From ABC News Online -
Neuroscientist and teacher Dr Judy Willis and developmental psychologist Kimberly Schonert-Reichl speak to News Online about neuroplasticity, the importance of the first years of brain development, and the impacts of stress and disadvantage on childrens' brains.What does the term neuroplasticity refer to?
JW: What we used to believe is that most of the conditions that affected the brain caused permanent damage. We believed some of it would be permanent and some of it would get better, but we didn't really know why.
But it turns out what happens is when the brain doesn't get enough of what it needs, or is damaged, it regrows. But what doesn't regrow are the neurons - the brain cells that actually hold the information.
Throughout life we lose them, and that's absolutely fine because what neuroplasticity is, is the amazing ability of the brain to change, to regrow, to re-organise and to find alternative routes of reviving a function that either was never there, or was damaged.
Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to rewire the connections between neurons to give us almost limitless potential to improve from whatever state we start in.
What effect does disadvantage or a lack of stimulation have on children's brains?
JW: Kids who have had socioeconomic limits because of the type of environment they've had, whether it's high stress or whether it's inadequate stimulation, their brains will definitely show differences when you first see them.
There will be less white matter - grey matter is the neurons, and the rest of the brain structure is white matter, the connections around the neurons And we'll see in children who have been deprived that there is a decrease in white matter. And we'll see, with intervention, the white matter get more plentiful and their mental functions become better and better.
What are the benefits of intervening early in children who are at risk?
The rate neuroplasticity can work is slower in someone who has less material to work with, but I don't believe it's impossible. I know for a fact that we have not found any limits in the human brain to become better with motivation and mental guidance by someone.
But the rate of improvement will be much faster the earlier you intervene, and it will be taking advantage of the brain's natural more rapid development the younger someone is.
The person has to want to practice, and send electricity through the right neural pathways, and so the more they experience failure, and recognise they're not as good and as smart as other kids, the harder it is.
Emotional resilience is really challenged when a child realises some things are coming easier to others, and for them the progress is really slow. So the later the intervention, the slower the improvement, the longer the catch-up will be and it takes an enormous motivation in a child to work through that. It's so hard as a child to face abilities others have that you don't have, and to believe you can get them.
When I first started doing the research I have to say I was very sceptical because I was not that familiar with mindfulness-based approaches, but I was so fascinated by the number of kids who not only said they liked it but said they used the skills that they learned to teach it to other people.
And it's like anything, when you learn something that you think is really cool and helpful you want to teach it those you love.
The research certainly on young children's development, particularly social and emotional development, we actually find that if you want to predict success in school early on, it's actually the social and emotional wellbeing of children and their own competence and how they're able to manage their own emotions that predicts their success in life.Mind Up is really about helping attention, and what happens in the brain is by focussing the attention is they're really developing their executive functions which are really self-regulation.
Also in this series
- Reshaping young minds: The latest neuroscience research is causing a major rethink of pre-school education.
- Science in action: See how one early years centre is applying the science of neural development to early education.
- Q&A: What is neuroplasticity?: What does the latest research into how the brain develops tell us, and why does it matter?