Brain Gain: Implications for Programs for Children and Youth

brainThe brain has hit the big time. Between the Obama Administration’s BRAIN Initiative, and the European Union’s Human Brain Project (both ten-year, multi-million-dollar undertakings), we can expect to gain a much more detailed understanding of this organ that distinguishes us most from our closest species-relatives.

As highlighted in the recent Kristin Anderson Moore Lecture presentations at Child Trends, one of the remarkable features of the brain is its plasticity. With new imaging tools, researchers like our presenter Dr. Jane Roskams, from the Allen Institute for Brain Science, are demonstrating that important learning (as evidenced by new neural connections) can happen, even into late life, particularly in the prefrontal areas of the cortex. In some cases, parts of the brain that have been damaged can be repaired, and in others their function can be taken over by other brain regions not normally “assigned” to that job.

Another special characteristic of the brain is that, like other systems—though the brain is perhaps the most complex system we know of—it is more than the sum of its parts. An active brain has emergent properties—things it can do that are not “located” anywhere in its structure, but “emerge” from the coordinated operation of multiple components; the oft-cited example is what we call “consciousness.”

Perhaps what’s most significant in the new understanding is how permeable the brain-environment boundary is. Nutrition, physical activity, nurturing care, and environmental toxins (which include interpersonal violence, and emotional stress)—all have the potential to alter the brain, either positively or negatively.

Practically, this has huge implications for how we work with children and youth, particularly those who have experienced the neurobiological effects of trauma. There are now a number of evidence-based programs, reaching children from preschool age through adolescence. Trauma Systems Therapy is one example of a trauma-informed care and focused-intervention model for children and families experiencing traumatic stress. Child Trends is participating in an evaluation of this model across KVC Health Systems delivery system in multiple states.

A particularly important group to support is youth in foster care or involved with child welfare systems. There are now a number of evidence-based programs, reaching children from preschool age through adolescence. As highlighted by another presenter, Dianna Walters, from the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, the best of these reflect four critical “culture shifts” in our response to these youth:

  • FROM an earlier emphasis on their self-sufficiency, TO a new focus on building their social capital;
  • FROM protecting youth from risks, TO helping them gain responsibility and self-determination;
  • FROM too often thinking of foster youth as a “lost cause,” TO seeing the opportunities for hope, optimism, and resilience;
  • FROM a narrow focus on the goal of economic success, TO a more rounded set of outcomes that include optimal social, emotional, and cognitive development.

Finally, Daniel Cardinali, president of Communities In Schools, pointed both to cautions and opportunities that the new brain research suggests. On the one hand, practitioners should avoid using this research as a way to pathologize youth, or to design quick-fix interventions that are not well-grounded in evidence. On the other, the new findings from brain research can lend additional support to strategies that already recognize the complexity and interdependence of the skills young people need to thrive.

Watch the “The Developing Brain: Implications for Youth Programs” on YouTube.

David Murphey, senior research scientist

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