Summary of Céline Alvarez’s book the natural laws of children: In this book, Céline presents her scientific and experimental approach and shows with great simplicity that it is possible to guide children to thrive and grow harmoniously in their environment in the most natural way possible. She describes how to do this in a simple and concrete manner.
By Céline Alvarez, 2016, 448 pages.
Note: This is a guest chronicle written by Rahma Aoujil from the blog Comprendre et vivre about the stages in child development from birth to adulthood and up to old age.
Chronicle and summary of the book The natural laws of children:
Introduction: Who is Céline Alvarez?
Céline Alvarez was born in 1983 in Argenteuil in France, where she grew up. She is the author of the book The natural laws of children, a speaker and a trained linguist. Céline studied the works of Dr Jean Itard, Dr Edouard Séguin and Dr Maria Montessori. She passed the test to become a schoolteacher and went to teach in Neuilly-sur-Seine at the Jean-Lurçat pre-school in Gennevilliers in 2011.
Her school board granted her a free hand in how she chose to educate and teach over 3 years. During this period, she began to practice the method she goes on to describe in detail, along with all her conclusions in The natural laws of children.
Céline Alvarez introduces us to the wonderful and touching experience she had in Gennevilliers from September 2011 to June 2014. She then exposes what she learned from this human and scientific experiment.
The natural laws of children is in four parts:
- The importance of nourishing the extraordinarily plastic intelligence of children in the first years of their life by providing them with a quality, rich, dynamic and complex environment and also allowing them to be active and to perform activities that motivate them.
- The importance of helping children to organise and self-appropriate all the information they perceive from the outside world. This is accomplished through educational materials that present the basics of geography, music, language or mathematics.
- The importance of allowing children to develop their embryonic potential at the time they seek to develop it.
- The importance of the human bond. Social interactions that are varied, warm, empathic and caring are one of the most important levers for the full blossoming of human intelligence.
Part 1 of the book The natural laws of children: The plasticity of human intelligence.
1. Brain plasticity
We are born with a “premature” brain, but we are ready to develop all the characteristics we will need thanks to an innate predisposition.
The great cerebral immaturity of children.
As the human brain progresses with its environment, the environment will positively or negatively influence the development of its potential for intelligence and humanity. So there is no genetic fatality!
The daily life of children structures their brain.
From birth to 5 years old, 700 to 1000 new connections are made every second. The brain structures itself in direct relation to its experiences in the world. The least used connections, the ones that encode experiences repeated least often, will progressively weaken and be eliminated. On the other hand, the connections used most often that encode the most frequent experiences of a child, will strengthen. This leads to a great capacity for adaptation and specialisation in relation to their environment.
Being close to children means contributing to their cerebral specialisation.
The way we behave in our daily lives, our way of speaking and reacting, what we do with them or in front of them, will literally contribute to how their brains are wired. The little things that we don’t pay attention to directly structure, without any filter, the abilities and behaviours of our children. We must be careful to speak properly, in a heightened way, to see our children express themselves properly. This is also a way to develop in children a complex, logical, rich, accurate and structured way of thinking.
The critical period of the first 2 years.
Most of the wiring and specialisation of the human brain takes place between the ages of 0 and 2 years old. Taking language for example, specialisation can take place up to the age of 9 months.
The need for a loving environment.
Above all, children need a caring environment at all ages.
Children learn just by living.
At just 1 year of age, a child is able to do an enormous number of things effortlessly, thanks to their extraordinary plastic learning mechanism. They learn to speak intuitively as well as social and physical rules. At this age, they don’t need academic teaching. They come to the world with a natural ability for self-education, simply by living and interacting with the world. Every time a child observes or explores attentively, their brain reorganises itself. Some cerebral connections create themselves and others are eliminated. The knowledge previously obtained through their experiences is updated in the light of their new discoveries.
2. The natural laws of learning
Thanks to the active experiences repeated by children, plastic intelligence accumulates and encodes a great amount of information. On the basis of all these data, it can infer probabilities.
This, in a quite unconscious manner, allows children to rapidly be able to predict the probability of a social, linguistic or physical event happening or not.
We call this powerful urge that pushes children to adjust the gap between what they know and what they don’t know “curiosity”. Adjusting their internal model and getting closer to the truth of the outside world is their priority: they must understand and perfect themselves. Neuroscientists are very clear on this point: the more curiosity there is, the more memory is active and learning performances improve.
Learning through active experimentation
When we are not actively engaged, we do not make predictions, and so we cannot adjust them. There is little to no learning. Human beings learn through doing, not listening. Nevertheless, even if human beings are wired to learn through their own activity, they are not predisposed to learn alone, without any help.
The indispensable guidance of others
The sciences of human development today highlight the indispensable social dimension of learning. Children possess extremely efficient learning software, but they need the help of others to make it work. They need the guidance of others who are more advanced than they are, who can point out to them what is important for them to look for and then take into account. And it seems also that adults are wired to respond to this need on the part of children.
Adults quite naturally take on the role of teacher from the moment a child is born. In the absence of joint attention between the adult and the child, there will be no – or very little – language learning on the child’s part. We need to erect the scaffolding. Research also shows that if our attention is too heavy-handed, it hampers exploration. If there is no space for discovery, the child will not be motivated and will not get involved in activity. Therefore, it is up to us to guide our children in a timely way that is not too invasive. We should provide the keys and let our children open the doors.
The indispensable mix of ages
It has been demonstrated that children of different ages guide each other in their exploration of the world by pointing out elements that are important to consider. They communicate their experiences and their knowledge in a natural, progressively changing and well-adapted way. Older children also quickly notice what words they are lacking when they try to help the little ones. They have to learn to be clear, adaptive, flexible, patient and empathetic. The mix of ages and this kind of horizontal approach also make it possible for all the children to encounter a greater variety of social behaviours. In this situation, they can naturally encode and come to understand the workings of social relationships in a much richer way than when they are dealing only with classmates of their own age.
Motivation has to be endogenous to be really effective; in other words, it has to come from within the individual. There is another kind of motivation that comes from outside, which is called exogenous. This is the kind of motivation that, for example, pushes us to learn something in order to get something in return: you get a good grade on a report card and the reward is a new pair of sneakers. When free to choose their own activities, the young children took a lively interest in reading, maths, geography, geometry and music. It was equal to the interest they took in painting, free play or drawing.
The importance of error
Error is an essential component of the learning process. However, it is often perceived as a fault or mistake; and we try to avoid it. This avoidance considerably inhibits the learning process. What we call an “error” and give a negative connotation to is however, the only path that leads to knowledge and expertise. To learn is to make mistakes, being aware of our wrong prediction and adjusting it. A human being who does not make mistakes does not learn. By censuring error and holding up praise for children who don’t make mistakes, we are blocking the learning process – for everyone.
The richness of the real world
We have to present children with a natural, vibrant, and dynamic environment, within which they can live with their culture, participate in daily activities, have a variety of exchanges and interactions with people of ages other than their own, play outside, and observe and study the nature around them, while at the same time satisfying their personal passions and need for daily physical activity.
Reconnecting with nature
The human brain cannot comprehend what it does not immediately experience – no description or image can replace the sensual, living spectacle of nature. Numerous studies indicate very clearly that contact with nature calms, inspires, and revivifies our minds. It alkalises organisms acidified by social and environmental stress, and develops motor and cognitive skills. It is a mood stabiliser, regulating negative emotions and even fostering the development of creativity.
A rich, but not overloaded environment
The idea of the “richness” of an environment should not be confused with one that is overflowing. If they are visually overstimulated, the children have a great deal of difficulty concentrating and end up with worse academic results. So it’s our job to find the right balance between excessive decoration and the complete absence of it.
Taking the time to do nothing and daydream
When we take the time to do nothing – that is, to look off into the distance and daydream – our brain continues to be active in a form neuroscientists call “default mode”. This default mode replays, analyses and makes inferences based on past experience. It is important to respect these times of observation, contemplation, or rest.
The importance of sleep
The main part of cerebral reorganisation takes place during sleep. Since children form a considerably larger number of neural connections during the day than adults do, they need more frequent and longer rest periods than adults do in order to sort and organise the huge amount of information gathered. Sleep, as well as the length of time for sleep required by each child, must be respected. Their sleep times correspond to a phase of brain maturation they cannot do without.
Children retain content that makes sense
The brain filters what it is going to consolidate and keep; it drops whatever makes no sense to it. Human beings seem to be unable to retain content that makes no sense.
The importance of free play
Today it is very clear that children playing freely together – rolling on the ground, running around, being rowdy – promotes healthy brain development.
The toxicity of stress
Initially, stress is a very healthy and helpful reaction on the part of the organism. It made it possible for our distant ancestors to survive. Stress, when it lasts only for a short time, makes us more agile and permits the organism to perform at a higher level. Stress becomes toxic when it is repetitive and/ or extended. It directly affects the learning centres.
For this reason, the habit of letting a baby cry until he or she “self-soothes”, with the idea of letting baby calm down alone is a very big mistake.
Verbal violence, insults, and humiliating tirades generate a kind of far-reaching stress that can even damage the neural networks connected with speech.
At the same time, it is of fundamental importance to help children progressively manage their high-intensity emotions and their stress by themselves:
- The first thing to do sounds obvious, but it cannot be over emphasised. When children are overwhelmed by an emotion – such as anger, pain, grief, anxiety, and so on – it is important to reassure them with a loving presence and comfort them.
- Once the unpleasant emotions have been soothed away by affection, it is very important to help children name what they were feeling to help them calm down still further.
Little by little, children will become increasingly capable of calming themselves on their own and will have less and less need of our help.
Our kindness generates development in our children’s moral and empathic capacity. It is a major catalyst of development.
3. The Gennevilliers example
The classroom and its furniture were standard. So they had to be adapted as much as possible.
A typical day
- Greetings, administrative details: snacks, lunches and roll call.
- The children took off their shoes on the bench in the hallway and put on their slippers. I insisted on this detail. It provided an indirect invitation to the children to centre themselves before entering the classroom, to adopt calmer and more orderly behaviour, and to consider the classroom as a warm and convivial place that they should take care of.
- They were greeted with the greatest kindness and the fullest possible attention. I took the time to greet them each individually. And I asked each one how they were and if they had slept well, I listened to what each one had to say, I helped them formulate their sentences, and I took in their emotions and their moods.
- I then asked each of the children to choose the activity they wanted to begin the day with. In order to follow the children’s progress and to create orderly conditions, this had to be an activity that had been presented to them before and whose objective was familiar to them.
Some of them needed a bit of help making their choice. If a child really didn’t know what to do, which often happened in the beginning, they could always just watch their classmates.
- Some of the children who got out of bed in a hurry needed more time to wake up. They could settle down in the library corner or at a table and take time to rest a little longer. The parents accepted this way of doing things. We explained it to them at the back-to-school parent-teacher meeting. They knew that this initial moment represented an individualised moment of entry into the teaching situation.
- When they finished an activity, they put the materials back on the shelf.
The classroom was like a happy little hive. Each child pursued an objective that motivated them, at his or her own rhythm, in his or her own way, alone or with another classmate. There was one and only rule of collective life, which we clearly and firmly recalled when needed: never disturb another person’s activity in any way, whether that other person is a child or an adult.
- At the end of the morning, around 11 o’clock, it was time for us to regroup so we could all be together. We asked the children to clear away the materials they were working with and tidy up the whole classroom if necessary so they could come and sit in a circle in the middle of the classroom.
- The afternoon was in no way different from the morning.
At the beginning of the experiment, we went out for playtime quite often, both morning and afternoon. Then gradually, nourished by the class activities, the children expressed the need to go out less and less.
- These outdoor playtimes were never routine; they depended on the children and the weather.
- The day usually ended with another group time, during which we sang and did relaxation and meditation exercises. They helped the children learn how to be present and to listen.
We were very demanding with regard to vocabulary and oral expression. I was really very strict on this point. I never missed a chance to ask the children to expand on their remarks, explaining to them the importance of using words that clearly expressed their thought.
Strong social bonding
The Gennevilliers experiment showed just how much children who spend one or a few years together create a very strong social and caring bond.
The liberated adult
The approach based on autonomy and individualisation liberates not only the child but also the adult teacher, who has a natural tendency to establish an individual, authentic and warm rapport with the children.
The adult’s approach
Her principal role is no longer to “hold” a group of children, but to create favourable conditions for learning and development, both individual and collective. A study conducted with children aged two shows that the combination of compassionate support and firmness yields the best educational results.
The adult prepares and selects activities that seem nourishing and appropriate to them. She makes sure that the children’s environment is clean and tidy. She completely individualises her scaffolding to offer each child the right level of difficulty. It must be stimulating enough for them, without ever being discouraging.
This individualisation also allows the adult to adapt to the interests, personality, doubts and difficulties of each child. The adult tracks the children’s individual progress with charts or scorecards, to optimise their guidance.
First acts of autonomy
We did not hesitate to do little demonstrations as many times as necessary, or to redirect the children’s errant actions with discreet, non-intrusive touches before they reached the point of discouragement.
It will take time, frequent repetition, and practice before their freshly created neural connections gain strength and firmly establish these movements as automatic.
A well-ordered space
In facilitating their journey toward autonomy, it is important to make sure that the children can orient and locate themselves in space. Thus, the adult also has the task of providing the children with an orderly environment in which space is clearly and logically organized. Order is conducive to the development of logical thinking, memory, planning, and cognitive flexibility.
Part 2 of the book The natural laws of children: How to teach
1. Refining sensory perceptions
Young children can acquire a large amount of information through the channel of their senses. Thus, it is very helpful to present them with activities that allow them to refine their capacity for sensory perception, but also so that they can name what they perceive. To do this in our class, we used sensory material that anyone can make use of. It was not as a final goal in itself, but as a very interesting point of departure that we should feel absolutely free to adapt to our times and the child we are working with. The material is only a means. What really counts is the child, her personality, her rhythms, her needs.
Refining sensory perceptions
Thus, one single quality at a time is highlighted in most of the activities of sensory refinement. This cognitive clarity is essential, because as we know today, the brain cannot deal with two pieces of information at the same time.
Pairing and grading
The child regroups elements having the same quality two by two. This exercise is an initial way for the child to hone and refine their perceptive abilities before going on to practice grading, which requires a greater capacity for discrimination. With the material for work with colours, children choose one colour (blue, for example) and classify its different shades from dark to bright. These graduations enable children to achieve a great deal of precision and subtlety in their visual sense and to see the external world better.
Naming perceptions with the three-period lesson
- The first period consists in naming.
- The second period consists in showing.
- Finally, the third period consists of identifying.
We provided the children with various activities to help them perceive the world with greater refinement through their visual sense. A grading system with objects (cubes, rods, cylinders…) of identical colour and different shapes.
We also worked with the children on refining their auditory perceptions through sound gradation activities. The sounds two by two, lowest pitch to highest pitch or softest sound to loudest.
Better perception through touch
The children also exercised their tactile perceptions with samples of different fabrics.
Improving smelling and tasting
We also gave the children the opportunity to hone their perception of taste and smell, but in a very vivid manner, by regularly having the children test tastes and odours during our group time.
Children refine their sense by exercising them
These activities seek to exercise children’s discrimination. The goal is not to get them to succeed immediately in pairing or grading; on the contrary, the idea is to propose an activity to them that is hard enough so that they can train their discrimination skills. When a child immediately succeeds in performing one of these activities without making any mistakes, the difficulty level is no longer high enough. They will not be able to further refine her sensory skills. In this case, another activity with a higher difficulty level should be proposed to them.
Refining perception and rediscovering the world
By suggesting that children refine and name their sensory perceptions, these materials enable children to see the world better. By using these means to refine the senses, which are the intermediaries between children and the world, we make it possible for them also to refine their intelligence and their understanding of the world.
These activities are only complementary
These materials are only a complement to the richness and variety of real life. All these very simple and natural sensory experiences are what nourish the plastic intelligence of the child in the peak stage of development, and that is what is irreplaceable. Thus the essential aspect of children’s sensory refinement takes place outside of school activities. The work of teaching here is to promote life, and to propose, by way of a complement, activities that make it possible for children to order and assimilate the sensory information they receive from them.
2. Offering culture step-by-step in a clear, sensory way
The material presented brings to light, in a concrete and evident way, abstract conceptual content that is often difficult to transmit to children; It includes geometry, geography, music, mathematics and the alphabetic code.
The cultural material presented here once again possesses the immense advantage of respecting the way the human brain works by never proposing dual tasking.
Offer children the main geographical basics: planet, earth, water, continents, oceans, countries… The material presents them with one notion at a time, adding them little by little to the ones already assimilated.
All around us, everything is geometrical, including buildings and most objects. Connecting with, exploring, and naming all the forms children perceive is a fresh occasion for them to observe the world more precisely.
With the help of geometric solids, the children could manipulate and explore with their senses the sphere, the cone, the cube, the ovoid, the ellipsoid, the block, the square pyramid, the triangular pyramid and the cylinder. Once again, what is of value in these exercises is that the children understand that the classroom material enables them to achieve a more precise, more refined, and more expert rereading of the external world.
We showed them how to code a sequence of sounds on a small musical score. They were then able to decode it and to play a prepared series of notes.
It is not necessary for schools to create mathematical skills out of nothing. Children already possess an innate sense of number.
Counting quantities from one to ten
The activity with number rods was the first one we presented. In this activity, children of three could progressively count the quantities from one to ten using ten rods of different lengths, each alternatively painted red and blue to represent units. Being able to count all the rods correctly could sometimes take several weeks.
Associating symbols with quantities from one to ten
Once counting had been learned, we next invited the children to associate the graphic symbols (the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) with the corresponding quantities by placing little wooden plaques on the rods. In the same way that in order to read and write, children must understand that a sound is encoded by a graphic symbol (a letter), children must understand that a number is a whole composed of a grouping of units, and this “whole” is encoded by a symbol (the number).
Forming a quantity from one to ten units
Once the children began to be able to count up to ten and associate the symbols with the quantities, the next step was to introduce the material called the spindle box. This time the children formed the quantity before associating it with the symbols. They assembled the right number of sticks (spindles) and placed them in the corresponding spaces with the symbols 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 0.
At this stage, the children have already very efficiently refined the natural ability to perceive quantities. They are barely 4 years old and are capable of constituting a collection of one to ten objects, of rapidly perceiving the difference between these quantities and associating a symbol with them.
Counting beyond ten
To name and form the quantities from 11 to 99, the children had two “Séguin boards” (designed for this purpose by Dr. Edouard Séguin). We also helped the children to learn the names of the symbols and the tens by a long number frieze that went up over 200. It went all the way around the classroom.
Introducing the decimal system
Very early on — as soon as they can count to ten — we gave the children an idea of what might be represented by the quantity “hundred” or the quantity “thousand”. We used material that presented the code of our decimal system: the unit, the ten, the hundred, and the thousand.
Manipulating large quantities
Next, the children had the opportunity, with this same material, to perform addition in a very concrete way. Once they had understood the concept of addition, it was very easy for the children to do multiplication. The children could also do subtraction or division in just as simple and concrete a way.
Encouraging spontaneous enthusiasm
For a child, refining their intuitive comprehension of numbers is not more complicated than learning the implicit rules of syntax by listening to us speak every day. Children possess neural circuits that pre-equip them for both language and for numbers.
However, I would like to make clear that the innate sense of quantities that children possess, as well as the quite amazing results achieved in mathematics at Gennevilliers, certainly do not constitute a call to turn our children into child prodigies in mathematics starting in preschool. All children of 4 or 5 years of age do not have to do division or four-place numbers in order to be sure of a happy future.
Every child possesses different abilities and areas of interest. Thus, we should not expect all of them to develop the same level of competence in all areas, let alone at the same time. What our results do make clear, on the other hand, is that it is highly probable that up until now we have greatly underestimated the amazing abilities of human beings in the first years of their lives, especially their intuitive mathematical abilities. If they have trouble in school, it is not perhaps because the tasks we are proposing are too difficult for them, but rather because these tasks are not up to the level of their great abilities.
Children just get exhausted doing tasks that do not interest them and that are not worthy of their great intelligence. All of them will not go as far as fast as some of them, and that’s fine; but all of them have the ambition to accomplish far more than we generally propose to them. The class results we have noted are not an invitation to pounce on the instructional material we have briefly presented
Let’s be completely clear about this. Although it has been devised with genius, it could remain without effect if it is used in a very academic, cold manner. It should not be devoid of enthusiasm, and requires the positive and fruitful interaction that comes about naturally among children of different ages.
4. Beginning to read and write
In contrast to the learning of oral language, which is naturally brought on by a biological predisposition, it seems that we do not possess neural circuits specifically dedicated to dealing with the alphabetic code –that is, to reading and writing. Current research in the cognitive neurosciences indicates that in order to read, our brain retrains or repurposes another area of the brain initially intended for an entirely different use: recognition of faces and objects.
Reading reorganises our brain
I should point out that this neural retraining is not without its inconveniences for our children. At preschool age, the area of the brain involved in reading is not yet totally “retrained” for recognition of letters. It continues to identify objects and faces. This transitory functional cohabitation brings about a bit of a lag.
That is, when the area of the brain specialised in the recognition of objects and faces perceives the right profile and the left profile of the same person, it provides the information to consciousness that it is the same person. And during this transitional period, when a child sees the lowercase letter p and the lowercase letter q, that area of the brain provides the information that they are the same thing. This confusion is completely normal.
The main principles of reading
An essential discovery is that the association between the sound and the letter must be explicit.
However, before presenting the sounds of the letters, the science concerning reading tells us that it is essential to help children hear the sounds in words. This means helping them to discriminate the smallest units of sounds (called phonemes) that make up the language. It emerges clearly that children do not need a detour via syllables. Quite to the contrary, this approach slows down their entry into the alphabetic code.
The method used in Gennevilliers
Hear the sounds that compose words, explicitly present them with the graphic correspondents (letters) of the sounds, and very gradually increase the level of difficulty of the reading.
- First principle: hearing sounds
- Introducing the alphabetic code
When the children began to be able to isolate the sounds in the attack and final positions of words, we presented the graphic signs that represented them. These are the letters of the alphabet, as well as letter combinations such as “sh”, “ch”, “th” and “gn” for consonants, or “ai”, “oo” and “oi” for vowels.
These digraphs or double letters encode sounds in the language that simple letters do not. All these signs were presented in cursive script. Today, thanks to certain studies and from our own experience, we know that tracing the letter while pronouncing the word very definitely fortifies memorisation both of the shape of the letter and its sound.
Transmission among the children
The children spend many moments in the course of the day playing at letters together. They learn very fast.
Strengthening comprehension of the code
Once the children knew a certain number of the letter sounds, we suggested that they compose words themselves, using the movable letters and digraphs. This activity enabled them to effectively deepen their familiarity with the alphabetic code by actively manipulating it. This also freed them from writing, which they couldn’t yet do at this age.
The spontaneous emergence of reading
After a few days or weeks, depending on the children and the regularity of their use of the movable alphabet, encoding gradually begins to become automatic. Encoding now requires less effort from the children. They begin to read back their compositions spontaneously. Discovering reading in this simple and lively way, children reacted as though they had discovered a secret magic code. By transforming letters (or groups of letters) into sounds, they entered into the thoughts of another person, without the other person having to say a single word.
From decoding to reading automatically
We call beginning to read “decoding”. The initial stage requires conscious effort and considerable attention on the part of the child. However, decoding gradually becomes automatic and requires less and less conscious effort.
When the word contained silent letters, I simply underlined them before passing the message to the child. The children knew that this sign indicated the presence of a letter that was not to be pronounced.
When the children had become sufficiently automatic in reading words of up to three syllables, I wrote them short sentences. These sentences often called for them to carry out an action. This made it possible for me to be sure that they had understood.
“Say ‘three’!” “Ring a bell!” “Roll on the mat!”
At Gennevilliers, we noted that the books that were most conducive to automatic reading were books that made the children laugh. Of course, we didn’t want to limit the literary palette to these kinds of books, but to make available a great variety of themes, illustrations, and voices, so we could meet the individual interests of the children. In the same way that humans learn and naturally assimilate the irregularities of oral language by hearing it spoken and speaking it, children naturally learn the irregularities of written language by hearing it and reading it.
The spontaneous beginnings of writing
The sandpaper letters and digraphs are direct preparation for the movements of writing. In tracing them, the movements of writing become established as engrams in the child’s brain. This is the reason the sandpaper letters and digraphs are presented in cursive form. This way the child’s hand is prepared naturally and without effort for the style of writing of their culture. To aid in the development of writing in children, the relevant thing to do seems to be to refine the circular movement they naturally make by having them trace letters with their fingers.
The importance of vocabulary
When the child decodes “sssoooffffaa”, he pronounces the sounds out loud and tries to assemble them. His personal vocabulary helps in this assembly. If the word “sofa” is part of his vocabulary, there will be a click: “Sofa, The word is sofa!” If the child doesn’t know the word, the click won’t happen, even if he has assembled the sounds correctly. And if a child has no access to the meaning, this will greatly hinder their progress, and their interest in reading will dwindle.
The importance of the human bond
Taking the time to offer each student special one-on-one moments, totally personalised, in which all of our attention and concern is devoted to them, is priceless. Our willingness to enter into relationship with each child and arouse their enthusiasm and trust is the primary force in the flowering of their intelligence. The instructional material plays only a helping role.
Reading and liberation
I will conclude this chapter by recalling that transmitting to children the ability to read and the taste for it is not a small thing. Reading not only organises thought, is not only the key to social integration and professional success. The ability to read is liberating. It gives autonomy and freedom to master any subject matter.
I think a good compromise would be to choose the activities and materials that best suit the individual inclinations of our children, always making the effort to bring them to life within the framework of a galvanising human community, and always as a supplement to rich, complex, intuitive, and non-instructional experiences in the world. So I invite readers to make their own choice, their own experiments, their own errors, and to always be guided by the manifest joy and enthusiasm of their children.
Part 3 of the book The natural laws of children: Developing foundational intelligence
1. The periods of sensitivity
In the course of the brain’s explosive maturation process in young children, it undergoes various “sensitive” periods. These are periods during which specific abilities are established. Thus, these sensitive periods constitute veritable windows of opportunity that need to be recognised and not overlooked. Research tells us that what is being built during these periods is the foundation from which the future skills of the child will manifest and be refined. Therefore, we have to be alert and provide our children with what their development requires at the time it requires it – not before, not after, but right then.
Recognising the formative periods
The first thing that should alert us to the presence of a sensitive period is the pronounced interest of the child in some element in the environment or some activity, as well as the ease of learning they manifest.
Two sensitive periods in the first year of life
During the first year of their life, the child passes through two major periods of sensitivity during which the language circuits and the sensory circuits of the brain produce neural connections and mature at a great rate. These periods of linguistic and sensory construction are explosive. Starting at 10 months, the number of neural connections being formed diminishes significantly, until finally, at the age of 3, they reach a level more or less the same as that of an adult!
The development of executive skills
Executive skills are skills that allow human beings to be autonomous and attain the goals they set for themselves in an organised, controlled, and well-ordered manner. When they are developing these skills, children are driven to act on their own in order to exercise them. They then firmly reject our aid, first with a hand gesture when they can’t yet speak, and then when they can, they confidently ordain: “Do it self.” If we are able to respect this need and if we help children to do everyday things by themselves, from the earliest age, they will naturally develop these essential functions.
2. The executive skills
- The experts highlight three main functions:
- Working memory, which represents the capacity to retain information in one’s memory for a short time;
- Inhibitory control, which represents the capacity to control oneself, to concentrate, and to inhibit distractions;
- Cognitive flexibility, which represents the capacity to detect one’s errors, to correct them, and to be creative.
The biological foundations of learning
When these skills have been solidly developed, children are capable of retaining information, organising their activity, controlling themselves, and seeing and correcting their errors. They find innovative solutions when needed and show perseverance.
More predictive than IQ
Many studies show that the level of development of executive skills is frequently more predictive for success and overall progress than IQ. All that is needed to permit the full development of these skills is simply supporting the spontaneous activity of children and not hindering it.
Better social relations
If we are equipped with good executive skills, we also wake up socially. We are better able to control our emotions and express them, analyse situations, manage our stress, and relate to conflict situations through appropriate and accurate decisions.
3. Promoting day-to-day autonomy
When their skills develop, children want to do everything “by myself”. Children have to memorise a sequence of actions covering a short period of time. They plan them out in order to obtain their objective. They have to control their movements, their impatience and external distractions. Most important, these real activities immediately show up their mistakes. This allows children to quickly re-adjust their strategy and to show flexibility. The demand of little children to do things by themselves is not wilfulness and not manic. It is not happening by chance and it is not a trait of character. It is a manifestation of their intelligence demanding to engage.
When their intelligence defends itself against us
When we are short on time and we refuse to let a child button up her coat herself, if she protests violently, it’s not she who is resisting our heavy-handedness; it is the whole of the intelligence of Humanity that is squawking because it sees an obstacle to its development.
Don’t get in the way
Allowing children to fully develop their executive skills, which are fundamental for the formation of their intelligence, is within the reach of all of us. All we have to do is not prevent it from happening. Instead, we have to promote the spontaneous, creative and formative activity to which the child is naturally driven.
Day-to-day autonomy in the classroom
We helped and encouraged the children to be autonomous all day long. We took all the time needed to help the children achieve autonomy in their minor everyday actions. Once the children were autonomous, they were able to memorise various actions, to plan them, to exercise self-control, to stick with things and to correct their errors themselves without calling on an adult. They became calmer and more sociable – and more joyful too! They were able to get on very quickly with the basic learning processes.
Taking time to demonstrate clearly
When we demonstrated acts of autonomy for the children – for example, when we demonstrated rolling and putting away activity mats – we did it in a clear, slow, precise and logical manner to allow optimal absorption of these movements by the children. To achieve greater cognitive clarity, we avoided language: we demonstrated the actions without speaking. Speaking during the demonstration would have hampered assimilation of the actions by creating dual tasking (listening and watching).
The objective is an inner one
The essential thing is what the child is building within herself in attempting to attain the goal we have set for her. Note that a child who succeeds immediately, without difficulty; in an activity proposed to her should be given the chance to practice an activity of a more stimulating level of difficulty; even at the risk of annoying her and, in some cases, of her starting to annoy her classmates. It is also very important not to interrupt a child who is repeating an activity many times, even if the external objective has already been attained.
When our children are trying to do things by themselves, our primary responsibility – and our main task – is to restrain our reflex to want to help them to “do it properly”.
- Clearly demonstrate the key actions;
- Then let the child carry them out and find the solutions to his problems;
- Provide discreet help – point the way – before he gets discouraged. This approach requires some practice, but it is indispensable.
We always presented movements and actions very precisely. Precision generates immense pleasure in children. It presents a very effective challenge to their quickly developing executive skills. To attain the same precision as we presented to them, the children had to do more memorisation of the order and exactitude of the movements, control them better and correct them accurately. Gradually, the children developed better inhibitory control. This is turn reinforced their ability to control their emotions and manifest self-discipline.
These demonstrations were individual. At the age of three, children’s inhibitory control and working memory are still weak.
Improving on one’s own.
We also drew children’s attention to things that would require them to readjust their actions autonomously. For example, when I showed children how to walk around the classroom, I made a big point of avoiding walking on the mats. Therefore, when children walked on a mat when moving around, that immediately gave them an error signal that encouraged them to control their movements better.
Practical everyday activities
We invited the children to perform practical, very ordinary, everyday activities, such as taking care of the classroom. We put real objects at their disposal and we picked breakable ones. Unlike a plastic item, a breakable object provides immediate feedback for clumsy movements.
Children of three and four are truly fascinated by these activities. The abilities they quickly developed through doing them were then generalised to all other areas of learning.
Practising an action
Children need to practice basic actions before engaging in activities that might be more complicated for them. Practising these movements, which were a part of an ordered activity with a definite objective, enabled the children very effectively to practice their executive skills.
Handling real objects
You will certainly have observed the passion little children have for everyday objects. No toy could possibly compete with the fascination of real objects. When we say: “No” and send them back to their entertainments: “Go play with your toys!”, they double up with rage, scream and cry. Their starved intelligence has just been frustrated. Nature drives human beings to understand the world and the customs of their social group through their own activity.
Helping children express themselves
Being successful in expressing their thoughts plays a very important role in the development of executive skills. Children have to make use of their working memory to retain ideas during the time it takes to organise and formulate them. They have to show inhibitory control to regulate their frustration and impatience. Finally, they have to apply their flexibility to reformulate their speech and make it more precise if the person they are talking to does not understand it.
Helping children to be patient
To help children wait while we were busy with another child, we asked them to place their hand gently on our shoulder without speaking. That way, we knew that another child wanted our attention without being interrupted or disturbed. The children knew that we had gotten the message and that we would give them our attention as soon as we had finished our task or exchange.
Taking the time to help a child develop her patience and her capacity for self-control is doing her a big favour. It is extremely important for the child to work on this ability with the aid and compassionate scaffolding of an adult.
Developing good inhibitory control
It was my custom in our class to frequently propose short and entertaining group activities that required the children to exercise inhibitory control. These regular exercises of control, attention, and mindfulness progressively re-centred the children. As we went along in our practice, the children grew calmer and their movements seemed better controlled. They moved around with a certain grace, handled objects more delicately, moved their chairs in a more considerate manner, and their social relations were more settled and calm.
The emergence of critical self-discipline
But the children were not obedient. If what I asked of them seemed right, they responded positively at once. But if the request of an adult was not appropriate, interesting or positive, they would not respond positively. In order to get out of it, some might politely say “I’m just in the middle of doing something else”. When a child does not respond positively to our requests, we feel offended. But if we succeed in becoming aware of this and readjusting our demands and expectations; then we are beginning to tread on the path of a harmonious relationship.
4. Greater freedom
The development of functional intelligence requires a minimum of freedom. If children strictly follow orders or highly micromanaged instructions from an adult, they cannot correctly develop their executive skills.
Fewer directed activities
Children are hardwired to seek the scaffolding of an expert and learn from her. They have to be able to lean on that structure to explore and learn. The aim is to offer timely guidance that provides orientation without being intrusive. The child must experience the cognitive effort, the reflective engagement. Our job, our main challenge, is to recognise and not interfere with his or her creative activity.
More nature and life
Stopping by a lake and throwing small stones or branches into it means realising that not all these things make the same sound. Some float and others sink. Although this activity is very simple, it causes young children to apply their thinking processes and their intelligence. Because we talk to them, listen to them and comment on what is happening. When we help children to express what they are thinking and to formulate what they are observing; we are very effectively enabling their executive intelligence to develop.
5. Protecting children from toxic stress
In order to allow children to develop unified and harmonious intelligence, it is essential to help them regulate their stress.
Protecting children from violence
The research is very clear. Environments that enable children to develop good executive skills are not only environments that promote autonomy; but also environments in which children and protected from physical and verbal violence, should; and repeated or prolonged stress.
Early exposure to highly stressful environments is associated with deficient development of working memory, attention and inhibitory control. Thankfully, the human brain is capable of resilience. With a lot of effort and constancy, and thanks to sustained positive human relations, certain damage caused during the period of cerebral immaturity can be repaired.
Helping children manage their emotions protects them
It is essential to help them not only to avoid humiliating situations of physical and psychological blows, but also to manage disturbing emotional situations and the stress of their everyday lives by providing appropriate support. Céline Alvarez explains how to get started with simplicity and common sense.
Understanding our own emotions and better understanding others
Helping children to understand what they are feeling enables them not only to calm down but also to develop a greater capacity for empathy.
6. Coming back to ourselves
In order to guide children in an optimal, compassionate fashion, it is essential for us as adults also to be in possession of solid and functional executive skills. We need:
- A good working memory to keep track of the most important facts about each child,
- Good cognitive flexibility to adjust our strategies and respond in an appropriate (and perhaps creative) fashion to individual needs,
- Good inhibitory control to manage and regulate our emotions, such as anger, frustration and impatience.
Guiding children properly and effectively entails our being able to re-centre ourselves and become fully present to ourselves.
Part 4 of the book The natural laws of children: The secret is love
Love is not the first word that comes to mind when we talk about learning. This is a fundamental error.
1. The power of bonding
The sense of bonding and the benefits that come with it are necessary for the eminently social beings that we are to function properly.
The chemistry of bonding
When we are warm and compassionate towards a child (and also towards an adult), we behave in a way that exercises a powerful positive influence on their health as well as their cognitive, social and moral capacities. In the classroom, we adopted a welcoming, warm and empathetic posture, while of course at the same time being careful to stay within a structuring framework that sets clear limits.
Bonding is rewarded at the molecular level
Our whole biological mechanism encourages kindness and bonding. When we are generous, altruistic, fair and trusting toward others, our brain rewards us by secreting dopamine. It acts on the reward circuits in our brain, creating a discharge of enthusiasm, energy and pleasure that encourages us to do more of the same.
Bonding makes us more empathetic
When we bond positively with others, our brains also secrete oxytocin. This brings
a profound feeling of trust, connection and well-being. We enter into a virtuous circle in which empathy generates empathy. We augment our own empathic capacities and those of others. Love nourishes the mind, elevates intelligence and creativity – and the best news of all is that it has an immense power of contagion. Oxytocin, generated by warm relationships, also triggers the secretion of endorphins. This creates a sensation of well-being and raises the level of serotonin; which stabilises our mood and gives greater control over our emotions.
Isolation damages and slows the development of empathy
On the other hand, asocial behaviour separates us from each other. Instead of secreting beneficial molecules, we become prey to stress. Our organism releases, in particular, cortisol, which puts our whole system in a state of alert. Cortisol also attacks our brain structures.
When isolation occurs, our system sounds the alarm
The feeling of being bonded to others is so fundamental to our health and our intelligence that if we are rejected by our peers, our system immediately sounds the alarm bells. In our brain, the same zone that is connected with physical pain is activated. From our birth on, we seek a connection with others. If this contact disappears, we are in great distress.
Bonding in the classroom
When everything in an environment is designed to continually promote positive encounter, mutual help, trust, understanding and empathy, children bond. They work together, exchange, laugh and share all through the day.
Creating a framework conducive to bonding
To promote social bonding, we have to bring together children of different ages. Next, it is of primary importance to create conditions that will allow and support interaction between the children. Another essential condition is the ability of the adult to put in place a structuring framework that sets limits and boundaries, while providing a sense of security for the children.
Bonding, not dependence
Growing children need our attention in order to develop. They demand it: “Look, Mama! Look.” It is important not to make them dependent on our judgement. The attention we give has to remain in the form of “I see” rather than “I approve”. ”
2. Encouraging the expression of innate social tendencies
As social beings we are predisposed toward bonding. When we are born into this world, we are wired to enter into a resonance with others. We are predisposed to act in a just and ethical manner.
The innate capacity for empathy
Studies show that simply listening to someone talk activates the same zones in our brain that are activated in theirs. This empathic resonance exists in us from birth. We have a natural tendency to soothe the pain of others, purely for their sake. There is no expectation of gaining any personal benefit from it; except of course the benefit generated by the joy of coming to their aid.
The spontaneous altruistic urge
At the beginning of life, the will to help others is not always very skilful. Children have trouble understanding that the need of another child might be different from theirs. Research has shown that if we regularly attract the attention of a child to the needs and intentions of others, and help him to understand, the child will gradually demonstrate refined altruistic behaviour.
Our pro-social tendency defeated
By offering help to someone, showing kindness to that person, we reunite with our own deeper nature. This naturally pro-social tendency can nevertheless be blighted during childhood. For the still immature brain of the young person, violence, especially if it is repeated – slaps, insults, harsh judgements, humiliations, being told to shut up – acts like a knife wound that leaves scars on the brain network. It leaves tracks, automatic tendencies that the intelligence is susceptible to adopt later on.
We are born empathetic, but we are also born with a powerful learning mechanism. We are very quick to model ourselves on the behaviour of others, for better or worse. Recent research shows that we are all born with the ability to distinguish between good and evil, and we spontaneously choose good. We should become aware that one of our greatest responsibilities is to recognise the fair and loving nature of a child to support and guide it.
Encouragement through rewards?
Outer gratification quite simply short-circuits inner gratification. Extrinsic pleasure replaces intrinsic pleasure. And visibly, this artificial external pleasure is much weaker than the natural inner biological reward.
Recognising social predispositions and nurturing them positively
How then can we nurture these social predispositions and this inner moral sense if we do not reward them?
- Recognise the existence of an inner predisposition,
- Nurture this predisposition yourself every day,
- Provide children with situations in which they will regularly have the opportunity for altruistic behaviour.
What became of the children in our class?
According to exchanges I’ve had with the parents and their children; the children are having pretty much the same experience as young children do when (at the age of three); they first enter the traditional school system as pre-schoolers. At first, it is difficult, then progressively they adapt to the new conditions; more or less well, depending on the child.
3. Living together to learn to live together
- We constitute a human ecosystem. We cannot ask children to change their own attitudes without changing our own.
- Once the activities are in place, it is essential to offer the children all our humanity; our love and our trust so that the best of ourselves can resonate within them.
- What really makes the difference is the strength and the quality of the human bonds among the children and with the adults.
Conclusion to “The natural laws of children”:
Helping people reveal their beautiful, luminous nature
The young child is a being of love; an energy of goodness incarnate who above all seeks and loves the good; and frowns in the face of evil. We forget it because these wondrous and luminous beings soon enter a system that shapes their plastic intelligence to find an individualistic and competitive model. By failing to obey the law that calls for human beings to develop in a state of bonding; we are operating collectively at a diminished cognitive level. We are missing our real potential.
Let us stop coming up with a thousand and one pedagogical inventions, a thousand and one new methods. The solutions are much simpler, but unfortunately, they require a real overhaul of our attitude. Let us give children what they are asking for – the freedom to be active within a rich environment where they can live with each other and with us in a relationship of trust and compassion.
The objective of “The natural laws of children” is to bring to light the main principles of learning and development in order to draw your attention to what is essential. Young children must nourish their incredibly plastic intelligence through contact with the world by engaging autonomously in a variety of exploratory activities.
What I learned from reading “The natural laws of children”
This book is a concrete message of hope that allows us to believe in humanity. All the concepts developed by Céline Alvarez are common sense. Reading them and understanding the reasoning helps us to see more clearly. Not only do we better understand how to behave with children, we are also asked to take a look at ourselves in order to better understand ourselves and learn.
Strong Points of the book The natural laws of children:
- The natural laws of children is well-written and clear, with concrete illustrated concepts.
- It is very easy to understand what Céline Alvarez is explaining and to see just how true it is in everyday life.
Weak points of the book The natural laws of children:
- Within the body of the book, Céline Alvarez does not offer enough links to online resources.
- Some readers may find the style quite repetitive.
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