What Brain Science Tells Us about Raising Healthy Children

Recent advances in neuroscience research have unlocked some of the key functions of brain development that dramatically shape behaviors. What is most compelling is that we now know all our experiences have an impact on the way our brains develop and function, for better or for worse. The outcome can be for the worse under conditions of stress, adversity, maltreatment, poor nutrition, and other negative experiences given that they can all delay brain development and actually cause damage. The good news is, however, that the brain’s sensitivity to the environment provides us with windows of opportunity to intervene and provide supportive services that will insulate children from adversity, and ultimately improving brain development and function, and increasing the odds that they will thrive.

Revitalizing impoverished neighborhoods, supporting families, and providing healthy opportunities and experiences for children may have long‐standing effects that can be measured by changes in brain development and functioning. Coordinating services in the community to provide children with these proven positive experiences can create a new generation of kids who are ready to learn and ready to lead. Tailoring the environment to provide each child with access to proven interventions and resources at the neighborhood, school, and family levels improves conditions for the entire community.

What does that mean in the context of Promise Neighborhoods? Our goal is to provide supports for children, their families and their schools so that children can progress more normally and have a productive and fulfilling life. Brain science offers some milestones to allow us to chart a healthy path.

Some of the most compelling and relevant findings are highlighted below:

➢ Some children who grow up in impoverished homes or communities start out life under many disadvantages: premature birth, abuse and neglect, addiction, or violence, which adversely affect brain development and, ultimately, psychological and academic functioning. Early interventions can introduce opportunities for positive behaviors and environmental conditions known to reduce or in some cases reverse the damage caused by these disadvantages, thus leading to more positive and encouraging outcomes.

➢ Infancy throughout adolescence and into early adulthood constitutes a lengthy developmental period of “neuroplasticity,” when incredible reorganization takes places within and between brain structures that are responsible for emotional and cognitive functions such as decision‐making, emotional control, and learning. This period of brain development provides a critical window of opportunity to establish or rewire neural circuits that will improve outcomes in child development.

➢ This high level of neuroplasticity occurs particularly in brain regions that support cognitive (prefrontal cortex) and emotional regulatory (limbic system) processes that, when dysfunctional, contribute to behavioral problems. Providing positive experiences throughout this period (from early childhood through late adolescence and into young adulthood) can help a child to overcome the effects of negative experiences on brain functioning and become more resilient.

Based on this research it is clear that efforts to significantly improve school effectiveness must focus on all the conditions children experience on a daily basis that directly influence how their brains grow and function. Certainly their ability to perform in school and live productive lives is very much based on how well they are able to regulate their behavior, emotions, and cognitive functioning. These are all brain-based activities that can be significantly boosted by a nurturing environment. Emphasizing the role of brain development on final behavioral outcomes will serve to fine-tune strategies for positive learning and behavior change during their associated optimal window of opportunity. Anything less shortchanges children, schools, and neighborhoods.