Over the past 15-20 years there has been a massive outpouring of research that explores the human brain. Many old theories have been tossed out, many new ones are now considered the norm, and much debate goes on in the corridors of our universities as neuroscience touches every corner of academia. As a former teacher it would have been really useful to have this fabulous research at my fingertips and as a mother, equally as important.
The first key concept to hold in mind is neuroplasticity, which essentially means that the brain has the capacity to change all the way through life.
Norman Doidge wrote in his book, The Brain that Changes Itself of how this idea of neuroplasticity — that our thoughts and actions can actually change the way the brain is structured and works — is the most important shift in how we see the brain as when we were first able to sketch its anatomy.
Put simply, neuronal ‘highways’ can be strengthened through repeated and focused thought as well as repeated activities and the stronger they are the better they function. Almost everything a child does and experiences from birth onwards involves building connections between the neurons.
The human brain continues to evolve from primitive times and the executive functioning part of the brain, also called the prefrontal cortex, is the last part of the brain to mature — often not until the mid 20s. This helps many parents understand the confusion and angst that can happen during adolescence.
The brain also needs to have horizontal integration of the left and right sides of the brain as well as the vertical integration from our primitive fight-flight instincts to our responsible mature functioning. All this fabulous brain growth happens best with real experiences that engage the senses in real time, especially in the first years of life. There are many adults who still struggle to use their prefrontal cortex when they are exhausted, stressed, hungry or in pain — think of road rage, troll behaviour online and family violence.
The neurotransmitters in the brain — essentially a form of brain chemical — also make life interesting. An overload of cortisol, which is the stress hormone, plays havoc especially with children who, without a prefrontal cortex, struggle to manage heightened stressful times.
The tantrum in the shopping centre can now be viewed as an event of the brain — a massive cortisol discharge, so the child can return to a calmer state. The feel-good brain chemicals of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins are not always easy for young children or adolescents to create on their own. The capacity to self-regulate one’s emotions, moods and physical energy is another one of those invisible capacities that parents find hard to understand.
Humans are biologically wired to survive first, and to be smart and happy after that.
As John Medina writes in his excellent book Brain Rules for Baby: “The brain is not interested in learning. The brain is interested in surviving. Every ability in our intellectual tool kit was engineered to escape extinction. If you want a well educated child, you must create an environment of safety.” (visit http://www.brainrules.net)
There is some fabulous news among this research for parents. The first is that our children are biologically wired to learn and they are also biologically wired to move their bodies in ways that enhance learning and physical growth. So we don’t need to strive to stimulate them — they find almost everything stimulating the first time they meet it.
Top tips for parenting with the brain in mind:
- Happy, calm children learn best (as Daniel Goleman writes in his book, Emotional Intelligence).
- Repeated activities consolidate strong neuronal pathways — even if it is reading the same picture book over and over.
- All children struggle maintaining good brain chemicals — as do some exhausted parents.
An upset child is not a bad child — rather a child who is not coping.
- Allow children to be inquisitive and curious — lipstick drawings = a creative mind.
- Ensure plenty of sleep — deep sleep creates spaces for new learning .
- Ensure good quality food — it helps stabilise moods and improves concentration.
- Create plenty of opportunities for children to use all of their senses preferably outside.
- Help calm and soothe your child when they have a massive cortisol overload.
- Water is the only liquid that hydrates the brain and removes fuzzy brains that can cause concentration problems.
- Model the behaviour you want from your children — they are watching and learning.
Given the brain research, it is helpful to remember that neuroplasticity enables our children to learn good habits to replace annoying and unhelpful habits. Of course the same applies to us —however it is easier to create a new habit, than to stop doing an old one that we enjoy.
Remind your children we can all become smarter, stronger, kinder and more resilient by the choices we make in our life and with practise we get more competent. That is neuroplasticity at its best.
This article was originally published in Parenting Ideas magazine.