Parenting 101: Processing, Behavior, and Maturity

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Robert J. Doman, Jr.

In my last article I introduced “sequential processing” and encouraged readers to find out how well you and those in your family can process information. I hope you all took advantage of the opportunity. If you didn’t, you can still go to www.thenacdproject.com and take the free memory test.

Over the years we have discovered that sequential processing, which is the brain’s ability to process pieces of visual or auditory information in a sequence, normally develops in a predictable pattern as a child grows.  As sequential processing develops so does the complexity of thought. A child’s ability to think determines their ability to understand, learn and act.  If anything interferes in the development of sequential processing, the child’s ability to understand, learn and act will be affected in a number of ways.

The first seven to nine years of life provide the best window of opportunity to learn about the significance of sequential processing because sequential processing – particularly auditory sequential processing – has a lot to do with determining your child’s overall (or “global”) level of maturity as well as their ability to pay attention and learn.  When a child comes to us with a label of learning delays, behavior problems, trouble concentrating, or just being immature for their age, the child will almost always be found to display lower than normal sequential processing abilities.  As we correct the delay in sequential processing by teaching the brain to process more pieces of information, we find many learning, behavior and attention deficit problems resolve without further intervention.

Sequential processing usually develops at the rate of one piece of information per year up until about seven to nine years of age. At that point, it tends to stop increasing without specific intervention.   In young children, we can determine their processing level by looking at how many directions they can follow in a sequence.  For example, a child who is between one and two should be able to follow a simple direction like, “touch your nose”, which amounts to processing one piece of information. With a child between ages two and three, you should be able to open a book and ask them, “Where is the horse and the dog?’ (two pieces of information).  When they are three years old, they should be able to repeat three things in a series, such as “yellow, green, and red” (three pieces of information). As the child grows, their sequential processing should continue to advance by one piece of information per year, so that by age seven they are able to process at least seven pieces of visual or auditory information in a sequence.

Many of the typical challenges parents face in dealing with their little ones relate directly to the child’s level of sequential processing.  Up until two years old, or the point at which the child can process two pieces of information, they are very easy to get along with.  Give them something to play with and they are happy; take it away and they will probably still be smiling because they will just redirect their attention from the object to you, processing one thing at a time.  When they hit two, things get interesting because the thought process becomes “I want” or “Don’t want,” and that is the end of the thought because they can’t think beyond two pieces of information at one time.  Functionally this produces the “Terrible Twos” in which the child tantrums because they inevitably want something or don’t want something and cannot process a “but” or a “later.”  When the child reaches three years old, you can begin to reason with them because they can process a third piece of information – including that important word “later.”

But children at a processing level of  three are still rather challenging because they hit what we refer to as the “Lock and Block” stage.  At the “Lock and Block” stage, the child can process the concept of  “later” but cannot process well enough to think their way out of a situation they perceive as threatening in any way.  If they perceive something as fun or okay, they are all smiles.  But when faced with new situations, new people, or if you simply ask them to do something without using your friendly little kid voice, they may give you trouble.  And once they have locked and blocked, forget it!  But often, if you wait a few minutes and come back to them with the same request, they will be fine and comply without any difficulty. It all depends on their perception of threat. Around four years old, the brain is able to begin processing four pieces of information, and the child moves out of the Lock and Block stage and into a whole new set of behaviors that keep parents on their toes.  And so the process goes year by year.

Dealing with little ones can be challenging, but the real challenges come when your seven or eight-year-old processes like a four or five-year-old and you start hearing things like, “Johnny is distractible,” or “Johnny isn’t following directions,” or, perhaps, “We should test Johnny for ADD.”  The root of many developmental problems – from language delays to behavior and learning issues – lies in the fact that their sequential processing has not developed properly. The good news is that sequential processing can be increased fairly easily with the proper intervention.

Reprinted from the Journal of The NACD Foundation (formerly The National Academy for Child Development)

Reprinted by permission of The NACD Foundation, Volume 20 No. 5, 2007 ©NACD