cup to clean it, another set fired. The interpreted purpose came from the arrangement of the objects, so consequent responses were different. It has also been recognised that children acquire this ability to predict outcomes by their observations of their caregiver’s actions; this is another benefit of imitating them.
Studies have revealed that parent-child interactions have shown that parents instinctively reflect their children’s actions, emotions and facial expressions back to them even before they are not yet able to imitate. This is a type of reinforcement of a connection between actions and the observed outcomes, if the infant smiles that smile will be reflected back.
From the above observations it becomes obvious that the behaviour of a child that sits in your classroom is a reflection of the home in which they were raised. A child’s parents is the greatest predictor of success or failure. This is because they:
- Imitate the behaviour of their parents. If the parent is forbidding, gloomy, threatening then the child will develop these traits.
- When the child displays the behaviour practiced in the home they will be reinforced.
In a sense a child being raised in these conditions learns to behave in ways that are functional in their early childhood, dysfunctional environment, that is the parent’s behaviour is offending to conventional social norms and when the child adopts these behaviours for other situations, such as in the classroom these behaviours will be dysfunctional!
There is a caveat to this model and that is about children raised by parents whose behaviour is chaotic, extremely unpredictable. In these environments there is no consistent model to imitate and so there is no template for their behaviour. This is a common problem for children raised by caregivers who are addicted, especially to mind-altering drugs. These kids are also most likely to display dysfunctional behaviours but for different but connected reasons. These impediments to the development of successful students will be discussed in a later Newsletter.
In the words of James Baldwin the American author and activist “children have never been good at listening to their elders but they never fail to imitate them”.