A Parent Perspective on Heather Clayton’s Brain Series

by Dr. Lara Lauzon, parent

On Friday, September 30, as I was wading through my overflowing email in-basket I noticed an email from Laura Authier. The subject line said: SMUS Weekly: Learning and the Brain. How timely, I thought. I had just finished reading a number of research articles on brain health for a chapter in a textbook I am revising. I was interested in learning more and I didn’t hesitate to open this email. The title, Our Student’s Brains: Under Construction or Highly Adaptive?, and short description of the session Heather Clayton, the Director of Learning, was offering was quite enticing and I reserved my spot right away.

I arrived at the Copeland Theatre just before 7:00 p.m. on Monday evening, October 3rd, and was welcomed by three wonderful students who offered up handouts and pens. I chatted with a couple of moms that I knew and then went to find a seat. Oh, and, just for the record I did take one chocolate chip cookie. Always a treat.

Heather began the session by providing us with an overview of the upcoming session. She encouraged us to consider the developing brain as both “under construction” and “highly adaptive.” She reminded us that the goal of brain function is survival.

Listen to Heather’s Talk, Part 1: 111004HeatherClaytonPart1
Listen to Heather’s Talk, Part 2: 111004HeatherClaytonPart2

I can tell she is passionate about learning, students, teachers, parents and brain research from her big smile, enthusiastic voice and creative PowerPoint slides. I really get a sense that she loves this stuff. She is also thankful to SMUS for creating the Director of Learning position. Apparently our school is the only independent school in Canada to have this type of position at this time. This is another reminder why my husband and I are so thankful our son Lindon, is a student at SMUS.

The hour-long session flew by. While some of the information was a review for me, I also gained insight and new information from the session. I learned that:

1) With the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), scientists have discovered that brain development continues into our early 20s. Although the brain is about 95% of its adult size by the age of 6 or 7, the gray matter, or as Heather suggested—the thinking part of the brain—continues to thicken throughout childhood and into young adulthood. The brain cells grow much like a tree—branches and twigs provide the brain with extra connections. This process is called myelination. It enables nerve cells to transmit information faster. The brain then becomes more adept at complex brain processes.

2) The “higher-order” brain centre or the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain located just behind the forehead which is responsible for reasoning, problem solving, and understanding consequences, develops last. The peak time of the thickening of the gray matter in this area of the brain is about age 11 in girls and age 12 for boys. But brain development continues with an interesting process known as pruning. After the gray matter peaks, the brain cells and connections that are used on a regular basis grow and thrive. The cells and connections that are not used are pruned back or eliminated. Heather mentioned that the types of activities that our sons and daughters are participating in are the ones that the brain will remember—that will be hardwired into young people. She encouraged us to think about ways we can introduce not only young children, but our teenagers to a variety of subjects and activities so that the brain will truly become familiar and proficient in many ways, not just good at watching videos or texting friends! Her encouragement certainly links to our school’s commitment to educate an all around student.

3) Stress has a big impact on a developing brain. The decisions, behaviours and actions of our sons and daughters may seem, at times, so out of character, but when teenagers or young adults are under a high level of stress, the prefrontal cortex does not function to the best of its ability.

As I considered Heather’s opening remarks that the brain is both “under construction” and “highly adaptive” I took a big breath and wrote a note to myself: “Be patient, be supportive, try your very best not to undermine the foundation of your son’s brain development. Celebrate these teenage years, his need for social connections, his wonder of the world and the way he makes his way day to day.” Lowering stress levels and attempting to help our son find balance between academic achievement, sports, theatre and teenage living is now on the top of my list of things to do. It was during this part of the presentation that Heather suggested that parents need a “light but steady hand.” She also reminded us about the importance of enough sleep. This was yet another nugget of both information and affirmation.

Just as time was running out Heather touched on the use of drugs, alcohol and the brain development of teenagers. She shared some current research that shows that even one night of alcohol consumption or drug use during this important brain development time can affect the prefrontal lobe for a lifetime. The research I have done suggests that damage to the prefrontal lobe during the teenage years can lead to difficulty in middle age—it can affect the ability to be a responsible parent, make healthy lifestyle choices, and understand consequences. It can impact relationships, marriages and families. I would like to continue this conversation in the future—to find ways to educate young people at our school about the importance of brain health now.

I am looking forward to the next parent evening presented by Heather Clayton. I will be there—opening my brain to new information and connections. Thank you, Heather, for a delightful night out.

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