If you're a parent, teacher, or guardian you'll probably agree that raising a child is not an easy job. At some point, you might ask some of the following questions.
In this episode of ExpertsConnect, Pediatric Neuropsychologist & Parent Coach, Executive Director, Brain Behavior Bridge, Sarah Levin Allen, Ph.D., CBIS, initially provides an overview of the brain. Later, Dr. Allen explains why the early years are so important for brain development in children. She also dives deeper into their needs for optimal brain development and discusses how the brain develops as children get older. Then, Dr Allen describes the differences between the mind and the brain. Thereafter, she shares her perspective on how we can cultivate a growth mindset and emotional intelligence in children. Finally, Dr Allen discusses how we can build happy and healthy brain habits for ourselves and children and shares her own experience and strategies for raising happy, healthy and emotionally intelligent brains.
Can you please quickly give us an overview of the brain? [2:47] | Dr Allen shares the following. So the brain is really set up where you have two different hemispheres that work to connect and to communicate. And I often say there are these things I call brain rule life rules. So we work a lot on connection and communication in our life. While the brain is primarily set up to work on communication and connection. Besides those two hemispheres, then we also have four different lobes that are kind of on the outside of the brain. And then the things that are really important for our functioning, things like learning and memory and emotions are deeper inside the brain, they're very protected. And so it's a great kind of thing to have these things deep inside the brain, and then have these outer structures. And we used to think of the brain a little more physically, like a little more like these different parts of the brain would do different things. And now our focus is a lot more on pathways and connections. For example, there's a pathway that runs from the front of our brain to the centre of the emotion centre of our brain, and back. And that pathway is especially important for both kids as we're helping to raise these little brains, what's happening with them. And if you're a parent, you know, it's the emotional centre of your brain that is also very important when it comes to being a parent as well. And so the brain really runs our body and our mind and it creates our reality. You know, my mother always used to say it's not reality, it's perception. And she couldn't be more on she's talking more about social interactions with peers. But again, another brain rule life rule, your brain really creates that reality.
Why are these early years so important for brain development in our kids? [4:53] | Dr Allen states the following. Prior to the age of five, is the most learning that you will ever have across your lifespan. You know, kids are born with more than twice the amount of neurons that adults have when they're born. And they go through this process between about zero and five, where they start to we call it pruning, think of it kind of like branches in a tree, right, and they start to lose the neurons that they're not using. And they start to keep the ones that they are using. And so they go through this pruning process. And, and it's all kind of based on what they experience. So it's so interesting to me that these little kids have so many neurons and again, about the brain, it's not about more and more isn't always better. And in this case, it's not better what you want is more efficient and effective connections with the neurons that you currently have. So with these neurons are these cells in the brain, they have branches that come off that connect with other neurons. And what you really want is, again, these pathways, these connection points, these communication points in the brain, and less about having a lot actually, we know kids with autism have too many neurons, that would be one issue that they have. And we need to get more pathway, more efficiency in the way that they can function. And so for early development, it's very, very, very important to have a lot of these experiences prior to the age of five and to really be able to help kids learn at that point.
What do infants and toddlers need for optimal brain development? [7:18] | Dr Allen states the following. So I mentioned exposure, and primarily, this is what they need for optimal development, which would be the experience and exposure to sensations, to interactions with other people, to language, and to visual stimulation. You know, we really focus interestingly enough on control during development. And, and we don't think of things this way, but when you think from a brain perspective, you know, when we're looking at the development of kids, one of the first things we look at is the way that they can control their motor movements. Right, we look for crawling or walking, which is a very controlled motor movement. You ever watched a little infant or toddler try to kind of get themselves moving, e.g., rollover, that they have to have a lot of muscle control, then we look at kind of a pincer grasp to see if they can grasp food. And we know then that they're probably going to be able to swallow it because they have those motor skills developed. And so we start to kind of think about motor development first. And then we have development over thoughts and over language, right. So something like bam, ba ba, ba da da da becomes dad, oh, my mama, mama, you know, that's a lot of control, right. And so we start to think of that. And then as kids get from A to preschool, for example, if they're in a preschool setting, we start to focus on kind of these school readiness skills like sitting in one place for more than 10 seconds. That's a very difficult thing for a young kid to learn. But they start to learn how to sit on a mat, or how to, you know, talk to their friends, how to control their emotions, and all of these things, start to help for them to develop their brains. So it's really about the focus on these exposures to these things, and then starting to teach these control methods in all those domains, because control isn't a separate spot for each domain. It's one part of our brain, it's the frontal lobe that we were trying to develop, we tried to develop that all the way out through the early 20s. Probably more if you know any adults. And so, you know, in here, this infant and toddler years, really trying to set them up for success for the rest of their lives by teaching them some of these skills.
What happens to the brain as the child gets older? [9:30] | Dr Allen explains the following. So again, they're working on these connections, right? We're working on reminding everybody about creating efficient and effective forms of communication and behaviour. Our brain really works on a couple of certain different principles or three in particular that I like to talk about after studying the brain for as many years as I have. They are anticipation, categorization and control. These are the three main ways our brain seems to work so our brain wants to anticipate things, it's always a step ahead of us. And we stop when things are surprising to us, or when something doesn't go that way. But if you notice, you're probably already hearing the end of my sentence before I finished my sentence. And many times kids will go to do something before you finished what you said, or even your you got to do something before. That's because your brain anticipates it's supposed to, you want it to because it has to be ready to go when you need it. The second principle is categorization. And that's really what we do. We categorise and group people. You know, this is one of the reasons that we have so many issues with things like prejudice and things like racial issues, it's because our brain naturally categorises and groups things. But once we know that, we can talk more about how the categorization that everybody is interesting and cool instead of don't, they're not different, they're not different doesn't mean something to the brain, because we categorise and group. We also do that with anything we're learning. So any information we learn gets categorised and grouped with other information we already know. So learning is really this process more of finding what we already know and putting the new information on top of that. And again, once you learn that kind of information, as your child gets older, that's the basis for learning. So now we know we have to find where people are to bring them where we want them to be. And then finally, control as I mentioned earlier, which is really fine-tuning all of the outputs that come out of the brain. So you know, it takes a lot less brainpower to control to let things go than it does to control things. This is why we give kids with ADHD, you know, stimulants, it doesn't make sense sometimes they're already stimulated, they might be bouncing off the walls, either cognitively or behaviorally. Why would we stimulate them, it's because it takes more brainpower, dopamine, which is one of the chemicals our brain uses to communicate, it takes more dopamine to control and hold back than it does to just kind of let loose. So control is always something we're working on. And as I mentioned, control, we work on way-through our early 20s, probably all the way through life. And sometimes I'm still working on control, especially when I'm parenting my children. So our brain wants to be able to anticipate what's happening, categorise that new information, and then control those responses. So as kids get older, it's really just a matter of working on those basic skills to help them learn and build their skills.
How are the mind and brain related? [12:26] | Dr Allen explicates - But I love this concept, right mind and brain. It's not one that we often make in neuroscience, we used to talk a lot about this. But as I mentioned before, it's not reality, it's perception, right? So our brain makes up what we would consider our mind. And so thinking is really just a function of the learning our brain does in the world. So it's based on this experience and the exposure that we have, and that we've created, so our mind is really just a manifestation of this kind of perception of this learning.
How can we as parents instil a growth mindset in our children? [13:08] | Dr Allen mentions the following. So because our mind is driven by this, from these experiences, and from this exposure, we really need to expose our children to a growth mindset approach very early. So growth mindset, meaning that we are flawed, but we grow and change from that, and not a fixed mindset where we're born this way and that is it. So we really want, to have this growth mindset approach. I like to use something called a glow and grow chart, for example, to do this for our kids. And to be honest, it's very helpful for us too because this gift creates a mindset for growth. So a glow and grow chart would be identifying the places you glow, where you're really rocking in life, where you are just amazing right now. And then the places that you need to grow, the things that you want to see yourself improve with, you can do this as an individual, you can do this as a parent, and you can do this for your child. And one of the things I would strongly suggest is to get your kids out of, especially the older kids out of the mindset of academic growth only we focus a lot on that in schools. But when you're thinking about a growth mindset, it should really be more about social and emotional growth. And these things that are not spelling and reading and math because all spelling and reading math are just a bunch of abilities we have in the brain put towards those different subjects. So here we really want to build those basic skills.
How can we help our children to develop emotional intelligence? [16:12] | Dr Allen mentions the following. So emotional intelligence is really about insight. So it's about understanding, again, who we are, how we feel, and what we value, and then extending that interpretation to others, right. So once we know how to do this for ourselves, we can then do this for other people in the world. So we can help kids develop emotional intelligence by working on this growth mindset approach for ourselves first, and then modelling that at home and at school, and really helping to create these happy, connected little brains. I mentioned that at the very beginning because that's what starts to exude this emotional intelligence. And when we are teaching these kids to identify their strengths and weaknesses, through a chart, like a glow and grow, in that we're also modelling ourselves, you know, now, this gives us this opportunity to work on the way kids think, to help them start to frame their emotions in a positive way, and encourage them to reframe negative thoughts, and to really further develop that emotional intelligence. And then, you know, for us as parents, too, it helps us really kind of have this guide as to how are we going to intervene with our children? And how are we going to help them kind of become more independent in emotional intelligence skills, instead of just dictating what they should and shouldn't be doing? We want them to start to think for themselves. And that's a whole different approach.
How does the brain change to support learning? [18:27 | Dr Allen highlights the following. We teach our brains how to respond, right, so we can lay the pathways by connecting that old and new learning that we talked about. So we can actually change the way the brain is connected through our learning process and kind of vice versa. So we get to decide how to lay those pathways, with our kids through example, and through modelling. And we can do it for ourselves by really making conscious efforts to identify our areas of growth and target those and intentionally make a change and habit forming, right, if we can create more positive habits, that's just the brain learning how to do something in a different way. That's how we make those pathways and connections is by creating these intentionally starting to think and behave in different ways. It's kind of that fake it until you make it concept. The reason that came up is because that's really a brain trick, you know, you smile, you just make an intentional effort to smile and you will eventually start to feel happier because your brain gets used to that behaviour. And you can do that across skills and across, across you know, any activity you want to do.
What makes our brains thrive? [22:11] | Dr Allen discusses the following. So I always like to talk about healthy brain habits in general, you know, the neat thing is, we mentioned sleep, which is important, but the food we eat, yeah, it turns into the chemicals that your brain uses for power. I'm gonna say that one more time because it was crazy to me when I finally realised this the food that you eat, everything that you consume turns into the chemicals that your brain uses to function. That's pretty cool. And so when you think about things your brain needs to thrive a good healthy diet is really one of them because we can actually break down the diet and look at each individual component and what it's going to do for your brain so we can eat certain things for extra energy, we can eat certain things, for mood stabilisation, you know, we can eat certain things to improve kind of our efficiency and effectiveness. And so really, one of the main things for our brain to thrive is a healthy diet, good sleep. Remember, it does that consolidation process and we need that it cleanses also, we used to think that the brain shut down during sleep, which is so interesting, but now we've actually seen some animal studies where our brain sits inside the skull in a fluid called cerebral spinal fluid, and when it sits in that fluid for protection, but also kind of it has a pressurised system that moves it through and when you sleep, that system actually goes into high gear and it will increase the movement of that fluid and so you really have this cleansing effect that happens and it gets rid of all the trash and debris that's in the extracellular space within the brain. And so when you do that you actually have this cleansing I mentioned the filing, but even from a chemical standpoint and from a cell standpoint, you get a cleansing effect. The other thing that does that is exercise. So exercise will also not only kind of cleanse the brain, it kind of helps to promote that movement but you also get some extra growth hormones as well and so you will stimulate the growth hormone in your brain and so you get the development of new connections and new cells that way as well. And so I would say you know exercise these basic healthy habits that we say are healthy for remember brain-rule life-rule are also helpful for our brains. So sleep, eating healthy, exercise, and then I would add one more which would be just these practising this healthy brain habit of thinking in a growth mindset form because that also is kind of your Boom, boom, boom, kind of how I help my brain thrive? Those would be the targets.
What strategies are you implementing on your parenting journey to raise happy, healthy and emotionally intelligent children? [25:43] | Dr Allen shares the following. Now really, here, it's about that insight. You know, for me, that's the primary thing with my kids in terms of helping to make their brains happy and healthy and connected. It's really about thinking about how you're thinking. And that is really the primary goal in my household. And you can ask my kids who I probably drive crazy with this, but it's a lot of what I would call reflective questioning, which is, you know, how did you approach that? Why did you do that? How did we get there? You know, what could we do differently next time? And those kinds of questions, instead of saying you shouldn't do this, or I need you to, you know, this promotes their brains to think about these things and make those connections on their own. So asking questions as a parent, and really being that reflective in that way, promotes that insight, and it promotes that connectedness in the brain, it helps the kids develop these skills for themselves. So for me, primarily, that's the most important for my kids.
Notable Quotes from Sarah Levin Allen, Ph.D., CBIS
"We categorise and group people. You know, this is one of the reasons that we have so many issues with things like prejudice and things like racial issues, it's because our brain naturally categorises and groups things. ." [10:30]
“So learning is really this process more of finding what we already know and putting the new information on top of that.” [11:03]
“[…] our brain wants to be able to anticipate what's happening, categorise that new information, and then control those responses. So as kids get older, it's really just a matter of working on those basic skills to help them learn and build their skills.” [12:06]
“[…] A glow and grow chart would be identifying the places you glow, where you're really rocking in life, where you are just amazing right now. And then the places that you need to grow, the things that you want to see yourself improve with, you can do this as an individual, you can do this as a parent, and you can do this for your child. And one of the things I would strongly suggest is to get your kids out of, especially the older kids out of the mindset of academic growth only we focus a lot on that in schools. But when you're thinking about a growth mindset, it should really be more about social and emotional growth.” [14:44]
“[…] if we can create more positive habits, that's just the brain learning how to do something in a different way. That's how we make those pathways and connections is by creating these intentionally starting to think and behave in different ways. It's kind of that ‘fake it until you make it’ concept. The reason that came up is because that's really a brain trick, you know, you smile, you just make an intentional effort to smile and you will eventually start to feel happier because your brain gets used to that behaviour. And you can do that across skills and across, across you know, any activity you want to do." [19:04]
“[…] everything that you consume turns into the chemicals that your brain uses to function.” [22:37]
CONNECT with Sarah Levin Allen, Ph.D., CBIS
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