Welcome back! Education is a gift and we all want our children to experience more success and less stress while they are at school. How do we best help as parents? It is important that we remain confident that we can help in so many ways to make the experience of high school a healthy, happy and positive one for our children.
In our first article, we discussed how we can be empowered by the newest information coming to light about how the brain learns and how easily we can apply some of this at home to support our own children through their High School years. We distinguished between the Older and Newer Views of the learning brain, remembered how a lot of us experienced education under the Older View.
The three key areas of knowledge about the Newer View of the Learning Brain were introduced as Biological, Emotional and Learning Patterns as a way to look at easy steps to apply this.
In this second article, we start to apply the Biological findings more specifically. These show the importance of the support we can provide in relation to general wellness, and basic Biology to help our children particularly as they go through their final years in High School
The Older View of the learning brain appeared to keep basic biological needs separate to brain function. However, this older view actually limits our ability to make the most of our learning brains and also ignores the impact that holistic health and wellness can have on the way kids experience the process of learning and education.
Did you know the brain is biologically the neediest part of the human body? Our bodies function best when basic biology is in balance. The same is true for the brain.
As parents, we can certainly help with some of the choices needed to provide the best Biological conditions to support the maturation and development of the wonderful teenage brain. Of course, never as ‘advice’ – as teenagers, we know, don’t generally want this from us, but by modelling these choices and opening discussion around this to help support good practice for brain health for learning and support their developing decision-making skills.
One of the best things we can do for our children is to make sure we are helping them to learn choices to foster a healthy brain. This can be achieved by ensuring a few basic biological needs are met; diet, sleep, hydration and exercise are all paramount to both the mental health of our kids, as well as their ability to learn. Keeping on top of diet, sleep, water intake and exercise is vital to every human, but even more so for teenagers and their learning brains.
At all stages humans have learning brains, plastic brains, but the teen brain is actually fundamentally different. Contrary to the ‘Older View’ the teenage brain is not just a mini adult brain. It is biologically different to the brain of a younger child and that of an adult. This is because it is at a stage when it is constantly undergoing key constructional changes that will be setting it up for the future. It is a “rework in progress” and is at one of its optimal learning periods.
What does this mean? Major parts of the brain really arent working at full capacity. The brain matures from the back to the front. Connections for emotional control, decision making and executive function, which are all controlled by a part of the brain called the Prefrontal Cortex, are not mature until the mid 20s. The teen brain’s prefrontal cortex isn’t fully formed yet, so it is illogical for us to expect them to make the “best” decisions around study and risk and communication.
This makes it even more important for us to be supporting them make healthy choices for brain health.
A balanced diet is important for all humans, and especially so for teens. Our diet provides the building blocks for all that our bodies do. Nutritional options that support good gut health create the best environment for a well functioning brain. In fact, there’s tonnes of new research out there supporting the importance of the gut-brain connection. We have heard about the gut “microbiome” and the importance of good bacteria, and the GBA or Gut Brain Axis of intimate communication. Science shows a troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just like a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a healthy gut is vital for a healthy brain, and vice versa. The connection is via both nerves and chemical signals. Many of the chemicals that are vital for brain function, mood and learning – such as neurotransmitters like serotonin, are produced more in the gut than in the brain! As parents we help support the base nutritional needs of our children as a given. Targeting good gut health and healthy gut bacteria is another step for supporting learning naturally. Providing lots of fresh, fibre-rich foods, good quality protein, food that is low in sugar, and in some cases some daily probiotics. Eggs, fish, Greek yoghurt, nuts & seeds and at least five servings of fresh fruit and vegetables (apples, plums, blueberries, leafy greens) can all contribute to a balanced and gut supportive diet. It’s worth noting that many kids like to skip breakfast, but a protein and fibre-rich breakfast is essential. Missing breakfast can lead to sugar cravings in the early part of the school day, while eating processed snacks and sugary foods can lead to glucose spikes and rapid drops. This ultimately makes it difficult for kids to concentrate and learn. During adolescence there is also a natural and constant fluctuation in mood stabilising brain chemicals. So, for our teens it’s imperative to nurture a healthy gut with healthy gut bacteria to keep the brain as happy and stable as possible and reduce stress
As adults, it’s easy to forget to drink water throughout the day, even when you’re sitting at desk all day with a water bottle right next to you. For kids with crazy busy school, sport and social calendars, it’s even easier to forget to drink water. However, research shows even slight dehydration has a negative effect on general health and particularly on attention and memory. Not to mention we often mistake thirst as a need for a sugar hit. The Institute of Medicine says teenagers should have 1.7 to 3.3 litres of water a day depending on age, size and sex. Research suggests adolescent boys generally need to drink more water than girls do. As parents, you need to make sure your kids are staying hydrated. To make water taste better, we can try adding some fresh orange and cucumber slices, or even some strawberries and blueberries for a sweeter hit, or food grade, pure essential oils, particularly the citrus oils.
We probably all experienced the impact of sleep deprivation on our memories and health when our kids were young! So much goes on in our brains while we are sleeping. General growth and repair, immune boosting, metabolic balance and learning. Yes learning. Did you know memories are automatically strengthened or alternatively ‘pruned’ during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phases of sleep? This is so important for the teen brain. In adolescence the brain is constantly being remodelled through learning and pruning. Connections are consistently being lost (also known as synaptic pruning). This means the brain is trying to figure out which connections and memories are important to keep. Sleep is vital for this remodelling. As parents, it’s important we encourage good “sleep hygiene”, which includes 8-10 solid hours of sleep a night. Research shows that fewer than 8 hours of sleep can have a terribly negative impact on your teen’s physical and emotional wellbeing, as well as their learning and decision making. Less than 8 hours and the last REM cycle, the most important for memory formation we think, is lost. It has been suggested that up to 80% of all ‘behaviour’ issues in schools are related to sleep problems. Having a routine time to go to sleep is optimal, being relaxed before bed, limit blue light in the hour before bed and not playing interactive games for a couple of hours. The brain will automatically focus its energy while asleep to ‘learn’ the thingsa that were most emotional, exciting or that it last did – so gaming before bed can result in the brain trying all night to work out the game. If your child’s asleep brain is trying beat the game, it won’t be processing any of the other learnings that generally occur while they are asleep. Reading is one of the best ways to prepare for sleep, promoting a relaxed and calm state. We talk to our kids and students about setting up sleep patterns to make the most of your brain’s ability to do your homework for you while you sleep! A nice option.
Some kids love P.E, while some absolutely loathe it. In the last couple years of high school, P.E no longer becomes compulsory, but it’s important to keep our kids active and moving. From team sports to personal fitness routines and other activities, exercise is vital for the learning brain. In fact, exercise is just as important for brain health as it is for physical health, especially during adolescence while the brain is maturing. The current recommendation for teens is 60 minutes of mid to vigorous daily exercise, yet research from WHO suggests 81% of kids don’t achieve this. The benefits of daily exercise include sharper memory, better concentration, as well as positive impacts on mood such as the alleviation of stress and anxiety. While a simple walk outside can boost mood and health, there are additional benefits for regular aerobic activity.
Learning is the most natural things our brains can do. They are built for it. Our own attitudes to learning at school may well be scarred by our own experiences when we were at school under the “Older View”, and it might not seem all that natural to some of us. The older view of a fixed IQ was limiting for so many. We now know every brain is ‘plastic’. This is the essence of learning and we can all “make our own smarts”. Just knowing there is another way of seeing this can help our children experience high school as a healthy, happy and positive time with more success and less stress. It’s empowering to have a conversation with our kids about the level of input this plasticity in their brains gives them as learners. We can encourage our kids to celebrate challenges and remind them of the power of intention and visualisations to build the right connections. There is no such thing as “smart” and “dumb” - just different ways of building connections. We can help them know they have the power to build their own smarts. Learning is not about a number on a piece of paper, but a set of connections in the brain for living.