Children’s brains are most elastic, moldable in their first 20 years

Jan 11, 2016, 5:00 AM | Updated: 9:49 am
(Dave Ellis/The Free Lance-Star via AP)...
(Dave Ellis/The Free Lance-Star via AP)
(Dave Ellis/The Free Lance-Star via AP)

PHOENIX — New research shows brains are most elastic in the first two decades of life.

“We used to have to wait until a person died or had an injury to look at what’s going on in the brain,” Dr. JoAnn Deak, a psychologist who has worked in child development for more than 30 years, said. “Now we can watch brains work as soon as they come out of the birth canal and see what’s good for them and what isn’t.”

There’s been an onslaught of neuroscience that isn’t just opinion anymore, she said.

“The brain certainly comes in with most of its pieces and parts there — 86 billion neurons,” she said. “But those are just the main pathways.”

What happens in the first 20 years of life outfits your brain in a way that will allow you to do things — or not do things — for the rest of your adult life, she said.

“What I say to parents and to kids is, ‘Look, don’t waste these first two decades,’” she said. “The first thing I say to parents is, if a child has trouble with something, whether it’s math, reading or having the grit to raise their hand in class … whatever is something that seems to be not as strong as it needs to be, the first thing I would say to parents is that’s a huge sign that that’s exactly what that child has to do,” Deak said.

Deak also said it’s imporant that parents encourage their children to succeed, rather than stepping in to solve every little problem.

“We beg parents not to be helicopter parents and protect their kids from anything that is frustrating, or hard or even somewhat scary,” she said.

Deak said don’t let kids avoid anything meaningful because the brain will pay for that later.

Another tip is to expose kids to many different things and experiences in their life.

“If you let kids spend a huge inordinate amount of time on one thing,” she said. “Other parts of the brain are not being used.”

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Children’s brains are most elastic, moldable in their first 20 years