How does going to school change your brain?

Ron Porter,  pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
Ron Porter, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

I still remember my first day of school, at least in part because I have a photo to mark the occasion. I am standing on the sidewalk outside my house with my brother and a friend, wearing a brand-new school uniform, looking… worried. Time that I had spent on free play was now largely going to be replaced by time spent sitting quietly and listening to my teacher.

The transition to formal schooling can be quite an adjustment. After all, formal schooling is not something that we take to naturally; it is only a recent human invention. What’s needed to sit still in the classroom and pay attention are self-regulatory skills. The importance of developing these skills is highlighted by a study in which researchers have followed over 1000 children from a town in New Zealand for over three decades.

The researchers showed that adults who had had poor self-regulation as young children were less likely than their peers to have graduated from high school, be in good health, and have a stable job and good wages – and were more likely to have spent time in prison. The higher the skill level, the better the life outcome.

Intriguingly, the early school years coincide with a big improvement in children’s self-regulatory skills. Why is this the case? Is it simply that we put children in school at an age when they tend to have matured enough to benefit from it, or does schooling itself accelerate the process of cognitive development?

Finding out more about the impact of starting first grade

Does going to school constitute a sufficiently big shift in children’s experiences to alter the course of their brain development? After all, attending school is an immersive and intensive experience that could reasonably be expected to have an impact on a child’s development. Curiously, this is largely an open question: How does going to school change you?

Although this is an important question, it is difficult to study. One cannot, after all, randomly assign some children to attend school and others to forego an education. However, some researchers have cleverly taken advantage of the fact that children of a similar age start school at different times, sometimes because of school regulations. Capitalizing on such arbitrary regulations, researchers develop ‘school cut-off’ study designs, wherein they can compare the development of children who are just old enough to enroll in first grade with those who just barely missed the cut-off.

“Is it simply that we put children in school at an age when they tend to have matured enough to benefit from it, or does schooling itself accelerate the process of cognitive development?”

This approach enables us to ask: Does attending first grade improve children’s self-regulation, and underlying brain activity? Garvin Brod and Yee Lee Shing conducted a large school cut-off design study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, and I had the opportunity to collaborate with them to address this key question. Drs. Brod and Shing collected behavioral and brain imaging data in kindergarteners and first-graders of a similar age, both at the beginning and end of the school year.

At the beginning of the year, the two groups of children performed similarly on computerized tests of self-regulation, and showed similar patterns of brain activation. By the end of the year, though, the first-graders were better at following task rules and showed greater activation in the right parietal cortex, a brain region that is important for maintaining attentional focus.

The upsides and downsides of formal education

These results should not be taken to mean that the elementary school setting is necessarily better for a young child’s development than kindergarten – and, certainly, schools vary widely in their teaching practices. Children seem to learn most readily in hands-on, interactive learning environments – that is, when they are actively engaged, rather than sitting passively and listening to a teacher.

As author Diane Ackerman puts it, “play is our brain’s favorite way of learning” – and the American Academy of Pediatrics has called the decline of playtime in schools a national crisis. Some developmental psychologists have proposed that learning to follow rules and control one’s behavior stifles children’s creativity and initiative.

“It might be good for children to learn to follow the rules before they begin to break them.”

On the other hand, researchers who study creativity often argue that the type of divergent thinking that leads to innovation hinges on attentional focus and cognitive flexibility – in other words, it might be good for children to learn to follow the rules before they begin to break them.

So, how does going to school change the brain – for better and for worse? We have only just begun to answer this question.

Much more work will need to be done to evaluate the effects of different educational approaches, and we’ll need to look not only at self-regulation but also at many other facets of the developing child. If I could meet the five-year-old version of me who was nervous about the first day of school, I would comfort her with the thought that going to school would actually change her brain.

Does One Year of Schooling Improve Children’s Cognitive Control and Alter Associated Brain Activation? Garvin Brod, Silvia A. Bunge, and Yee Lee Shing. Association for Psychological Science, article published online in Psychological Science: May 10, 2017