What is neuroplasticity and how does it work for students are two important questions that determine a child’s success or failure in school and in life. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to physically grow new connections – and brain matter.
Before neuroplasticity came to the attention of neuroscientists, it was believed that the brain’s development and growth of neural pathways occurred mainly during childhood and then pretty much stopped during adulthood.
However, due to technological advancement and brain imaging, researchers discovered that the brain does not stop forming new neural pathways but continues to develop new connections throughout a person’s life.
Neuroplasticity in the news
A February press release by Business Brain Mapping titled “I CAN CHANGE MY BRAIN” is announcing a neuroscience event for educators, mental health experts, and business leaders.
The event, which is scheduled for February 26, 2017, addresses the topics of what is neuroplasticity and how does it work. According to Business Brain Mapping (BBM), this is a brain-changing event for professionals interested in how neuroplasticity can transform mental health and learning difficulties and improve quality of life.
Below are the three major questions BBM posted in its event announcement:
- Have you ever wondered if you could change your brain?
- Do you know how to retrain your brain to improve your intelligence, learn new skills, be happier and have more positive relationships?
- Do you or someone you love suffer from learning difficulties or mental health concerns?
The lead title for the event is the following: “Engage with our world leading experts and harness the latest insights from neuroscience that could transform your life.”
Of course, the neuroplasticity event is taking place in Melbourne, Australia, and is not specifically geared toward those who would benefit the most from the crucial information about neuroplasticity – parents.
What is neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity consists of the words “neuron” and “plasticity” and refers to the brain’s amazing ability to rewire itself and/or actually change physically.
Neuroplasticity can occur in individual neurons (microscopic changes) or on a larger scale (cortical remapping).
Both physical changes — on a molecular level (neurons) and larger scale (cortical mapping) are explained in the two videos below.
How does neuroplasticity work on a molecular level?
Every time a child or an adult thinks or does something, neural pathways in the individual’s brain are involved. Those neural pathways consist of multiple neurons that communicate with one another through junctions called synapses.
When we think or do something that we are already quite familiar with, those neural pathways are already well established.
The video below shows how new neural pathways develop at the synapses when we learn something new.
How does neuroplasticity work on a larger scale?
To understand the characteristics and power of neuroplasticity in a child’s or adult’s brain, and to understand what neuroplasticity is and how it works, it is helpful to visualize a river. Just like the energy in a river, the brain’s energy never stops – it continues to flow.
It is utterly important for parents to understand that whether a child develops positive or negative neural pathways depends very much on the environment that the child is exposed to!
Neuroplasticity in adults versus children
One could compare neuroplasticity in a child’s brain to the beginning of a river. The energy in a spring, a creek, a fast-flowing small river is not quite like the adult energy in an established, wide, and slow-moving river. But in either case, the water is flowing and energy is occurring.
Because the energy in children is much faster, and neural pathways (positive or negative) can develop quicker, children are much more vulnerable to their environment than adults.
Neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to form new neural pathways – became an important part for neuroscience when researchers first discovered that adults who had suffered a stroke were able to regain full brain function with stimulating brain exercises.
Reviews of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies showed that patients not only learned to use different neural pathways in their brain — but that the brain had actually “grown” new brain matter.
Adults can grow new neural pathways in their brain with the four major characteristics required for neuroplasticity – energy (physical or mental exercises), the right chemicals (food or drugs), time, and the right environment.
No matter how old a person is, spending time in nature for daily walks over a prolonged period of time will develop new neural pathways. The same applies to brain exercises, yoga, or developing other new positive habits.
The four major characteristics of neuroplasticity
When we look at a river, we can examine its chemical components (H2O plus pollution), its energy (who fast or slow it runs), the time it takes to turn from spring into a full river, and its environment. Neuroplasticity has the same four characteristics.
How neuroplasticity works in the brain of children depends on the chemicals (food) the child eats or is exposed to (pollution), how much energy the child is allowed to spend, how much time the child is exposed to something, and what kind of environment the child experiences.
A child that consumes amounts of chunk food, spends a tremendous amount of energy playing on a computer, and is exposed over a prolonged period of time to a negative environment will develop negative pathways.
Neuroplasticity in kids
Understanding neuroplasticity is crucial for parents and educators because energy, chemicals, time, and environment do contribute to how your child’s brain physically develops.
One of the frequent comments we heard from parents of our new students at the Academy of Exploration International was about how happy their child used to be.
“In Kindergarten, our son loved to be creative, was inquisitive, and would enjoy talking to anyone. Now, at the age of 11, he is withdrawn, only looks at his iPad, and struggles in school.”
The shocking truth that parents do need to be aware of is that this little boy’s brain – like most other children — didn’t just change emotionally, but physically.
Negative neural pathways develop if a child is exposed over a prolonged period of time to a negative environment.
Nature versus nurture
Can an environment really change the physical structure of a child’s brain?
In our free eBook, we discuss the topic of Nature (a child’s genetic inheritance) and Nurture (a child’s environment) in detail. Our story of Grandfather Thomas illustrates how it is possible that a child with promising abilities turns into a child with painful disabilities.
“For the growing brain of the young child, the social world supplies the most important experiences influencing the expression of the genes, which determines how neurons connect to one another in creating the neural pathways which give rise to mental activity.”
(Siegel, Daniel J. The Developing Mind)
Dyslexia and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are most often genetically inherited. When a child with dyslexia or ADHD is in an environment where it can pursue its genetic heritage, the child’s unique abilities can come to their full potential. Thomas Edison (ADHD) and Pablo Picasso (dyslexia) are excellent examples.
However, when a child with dyslexia or ADHD is in an environment where its genetic ability is seen as a major disability, havoc ensues.
Below are some excerpts from our eBook:
Many students react to the discrepancy between Nature and Nurture, their genetic abilities versus their environmental disabilities, with Flight or Fight.
Typical fight reactions include clashes with school authority, controversy, arguments, troublemaking, cheating, course failures, school resentment, anger, and violence.
Typical flight reactions include excessive daydreaming as a form of mental escape, not turning in work, absences from class, dropping out of school all together, drugs, alcoholism, teen pregnancy, anorexia, overeating, depression, and suicide.
How neuroplasticity works for children
Every day that a child is at home, in school, or together with friends, new neural pathways are developed. From the moment a child walks through the classroom door, its brain is eager to develop neural pathways.
Whether those pathways will consist of negative pathways (negative thoughts) or positive pathways (positive thoughts and attitudes) will depend on what the child experiences.
Children are smart. If a teacher gives a student positive praise when it is undeserved, the child will pick up on that. The neural pathway that will begin to develop in the child actually consists of “teachers deceive you. “
How neuroplasticity works at our Academy
When a student comes to our Academy in the morning filled with negative thoughts like “I am fat” or “I can’t do anything right,” it is quite unlikely that the student will be able to succeed academically. Since emotions are seated much deeper in the brain than logical thinking, the student’s success on that day is rather doomed.
The first and most important step in empowering students to develop new positive neural pathways is to gain an AWARENESS of a negative pathway. All it takes is for a student to be able to say, “Oh, I feel terrible because I am fat.”
The second step for neuroplasticity and for dealing with a negative neural pathway is ACCEPTANCE. Schools are not psychologists, and it does not matter why a child may be overweight. It also does not matter whether the child is actually fat or not. The only thing that matters is that the child feels that he or she is fat. Acceptance means being able to say, “It’s ok to be fat.”
While the first two steps (Awareness and Acceptance) deal with the negative pathways, the third step is focusing on developing a new positive neural pathway through ACTION.
We always leave it up to our students whether they want to take action or not. At times they are just too tired to care and choose to just feel miserable. Whether a student chooses action or the feeling of being miserable, the important aspect is that the student makes a choice.
The most frightening experience for us as educators was meeting new students who appeared to have absolutely no neural pathways that enabled them to make choices.
From early childhood to being a teen, those students were always told what to do by a caregiver, parents, teachers, and peers. So how could they have developed the neural pathway and skill to be able to make choices?
Luckily, within just a few weeks, our students quickly develop new positive neural pathways (including the skill of making choices) because they feel a new kind of empowerment.
For us, empowering our students is a major answer to the questions of what neuroplasticity is and how neuroplasticity works. Sooner or later, all students leave a school. There is no greater reward for an educator than to see a student leave a school with plenty of positive neural pathways — in order to continue his or her path in life.