Building Better Brains
Development, Mental Health, and Addiction
The Brain Story
The Brain Story is about how brains are built during the early years of life. It is fundamental to our understanding of why some people succeed and others struggle with both physical and mental health problems, including addiction. All teachers, early childhood educators, politicians, family support workers, parents, neighbours, in short: everybody, should know something about brain development.
Are you interested in sharing the brain story in your community?
Brain Architecture is a key starting place for understanding the story of early brain development and its consequences for lifelong health. Early positive or negative experiences change the structure and function of our brains; that concept sets the stage for understanding our role as a community in helping kids achieve better lifelong health.
Serve and Return
The interactive serve and return between a child and a caregiver – cooing, making facial expressions, and babbling back and forth – literally builds the architecture of the developing brain. Having a positive, nurturing relationship with a caregiver early in childhood is one of the most important ways to promote healthy social, emotional, and cognitive development. Once we know what kind of experiences build strong brain architecture, we can work together to make sure all families have the support they need to provide those experiences from day to day and from hour to hour.
A child’s behaviour is an expression of executive function skills that develop in specific areas of the brain. We all know that cognitive skills such as arithmetic and reading develop with practice and guidance. But not everyone understands that brain development also includes social and emotional skills, like the ability to pay attention, plan ahead, deal with conflicts, and follow rules. These “executive function” skills also develop through learning and coaching, so it’s important to work with kids and teens to develop the abilities they need to be productive and work well with others. “Air traffic control” is a way of understanding executive function and behaviour as a group of skills that can be developed with adult support in the home, at school, and in the community.
In tense situations, the body releases stress hormones as part of its fight-or-flight response. These hormones affect brain architecture in a way that is positive, tolerable, or toxic depending on the frequency and duration of the stress response. Whether or not a stressful even is helpful or harmful depends not just on intensity, but on whether supportive adults are present to buffer the stress response and to teach coping skills.
Short, stressful events like meeting new people or starting the first day of school are healthy for brain development. They prepare the brain and body for stressful situations later in life.
Tragic, unavoidable events like a natural disaster or losing a loved one aren't good for us. But if supportive caregivers are around to buffer the stress response, these events won't do lasting damage to the brain and body.
Ongoing, repeated exposure to abuse or neglect is bad for brain development. If no supportive adults are present to help buffer the stress response, stress hormones will damage developing structures in the child's brain. The result is an increased vulnerability to lifelong physical and mental health problems, including addiction.
Help Your Community Build Better Brains
Sharing the Brain Story with community groups is a great way to raise awareness about early brain development and its connection to adult health. These toolkit materials have been created by the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI) to support conversations in professional and public settings.
Become a Brain Story Champion
You can become a Brain Story Champion by presenting these resources in your community. After each presentation, please log your event so we can track our progress.
For a printable version of the Brain Story Champions reporting sheet, click here.
Each learning card reinforces a concept presented in the videos or in the Building Better Brains slide presentation. Learning cards come in sets; as additional metaphors are translated in this format, additional cards will become available.
Posters are 17'' x 22'' and can be ordered individually or in sets.
Those with good familiarity and confidence with the Building Better Brains content may wish to educate audiences with the help of this animated slide presentation. For additional context and supporting commentary, refer to the “presenter notes” in the slide deck.
Download the presentation slide deck in any of these formats.