Brain Exercise

It can be helpful to think of the brain like a muscle: exercise makes it grow and improves its capabilities. There are plenty of commercial products that claim to improve brain power (memory, processing speed, attention…), but the actual evidence for these products indicates either no real benefit or a very specific benefit (that is, improvement in that specific task, but not other tasks). There are simply no shortcuts for a “supercharged brain.” That does not mean that various brain challenges are without value though. For example, crossword puzzles appear to help maintain the strength of long-term memory later in life. This article discusses a little bit about early brain development and why diverse experiences are important for children’s brains, and a few specific ideas to keep in mind when trying to help your child develop their abilities.

Immature and Slow to Develop

Humans have an unusually long period of development. Our children are largely helpless for a very long time and their brains will not “fully develop” until possibly early to mid-20’s. However, you can clearly see a lot of differences in the abilities of very young children and adolescents, with adolescents capable of understanding more abstract concepts and engaging in more complex discussions (Piaget and his colleagues generally explored these ideas long ago). Because the period of development is so long, that leaves a lot of time to help build a child’s abilities and improve on areas that they may be struggling in. Children’s brains are also very adaptable (a concept called “plasticity”). One example of that is how young children are more able than adults to recover from brain trauma. On the other hand, some neurological differences do not appear likely to ever be fully addressed. It would be difficult to discuss all of the types of abilities and differences that are “plastic” and those that are not, but we can cover some important areas that parents can work on with their children.

Critical Periods/Sensitive Periods of Development

Sometimes you may hear the term “critical periods” of brain development. This concept means that certain abilities (such as the ability of the brain to process visual information) must develop within a certain time window or else it will never develop. It may be an overstatement for us to say with certainty that some abilities will never be able to develop, but there are certainly times during which it is easiest for a child to acquire a certain skill (such as language). These times during which it is easiest for the child to develop an ability or skill are often called, “sensitive periods” instead of critical periods to help emphasize that the window of opportunity is not necessarily completely shut. Usually these periods are for very specific abilities, such as the ability to process certain types of sensory information, or to develop motor skills or language skills. We are still learning more about human development, however, and there are many areas that are less clear (such as social skills).

Impulse Control and Emotional Regulation

The ability to inhibit a behavioral impulse or an emotional response is important for success in many areas of life (jobs, social interactions, relationships…). Our capacity to do this seems to reside heavily within the front part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex). Fortunately, this appears to be the last part of the brain to reach full maturity, which means there is a lot of time to exercise it. On the other hand, this also partly explains why children, adolescents, and even young adults can be extremely impulsive or make some very questionable decisions at times. The development of the prefrontal cortex also seems to coincide nicely with our “cognitive peak.” You could say that we are, essentially, at our smartest in early adulthood (though the decline afterward is actually rather slow). This means that for children we should continually encourage them to practice impulse control and emotional regulation. We can do this most effectively by giving them mild “patience challenges” that push slightly at their limits and providing them with appropriate feedback, encouragement, and (if necessary) rewards for achieving their goals. I would not recommend doing this with an overly high frequency (such as multiple times per hour, every hour, every day) as it’s likely to produce so much frustration that you’ll get resistance from them in the future. However, if it can be made slightly playful, then the child is building an invaluable ability and also building confidence in their abilities.

An important thing to keep in mind is that emotional regulation and impulse control (or “behavioral regulation”) appear to rely on basically the same neurology. To build greater emotional regulation, it is often helpful to teach the child to voluntarily withdraw from a situation when needed (by rewarding them for doing so if necessary). This can give their brain (prefrontal cortex actually) time to catch up and reassert its control over the situation. I’ve seen parents use many approaches to explaining this to their child, but I think my favorite has been the idea of an “overheating engine” that needs to cool off. Teaching the child how to recognize the signs of getting emotionally overwhelmed is a helpful (possibly critical) step in teaching them to self-regulate their emotions more effectively. A variety of physical cues can help, including their heart rate and breathing, as well as how impatient they’re feeling.

Frustration Tolerance and Patience

Similar to building greater impulse control and emotional regulation, the capacity for frustration tolerance and greater patience are likely to be great contributors to a child’s long-term success. Tolerance for frustration or setbacks increases the likelihood a child will persist at a challenging task and, as a result, learn more skills and ultimately enjoy more success. Explaining this to a child is not likely to convince them to keep working on a particularly frustrating homework assignment though. As the parent, you effectively coach your child by encouraging them to persist, giving them just enough help when they need it (called “scaffolding”), and showing them how their continued effort has paid off. Then celebrate their success with them! The more they do this (and enjoy the success that follows), the more likely they are to persist at challenging tasks again in the future.

Building patience may be more challenging because “having it now” is always more appealing than “having it later.” Individuals who are unable to wait (called “delayed gratification”) are less likely to enjoy bigger successes later in life. Those who are able to wait can develop more complex plans and enjoy bigger rewards as a result of their patience. One way to help is to require the child to do “just one more time” or wait “just one more minute” on a fairly frequent basis (ideally at least a few times per day if circumstances permit it). I would not recommend prompting them to do a second round (at least not at first), because they may just get too frustrated, doubt your sincerity in the future, and decide they’ll just make it happen on their own (whether you agree or not). You can also offer them bigger rewards for their patience (though starting with praise and allowing them what they originally wanted is a good idea). For example, “Sure, I’ll let you have a cookie, but if you can wait until we’re done with this, I’ll let you have two cookies instead.”

Training with ADHD

All of this comes to one final point. While reading this far (good patience and persistence!), you may have thought several times that the skills discussed sounded kind of like what is lacking in a child with ADHD, and you would be right. The neurology of ADHD appears to primarily be underactivity of the area of the brain involved in impulse control, emotional regulation, frustration tolerance, and patience. These skills are important for helping a child to persist at challenging tasks, maintain focus on one thing for an extended time, develop a complex plan, and carry out that plan. They’re also important for preventing the types of impulsive or hyperactive behaviors that often get kids in trouble when they have ADHD. Because of that, the exercises discussed here are especially important for children with ADHD (though helpful for all children). This doesn’t mean that children with ADHD just needed to do these exercises more, or that their parents committed “bad parenting”, which lead to the problems with ADHD (there is clearly a strong genetic component to neurological development and a difference in brain chemistry for individuals with ADHD). Many children with ADHD may have more difficulty with completing these exercises successfully as well, and therefore may need a combination of medication and behavior therapy (rather than just behavior therapy). Progress in developing these skills may also be very slow for a child with ADHD (which can frustrate the parent), but slow progress eventually produces significant progress, and the time is well-spent. Remember, the prefrontal cortex seems to be the last area of the brain to mature, which means that “exercising that muscle” may help to reduce the neurological difference by the time your child is much older.

Written by Dr. Charles Galyon