The brain is truly magnificent.
It has been well documented that even after a traumatic brain injury or stroke, there are some people that make an extraordinary recovery. It almost seems like a miracle.
Although it may seem mysterious, scientists have studied these cases for over 20 years and they have found a reason behind this magic: Neuroplasticity.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is “the ability of the brain to form and reorganise synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following an injury” (Oxford Languages)
This certainly offers a huge amount of hope to a person who has suffered a brain injury and their family but it also helps us to understand how we can change our habits and make great new ones. In effect giving our brain a hardware update.
The brain has this amazing ability to adapt to changes in our environment by forming connections and neural pathways over time. It allows us to master a new skill, store memories and recover from brain injury.
Because of the ‘plastic’ nature of our brains, it can rewire and reorganise itself after new connections are made. Neuroplasticity occurs through sprouting and rerouting processes. Sprouting is when the brain creates new connections between neurons or nerve cells. Rerouting is when the brain creates an alternative neural pathway to active neurons and disconnects from the damaged ones.
Can you think back to when you were learning to ride a bike? It really wasn’t as easy as just getting on the bike and off you went. You had to think about your balance, pushing your legs round fast enough to keep going but not too fast, steering in the right direction and even where to look. I know I fell off… several times!
Now, when I fell off, I could have said “I just can’t do this, it’s not for me. Cycling isn’t my thing” This would be a fixed mindset approach. Instead, I practised, I fell off a few more times but I got back on and practised some more. Practising going at the right speed, balancing, and steering the right way. This is a growth mindset way of thinking. Now, like me, I am sure many of you feel that cycling is second nature and you don’t even have to think about it.
Clever huh? This is neuroplasticity.
It is the reason why we can develop knowledge and new skills through persistence, effort and practise.
Why should we be teaching children about neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is the science behind growth mindset.
When we understand that our brains, and therefore our abilities, are NOT fixed we start to realise how malleable the brain really is. When children develop this awareness and understanding the perception of their own abilities also changes. They find obstacles easier to tackle, setbacks and challenges become an exciting learning journey and they even embrace the mistakes. With practise we can build connections that make our brains smarter and stronger.
How do we explain to our children about neural pathways?
Get them to imagine they are crossing a field of really tall grass. They have to get to the other side. They can’t see where they are going and the first time they go through the field it is really difficult. They have to push through the tall grass and trample it down but they keep going and finally they get through and they are on the other side of the field.
Tell them they that they are going to cross the field again and they are going to use the same pathway they used the first time. This time it is a little easier, there is still a bit of tall grass to push through but it doesn’t feel so difficult.
They get ready to cross the field again. This time they get to the other side much quicker and much easier. The pathway is well trampled and the grass is already pushed out of the way.
Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.
Practise. Practise. Practise.
So, next time your child says that something is too difficult, remind them that although it might seem hard to do at first it will get easier and of course, we CAN do hard things.