Understanding brain development

Episode 150 November 12, 2023 00:27:24
Understanding brain development
Emerging Minds Podcast
Understanding brain development

Nov 12 2023 | 00:27:24

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Show Notes

In this episode, our guests Michael Hogan (ARACY – Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth), Sally Staton (Queensland Brain Institute) and Vanya (lived experience advisor) describe the contributions that neuroscience can make to practice with children and families. They discuss how common understandings about children’s brain development can be applied to every aspect of a child’s life, and how this can support the work of mental health professionals.
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Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Speaker A: Before we get into today's podcast, if you haven't heard, Emerging Minds is currently running the 2023 National Workforce Survey for Child, parent and family Mental Health. If you work in health, social community services sectors, this is your chance to have your say and be in to win one of five iPads. The survey helps shape child mental health policy, inform advocacy, and guide the development of future emerging minds resources to support your work. And you don't have to work directly with children or in mental health to participate. The survey is open now until the 15 November 2023. Head over to EmergingMinds.com au to complete the survey today and keep an eye on the website for future releases of the results. [00:00:45] Speaker B: Our bodies and our brains are deeply connected and this means that the things that we experience physically in our bodies very literally come back and are processed in our brain. But also the things that happen in our brain can have influence on a range of things to do with our bodies, including our health outcomes. [00:01:06] Speaker C: Welcome to the Emerging Minds Podcast. [00:01:11] Speaker D: Hi and welcome to this episode on Understanding Brain Development. I'm your host Jackie Lee. Recently, Emerging Minds had the privilege of partnering with Erase the Australian Research alliance for Children and Youth and Thriving Queensland Kids Partnership in collaboration with the University of Queensland's Queensland Brain Institute to develop the online course understanding brain development. You can find this course on our website at www.emergingminds.com au. In developing this course, we were fortunate to work with Michael Hogan, Sallya Statin and Vanya, who you'll be hearing from in today's episode. Michael is the convener of the Thriving Queensland Kids Partnership. He is also an Adjunct professor at the Queensland University of Technology and a member of the Centre for Policy Development's Early Childhood Development Council. Michael is a passionate advocate for the development of neuroscience understandings as a way to forward common understandings of children's experiences. Sally is a senior Research Fellow at the Queensland Brain Institute. Her work focuses on the social environments that help us develop, and her knowledge and application of neuroscience is incredibly impressive. Vanya is a lived, experienced child and family partner. She has two school aged children, is studying a Bachelor of Psychology and Volunteers at the Women's Information Services in South Australia, which provides referrals to women and children who have experienced or are experiencing domestic violence. We're still not quite sure how she fits this all in. To begin, I asked Michael to describe the importance of a shared understanding of neuroscience and how these ideas could offer a common language for service systems. [00:02:52] Speaker E: So when we think about families'experience of systems, there are lots of systems and services that they interact with as they're pregnant, as they're in infancy, and as their child grows and throughout their childhood and adolescence. So families are interacting with a lot of systems and services, families who have more challenging circumstances and more complex needs, who interact with a lot of services and systems, they often tell us. So their voice and experience is that they find navigating these services and systems and different professionals really challenging. They often say that they hear very different messages from one person to the next, to the next to the next, from a child maternal nurse, from a GP, from a cousin or a friend or a disability worker or early childhood educator. So families often talk about the confusion that comes with the different messages they get about what's important, about child development and how you parent. We started to talk to folks in our services and systems about why do families experience such fragmented services and systems? And one of the key points that kept on coming up from systems leaders all the way through to practitioners was the lack of common language, common knowledge, common skills. So over time, these very complex programs and silos and disciplines have emerged. That means that often the people who are working with the same families have very different understandings about child adolescent development, have very different practice frameworks, very different language. And if we want to create a more seamless and effective way for families to interact with our systems, then we need to create common knowledge, common skills and common behaviors. And neuroscience and brain building is one of those opportunities we have to build common contemporary science, informed knowledge and skills and language for practitioners. And we reckon that's going to be of value and benefit not only to children, young people and families, but to those workers and practitioners themselves. [00:04:59] Speaker D: Next, I asked Vanya about her understandings from neuroscience and its contribution to her own parenting. [00:05:05] Speaker F: From my experience, when you're dealing with so many different practitioners all about one child, I found it can be very disjointed, and one doesn't speak to the other, and the parent then has to relay every piece of information again and again and again, and it can get lost. Having two children of my own, both with different developmental needs and things like that, it just has always interested me anyway, how the brain works. But to see how the brain develops in children and from experiences with my own children and seeing how they've grown up to achieve what they achieve and struggle with what they struggle with. [00:05:45] Speaker D: I then asked Sally what her research findings can tell us about neuroscience's contribution to practice with children and families. [00:05:52] Speaker B: What we have to understand is that child development and neurodevelopment are not different things. They're really the same thing. It's just depending how we're looking at it. So, child development, what we're usually thinking about is the behaviors that we see. It's the behaviors, the actions, the movements, the transitions from crawling to walking, all of those sorts of things we frame as development because they're things we can see. Neurodevelopment or brain development, is simply the thing that sits underneath that. It's the processes in the brain, the maturation, the growing of the brain, and the connections within the brain that lead to all of the behaviors we're observing. So, really, they're one of the same. But it's just the different levels of what we might be looking at. What's really interesting about applying neuroscience to practice and policy and the broad range of spaces that we're interested in is that it gives us a few things. First, it gives us a common language. It gives us some places that we can kind of have different disciplines come together but speak in the same way. The second thing, I guess, is it takes us from the practice, the how we do things to the why. And when we move down to the why we do things, we can kind of be a bit more open to the fact that there are multiple ways to achieve the same thing, and there's no one superior way of doing but that actually, all of those things are really, really important. But what sits underneath that is these key principles, these key understandings of what we're trying to achieve. And that deeper work of neuroscience allows us to do that, I think, in a really meaningful way. So brains aren't just born. They're built so they're not just a product of our genes. They're actually a product of the interaction between our genetics, between those building blocks of the code, of who we are and our interactions with the environment that we live in. One of the beautiful things about developmental neuroscience and that understanding of development is it gives us a deep appreciation of the role that you play. And that role is either directly with children themselves. By creating these spaces in which children's brains are developing, it's not just a nice thing to have. You're actually playing a really critical part in that child's life. Even if it's spool. Every single time that you interact with a child, you are laying down those neural pathways that will benefit that child or influence that child throughout their entire life. And I think that's really powerful. Beyond that, your role might not be with the child themselves, but with those that sit around the child. And again, the role you play helps provide that supportive environment that doesn't just allow a family to thrive, but allows the brains of the children that you're working with thrive. And again, not just in the immediate, but in that long term way. [00:08:32] Speaker D: One of the reasons that Michael advocates so strongly for understandings of neuroscience is his belief that it can offer children and their families hope. I asked him to share his thoughts on this. [00:08:43] Speaker E: We understand that people have ups and downs in their lives, and we will all have negative and positive experiences. And if we understand life as a bit of a seesaw, and we'll all have some negative experiences, and particularly for those folks who have more than their fair share of trauma and adversity, then we need to buffer those with more positive experiences, with stronger and more positive relationships, with the resources that everybody deserves and needs for a good life, so that people don't get trapped by the consequences of that adversity and trauma, so that there's a wonderful way of seeing this interaction between reducing adversity and building positive and responsive relationships, and building abilities to navigate life and to be more resilient in the face of those ups and downs. And that's a really powerful frame that can enable people to really exercise choice and agency and capability in their life. We know from the science that hope is an essential need that humans have for development and for navigating the ups and downs of life and the bumps and spills from early childhood, from infancy, as a child plays and grows and goes to school. And we now know from neuroscience, and particularly the neuroplasticity of our brains, the fact that brains can be repaired, that what we now know about neuroplasticity is a powerful, hopeful factor for people to know that it's not just their genes and their postcodes and their experiences that determine everything about their lives, that there are opportunities to learn and grow and to repair. [00:10:23] Speaker D: One of the ways that neuroscience has offered hope is the concept of neuroplasticity, which Sally explained. [00:10:30] Speaker B: For us, plasticity is this broad term that describes the way that our brain changes from our environment. So it's not the case that we just have our genes, and then our brain just develops, and it develops in the same way. But actually, the environments we live in influence our brain development through the process of plasticity, which makes us more adaptive. It makes us able to respond appropriately to the environments that we're in. So that plasticity is going to be more sensitive in certain parts, but occurs throughout our entire lives. And what it means for us as practitioners is that even if a child has experienced some sort of adversity, some sort of trauma, or perhaps hasn't had the opportunities that they need in their earlier parts of life. There are still windows of opportunity in which we can influence that child's life through influencing what's happening in their brains. So it's not a done deal, but we actually have plasticity through our entire lives as a mechanism for helping and supporting children to relearn, to rewire, and hopefully through that reengage with our environments in meaningful and positive ways. Brains aren't just born, they're built. So they're not just a product of our genes. They're actually a product of the interaction between our genetics, between those building blocks of the code of who we are, and our interactions with the environment that we live in. And this means for us as humans, the environments that we create or that are created around us as children and young people and throughout our lives, are important for our brain development. They don't just happen as separate things. [00:12:08] Speaker D: Vanya then provided some examples of how understandings of neuroplasticity can help parents to maintain hope for their children, even in challenging times. [00:12:18] Speaker F: I think as parents, sometimes we get caught in the moment that, what's wrong with my child? Everything's wrong. There's nothing. They're always going to be this way. There's no hope. But I think with neuroplasticity, it really does show, and has been proven that the brain is always building and reorganizing. And that can be a great thing if it's done in the correct way. So it is about trying to do the best you can. Know that the brain isn't forever changing, and it can change in positive ways. And we need to support the kids to be able to do that. From, say, my child, he thinks that the way he is now is the way he's always going to be. He's going to be just quirky, and everyone's going to call him weird. And he doesn't have a very good opinion of himself, which is really sad. And what I've tried to do is tell him, you're not always going to be this way. Your brain's amazing like you are. It can build and grow, and the more you learn, and then we can work upon the things that you're not feeling good about. So I think getting to the age appropriate level and speaking with your child openly about it, to say it's not always going to be bad, things will look up. We can change it. You're not stuck like this. There's always hope, because I have been working on it with it, when he was feeling quite down and low self esteem and everything, but turning that around with his autism, he now calls that his superpower. So to see his growth even in that outlook, so now he embraces himself for who he is. And yeah, autism is my superpower, he says. It's very cute. But yeah, so I think because I did go in with an age appropriate way of describing neuroplasticity to him, that's helped him move to that next stage where he sees it as a positive, his quirks and who he is. [00:14:14] Speaker D: Sally described how understandings of neuroplasticity can be relevant for engagement with adolescents. [00:14:21] Speaker B: So you can make a difference in a child's life throughout their entire life. That opportunity doesn't ever end, but if you are working with adolescents, it's a really valuable time. And even a child perhaps, that has had lots of adverse experience or maybe showing some behavioral difficulties or effects of those experiences can have through those positive interactions, opportunities to build new neural pathways that can help them function and react to situations in new and more positive ways. [00:14:52] Speaker D: Next, I asked Vanya, Michael, and Sally how practitioners can apply lessons from neuroscience to their practices with children and young people. [00:15:00] Speaker F: I think it would help them better tailor the support they give to each family. Each child. As we know, no two children are the same. No two families are the same. So for practitioners to use that as a way, as I said, to tailor programs, tailor the support they give, I think that's really essential. And I think the brain story will do that, definitely. [00:15:26] Speaker E: We need to understand. Everybody deserves and has a right to understand how our brains are built and the interaction of our brains and our other parts of our body, our nervous system, and all the other ways in which our brains and guts and bodies interact, because that's important for our understanding about our behaviors, our choices, our relationships, the way we practice. So if we're committed to providing the very best services and making the best difference for children and young people and families, we need to give workforces access to the best information that's emerging from neuroscience and other child development sciences. [00:16:04] Speaker B: What's really interesting about applying neuroscience to practice and policy and the broad range of spaces that we're interested in is that it gives us a few things. First, it gives us a common language. It gives us some places that we can kind of have different disciplines come together but speak in the same way. The second thing, I guess, is it takes us from the practice, the how we do things to the why and when we move down to the why we do things. We can kind of be a bit more open to the fact that there are multiple ways to achieve the same thing, and there's no one superior way of doing, but that actually, all of those things are really, really important. But what sits underneath that is these key principles, these key understandings of what we're trying to achieve. And that deeper work of neuroscience allows us to do that, I think, in a really meaningful way. [00:16:50] Speaker D: I was interested to hear Vanya talk more about the concept of the core brain story. [00:16:55] Speaker F: Going back to the core brain story, and talking about a child needs the solid foundations, like a house. So to be building that up and levels will be added down in a few years time, extensions happen. So it's kind of like that. You need to support from the very beginning, but also know and have an understanding, a general understanding of, say, milestones. No child reaches milestones at exactly the same time. But just knowing about them, having understanding and building upon those, it's also helping them, like, their mental health over time by teaching them executive functioning skills. So what to do in this situation, or how would you approach this situation and just to support their mental health that way to give them the strength to know that they can do it. And over time, it will build and it will strengthen. [00:17:47] Speaker D: Continuing with the core brain story, I asked Sally to discuss the concept of brain architecture. [00:17:52] Speaker B: So, brain architecture is really the building blocks. It's really a way of saying that we have these parts of the brain. The brain isn't just one thing. It has all these different parts, sort of like a house, and we have these foundations that sit at the bottom. And then we build the. I'm not an architect nor a builder, but we have these foundations that sit at the bottom. And then we might have all the post that sit around that. And that's one particular part of the building. Then we have all the different components, and then we have the roof, and we have the doors, and we have all these different parts. And every house doesn't have to be the same. You can have a house that looks different, acts different, plays different functions, suits different people or different environments. But what has to sit at the bottom of that, regardless of what your house looks like, is a really strong foundation. And so when we're talking about brain architecture and about the building of brain architecture, the first bit we are always talking about is that really strong foundation for children. And then once we have that strong foundation, and that strong foundation is the ability to respond appropriately to the stresses we might experience, because we haven't had so much adversity without support. So we've learned ways to respond appropriately, the ability to think about things, make decisions, make good decisions, to communicate in whatever form that is. All of these things are our foundations that sit there. And then beyond that, we can thrive. We can have all the personality, all the individual things that make us so wonderful as human beings. But that brain architecture, and the foundation of the brain architecture is the really important bit that we need to make sure that we help children to establish early. So sleep is actually where we do a lot of our brain development. So, one of the great expressions that I love is that wake is for teaching and sleep is for learning. So lots of the functions that we think about in terms of brain development, such as memory consolidation, so actually laying down the memories of the day, of what we've experienced, occur during our sleep. So, sleep plays a really critical role in brain development. And in fact, if we don't have good quality sleep and access to environments where we can have good quality sleep, that can have a really profound effect on the way we function. So our learning, our mood, how we interact with others, and also on our physical health. So often when we think about children experience disadvantage. We're thinking about lots of the social things that sit around children. But one of the things that's really important to understand is that sleep provides a mechanism for linking between the social factors sitting around a child and why that child might be having more difficulties, say, for example, in their schoolwork. So a child who isn't getting sufficient sleep or may have sleep that's disrupted because of family circumstances or environments that they're in, these children are going to have far more difficult time engaging in educational systems, regulating their emotions and their behaviors. And so it's a really important part to build into that broader picture around the ecology of the child in terms of not just thinking about what's happening to that child during the day, but also what might be happening for that child during the night. And is this a place that we can provide supports or at least an understanding of why that child might be having more difficulty functioning? [00:21:12] Speaker D: Michael described how understandings of the brain story can help children gain confidence in having agency in their own lives. [00:21:20] Speaker E: So people often take the stigma and a sense of their deficits and their weaknesses and their failings so deep that that becomes sort of an image of themselves that they not sure about how to move out of, and what giving people an understanding of brains and the interaction with experiences of how this can be intergenerational, how brains can be impaired, but how they can be repaired is incredibly empowering. You can give people sense of agency and an ability to understand their life story and how that's affected the decisions they've made, the choices they've made, the relationships they've had. And we've seen people's own testimonials about how this brain building knowledge can challenge and give them a sense of not what's wrong with them, but what's happened to them and the consequences of what's happened to them and how that can be changed. And we love the idea that this is an enabling and empowering knowledge that children deserve to know that young people deserve to know that adults, parents, and practitioners in all the sectors that work with children, young people and families, have a right to know. [00:22:33] Speaker D: Vanya agreed that understandings of the brain provide powerful reinforcements of hope for children. [00:22:39] Speaker F: And parents as the child develops. It's good for parents to know that the brain is an amazing object. And not only is it creating neural pathways within the brain, but throughout the body. It's not just mental, it's physical as well. And working all together, with the right help support down the track, the positive outcomes can be reached. [00:23:03] Speaker D: Sally described how understanding more about how children's brains work can increase your sense of wonder and creativity in practice. [00:23:11] Speaker B: So I guess one of the things for me is that neuroscience gives us this sort of awe and wonder, but this opportunity to think about everyday things in new ways. So even just walking down the street or interacting with a child or a child that you're working with allows us to get more creative about thinking about what is happening, what are the amazing things happening in that child's brain. So every little interaction that child has, whether that child is trying to move something and doing their own little science experiments day to day, all of that is triggering and responding to differences in the brain. And I guess, for me, that's where that kind of fascination comes from. And that interest and that passion is a really important point, that we don't confuse supporting brain development and brain health as meaning that there are good brains and not good brains. There are all sorts of brains, and every brain deserves the opportunity. When we say every brain, I mean every person, every child, every human being deserves the opportunity to have the support that they need to thrive, whatever that is, whatever thriving looks like for them. So it is not the case that we're looking to create these one type of humans, but what we want to do is ensure that all people have the right to the support they need to support their brain. Wherever they may be, or them as a human, wherever they may be. [00:24:36] Speaker D: Michael shared some final thoughts on the contribution of neuroscience to the service system. [00:24:41] Speaker E: Well, we think this has got a contribution to make. It's not a silver bullet, but it's got a contribution to make to addressing those big things that are of concern to the public and governments and organisations. Worker burnout, the complex needs that are presenting amongst children and young people and families that really are challenging our systems and the general public concern about mental well being and mental health. If we can bring a focus on brain health and brain skills and brain well being, we think that can make a significant difference to those really big issues that are challenging our society. So for folks who are just starting out in this space, I'd encourage you to be curious about the science. I'd encourage you to use this resource and the other resources that are available to get to understand the brain story because it will help you work through your own life story and your own skills and capabilities and behaviors and attitudes, and it will definitely help you be a better practitioner and hopefully help you in other parts of your life as well. [00:25:49] Speaker D: Finally, Sally emphasized the importance of continued learning and of recognising the role you play in supporting children's development. [00:25:57] Speaker B: It's always important to try and hold on to that enthusiasm for learning new things and we all learn new things at different points in our lives and thinking about how we can apply some of those ideas in creative ways to the practices that we have. But also, I guess, thinking about important role that you play in children's development and their brain development. [00:26:16] Speaker D: This concludes our episode on Understanding brain development. Remember, if you'd like to know more about this topic, you can find our free online course understanding brain development at ww emergingminds.com au. Thanks to Michael, Sally and Vanya for sharing their valuable insights, expertise and enthusiasm with us. We look forward to continuing to work together and to learning more about the hopeful lessons that neuroscience and plasticity can teach us all. I've been your host, Jackie Lee, thanks for listening and we'll catch you again soon. [00:26:52] Speaker C: Visit our website at www.emergingminds.com au to access a range of resources to assist your practice brought to you by the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health led by Emerging Minds. The National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health under the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Program.

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