Promoting Strong Neuroplasticity and Grit in Early Childhood

Suzan Mullane, CEI Faculty and Trustee

“You have to fix the hole in the soul before you can teach grit” (Oprah Winfrey 2018, CBS This Morning Interview)

Healthy bodies, compassionate hearts, a regulated brain, positive human attachments, and grit are the ideal in early childhood development. For those who have less than the ideal, schools are the ‘change agents.’ How? Promoting neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to branch, reorganize and create new cells. The prefrontal cortex isn’t stagnant. Whether the brain is impacted by head trauma, a medical aliment, or emotional trauma, it can improve, especially in early childhood when the rate of growth and malleability are great.  Ultimately, the brain and body should ‘fire’ together. When both are in sync, they create myelin, the connective protective sheath that builds new neurons.

Promoting safety through intentionally positive relationships provides the foundation to create calm and ‘grow brains.’ In young children, and all children, emotional resiliency which can be strengthened by the presence of a caring, nurturing adult becomes part of the neuroplasticity process. This process can be considered to be a double edge sword. During early developmental years, the brain is most vulnerable to trauma; however, these early years can also be a time of rapid repair. For young children, the-brain and body can work in tandem in a state of calm. (Harvard University Center for the Developing child, 2016).

‘We now know that the way to help a child develop optimally is to help create connections in her brain’”her whole brain’”that develop skills that lead to better relationships, better mental health, and more meaningful lives. You could call it brain sculpting, or brain nourishing, or brain building. Whatever phrase you prefer, the point is crucial, and thrilling: as a result of the words we use and the actions we take, children’s brains will actually change, and be built, as they undergo new experiences.’ 
‘• Daniel J. SiegelNo-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind

Challenges in Early Childhood Brain Interventions

Hope for children who have experienced trauma or prolonged stress is possible, but requires a reduction in the level of stress and trauma. Many of these children have under-developed prefrontal cortices, resulting in impaired executive functioning. When we intervene on their behalf, the immediate goal from a neuroscientific and instructional perspective is to promote simultaneous attention and response inhibition-two of the eight domains of executive functioning and two of the most important for ‘grit.’   Teachers, with some forethought and planning can help children develop attention skills to increase their academic focus, while simultaneously reducing their urge to flee’”which is often observed through their acting out, disruptive behaviors or even daydreaming. Both of these take children’s attention away from academics.

The Neuroscience. Childhood trauma impedes attention due to an over-active amygdala, which can flood the body with cortisol-the stress hormone. Given a continuous “bath” of cortisol, early brain architecture becomes disrupted. Transitions, from one activity to another become increasingly frightful for children and stressful for teachers who are managing these transitions.   Fear of change and willfulness to control the environment to ‘seek safety’ can lead to meltdowns.

A child’s (or an adult’s) nervous system may detect danger or a threat to life when the child enters a new environment or meets a strange person. Cognitively, there is no reason for them to be frightened. But often, even if they understand this, their bodies betray them. Sometimes this betrayal is private; only they are aware that their hearts are beating fast and contracting with such force that they start to sway. For others, the responses are more overt. They may tremble. Their faces may flush, or perspiration may pour from their hands and forehead. Still others may become pale and dizzy and feel precipitously faint.’ 
‘• Stephen W. PorgesThe Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation

During the first three years of life, young children live in their right dominant brain. Cause and effect, a more complex form of thinking, kicks in when the left brain masters more complex language. Hence the ‘why’ questions when children leave toddlerhood.  Mindfulness, yoga, heart centered activities and sensory boards help students feel their bodies and be present in the moment as the fight or flight of a deregulated chaotic brain becomes more relaxed. Blockages in neuropathways can’t be healed or branch if students do not feel present in their own human skin (Semple, Reid, & Miller, 2005). Now is the time to lay the foundation for resiliency, even when the “ideal” childhood is far from view.

“Speak from the heart to be heard.”—William Watson Purkey

Healing Comes with Heart Centered Practices (Center for Educational Improvement)

I was called to work at a local Title One Elementary School in West Virginia to model lessons for teachers on mindfulness, peer-to-peer compassion, and reducing test anxiety. Given the opiate crisis in West Virginia, there are more students with reactive attachment disorder and some are prone to tantrums.

During Heart Centered Circle Time, I asked second graders to stand and following CEI’s Heart Beaming practices (Mason & Banks, 2014) to place their hands on their heart and say the person or event that they wished happy feelings for. ‘My grandmother is in the hospital, or my dad needs to get a job,’ were common wishes. Surprisingly, towards the end, one boy was left to tears and couldn’t speak.  He sobbed. The children saw his sadness and immediately formed a circle of hugs around him. His teacher did not know his story at the time but expressed to me: ‘There is so much going on with opiate crisis and on any given day, any of my students could be deeply affected and we just don’t know. I can see I need to make time to do this because what they carry is locked in; it needs to come out so they feel safe and supported.’

As I ended my session, children swarmed me with hugs. I am essentially a stranger, but when children feel heard in a safe environment, and can put words to emotions, they are often grateful. Gratitude increases calm.

 References

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2016). From best practices to breakthrough impacts: A science-based approach to building a more promising future for young children and families.

Mason, C. & Banks,. (2014). Heart Beaming. Vienna, VA: Center for Educational Improvement.

Semple, R. J., Reid, E. F., & Miller, L. (2005). Treating anxiety with mindfulness: An open trial of mindfulness training for anxious children. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 19(4), 379.

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