By: Robin Donaldson, Chief Operating Officer, Indiana Youth Services Association & NSPN Advisory Board member
The human brain is a beautiful thing. Nothing matches a healthy brain in efficient, creative, and effective functioning. Normal brain development follows predictable patterns mirroring the mastery of developmental skills at different stages of life. It is important to understand, however, that brain development is strongly influenced by environment. An enriched, supportive environment facilitates healthy brain development; a deprived, harmful, or stressful environment greatly inhibits normal brain development.
There are two developmental periods during which brain growth and development is unparalleled: birth – toddlerhood and pre-adolescence. During both of these stages, there is a tremendous increase in brain matter, particularly in neural connections, or synapses, that allow the brain cells to communicate. This overabundance of brain matter is necessary to accommodate the significant learning that occurs during these periods.
Also common to both periods of brain development is the process called pruning. Neural pruning rids the brain of unused synapses to promote more efficient processing. Again, pruning is highly dependent upon the environment and individual experiences. Exposure to new skills and learning opportunities is crucial during these times.
There are also differences in the brain development of infancy / toddlerhood and adolescence and these differences reflect the developmental tasks that are key to each stage. Much of brain development in the earlier years is inhibitory; neural communication in the brain blocks brain activity in certain areas as the child learns to control their own bodies, emotions, and actions. Brain growth in adolescence is excitatory; this is particularly true for the limbic system, the area of the brain integral to learning, reward, and emotions.
Key to understanding much of adolescent behavior is the knowledge that the limbic system develops and is “primed to respond” much sooner than the prefrontal cortex, the area controlling higher cognitive processes and higher emotional control. Due to this uneven growth pattern, adolescents experience heightened emotions, have more difficulty reading emotions and controlling their own emotions, and engage in thrill-seeking behavior at much greater extent than adults.
Because development of the prefrontal cortex is reliant upon experience, adults can create environments to facilitate this development. Learning opportunities, positive role modeling, adequate rest, diet, and exercise, effective coping skills and reduced exposure to risks factors such as alcohol, drugs, and stress, are all key components to healthy brain development. It is within our power to create experiences for youth that will allow them to maximize the most powerful tool at their disposal, the human brain.
This blog post is the first in a three-part series on brain development. Stay tuned for the next two blog posts on brain development!