Help Your Child Build a Better Brain / Finding the right balance of food, exercise and technology to help your child's brain work better
Hunter Deal is a typical 13-year-old. The Richardson teen gets good grades as an eighth grader, he’s obsessed with video games and, well, he doesn’t open up about his feelings much. But his dad Fred says something started to unravel this year. He brought home B’s instead of A’s, languished for hours in frustration over homework and even submitted a single sentence in lieu of a developed argument on a take-home essay.
“Everything about him screamed lack of focus,” Fred Deal says. “He didn’t seem capable of filtering out the insignificant from the significant. There was so much going on and it was hard for him to concentrate.”
Worse yet, “it was obvious he didn’t care,” Deal divulges. “I’m not sure if it was because he didn’t feel challenged or he wanted to rush through his work to get back to his games.”
The Deals started to wonder: How can we boost our adolescent’s brain power? Is it too late?
Surprising Brain Facts
According to Dr. Cynthia Keator, a neurologist with the John and Jane Justin Neurosciences Center at Cook Children’s in Fort Worth, the majority of brain development (90 percent) occurs between birth and age 3. In fact, 60 percent of a baby’s energy fuels neural activity in the first month of life.
“If a baby’s body would grow at the same rate as her brain, the baby would weigh 170 pounds at one month,” Keator marvels.
Early experiences play a vital role in the formation of brain waves and neural pathways. Parents, therefore, can sculpt faster brain development with basic parenting skills, Keator stresses. It’s a simple, intuitive recipe that includes talking, reading, singing, caring, loving and giving ample affection.
“You don’t need any special toys or videos to stimulate a baby’s brain,” urges Keator, who adds that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warns against any type of screen usage before age 2.
Even though more than 90 percent of brain development is achieved by the age of 5, the brain continues to mature throughout childhood as cells generate extra connections, notes Dr. Lori Cook, who oversees the pediatric brain injury research programs at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas.
However, optimizing this intricate 3-pound mass of matter only gets more complicated as your child grows.
Research has shown that children’s brains are not like those of adults. The brain undergoes more change during the teenage years than at any other time except for the first two months of life. According to Cook, the human brain is still developing until 25 years of age, putting preteens and teens like Hunter in a vulnerable position.
Cook explains that adolescence is a critical time when the frontal lobe — often called the CEO of the brain — is primed to undergo rapid development of important, lifelong executive functioning skills, such as planning and organization, higher-order reasoning and decision-making, as well as emotional growth and personality.
And there is a major roadblock for a lot of kids on their way to better brains: addiction to technology. Cook cites recent research that indicates a child will have spent a full year glued to screens by the time she reaches 7.
Shockingly, the average American child spends seven hours a day in front of a screen, while the AAP recommends no more than two hours. Worse yet, kids are glued to their screens right up until bedtime, causing disrupted sleep hygiene, Cook says — the blue light cast from mobile devices is thought to have the same effect as caffeine. Sleep, by the way, is the most important thing for brain health, according to experts, who recommend at least 8–9 hours of sleep every night for adolescents. Children ages 5–12 need 10–12 hours, ages 3–5 require 11–13 hours, and babies anywhere from 12–15 hours.
Our digital dependence is clearly shaping the way children learn, develop and behave.
Cook believes that access to so much information via the Internet is creating what the Center calls “Google brain.” There is a “constant sense of information overload,” she explains. Cook offers the analogy of students highlighting text for salient information: Their pages are filled with solid lines of yellow. Everything seems equally important and there is less impetus to engage the brain.
“Technology is wonderful in that it gives kids global access and perspective,” notes Cook, who acknowledges that strategic screen time is OK and even beneficial for learning. “However, while they can go wide in breadth of information, they are hindering the ability to dive deep in knowledge.”
What happens is that kids don’t develop the ability to think critically (pivotal to holistic brain development). The brain also suffers with “too many tabs open,” Cook says. Kids are toggling from screen to screen and juggling multiple devices at once. It leaves them prone to irrelevancy. (How many of us have started reading one thing on the Internet only to fall down the rabbit hole chasing another, completely random thought?)
The fallout, Cook says, is that technology rewires our brains to be addicted to distraction.
Multitasking, once thought to be a desirable habit, is actually “toxic at a brain level” in this new age of social media and computer gadgets, Cook declares.
Back to Basics
Dr. Matthew Housson, a clinical psychologist in Dallas, acknowledges that technology is a hot topic when it comes to children’s brain health right now. It’s also not going anywhere, so parents need to be thoughtful in how they approach its use, starting with kids at a young age.
“Screen time should be relaxing. There shouldn’t be any tension surrounding it,” advises Housson. “TV episodes and video game or computer playtime should be limited” to no more than two shows or about 50 minutes per day.
Housson adds that if kids seem demanding with screen time, then take it away during the week and have a scheduled plan for weekends. “Bored kids want screens,” he submits. “Kids who know they are going to a museum, having a picnic in the park or playing family board games don’t request screen time even on weekends.”
Experts stress that there are several other habits parents should adopt to enhance brain development throughout childhood.
“I always talk about sleep first with parents. It’s an anchor point to a healthy brain,” Housson says. “The way to tell if your child is getting enough rest is to ask, ‘Do they wake up on their own?’ If they don’t, they’re not getting enough sleep, and a child who doesn’t get enough sleep is restless, inattentive, moody and they worry more,” he explains.
The brain is actually working just as hard during slumber (when learning locks in) as it is during the day, Cook says. “It’s a time when the busboys of the brain come out and flush out the toxins. If a child doesn’t get enough sleep for this process to work properly, they will start out at a disadvantage the next day,” she explains.
Nutrition is certainly key to feeding the thinking muscle. In addition to a balanced diet low on sugar and simple carbs, Housson suggests parents serve kids protein first thing in the morning, a small step that stimulates cognitive function. “Protein helps boost your child’s attention span, concentration and memory,” Housson informs.
Also important to brain health is exercise — and not just school recess and PE. Parents should reinforce at least 30 minutes of activity at home each day, such as bike riding and playing outside. “Exercise is multipurpose. It serves as a relaxation tool, a stress reliever; plus, there are the physical benefits,” explains Housson, who specializes in the assessment and treatment of children with various learning, academic, attentional and behavioral difficulties. “There’s research that says that kids with attention issues thrive if they have 30–45 minutes of aerobic activity in the morning.” So let the kids walk the dog with you before heading to school.
Do as I Do
Brain training can begin at home, starting with quality engagement.
Dave Thompson sees a recurrent theme at all ages as a psychologist in the Lewisville Independent School District: parents very concerned about their kids and their behaviors or school performance who try to “fix” the problem by giving their kids “things” to keep them busy. But what they really need is unfettered time with the parent, Thompson stresses. “Parents just hand kids an iPad when what the child really wants is their attention,” he says.
Thompson says kids will then act out at school with behaviors that are exhibited through anxiety and depression. “Parents have good intentions but they don’t spend enough time connecting with their kids,” he reports. “Either they don’t have the time or they are not committed to doing it.” Brain wiring is affected when kids don’t get enough serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins (“feel-good chemicals”) that are released when they experience validation, security and affirmation, Thompson insists.
Social interaction and bonding are integral to brain development. He urges parents to limit their own distractions at home and spend at least 15 minutes talking to their children about their daily high and lows, dreams and hopes. He also recommends “filling their love bank” with words of appreciation and a real voice (versus text) when you can’t be together.
Driven to nurture and unlock the unfathomable potential of the mind, UTD’s Center for BrainHealth set out on a quest to improve brain health fitness.
Instead of focusing on memorization and over-reliance on media, BrainHealth scientists developed the Strategic Memory and Reasoning Training (SMART) program that teaches kids in grades seven through 12 to think critically and focus on how to learn rather than what to learn.
With SMART, which is based on more than 30 years of cognitive brain research, students discover how to synthesize information, uncover deeper meaning and discard irrelevant information. “Any child interested in becoming more efficient with their cognitive capital can benefit from this high-level training,” says Cook, who conducts assessments and intervention with the program.
SMART focuses on top-down processing of information rather than bottom-up learning, a unique twist on other training approaches, Cook explains. The research behind the SMART program shows that generalized meanings are more powerfully stored and retrieved than specific details, which are rapidly lost. The result of this training? Higher performance in school.
Currently SMART is offered at various local public middle schools as part of a research initiative funded by institutions where teachers are trained to apply the principles in class. It’s also available to individual students at the Center for BrainHealth for a fee that ranges from $1,200–$1,800.
Fred Deal first encountered SMART during a real estate meeting in Dallas’ medical district. Desperate for intervention for his own son, he was immediately spellbound by the premise of the program.
He enrolled Hunter much to the teen’s chagrin. But soon his study habits and attitude improved dramatically. Deal says Hunter learned to minimize distractions. It took him half the time to complete homework (self-directed) and his drive returned.
SMART offers a series of seven cognitive strategies to improve brain efficiency that can be applied to any learning context. The training, which instructs participants how to think strategically, enabling deeper understanding and creativity, has been successfully adapted for not only students, but also for healthy adults and individuals with traumatic brain injuries.
Cook shares one of her favorite approaches: brain “interval training” or bursts of high-intensity studying followed by a quick cool down/recovery. That might mean breaking up homework into blocks of time, such as an intense 30 minutes spent on Spanish followed by a 10-minute scroll through Instagram.
The program also advocates what Cook calls “brain breaks.” We’re not talking about flopping down in front of the tube or another screen but rather a full-on reboot. Kids are encouraged to refresh their minds, not their Snapchat scores. Otherwise, they end up wiring their brains to be in a constant vigilant state rather than in the present moment.
Cook encourages practicing the “brainpower of none.” Take short breaks throughout the day to give the brain a chance to reboot. The idea is not “zero thought” but rather “zero effort.” Your brain solves complex problems when you step away to reflect on ideas instead of pushing when overloaded.
Deal reveals that Hunter is less inclined to reach for his screen as a default distraction following the SMART program — a welcome side effect that is common among participants, Cook says. Kids who take the program also start to withdraw from friends who are still hooked to their devices. They learn to cultivate attachments (priming right brain development) versus hashtags.
While brain development may seem complicated, by implementing what Cook calls “strategic attention,” or laser focus, and adopting healthy screen, sleep, exercise and eating habits, families can harness the immense potential of a developing mind.
It’s never too late to “empower children to be their own neuroengineer,” Cook asserts.