What Brain Research Can Show About How Your Child’s Brain Develops

How a Child's Brain Develops

The New GPS for Parents: Finding Guidance in Brain Research

by JoAnn Deak, Ph.D.

It has become a common statement emanating from the mouths of parents: I wish my teen came with an owner’s manual! For years we have relied on the wisdom of past generations, our own upbringing and a host of books, articles and now, blogs filled with ‘expert’s’ advice.

Research then entered the picture; giving parents more data based advice. One of the earliest and best examples was the study released from Harvard about fifteen years ago, dubbed ‘raising the water level.’ In that study, children whose parents allowed them more freedom of movement and exploration during the toddler years showed a significant difference in intellectual development. This was accomplished by moving harmful objects up out of the reach of children so that they were not constantly stopped from exploring and touching and movement. The older they got and the farther they could reach or move, the higher things were raised above their grasp. In other words, ‘raising the water level’ raised the richness of their experiences, and thus enhanced their growing brains.

Enter the new brain imaging, mostly fMRIs: a method of imaging brains while they are alive and working. In the last year, an even newer method of brain imaging of infants has become available: MEG imaging. There is a video available on Ted.com that you can watch and see this incredible technology in action. Just put in the name Patricia Kuhl [the researcher] in the search space. Another great video showing how the brain changes over time with experience can be found on the same site by putting in the name Rebecca Saxe. She shows how certain experiences in childhood and adolescence leads to the growth of compassion, sympathy and empathy.

All of this new technology has lead to a tidal wave of information about how brains [and their owners] change with time and experience.  Perhaps one of the most important contributions of this new and ongoing brain research is that it confirms and emphasizes the plasticity of the brain both in childhood and adolescence. There are time periods during these two decades that certain parts of the brain are at their peak capacity for growth. These are called ‘windows of neurologic opportunity or sensitivity.’ If the brain is used during one of these periods, not only is that part stretched and made bigger, but also it seems to enhance its plasticity for a lifetime. One clear example in childhood is the language part of the brain. If a child does a lot listening to people talking, sings songs, hears rhymes, or is read to by someone, that sets up the language sectors of the brain to be able to do things talking, reading and writing throughout life. Why this example? We are seeing so many young children sitting in front of TVs, playing with game boys, phones, and computers that the language sectors of the brain are not growing enough during these all-important windows. This can cause some learning and behavioral issues later in life.

New research is also looking at the surprising number of windows of sensitivity in the brain during adolescence. Several key areas of the teen brain fall into this category and need consistent and frequent use to set the foundation for a lifetime. For example, one key area is the PFC [prefrontal cortex]. Among many other things, this part deals with organization and foresight. It is the time to have adolescents, for instance, practice ways of managing long-term assignments at school or figure out ways to plan for a trip. What is new about this? Adults often say to teens: “Be organized. Be responsible. Be independent. Do it yourself.”  Dictating and telling a teen exactly what to do and when to do it is not very effective in growing a teen brain. New research is indicating that the brain acts like a muscle; it must DO the work to change it. Therefore, a more effective approach, for instance, would be to have teens use mind maps [available online], which force them to think in both complex and detailed ways. Or, have them sketch out the things that need to be done to plan a trip, and then, most importantly, go over it with them and share parts they haven’t thought of… DOING changes the brain, and the brain struggling to figure out what to do changes it so much more.

There is no getting around it: the owner’s manual for parents says the child or adolescent, not the parent, needs to do the heavy lifting that changes or ‘muscularizes’ their brains to be capable enough to handle adulthood. Our job as adults trying to help them sculpt their brains is to give them the incredible time that it takes to provide the environment, opportunity and support for practicing, failing, getting feedback and standing up and doing it again.

JoAnn Deak, Ph.D. has spent more than thirty years as an educator, school psychologist, and consultant helping children of all ages develop into confident and competent adults. In “The Owner’s Manual for Driving Your Adolescent Brain” Dr. Joann Deak and neuroscience expert Dr. Terrence Deak emphasize what neuroscientists call the “plasticity” of the brain into early adulthood. The Owner’s Manual for Driving Your Adolescent Brain (Little Pickle Press, November 2013) is available at www.amazon.com, www.barnesandnoble.com, and bookstores nationwide.



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