Is a child's learning ability set at a certain age?

I was always told that a child's personality and capacity for learning is determined by the age of three. Recently I have heard that this theory is being challenged. What is your opinion?


Personality and capacity for learning are somewhat different areas. In this response, we will look briefly at personality and more in depth at learning capacity.

Studies of temperament or personality currently show these to be inborn traits, already established by the time a child is born. However, how a person learns to understand or manage their temperament is a lifelong process which begins in childhood. For instance, people who like order and predictability and who are slow to adjust to change, may as children, learn ways to manage transitions which will serve them a lifetime. ("If I keep my teddy bear in the car to welcome me, it will be easier for me to leave the park when it is time to go.")

People who don't learn these kinds of techniques when they are young may grow up feeling that the world is an uncertain and scary place. The same holds true for all temperaments. The more children learn about working with their own temperaments, the more flexible and balanced they will be.

In order to look at a child's capacity for learning, we need to take into consideration a complex set of factors. We know that an infant's brain is not fully developed by the time she is born. It continues to develop throughout her infancy. Brain development is influenced not just by biological factors, but also by environmental and experiential factors. We know that high levels of unmitigated stress (either pre or postnatal) can cause the release of chemicals which impair the growth and maturation of the brain.

We also know that there is a strong link between emotional and cognitive development. Babies need to feel safe, loved and trusting in order to be able to focus their attentions on intellectual pursuits. When a baby has to spend all of his time and energy working to establish a sense of trust in the world, there isn't energy left over for the important hands-on exploration and discovery so important to the development of intelligence. As well, a child needs to feel safe enough in the world to take the risk of venturing out to learn new things.

We know that the first three years of life are extremely important in a person's development. So much physical brain development is happening during these years, as is the development of a child's sense of herself as a capable learner. It is crucial that we as families and members of society work to provide for children's critical needs during these years.

However, because human beings are incredibly resourceful and adaptable, it would be difficult to say that a person's capacity to learn is fully determined by the age of three or even by the end of childhood. While it may be much more difficult and costly to learn certain things after the optimal stage has passed, with support and effort, people have overcome early obstacles.

Here are some ideas for supporting children's learning in the first three years:

  • Babies need nurturing, consistent, responsive adults. In the first year, babies need to learn that their emotional and physical needs will be met. They need to know that they are capable of influencing the world around them ("I smile and everywhere I turn people smile back at me." "I cry and someone comes to help me.") They need a consistent enough environment so that they can begin to predict whose face will appear when they wake up from their nap and the ways they will be comforted when they feel upset. They need adults who know how to read their communication cues and who communicate back. They need adults who can slow down and get into their rhythm.
  • Babies and young children need a chance to be active explorers in the world. Babies learn by touching, mouthing, seeing, hearing and smelling the world around them. They learn by experimenting and by making things happen. They learn by trial and error and by making mistakes. They learn through their interactions with the people who care for them. They learn by being allowed to move freely in a safe environment. Adults are responsible for creating safe environments and materials for babies to explore and for providing supervision, attention and responsive interaction.
  • Babies and young children need encouragement and appreciation of their mistakes, as well as their successes. As "hands on" learners young children often can't predict what is going to be a successful experiment and what is not. However, it is essential that they feel comfortable to keep trying things. Instead of penalizing them for their mistakes, it is important to redirect their exploration so that they will still have a confident feeling about their learning: "It hurts when you pull the cat's tail. You can touch the cat softly or we can go find fuzzy tiger and pull its tail."
  • Young children need people who will advocate for them. Babies can't call their legislators or write letters to the editor. They need adults who understand the importance of the early years and are willing to work to create a world that supports their healthy development.
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