Brain Plasticity and Development: The brain is malleable, especially during the early years and adolescence. This property is called neuroplasticity. It means our brains can reorganize themselves by forming new neural connections throughout life. Therapy, particularly therapeutic play, can help children and teens form healthy neural pathways, making it easier for them to absorb and process new information.
Stress and the Brain: Chronic stress, whether due to personal experiences, COVID-19, or a neurodivergent condition, can affect the brain's structure and function. The amygdala, which deals with fear responses, can become hyperactive. Meanwhile, the hippocampus, vital for learning and memory, can become compromised, often leading to long-term struggles. Therapy can help regulate stress, ensuring that the brain's learning centers remain online and able to intake information accurately.
Emotion Regulation and Learning: Our prefrontal cortex is essential for cognitive functions like attention, decision-making, problem-solving, impulse control, and executive function. Emotional disturbances can disrupt its functioning because it is an lower brain function, a more primitive aspect of the brain. Lower brain functions have the power to override the higher-level functioning brain(thinking and problem-solving.) Therapy teaches children and teens emotional self-regulation techniques, which help them manage their feelings and ensure that their prefrontal cortex functions(higher brain) optimally, supporting learning.
Secure Attachment and Brain Development: The attachment theory, rooted in both psychology and neuroscience, suggests that a secure attachment between a child and their caregiver can positively impact brain development. For those children who faced early disruptions in these attachments, therapy can help in forming secure relationships, laying a better foundation for learning by integrating and healing the lower brain regions. Teachers are often primary relationships for many youth, meaning the teacher-student relationship is required before learning can occur.
Focus and Attention: Some neurodivergent conditions can make it difficult for children to focus, pay attention of be regulated in classrooms. Therapeutic interventions can introduce techniques and strategies to help these children manage their symptoms and improve their attention span, emotion regulation, and memory skills, making learning more accessible and lasting.
Enhancing Neurotransmitter Function: Positive experiences, like successful therapy sessions, can boost the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. These chemicals play crucial roles in mood regulation and motivation, both of which can significantly impact a child's enthusiasm and ability to learn. The more “joy juice” the brain experiences, the more adaptable and flexible the brain becomes.
Facilitating Social Connections: Learning is often a social process, and therapy can assist in developing social skills that are essential for collaborative learning experiences. Many children lost crucial social skill development time that only occurs when around peers during the pandemic. This has to be caught up for learning to be expected at the grade they are chronologically in. Their brains are younger then their bodies, dramatically impacting social skills and learning.
Sensory Processing and Integration: Certain therapeutic approaches, like occupational therapy, focus on facilitating sensory processing and integration, which are essential for learning. For children who may have difficulties in this area, therapy can offer the necessary support to ensure a smoother learning process. When the body doesn't feel safe( lower brain function) the ability to learn and process emotions(higher brain function) becomes extremely challenging and classrooms are difficult to manage, no matter the skill of the educator.
Developing Coping Strategies: Developing coping strategies and resilience are vital parts of therapy. These skills can be particularly beneficial in creating a mindset that is adaptable and open to learning, even in the face of challenges.
Relationships HEAL: Therapy works because a relationship is developed to provide the brain and body with "felt safety". It takes time. When humans are in a relationship, we help manage stress by co-regulating each other, developing communication skills, learning social skills, and determining who we are as humans. Identity development occurs when brains are healthy and developing as nature intended. The pandemic challenged all of these aspects of being human. In a therapeutic relationship, the healing of the body and mind occurs.
After-school hours are limited, it's indeed a challenge to fit in therapeutic sessions. Therapist have lives too, and often have boundaries around the hours they work. However, understanding the profound impact of therapy on a child/teen's brain and, consequently, their learning capacity highlights its importance for the developing brain.
As a mother and therapist, I know firsthand how vital it is to prioritize our children's well-being. Their mental health and learning capabilities are deeply intertwined, and we must take a holistic approach to ensure they thrive. This means that missing school will happen. It is a short-term result for a long-term wellness gain.
We know schools are not inclined to allow/complain about absences; however, they can not deny medical appointments as unexcused. Schools often have not prepared staff nor integrated brain science into their curriculum. Stressed brains don’t learn. Anxiety and depression are on the rise in our youth- these are a symptom of stressed-out brains living in hypervigilance.
While the global pandemic is over, the lasting impact on your child/teen’s development is lifelong if not assessed and treated.
If your child/teen is acting younger than their age.
If your child/teen is consistently sick or has somatic complaints such as headaches/ stomachaches.
If your child is isolating and withdrawn into their rooms and technology.
If your child/teen is irritable, defiant, and angry most days.
If your child/teen refuses school, struggles to go in the mornings, or skips out of classes.
If your child/teen is easily overwhelmed, has anxiety, or fears not getting things perfect.
These are all signs that your child is struggling psychologically and needs mental health treatment because their brains and bodies are yelling for help. While the pandemic may be “over,” our children and youth were dramatically impacted, and this impact doesn’t just go away with the return to school routines.
Schools are struggling with behavior management BECAUSE of the stressed-out brains of children and staff from the last three years.
Stressed-out brains mean they have experienced TRAUMA.
It takes a LONG time for systems to change.
Your child/teen doesn’t have the time to heal unless you make time for it, which may mean compromising some school time.
Academics can be caught up quickly, brain development can not.
This has been a lot to read, and I'm grateful you have thus far. Please know that supporting our community to have mental wellness is our goal.
This fall, Olympia Therapy will bring groups for parents/caregivers and youth of all ages. If interested, let us know by emailing us.