The Developing Brain - Lana Johnston

Talking about the brain can seem like a pretty ‘dry’ and possibly uninteresting topic. I had thought the same thing until I started looking into it during my teacher training and heard Nathan Mikaere Wallis talk about it for the first time. He explained that childhood experiences shape the structure of the brain (in particular between birth and 4 years), which in turn has a massive impact on the rest of our lives, and that it is the adults around us that have the most input into our developing brain. I quickly came to realise the huge responsibility we as adults have on shaping the brains (and the future) of the children in our care (whether it be as a parent, caregiver or teacher).

Nathan told us about the developments in brain research during the 1990’s that saw major advances in what we know about the brain. More was learnt about the brain and how it functions in the 10 years of the 1990’s than in the 300 years previous to this – All due to advances in technology where we have been able to see the brain working while a person is still alive rather than having to wait until they are dead to examine it and being able to relate what was being seen to peoples previous life experiences. They also discovered that most brains are not fully developed until the age of 25 (and for some males it is not until their early 30’s). This is why teenagers and young 20 somethings often seem to make some questionable decisions!

They discovered that for the first year of a baby’s life the most important thing for their developing brain is interaction and having their needs met as quickly as possible. Baby’s brains aren’t really ready to be born until about 3 years of age, but as we can all imagine a 3 year olds head would be impossible to birth. A babies brain trebles in size by the time they are 3 and only gains 200 grams more between 3 and 25 years. Therefore children under 3 need the adults around them to help regulate their actions and teach them everything they need to know about the world, so they can begin to make wise decisions about things that will affect themselves and those around them.

So the big question for adults is how do we do this?

Neurological (brain) development comes down to relationships and how children are interacted with by those closest to them and how they are allowed to interact with their environment in the critical period between 0 and 3 years (and then between 3 and 6 years as the brain begins to prune away unused connections).

All of the information we need in order to live a full and happy life is contained in our neural pathways (the connections between the neurons) at birth, they just need to be used and reinforced in order to become hard wired. The most critical time for these pathways to develop is between 0 and 3 years. These important pathways between neurons start to be lost (pruned) between 3 and 6 years if they have not been used or developed and these are very difficult to get back or learn later in life. Everything we learn in life comes back to these neural pathways. These pathways become myelinated if actions or behaviours are used and done repeatedly. An action has to be repeated at least 90 times for it to become automatic (each time you do it a layer of Myelin is added to the connection of the pathway, making it stronger). If we want our toddlers and young children to act in a certain way we need to model it and teach them what the particular behaviour (being kind, listening to instructions, empathy etc.)  looks like (and they need to do it at least 90 times before they can do it without thinking, hence why it seems like your child may not have listened to you but actually it’s just that that pathway has not been developed enough yet and still needs your help to become more automatic).

A great deal of this myelination comes from the people around us who help these connections to develop. Basically we learn what the world looks like and how to act in it from the people closest to us who are essentially forming these brain connections with us and for us. For example a child who has not been cuddled or shown love or empathy or patience will not know that these things exist or how to actually behave in these ways as these pathways have never been developed for them. Alternatively children who have been nurtured and had their needs met (both physical and psychological) in a timely way before the age of three go on to develop these skills further over the ensuing years (with the help of the loving people around them).

Myelin gets laid down faster if endorphins are present at the same time you are learning something. Happy learners learn faster and we know (through Harvard University studies) that singing, free laughter and physical exercise and movement releases the most endorphins! Therefore one of the best things you can do to help with future language and brain development for your baby or young child is to sing to them, laugh with them and let them move freely for as much of their day as possible (rather than being contained in containers like car seats, swings, Jolly jumpers and exosaucers etc). Babies also need close eye contact so that they can see your face and the movements of your muscles and features so they can start to read emotions and facial expressions.

All of this new brain knowledge has taught us that it is biologically impossible to spoil a baby or child up until the age of about three when it comes to things like meeting their needs. What our culture often thinks of as spoiling or indulging a baby is actually exactly what they biologically need (e.g. picking up when crying, nurturing, cuddling, giving support during sleep times or when waking in the middle of the night etc.). Rather than thinking the baby or child is manipulating us (as we have often been taught in our culture), we know they are actually just asking for their basic biological needs to be met (their brain has not developed enough to work out how to manipulate just yet).

The more love, hugs and quick meeting of their immediate needs, the more likely the child will become happy and independent as they grow and start to live life a little further away from you. Children’s pathways will become connected as you interact with them, support them through the tough times when their brains are a bit out of control and love them unconditionally no matter what they do and the actions and reactions they learn from you become their normal way of doing things (this is a great time to practice yourself what types of actions and reactions to things you want your child to be displaying!).

There are always going to be behaviours that develop that you maybe didn’t bargain for (or that you did not realise were being reinforced until your 2 or 3 year old starts acting in a certain way!) and once these behaviours or actions develop it will take a bit of time to gently guide them in a more appropriate direction. This could be a great time for both you and your child to do some learning about better or different ways of doing things so you can continue on the journey together. Changing any behaviour takes at least 90 days or times of doing the new behaviour as the old behaviour has had 90+ layers of myelin over the neural pathway to develop it in the first place. To change the behaviour you need to put more myelin (90+ layers) on the pathway you would prefer to develop so that the old one starts to be used less and no longer becomes the norm.

When it comes to changing behaviours, yelling words like don’t, stop and no all make children forget their most recent positive learning (due to the cortisol that is being released at moments like this). A great way to get your children to work with you is to tell them what you want them to do, rather than what you don’t want them to do, as their brain hears the main thing you are telling them (rather than the no, don’t, or stop). For example instead of saying “don’t jump on the couch” (as all they are hearing is ‘jump on the couch’) ask them to sit on the couch instead “please sit down on your bottom on the couch”.

All of this said and done, growing children and their brains is really hard work and we don’t always get it right. One of the parts I loved most about Nathan’s talk was when he said ‘all a parent has to be is good enough’ (so if you are doing lots of things well then the times you don’t necessarily get it right aren’t going to hurt). If your child is getting the love, support and knowledge that they are the centre of your universe (not everyone’s universe but definitely yours), and you parent them ‘right’ most of the time then their brain will develop beautifully and they will turn out just fine. Another good saying is “once we know better we do better”, this means that rather than beat ourselves up about things we have done in the past with children, we can make changes once we gather some more information and learn new ways of doing things, and this will help our children flourish and grow.

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