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What Does Neural Plasticity Mean for Parents?

Seven recommendations for your child’s developing brain.

wan mohd/Flickr
Source: wan mohd/Flickr

Neural Plasticity

The research on learning and memory shows that learning is possible and memory can be enhanced across the lifespan, unless the brain is compromised by disease or injury, and even then there is more room for growth than was previously thought possible. Neural plasticity—the way the brain changes across the lifespan—is the mechanism that powers the possibility of change and growth over time.

The brain’s early development is shaped by genetic factors working together with experience. One of the most important early brain-building experiences is sometimes called “serve-and-return,” a caregiver’s affectionate and attentive mirroring of infants’ early babbling, facial expressions, and gestures. When that doesn’t happen—or if it is unreliable or inappropriate—the baby’s brain doesn’t form as expected. This can lead to problems with learning or behavior.

During childhood, from three to eleven, brain development is not as explosive as it was in the early years, or as it will be again in the teen years. That does not mean nothing is happening through this period, or that caregivers should relax, and not worry about their children’s brains. Childhood is a time for exploration, learning, and consolidation, and for acquiring good habits of mind that will form a solid foundation for future learning and development. It is also a time when sleep, exercise, and nutrition continue to have a significant impact on brain development. These lifestyle choices make a difference to the volume of gray matter, which is being formed in the brain through this period.

For best brain development, children should be exploring widely, gaining skills across many areas—academic, artistic, physical, social, emotional, and cognitive—and establishing a strong sense of themselves as competent and valuable. That confidence will be sorely tested when puberty begins.

Implications: What Does the Research on Brain Development Mean for Parents?

Neuroscientist Jay Giedd told PBS’s “Frontline” that, “The more technical and more advanced the science becomes, often the more it leads us back to some very basic tenets. ... With all the science and with all the advances, the best advice we can give is things that our grandmother could have told us generations ago: to spend loving, quality time with our children.”

Here are some recommendations for parents wanting to support their children’s optimal brain development, from conception to adulthood:

1. Ensure a healthy pregnancy. Fetal brains develop best when pregnant mothers have a healthy well-balanced diet, get enough sleep, abstain from drugs and alcohol, enjoy a safe, clean environment, experience low stress, and get the right kinds of exercise. That kind of pregnancy is not always possible, but it’s worth working to achieve as much of this as possible.

2. Be warm, present, patient, and loving. Starting at childbirth, relationships and connections make the biggest difference in how a child’s brain will develop. Brain development goes best for kids who experience respectful, kind, warm, and patient adults, starting at birth. Parents can support their children’s developing brains by listening to them, and by showering them dependably with patience, love, and positive regard. The more difficult the child or adolescent, the more important (and the more challenging) this is.

3. Support healthy habits of sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Just like the growing body, the growing brain needs adequate sleep, good nutrition, and ample physical exercise, preferably outdoors.

4. Provide your infant and young child with rich experiences in every domain. Synapses form most prolifically in those areas of a child and adolescent’s brain that are being stimulated, in the areas where there is focused interest and many kinds of experience. The areas of the brain that aren’t used get pruned out, in a dramatic example of the “use it or lose it” principle. This is a compelling reason to expose children and teens to many different kinds of musical, linguistic, mathematical, natural, artistic, sensory, social, and physical experiences.

5. Welcome obstacles, failures, and “bad” behavior. Problems usually aren’t fun, but they are the best possible learning opportunities for you and your child. Obstacles, failures, and misbehavior show you what your child hasn’t learned yet, and needs to work on, with your help.

6. Stay positive. Neural plasticity means that learning is possible in pretty much every area, and across the lifespan. This is just as true for children with learning problems as for anyone else. If a child has trouble in one area or another (say mathematics or social intelligence), their brain is still capable of mastering that area, no matter what their teacher or anyone else might say.

7. Keep growing and learning. Neural plasticity applies to adults too. Even into old age, barring serious brain degeneration, people can learn other languages, take music lessons, become more patient, write books, follow their interests, and explore the world. Parents are better role models for learning and brain development when they’re happily productive and fulfilled in their own lives.

Further Resources

Nature and Nurture in Early Child Development, Edited by Daniel P Keating

The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind, Survive Everyday Parenting Struggles, and Help Your Family Thrive, by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson

Brain Architecture,” by Harvard University Center on the Developing Child

Frequently Asked Questions About Brain Development,” by Zero to Three

Neuroscience for Kids,” by Eric Chudler

Brain Development in Childhood,” by Yasuyuki Taki and Ryuta Kawashima

InBrief: The Science of Early Child Development,” by Harvard University Center on the Developing Child

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