The Surprising Truth About What Messing With A Little Kid’s Head Really Does

When a child’s mind is developing, things we do actually change the physical structure of that young brain. So we’d better be teaching them the right stuff. Which is ... what, exactly?

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Narrator: Science tells us that the experiences we have in the first years of our lives actually affect the physical architecture of the brain. This means that brains aren't just born, they're also built over time based on our experiences. Just as a house needs a sturdy foundation to support the walls and roof, a brain needs a good base to support our future development. Positive interactions between young children and their caregivers literally build the architecture of the developing brain. Building a sturdy foundation in the earliest years provides a good base for a lifetime of good mental function and better overall health.

So, just how is a solid brain foundation built and maintained in a developing child? One way is through what brain experts call serve and return interactions. Imagine a tennis match between a caregiver and a child, but instead of hitting a ball back and forth across the net, various forms of communication pass between the two. From eye contact to touch, from singing to simple games like peekaboo. These interactions repeated throughout a young person's developing years are the bricks that build a healthy foundation for all future development. But another kind of childhood experience shapes brain development too, and that's stress. Good kinds of stress like meeting new people or studying for a test are healthy for development because they prepare kids to cope with future challenges.

Another kind of stress called toxic stress is bad for brain development. If a child is exposed to serious ongoing hardships like abuse and neglect, and he has no other caregiver in his life to provide support, the basic structures of his developing brain may be damaged. Without a sturdy foundation to properly support future development, he's at risk for a lifetime of health problems, development issues, even addiction.

It's possible to fix some of the damage of toxic stress later on, but it's easier, more effective, and less expensive to build solid brain architecture in the first place. One of the things that sturdy brain architecture supports is the development of basic emotional and social skills. An important group of skills, which scientists call executive function and self-regulation, can be thought of like air traffic control in the child's mental airspace. Think of a young child's brain as the control tower at a busy airport. All those planes landing and taking off and all of the support systems on the ground simultaneously demand the controller's attention to avoid a crash. It's the same with a young child learning to pay attention. Plan ahead and remember, and follow lots of rules.
Like all of us, kids have to react to things happening in the world around them while also dealing with worries, temptations, and obligations on their minds. As these demands for attention pile up, air traffic control helps the child regulate the flow of information, prioritize tasks, and above all, find ways to manage stress and avoid mental collisions along the way. Having this ability is a necessity for positive and level mental health.

Developing effective air traffic control, overcoming toxic stress, and building solid brain architecture are things kids can't do on their own, and since strong societies are made up of healthy, contributing individuals, it's up to us as a community to make sure all young people have the kinds of nurturing experiences they need for positive development. To build better futures, we need to build better brains.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

This helpful video was produced by the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative. It was developed in cooperation with the Harvard Center on the Developing Child and the FrameWorks Institute. Thumbnail image by Scott Granneman, used under Creative Commons license.

Aug 21, 2014

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