Making Sense of Brain Building; Redefining ‘Development

Brain development, resilience, self-esteem etc., are all important topics for the children we love, live with and work with, which is why I work with parents as well as professionals.

In a recent session, I was helping a mum to understand her young child’s behaviour and somehow, her eldest became relevant in the conversation. All sorts was going on for him but, at 20, the mum hadn’t felt that ‘parenting’ support was appropriate. So why was it?

Because the brain doesn’t fully mature until around 30 years. This means many of us are tasked with helping young people’s ‘readiness’ for the big, wide world, while they still have a lot of brain development to do.

The problem with adolescents is that, in many ways, they’re so grown-up and capable, that it can completely bely the gaping holes in their development.
And this is at the heart of what we all need to know about all brains; how, while the body grows in one direction, the brain far from follows a straightforward trajectory.

Of course, no brain ever reaches a state of completion; they continue to reconfigure themselves right until the end of life.
Neuroscience can be extremely complex, but it doesn’t have to be, and one useful analogy I use to help people understand the journey towards brain maturation is a (very large!) jigsaw puzzle.

For example, as long as the environment is conducive, early childhood puts the edge pieces together. And on the condition the world remains enriching, stimulating and reasonably stress-free, the cohesive ‘whole’ usually starts to come together.

But then the hormones of adolescence emerge… And much earlier than most of us realise; on average 10 years and 3 months for girls, and 10 years and 9 months for boys.
(How many of us are teaching, caring for or raising adolescents already?!)
By 12 or 13 years, the ‘neurological jigsaw’ has been largely broken up, and starts to form again, with a very different ‘finished’ picture in mind.

What makes this even more complicated is that this 20 year process doesn’t happen in any form of convenient or sensible sequence. Just as you create multiple little bits of disconnected imagery within the jigsaw long before the whole thing ‘connects’, developing brains – adolescent ones, especially – are much the same.

Hence why my friend’s 19 year old recently navigated university applications, living arrangements and a host of other adult tasks independently, and yet fell apart when she didn’t have a hairdryer…

If for no other reason, knowing what’s happening in a young person’s head can

make us more understanding, compassionate, and realistic, instead of just seeing one who’s ‘old enough to know better’.

But having just a few simple insights can also be transformative to the way we work with and raise children. Whatever age and stage they’re at, here’s a few to start with:

The Early Brain: with 86 billion brain cells at birth, it can start making connections at an hour old. But the earliest experiences; even those the child will never remember; can leave a deep imprint on their brain, and its capacity to develop healthily, for life.

The ‘Developing’ Brain: Since birth, the ‘learning brain’; AKA the neo-cortex; has doubled in size, and can make more than a million neural connections per second!
But, while much of their ‘learning’ is focused on ‘information retrieval’, the brain’s ‘memory bank’ (the hippocampus) doesn’t even belong to the neo-cortex!
So just asking it to ‘remember’ and calling it ‘learning’ is a waste of an amazing brain!

The Adolescent Brain; The brain’s ‘executive’, the pre-frontal cortex, largely dismantles, taking a huge amount of social and emotional skills with it.
But as it rebuilds, neural connections are made more rapidly now than ever again!
It may not feel like it, but this is the most efficient window for learning, for life.
You just have to know how to work with it, in a world that generally works against it!

The Vulnerable Brain: Trauma, chronic stress – even from long ago – and neurodiversity can all have a huge impact on how young brains develop and function.
Especially for those with ACE’s, the age of the body is irrelevant; until the environment supports it better, the brain can stay ‘stuck’.
No amount of behaviour management, or ‘s/he’ll’ grow out of it’, or ‘zero tolerance’ will change that.

Which of these do you or your team need to know more about? Because I have an illuminating training session on them all. Visit this page to find more info or drop me a line!

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