Álvaro Bilbao


"To maximize a child's potential, it is essential to help them feel safe"

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We know that the components in children's brains don't process information in the same way as the components in adults' brains. There is a part that would be the primitive brain, which is for the child's survival and is the part of the brain that tells the child when they are hungry, sleepy, have to defend themselves against a stimulus or protect themselves when they are alone. This part of the brain helps us to survive and is what children use when they're babies. That's why it's so important to help small children to feel safe, to know that we'll look after them when they're scared, that they'll be well-fed and that we'll make sure they can sleep when they're tired, rather than making them stay awake. It's essential that they feel safe.

The second half of the brain is what is called the emotional brain. During the first years of life, this is a very important, fundamental part of the brain that lets children communicate their most basic survival instincts to their intellectual mind. If a child develops well, when they're an adult they will be able to channel their thoughts, emotions and actions in the same direction. And for that reason it is very important to educate children's emotional world during these early years. The brain is a bit like a tree: the primitive, survival-based part grows first, then the structures involving emotions develop, followed by the intellect-based part. However, if no effort has been made to help a child feel secure or to look after their emotional well-being, they will not be able to fully develop. A child will have plenty of time to learn Japanese, Chinese or math when they're older. What's important when they're young is that they grow up in a family where they feel safe and that they won't have to pay for their mistakes. All parents should be mindful of these very simple, but really important concepts.

There are many alternatives to punishments, which are a lot more pedagogical and which allow children to learn a lot more. The first of them would be to establish limits. This means explaining to a child what you don't want them to do before they do it. That way, the child does not develop certain neurocerebral connections or patterns that could lead them to repeat such negative behavior. By pausing to think before something happens, you can prevent it from taking place. That's why it's important to set limits. These limits can become rules. The difference between a rule and a punishment is that the punishment happens after an event has taken place, whereas a rule is usually established beforehand. These rules can start to apply to the whole family from the time a child is three or four. That means that when a child misbehaves, you can speak to them and reach an agreement whereby they acknowledge, realize or understand that their behavior is not acceptable. For example, a few days ago my children started arguing when they were watching TV. I was cooking at the time, so I went to the TV room and told them that I didn't like them arguing and asked them not to start arguing again. Two minutes later, they were arguing again, so I called everyone into the kitchen and we had a small meeting where I told them that it was not OK to argue because of the TV and that, in my opinion, the TV is something to be enjoyed and that they can't go around shouting and getting so angry. I then asked them how they could resolve the situation. What they said was that I could turn the TV off if they started shouting. They came up with this solution really quickly and they were very happy with it. However, what none of us could foresee was that in five minutes they would start fighting again. When this happened, I went into the room and said, “OK, so you're fighting again and, as the rule is that I can turn off the TV if you fight, we have to turn off the TV." That haven't argued about the TV since. Actually, they have argued because I've heard them; however, they've done so very quietly and in a way that you might call 'reaching an agreement'.

"For a child's brain to fully develop, they have to be encouraged to make their own decisions and learn from their mistakes"

We know that leaving children to make decisions helps them to develop an area of the frontal lobe that helps to more effectively problem solve, because we let children make mistakes and learn from them. However, we also know that when children are overprotected, the brain's ability to fully develop is restricted. Studies also show that children whose parents protect them too much end up making worse decisions when they're older. That's why I wholeheartedly agree with our Scandinavian friends who set few, but important, limits. When a child is six months old and starts to crawl it's important to establish limits such as not touching a bottle of bleach, because a child can't yet understand why this might be a bad idea. Then, when they're a bit older it's a good idea to set limits about using new technologies, although, you should let them decide how long to use a device for. In Scandinavian countries, you won't hear a parent tell their child to "Finish your food," because a child (and more specifically, their brain) is perfectly capable of knowing how much food to eat. Children from these countries are allowed to choose their own clothes and dress themselves each morning, provided they do so in accordance with the temperature. For example, they wouldn't be allowed to wear a miniskirt with no tights in the middle of January or put a woolen jumper on in August. Leaving these subtleties to one side however, it's thought that it is really helpful to their development if they're allowed to make these decisions themselves.

Parents are expected to play with their kids, and playtime is also encouraged in the classroom. Using games in educational activities and making class work entertaining and interactive so as to generate a positive emotion helps children to learn. Playing is very important for child development because it is the natural way for our brain to learn. Through games, children learn about social rules and how to interact with others. By playing, children also naturally learn the psychomotor skills required for development so they can use a pen, hold a conversation and convey what they are thinking through physical movement. We know that games are essential to development. However, they also enable children to participate in situations that are different to those they experience every day, which allows them to practice different types of behavior.

Children from cultures that eat dinner very late might not feel like going to bed when they should. But it is also important to understand that sleep is essential. When children are eight years old, a lack of sleep won't seem to make much difference to their ability to learn and concentrate at school. However, it's still a good idea to establish a good night time routine to help them fall asleep quickly. We know that the human brain needs at least eight hours sleep a night. Neither teenagers, nor small children should watch stories on their cell phones directly before going to sleep, as the type of light emitted by these devices delays the release of the hormone melatonin in the brain, which is required for the body to pass from being awake to being asleep. Failing to follow this advice could result in a vicious circle of sleep deprivation. Therefore, a basic piece of advice for parents who want their children to go to sleep earlier is to ban the use of electronic devices after dinner time.

Doctor of Health Psychology and neuropsychologist trained at Johns Hopkins Hospital (Baltimore) and the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability (London). Mr. Bilbao also wrote the book "How a child's brain works, an explanation for parents", which has become a best-seller in numerous countries, He also works with the World Health Organization (WHO).