Brain Development 101


   By: Justin S. N. Boodhoo

   2015-01-21 05:00 PM

Working in the field of mental health and addictions, we are inundated with new research, best practices, and information aimed at assisting us in the work we do with our clients. In the past 10 months I have had the opportunity to engage in some very interesting and ground making work around early brain development that I believe will have a huge impact on the way we interact with our kids, as well as the way we see stress in children. Through the Alberta Family Wellness initiative, I have found a way to illustrate and show what toxic stress can do to kids in a manner that is easy to understand yet drives home the natural buffer that caregivers can be in supporting healthy brain development.

How Brains Are Built: The Core Story on Brain Development is a visually entertaining and informative video that lays the foundation for the understanding of the impact toxic stress has on a developing brain. To help in understanding the core story, we will break this down into the four foundational concepts; brain architecture, serve and return, toxic stress, and executive functioning.

Brain Architecture: This concept looks at how the experience in the early years of life affects the physical architecture of our brain, and that in order to build healthy brains; we need to have a strong foundation to start from (Alberta Family Wellness Initiative, 2014). Think of this as positive, healthy, and nurturing interactions being the building blocks to a healthy brain, supporting a person’s wellbeing socially, emotionally, and physically (AFWI, 2014).

Serve and return interactions: This is another important concept that supports brain development and looks at the interactions that children have with their caregivers. This concept looks at the back and forth communication that takes place between a caregiver and child; when a child “serves” to the caregiver, the caregiver “returns” with a response to the initial serve (AFWI, 2014). A great way to think of this is ping pong. The back and forth which happens between two people fosters a healthy and safe environment where children know that their needs are being met because the caregiver is responding in a timely, nurturing manner.

Toxic stress:  So what exactly is that? In the core story, toxic stress is described as stress that can disrupt brain architecture and occurs when there are no supportive caregivers, so the absence of serve and return is not available to buffer the repeated negative experiences that occur in a child’s life (AFWI, 2014). When we think of things that are toxic we look at the harm they cause to a person. In this context things like abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and other harmful life events can cause toxic stress for a child. These toxic stressors place a child at a great risk for developing issues later in life, such as physical and emotional health issues, addiction, and mental health problems (AFWI, 2014).

Executive Functioning: Have you ever wondered how air traffic control at airports can keep things straight and make sure no issues arise with all the planes coming in and out? Now think of this as happening in your brain every moment of the day. When you wake up, when you make decisions, both of these examples are part of what we call executive function; integrated social, emotional, and cognitive skills that operate like air traffic control in a child’s brain (AFWI, 2014). Executive functions control a person’s ability to cognitively adapt to various things in life like planning, organization, working memory, and impulse control (National Centre for Learning Disabilities, 2013). In supporting brain architecture, children need to have strong executive function to support their day to day lives and to assist in managing stress and to avoid collisions happening with the “air traffic control system” in their brains.

These four concepts makeup what the Core Story on Brain Development is all about. As a mental health and addiction professional, I see the huge value in this initiative as a tool to help caregivers built healthy brains in children. As a parent, I love that this initiative is creative, engaging, and makes sense of the neuroscience behind this initiative, in a way that makes me know that I do have a role in building my kid’s healthy brains. We have the tools, so now we must help build a better world by helping to build better brains (AFWI, 2014). For more information on the Core Story, please go to, and also view the Core Story video at

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