Tuesday, 6 May 2014

7 Practical Suggestions to Enhance Your Child's Brain Development.

Although I am currently on maternity leave I made sure I took up the opportunity to attend a professional learning session at work on ‘The young brain and the neuroscience of learning’ presented by Dr Peter Rossouw.

Dr Rossouw is a lecturer in Neuroscience at the University of Queensland and he was an extremely passionate and dynamic speaker.  Although much of his presentation was aimed at educators, there were some key points that I thought many parents would be keen to hear.

Dr Rossouw's advice is centred around the importance of creating a safe and engaging environment for our children.  He believes this is essential as it allows their brain to maximise the connections made between neurons and enhances the good brain chemicals (serotonin and dopamine) while minimising the harmful brain chemicals (cortisol). 

However, before we get to the practical advice we do need to know a little bit about brain development, so please stick with me as I give you a quick overview.
 
Source: http://goo.gl/v8wtdP

The reptilian brain develops first; this is the part of the brain essential for physical survival (e.g. breathing).  It is deep in the brain where it is well protected and supplied.  If we experience too much distress this part of the brain takes over and overwhelms our thinking.

The limbic brain develops next and also has is structures in the middle of the brain.  When we feel safe blood flow is enhanced to the brain; however when we are scared and uncomfortable this part of the brain becomes over-activated and it compromises blood flow to the frontal lobe where higher order thinking occurs.

The neomamillian brain, otherwise known as the social brain, is the last to develop.  This part of the brain has the ability to down regulate other parts of the brain.  This is the area of the brain we aim to develop as teachers and parents.

In order for our children’s social brain to be able to do the hard stuff, like think, plan and remember, the reptilian brain needs to feel safe and secure.  If this part of the brain is under stress it will override any other brain function. 

Therefore we can help our children most by providing a safe and supportive environment.  We need to provide opportunities for ‘open neural learning systems’.  Children need to feel safe in order to ‘dare to risk’.  This means that safety comes first and environment matters most.  So how does this look in real life?

7 Practical Suggestions to Enhance Your Child's Brain Development.


1.       Increase eye-contact. Maintain eye contact for just two seconds longer to send the message “I see you” and “You matter” – these messages can increase your child’s engagement, productivity and mental wellness.

2.      Teach your child how to self-hug.  Yep, Dr Rossouw suggests that just wrapping your arms around yourself is one of the strongest self supports we can teach our children.  As we hug ourselves we increase our body temperature which increases oxytocin release and increases our feelings of attachment.  Oxytocin is sometimes referred to as the 'bonding' hormone due to it's role in childbirth, feeding, maternal bonding and even orgasm!  Recent research has also shown that that a hug has a greater effect on exam motivation than anti-depressant medication!
Source: http://polysingleish.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/self-hug.jpg

3.       Keep it interesting.  When you are trying to teach your child something new try to use stories, make it interesting and help them get excited about it.  The crazier the story or experience the more memorable it will be.  However one ‘aha’ moment is not enough – learning needs to be repeated and shared.  Provide opportunities for experiential play and every 3-4 minutes use questions that ask ‘what have you just learned’ as this reinforce neural pathways and strengthens connections.  Provide hands-on practical experiences.

4.       Ensure your child doesn’t fall into a loop of avoidance.  We seek out dopamine and some children fall into a pattern where they only release dopamine when they are isolated at home feeling safe and unchallenged.  Help your children break harder tasks into manageable chunks and help them think in terms of “I can master this”.  Achievement will then kick in and more positive and helpful thinking loops will be established.  Help your child to develop intrinsic motivation as this enhances the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine. 

5.       Help you child manage their stress.  When we are stressed our cortisol levels increase; this creates havoc in our brain as it kills brain cells and reduces plasticity. This is turn increase the risk of neuro-degenerative disease.

6.       Avoid fear based learning.  Although this will work in the short term, this type of learning will not be retained or applied.  Create an environment of ‘I want to explore’ rather than ‘I have to explore’.  Ensure you have addressed any background experiences that may have triggered fear.  I loved Dr Rossouw’s quote ‘Fear eliminates people from the experience of life.’ You can see a very entertaining demonstration of this on The Amazing Race clip below. 


7.       Healthy lifestyle = Healthy brain. 
In theory, our bodies are designed to live to 130 years old, however our life expectancy is some 50 years less than this.  Poor lifestyle choices, such as consuming diets high in fat and sugar, increases brain rigidity and decreases our capacity to regenerate neurons.
If we want to enhance brain development we need to:
o   Limit sugar intake.  Sugar spikes blood glucose levels which can harm brain cells.  Whole foods enhance neural connections.
o   Engage in regular exercise.
o   Ensure children get plenty of sleep. 
o   Be wary of social media.   The impact of social media is currently unknown due to lack of long term studies. What is known is if the social media is setting parental guidelines the result on development is negative, but in terms of relationships the effect is currently unknown.  However it is known that bullying has a negative effect on brain development.  Social media does increase opportunities for bullying and so I believe it needs to be monitored closely by parents.
o   And maybe, most importantly and best of all, have fun!  Smile and laugh, a lot :)

Does this advice sound easy or hard to follow? Any tips for helping children manage their stress?

I'm sending this to Essentially Jess 'I Blog on Tuesday'- check it out.



Keep smiling

Dani  xx

13 comments :

  1. I think out of all of these, we do the last one fairly well. We have a pretty active kid, so hopefully that helps keep his brain going. I know one thing that makes his brain STOP is too much "screen time" so we are trying to limit that. It's incredible how spongey their little brains are! -Aroha (for #teamIBOT)

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    1. I wish I could have asked him about any studies examining brain development and screen time as I totally agree that screen time needs to be limited, MJ becomes a little zombie when he watches TV!

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  2. This is great, I have a son with anxiety right now and will look into these! Thanks for sharing. And I MUST get all my kids to give themselves a big hug every day!

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    1. I hope your son's anxiety gets better, it's tough being a kid sometimes. Don't forget to give yourself a hug too!

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  3. So many great tips here, I've bookmarked it for later use!

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    1. Thank, I'm glad you found it useful. I just checked out your blog too and I've picked up a couple of great ideas for craft - thanks!

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  4. I was aware of many of these, but it never hurts to review them regularly. What was new to me was the self-hugging. I am going to work on that!

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    1. Simple and yet hopefully effective. I guess we just need to find a quiet place to do it or we may have some explaining to do :)

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  5. Love this post, thank you so so much for sharing it! I'm going to write those dot points down and put them on the wall so I remember them with Lior & Eli. :)

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    1. Thanks, I'm glad you found it useful. He was such a passionate and engaging speaker, I was excited to share his advice.

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  6. I love the tips, especially the self-hugging and the longer eye contact - such simple things and good to know they have scientific backing. We are having stress management issues with our daughter around separation anxiety and I'm exploring lots of ideas to reduce it. I'm also experimenting with kid's meditation videos and have several on you-tube - the most popular has had nearly 10,000 views, so hopefully I'm on the right track.

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  7. So much interesting stuff, that I feel I can apply to myself! Especially the thing about dopamine being released when we are unchallenged. I think that's been a family trait for a long time.

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    1. Unfortunately it's such an easy and common cycle to fall in, especially for teenagers. Your blog shows that you are up for challenges - moving, writing, thinking about new future opportunities/jobs - I don't think you have too much to worry about in terms of not being challenged!

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