There’s a gray area in child development—an area where difficulties in behavior, attention or academic skills reveal early risks for long-term challenges. These early challenges can easily develop into lifelong disabilities in some children; however, when environments nurture brain health, more of these children will succeed like their typically developing peers.
Knowledge about how to build and boost brain health and development can guide how we all work with at-risk children. Opportunities for brain “nurturing” occur across the entire day for children, facilitating the natural process that fosters skill development and behavioral control. Parents, teachers, physicians, coaches and daycare providers represent just a few of the people with the ability to shape the developing brain. Each person in a child’s day should understand how to create an environment that allows the child to feel safe to take the emotional and cognitive risks necessary for brain health and maturation.
At its core, a nurturing environment is one that offers developmentally appropriate opportunities and challenges for the child, with the goal of promoting competence and self-confidence. Because opportunities for success—whether learning to walk, cutting with scissors or riding a bike—are repeated until mastery is achieved, there’s a lot of trial and error along the way. If we work with children in a way that increases independence gradually, success is experienced before failure, and motivation to learn is stoked as the child achieves increased competence.
This concept also applies more generally. For example, when a 6-year-old is asked to spend too much extended time sitting at a desk during the school day (a demand that isn’t developmentally appropriate), the teacher may be setting the child up for failure in one of the earliest school experiences.
Predictability is another critical component of a nurturing environment. This shouldn’t be mistaken for rigidity, because healthy routines allow for natural variability, but a schedule is a wonderful source of comfort for kids. The brain develops best when free from excess stress and worry. In the classroom, a student’s day can derail when there are rapid and unexpected changes to routines.
On top of the foundation that is a nurturing environment, caregivers should also try to promote four additional critical brain health activities: sleep, exercise, nutrition and exposure.
It’s important for parents to think about the quality and quantity of their child’s sleep as being just as important as other health decisions. Adequate sleep is critical for the consolidation of memories and skill retention, with the added benefits of improved immunity and reduction in obesity risk. Children need to experience all stages of sleep to achieve the number of hours recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
As our society becomes more sedentary and physical education is less prominent in our schools, intentional time to exercise becomes as important as learning. We must take care not to push children too early into reading and writing tasks, at the expense of physical activities that stimulate other areas of the brain. I think of the years I spent living in Japan, where they have remarkably organized running and sports activities on a daily basis in their schools.
We know that a poor diet and poverty are often linked, but poor nutrition isn’t exclusive to those living in poverty. Chronic malnutrition leads to a host of serious health problems, but even a diet high in fast food and light on key nutrients can affect children’s learning and behavioral regulation, and can exacerbate conditions such as ADHD. With proper nutrition, the brain develops in a more optimal manner.
By exposing children to a wide variety of activities on a regular basis, such as dance, music, art, multiple languages and supervised peer social interactions, their brain growth and health is stimulated in important ways. Research has shown that most children exposed to multiple languages have enhanced brain development, and that children exposed to art-rich educational programs do better in reading and math. Regular social interactions offer children critical opportunities to practice problem solving with peers. Exposure isn’t just about balancing a child’s experiences; it’s also about stimulating multiple pathways toward intelligence.
Each child’s development represents a combination of genetics and the environmental supports or challenges they encounter. As a society, we have the opportunity to nurture all children. The result of nurturing, with an emphasis on brain health, is that we’ll see more children experience success during school years and grow into adults with the social and academic skills to hold jobs, live independently, contribute to their communities and, ultimately, find happiness.
Dr. Mark Mahone is a child neuro-psychologist, research scientist and the director of the Department of Neuropsychology at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.