As parents, it’s important to understand how children's brains develop so that we can provide the best possible environment for their growth and learning. Recent developments in neuroscience have revealed that the brain undergoes a lot more changes in childhood and through the teenage years than used to be thought. The buzzword is neuroplasticity and it relates to the way that the brain has the power to reorganise itself if we encourage it to do so.
Experts suggest mental training and visualisation can be key to improving learning outcomes and there are certain techniques that are proven to be particularly effective in children and teenagers.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s capacity to change and evolve in response to life experiences. The human brain continues to develop throughout childhood and adolescence. During this time, the brain's plasticity allows it to adapt and change in response to new experiences and learning opportunities. As people learn and practise new skills, their brains create new neural connections and pathways, allowing them to become more proficient in those skills over time.
An example of brain plasticity that is regularly written about is a study of London taxi drivers that showed that repeated memorisation of the city streets led to an increase in the size of the hippocampus, the area of the brain that is responsible for memory. Another study showed that people who play string instruments have a larger region of the area of their brain devoted to touch than those who don’t play instruments. The extensive practice moulds their brain, strengthening and creating connections. Similar research into young adults who were taught to juggle and practised intensively, showed an increase in size of the area of their brains involved in perceiving moving objects.
The rapid adaptations that the brain can make during the teenage years also raises concerns about the effect of smoking, vaping and alcohol and drug use by teenagers.
The brain undergoes more changes in the teenage years than at any other time apart from the years 0-3. This rapid transformation of the teenage brain is a golden opportunity for teenagers to strengthen existing skills and learn new ones.
Dr Andrew Huberman is a professor of Neurobiology and Opthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine. A lot of his research is related to neuroplasticity and he is enthusiastic about applying neuroscience research to everyday life. Huberman has shown that mental training and visualisation can be used as a way of taking advantage of the brain’s plasticity to improve learning.
Mental training involves imagining oneself successfully performing a task, while visualization involves imagining oneself going through the process of successfully performing a task. These techniques have been widely applied to improving performance in sport. Huberman argues that they can also be effective in helping teenagers to learn, as the techniques help to build neural pathways that support the development of new skills.
For example, they could be applied to maths, language and music learning. By engaging in mental training and visualization techniques, a teenager can imagine themselves successfully completing maths problems or playing a musical instrument fluently so building confidence in their abilities. This, in turn, can lead to improved performance and a more positive attitude toward learning.
Huberman stresses that: “Mental training and visualisation cannot replace execution of real-world cognitive or motor tasks you want to learn… but is effective in enhancing the speed at which you learn and the stability of that learning over time.”
Mental training and visualization techniques can be powerful tools for optimizing brain plasticity and improving learning outcomes, particularly for teenagers who may be struggling with specific skills or experiences. These techniques are not a way to learn a new skill but to improve the speed and accuracy of a skill you already have some proficiency at. The Huberman Lab website gives more detailed information on this approach.
Another important aspect of teenager's brain development that neuroscience has made us more aware of is the effect of stress and anxiety on learning. When children experience chronic stress or anxiety, it can have a negative impact on brain development, weakening the connections in the brain and leading to a range of cognitive and emotional challenges. No one learns well when they are stressed and anxious.
The mental training and visualization techniques mentioned earlier can be effective in helping children to manage stress and anxiety, by providing a sense of control and self-efficacy. For example, if a teenager is anxious about giving a presentation in front of their class they could use visualization techniques to imagine themselves delivering a successful presentation. This might help to build their confidence and reduce anxiety. This can lead to a more positive experience in the classroom and a greater sense of self-efficacy over time.
Another approach to reducing stress and anxiety is to teach children mindfulness techniques. The practice of mindfulness over time has been shown to change the structure of the brain and this has the potential to improve focus and reduce anxiety. Many schools have introduced mindfulness sessions in the hope that they will help improve mental health and learning. A large study into the effectiveness of this approach is currently being undertaken.
Neuroplasticity means that intelligence is not fixed or determined from birth. Instead it is forming and developing throughout our lives. Teachers, parents and perhaps most importantly, children themselves, need to understand that past school performance need not be a predictor of future outcomes. One approach to improve this understanding has been to encourage teenagers to develop a growth mindset approach to learning, an idea developed by educational researcher Carol Dweck. This emphasises the role of effort in achievement and explains how our brains can develop new skills through repeated practice. This is in contrast to the fixed mindset appoach which treats abiltiy as already defined.
The rapid changes in the teenage brain during the teenage years offer the opportunity for teenagers to potentially catch up on previous learning losses as well as learning new skills. This means that interventions in the teenage years with disadvantaged children or people who have missed out on earlier learning could produce dramatic improvements. Understanding neuroplasticity also has important implications for helping teenagers to learn in more effective ways. An appreciation that the brain learns through doing encourages the use of more active techniques to learn and revise most effectively.
Our brains continue to develop throughout childhood and adolescence, and into adulthood. A better understanding of how this happens can help teachers and parents provide a supportive and nurturing environment and enable teenagers to learn more effectively.