The Brain Story – guest blog from Oxford University

Have you ever tried to build a tower from pipe cleaners?

It’s pretty difficult! But if you thread the pipe cleaners through a drinking straw, hey presto! Suddenly you have a much more useful building material that makes it possible to make a taller, sturdier tower.

Just like a tower, children’s brains are also built over time and need a solid foundation and robust construction materials if they are to grow tall and strong. Understanding how children’s brains are built is a key message of the “Brain Story”, a set of innovative learning materials which are freely available online to help everyone understand the science about child development, and how our early experiences can have a life-long effect on our physical and mental health. Researchers at the University of Oxford have teamed up with the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative to bring the “Brain Story” to the UK and share the important messages about how and why are early experiences are so important, and the role we can all play in creating stronger brains and more resilient communities.

So how are brains built?

One of the key materials for building a brain is positive interactions between a caregiver and a child. From their earliest moments in life, infants are ready to take part in social exchanges with important adults around them. These interactions, called “Serve and Return” work like a game of tennis between a child and caregiver. The child “serves” by reaching out for a connection through eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, babbling, or touch. A responsive caregiver will “return the serve” by talking back, playing peekaboo, or sharing a toy or a laugh. The caregiver is acting like a ‘straw’; providing support for the pipe cleaner to create a robust material for building the child’s brain.

Other types of experiences also shape brain development. As a child grows up, they face new challenges, such as the arrival of a new sibling, or starting nursery. Some stress is positive; it gives children the chance to learn new skills and independence. But when children face prolonged, negative events such as physical and emotional abuse (sometimes described as Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs) without the support of caregivers around them to offer buffer the impact, this can result in “Toxic Stress”. “Toxic Stress” is damaging to children’s brain architecture and can lead to a higher risk of physical and mental health problems later in life.

A busy airport?

Robust and sturdy brain architecture supports the development of children’s social and emotional skills, including self-regulation and executive functioning. Self-regulation involves children learning to manage their feelings and cope with strong emotions in the face of day to day frustrations or disappointments. Executive Functioning is used to describe a range of skills which include short term memory, prioritising tasks and balancing multiple demands, e.g. remembering to follow rules, listen to the teacher and completing the task requested. The Brain Story likens this to the “Air Traffic Control” tower at a busy airport; our brains have to direct and manage the take-off and landing of multiple aircraft, making sure that none crash or run out of fuel! These skills are crucial to children’s school readiness, but are also lifelong skills; as adults we need to use our executive functioning to balance the demands of multiple children, having fun while keeping everyone safe, keeping an eye on the clock and planning ahead to have the next activity ready.

We all have our own Brain Story

Our brain architecture develops most rapidly during our first 3 years of life, with a second period of intense development during adolescence. The legacy of our childhood experiences lasts into adulthood; after all, we were all children once! Disruptions to brain architecture caused by toxic stress in childhood may in turn affect an adults’ ability to parent their own children in the way that they would like. As we have seen, looking after children is like “Air Traffic Control” at a busy airport, so is much harder when the development of these key skills during childhood has been compromised.

But the good news is that we can work together to build resilience within our communities through reducing sources of “Toxic Stress” and encouraging the development of key skills and abilities which enable everyone to thrive. So the Brain Story is a story for everyone; as individuals, as professionals and as members of our communities.

The Brain Story website (www.oxfordbrainstory.org) has lots of free and engaging tools, animations and resources to explain the science and offers a wealth of practical information and ideas about ways we can work together to build stronger brains and healthier communities.

CACHE has recently developed neuroscience qualifications in collaboration with industry experts, designed to inform and educate early years professionals. Find out more and register your learners on these qualifications on Qualhub.