PTA Coffee Break: Developing a child's brain

April 11, 2013|By Kate Rogers
  • Dr. Judy Willis speaks at the recent PTA Coffee Break meeting.
Dr. Judy Willis speaks at the recent PTA Coffee Break meeting. (Courtesy Kate Rogers )

PTA's Coffee Break last month welcomed Dr. Judy Willis at the Aliso Creek Inn & Golf Course to speak about the application of neuroscience to practical aspects of child-rearing.

Willis, a neurologist and educator, discussed down-to-earth techniques to assist in the development of the critically important "executive function" of the brain's prefrontal cortex. As Willis presented her concepts, the understanding around the room was palpable, and an excitement grew as listeners realized that in simple and easy-to-apply ways, parents really could make a real difference in unlocking greater brain functioning in children.

Uncharted challenges fill our children's future. It is estimated that 50% of "facts" known now will change or be modified within 10 years. An international survey among employers showed that the ability to find and evaluate information is far more valued than the archaic concept of "years of experience." The mental tools to adapt to this changing landscape undergo profound development during the late teen years, and with exercise, the functioning of the prefrontal cortex can be strengthened.


The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the human brain to mature, and it is the control center of executive functions such as judgment, critical analysis, prioritizing, deduction, induction, imagination, communication, reflective (vs. reactive) emotional control, and goal development, planning and perseverance.

A strong executive function correlates with school success. "Maturation" is a physiological process whereby an insulating substance called myelin wraps around the connecting dendrites. This myelin is thickened through use and leads to greater processing speed, durability and efficiency to the connections. If these connections are not reinforced through use, they eventually are pruned. "Neurons are like stem cells" and our brains are capable of building and rebuilding.

These mechanics boil down to one very actionable insight for teachers and parents: What we ask of the brain has a very direct impact on how it develops and what its capabilities become. This is where Willis identified several areas of opportunity for parents wanting to promote such development.

Encourage children to ask questions. Willis lamented the drop from a preschooler's 100 questions a day to the falling off of questions in middle-schoolers. When kids stop asking questions, they lose motivation and their engagement drops off.

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