Neuro-what? Why Neuroplasticity Is the Key to Making Your Smart Kid Even Smarter.
What is neuroplasticity?
Many of us can still remember hearing, “Don’t hold your breath until your face turns red! You’ll kill your brain cells and they’ll never grow back!” Growing up we knew our parents’ wisdom should typically be trusted, and you probably shouldn’t hold your breath until your face turns red. But as it turns out, we didn’t really need to worry about killing or stunting the growth of our brain cells.
Not too long ago, even scientists thought the brain stopped developing in early childhood. It was commonly believed that genetics and genetics alone dictated our ability to learn. We’ve since discovered that the brain changes and develops throughout a person’s life—a concept called neuroplasticity.
Think of your brain like a forest. To navigate from one end of the forest to another, a deer cuts a path through the trees. As increasingly more animals follow that path, the grass gets worn down, and the path becomes clear and easy to follow. Without the repetitive steps of the deer and squirrels and rabbits, the path would become unpassable, overgrown with plants. A fox trying to cross the forest would not be able to find his way.
As we learn, our brain grows by creating and strengthening pathways between brain cells. These pathways can be created and strengthened at any point in our life, but develop at a much faster rate in early childhood. We learn constantly when we are young—how to talk, how to walk, how to react—and pathways are thus continually created.
As we grow, these pathways get pruned just as a gardener prunes a shrub, and our brain takes shape. The stronger the branch, the harder it is to trim. Developing strong pathways when our children are young can lead to lifelong benefits.
How can you use neuroplasticity to help your children’s development?
Treat the brain like a muscle.
We know that children’s brains are ripe for development. Treat them like muscles and train them to get stronger. Just as consistently lifting weights will build stronger muscles, consistent study will build stronger pathways in the brain. Incorporate this daily practice into your routine by setting aside just a few minutes a day to complete daily math exercises , stick to a nightly story time, or practice flashcards. Before you know it, your children will be reading chapter books and multiplying fractions!
Teach your children about the concepts of neuroplasticity and growth mindset.
Simply teaching children that their efforts impact their abilities leads to increased learning! Growth mindset, a concept established by Dr. Carol Dweck, is the understanding that intelligence and abilities are not set in stone, but can be developed. As we’ve learned, this belief is proven through the science of neuroplasticity. And as Dr. Dweck learned, when students are taught about the concepts of growth mindset and neuroplasticity, they perform better in school.
Here are some tips on how to teach your children:
Recall a time they really struggled to learn something.
“Remember the first time you tried to ride a bike without training wheels? You fell off so many times that your knees were all scraped up. Now you can ride circles around me!”
Instead of praising a trait, “You’re so smart!” praise effort, “You worked really hard today!”
Let your children know that making a mistake is natural when they’re trying something new or difficult. Give an example of a time that you made a mistake, and how it helped you learn.
It’s encouraging to know that we can continue to learn throughout our lives. You can teach an old dog new tricks after all! But why not take advantage of your child’s rapidly developing brain to maximize learning opportunities? Teach your children that they can learn anything if they set their minds to it, and they will benefit their entire lives.