The Implications of Neural Plasticity for the Developing Brain

In order to understand how we can change cognitive processes and promote children’s social and emotional intelligence, first we must understand the connections between the ‘hardwiring’ and ‘software’ of the brain.

The fundamental ‘hardwiring’ of the brain came about due to evolution, for example the amygdala causes the fight or flight reaction in response to a threat. This was important when humans needed to quickly assess life or death situations, however, nowadays the risks we face are much less imminent but perhaps more constant. Therefore, it is important for us as social human beings to write the neural ‘software’ or learn new coping mechanisms in order to avoid severe reactions by this amygdala, the evolutionary ‘hardware’. For example, at work, if your team does not complete a task properly, it is not appropriate to start ranting and raving, which might be your first thought, as sparked by the amygdala. Instead, the ideal outcome requires employing emotional intelligence which integrates the emotional centre with the executive or ‘thinking’ centre, the prefrontal cortex. You can imagine this as writing adaptive ‘software’ that can connect the neural ‘hardware’ in order to develop positive skills.

As adults, this is important, however it needs to be realised that children and adolescents also require the skills to build their emotional intelligence. This is because emotional intelligence positively impacts on effective socialisation and stress management. Through Goldman’s study called the ‘marshmallow test’, the emotional intelligence related skill of self-management was measured in four year old children. This study involved telling the children that they could have one marshmallow now or alternatively, if they waited until the experimenter came back, then they could have two. It was revealed that around one third could not wait and immediately grabbed the marshmallow, whereas another third were able to wait the full seven or eight minutes to receive the full reward. After a fourteen year follow up, it was revealed that the children who could not employ self-regulation and immediately grabbed the marshmallow could not cope effectively under pressure and did not have effective social skills. In comparison, the children who waited the full time revealed significantly improved high school results.

However, these results do not need to cause concern or panic for children with poor self-regulation. This is because it has been found that the prefrontal cortex continues to undergo massive development through childhood and adolescence. As a result, the developing child requires positive influences that will foster neural development and the desired emotional skills which will help them throughout their life. Moreover, due to the increase in understanding of neural plasticity, we now realize that a child’s cognitive abilities and emotion intelligence are not by any means fixed; therefore it is important to intervene during this critical period of development in order to promote positive skills. In addition, this particular region of the cerebral cortex is not only responsible for self-regulation, it is also critical for overall higher order processes such as decision making, mental flexibility, inhibiting impulsivity and so on. Therefore, by taking advantage of the remarkable plasticity in this cortical region, we can provide children with the skills necessary to cope with stressful situations, promote positive socialisation and appreciate their own strengths and abilities.


An Analysis of the Australian Early Development Census: How Does Queensland Compare?

This article is based on publicly available AEDC data retrieved from

Since 2009, the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) has measured the development of children in their first year of full-time school across five areas: physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills, and communication skills and general knowledge. This is because children with a positive early childhood experience are more likely to achieve a higher educational attainment as well as demonstrate high self-esteem and social development, and fewer social and health problems. This data is gathered every three years, therefore, the aim is to inform the development of policies and programs to improve early development and help evaluate long-term strategies.

The AEDC measures five areas or ‘domains’ of early childhood  which are closely linked to the predictors of good adult health, education and social outcomes. These domains include:

  • Physical health and wellbeing domain – physical readiness for the school day, physical independence, gross and fine motor skills
  • Social competence domain – overall social competence, responsibility and respect, approaches to learning, readiness to explore new things
  • Emotional maturity domain  – pro-social and helping behaviour, anxious and fearful behaviour, aggressive behaviours, hyperactivity and inattention
  • Language and cognitive skills (school-based) domain  – basic literacy, interest in literacy/numeracy and memory, advanced literacy, basic numeracy
  • Communication skills and general knowledge domain

Percentage of children developmentally ‘on track’ in 2009 and 2012

Throughout both 2009 and 2012, a smaller percentage of Queensland children were found to be ‘developmentally on track’ as compared to the Australian average. These figures spanned all five domains however the largest divergence appears to be occurring in the ‘physical health and wellbeing’, the ‘social competence’ and the ‘emotional maturity’ domains.

There was a massive increase in the percentage of children ‘on track’ in the language and school-based cognitive skills domain (from 60.9% to 78.5%). While this is an impressive and worthwhile improvement, this may indicate a lack of importance placed on the other four domains. Moreover, the evidence has indicated that positive improvements in these other domains, particularly that of social and emotional competence and maturity, can create broader positive changes which typically result in academic success.

Table 1: Percentage of children developmentally “on track” in 2009 versus 2012

Children on track AECD 2

(click on the table above for a larger version)

Percentage of children developmentally ‘vulnerable’ in 2009 and 2012

The developmentally ‘vulnerable’ children are those who score below the 10th percentile in the national population. Hence these children demonstrate a much lower than average ability in the various domains and require additional support. Australia wide, the largest improvements occurred through the language and cognitive skills domain with 4.1% less children developmentally vulnerable. Queensland’s improvements are in line with this, yet appear to be even greater with an improvement of 6.5% from 2009 to 2012. Therefore Queensland’s improvement has surpassed that of the national average, although it appears that this has left areas of physical health, social competence and communication skills with either no improvement or an even greater percentage of vulnerable children.

Therefore, these figures may suggest that educators are placing a disproportionately high focus on literacy and classroom-based cognitive skills and neglecting the importance of the other domains. Moreover, when directly comparing New South Wales indicators, it can be seen that there were small yet dispersed improvements across all indicators. Perhaps Queensland policy makers and educators need to follow suit and place a broader focus on all domains, especially that of the social competence and communication skill based competencies.

This argument is also reinforced by the concern that Queensland is lagging behind the Australian averages in all domains. Moreover, there are a greater percentage of children vulnerable in 1 or more and 2 or more of the five domains. Therefore, although these indicators have improved within Queensland from 2009 to 2012, our state is falling behind the majority of Australia.

Table 2: Percentage of children developmentally vulnerable in 2009 versus 2012

Children  Vulnerable AECD

(click on the table above for a larger version)

In summary, these figures indicate some promise, as Queensland has improved the prospects for our young children from 2009 to 2012. However, it is very apparent that significant improvements need to be made across all five domains in order for broader, perhaps more enduring changes to be realised.  Moreover, Queensland is lagging behind both the national average as well as those of New South Wales and Victoria, therefore this provides striking evidence for educators and policy makers to implement targeted changes throughout the state. As mentioned, the purpose of this research is to help promote positive development and outcomes in young children, therefore these results should not be undervalued. Nevertheless, as the 2015 AEDC data is released in the future, we will be able to further understand which areas are improving and which areas require more targeted education and resources.

Term 4 Training Dates 2015



Tuesday 06/10 – Springwood RD Fun Friends

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Implementing Neuroscience Principles in the Classroom – to improve grades and wellbeing in students

This article is based on the 7:30pm report by Louise Milligan, 1 Sep 2015.

neuroscience in the classroom

Broadmeadows Primary School is located in Melbourne’s lowest 12th percentile for socio-economic disadvantage. However the school’s principal, Keith McDougal, stated that their postcode does not determine the child’s destiny as “where you start doesn’t matter – it’s where you end up that counts”. Therefore, this school has implemented revolutionary approaches based on neuroscience with the aim of improving the children’s learning potential and boosting grades.

All of the students wear a “learning goal badge” every day. These goals are based on interviews with students, parents and teachers and are based on each student’s individual needs. Some students focus on academic goals like improving handwriting where other goals are more fundamental, such as getting more sleep at night, eating properly or improving anger management.

This school looks at “behaviour as a learning experience”. From this, the number of students removed from the classroom and playground due to aggressive behaviour has decreased enormously.

removed playgroundremoved classroom

Moreover, before lessons in the morning, the students visit the “emotion wall”. Through this, they post their photo on a noticeboard next to an image of the emotion that they are feeling. This helps teachers keep track of any children who might be struggling and need extra attention and help. So if they see a child move from a happy to a negative emotion, they can implement a one-to-one follow-up.

Through all of this, the children appear to be showing better emotional and behaviour regulation and seem happier in general. Moreover, the school’s NAPLAN results are higher than any other school in the area and their year three results are above the Victoria state average.

Therefore, this school teaches an important lesson to all educators and parents; as learning occurs at its best when children are feeling confident, safe and happy.

Understanding Brain Development in Children

This article was adapted from information presented in the article “Understanding Brain Development in Young Children” by Sean Brotherson (2009).

A newborn’s brain contains 100 billion brain cells or neurons. These neurons are highly connected as one of their roles is communication, and amazingly a single cell can connect with as many as 15,000 other neurons. These connections are created through experience and learning and lead to a network which is referred to as the brain’s “wiring”. In the research, it is known that “cells that fire together, wire together”. So cells which repeatedly connect or fire together, will create a stronger, lasting bond and will therefore wire together.

catFor example while a child is learning to read the word “cat”, they are associating the printed word with the concept “cat” and the way the word sounds and even the relationship between the individual letters c-a-t. This adds to their network about spelling, language and reading as well as spoken sounds and problem solving. Hence, from birth our neurons allow us to quickly create connections that form knowledge, habits, thoughts, consciousness, creativity, memories and so on.

This neural development occurs in stages. A three-year-old child has formed about 1,000 trillion connections, about twice as many as adults have. The reason for this is that young children are vaguely aware of everything as they don’t yet know what Synaptic density during developmentis important. However, by the age of eleven, a child’s brain culls many connections that are not in use, this process is termed “pruning”. The connections and wiring that is left at the end of this is more powerful and efficient.

Researchers liken a baby’s perception to a lantern, scattering light across the room, where adult perception is more like a flashlight, consciously focused on specific things but ignoring background details.

See the ‘Synaptic Density’ image for an illustration of this process. However, it is important to note that this pruning process is based on the “use it or lose it” principle so that if a connection is not utilised, it will be eliminated to make neural space for the connections that are used. Therefore this is a developmental period whereby parents and educators should maximise learning experiences and foster a child’s capabilities. playgroundThis will ultimately provide children with the best step forward as they grow and develop into successful little adults.


Book Review: How to Deliver a TED Talk – Jeremey Donovan

How to Deliver a TED Talk: Secrets of the World’s most inspiring presentations.

By Jeremey Donovan

How to Deliver a TED Talk

For those who love learning but haven’t discovered yet, you are set to enter a wonderful slice of paradise – go to and have your mind expanded over and over again. For those who love and also present or educate, this medium size book is a wonderful exploration into the structure and underlying formula of educator-learner engagement.

Jeremey Donovan is a self-confessed ‘public speaking super-nerd.’ This engaging read is a how-to guide for delivering an inspiring speech based on his intensive study of the popular TED talks. Jeremey covers all the regulars of giving a great talk: organising your talk, opening your talk, crafting your catchphrase, transitioning between parts of your talk, projecting emotion, adding humour, mastering your non-verbal delivery, creating inspiring slides, and using props and video effectively.

Going beyond the well-known basics Jeremey identifies less-known basics of great presentations that engage the mind of the listeners. These are clearly identified and articulated under tips such as:

  • Bring your audience through the broadest possible emotional range.
  • Encapsulate your idea worth spreading in a viral catchphrase.
  • Develop your story using the hero’s journey three-act structure.
  • Touch your audiences’ hearts and minds with premise and proof.
  • Remember that you speak in service of your audience.
  • Sow a single seed of inspiration.

Aside from being well-written and entertaining, the value in this book for myself, and I imagine most educators, is gaining those subtle presentation skills that enable us to completely grab the mind of those we work with in order to benefit them – whatever that might look like.

Review by James Ryan

TRUST: The ‘Glue’ of Human Relationships

With it kids flourish. Without it kids flounder.

“Trust is the hidden variable that makes everything else work,” says Lonnie Moore author of the High-Trust Classroom.  Lonnie paints the picture that trust is the glue of all positive human relations. This ‘trust glue’ keeps humans bonded – without trust as the bonding agent relationships weaken and fall apart.

“Relationship is the platform on which all social and emotional skills are built,” our Education Manager Deb says in her training. Without trust there is no relationship to speak of. Students need to get the sense that this teacher genuinely cares about their academic and emotional growth.

“When kids believe their teachers truly care about them as individuals, they will cooperate in class and work so much more diligently to be the best students they know how to be.”

James Comer


In his book on trust in the business world, Stephen R. Covey introduces the formula:

In a High Trust Culture: the Speed of Business goes up and the Costs of Business go down.

In a Low Trust Culture: the Speed of Business goes down and the Costs of Business go up.

He goes on to say, “Impact of trust always plays on two key outcomes – speed and cost – and how low or high trust either extracts a tax or produces a dividend on every activity and dimension within a relationship, team or organisation.”

One of the key examples is a low-trust business merger where both businesses try to get the best deal and have to hire (very) expensive lawyers to write detailed and complex agreements to protect their own interests. Covey compares this to Warren Buffet who, on a handshake and no lawyers present, agreed to a merger worth hundreds of millions – no months of negotiation and minimal legal fees.

In the educational world, instead of speed and cost, we could use ideas such as engagement, attendance, openness, speed of learning, passion for learning. Let’s keep it basic, but play with the ideas as you see fit.

For the classroom we could translate this to:

In a High Trust Culture: the Speed of Learning goes up and Disruptive Behaviours go down.

In a Low Trust Culture: the Speed of Learning goes down and Disruptive Behaviours go up.

When you look at trust carefully you will find that in any low trust environment, people become suspicious of each other – they question intents and motivations, guarded or sarcastic communication becomes the norm, shutting down and building walls become common place and disengagement drives up frustration on both sides.


A Helpful Mental Model

The Relationship Bank Account model is simple to understand and useful to apply. The ‘currency’ of any relationship is Trust. When an action that builds trust between people occurs a ‘deposit’ is made in their personal Relationship Bank Account. A withdrawal is made when an interaction occurs that reduces trust. Even seeing a teacher treat someone else with disrespect may cause a withdrawal in a student’s Relationship Bank Account. As long as regular deposits are being made it isn’t too harmful to have occasional withdrawals. But, it we don’t make deposits or make rather large withdrawals, this is when relationships get into trouble.

For instance, if I tell my kids I’m taking them out for gelati but later change my mind – this is a clearly a withdrawal. If I promise them week after week and every time I change my mind, they will stop believing my promises. Big problem. With a bank account in negative whatever I say, do, suggest will be met with, at best, suspicion. Is this a situation likely to lead to effective learning? This is called paying a Low-trust Tax.

“A relationship without trust is like having a phone with no service. And what do you do with a phone with no service?

You play games”


With regular deposits such as keeping my word, listening carefully, really getting to know my students, my bank balance steadily grows. Even with an occasional withdrawal the students will still believe that I care for them and have their best interests at heart. Great opportunity. Is this a situation more likely to lead to effective learning? This is called receiving a High-trust Dividend.

“Perhaps a more important question than ‘who do you trust?’ is the far more personal question of ‘who trusts you?’”

Lonnie Moore


Laredo Ratio

Try to make five deposits for every withdrawal. This is a psychological balance point. Go under this ratio and the bank account is heading quickly down. Connect before you Correct.

Track Record

Make commitments you will definitely keep. Communicate that this is what you hope will occur however other factors can intervene. This keeps expectations and emotions more balanced.

Extend Trust

Assign students special duties and trust them to do it. Make sure they have the basic skills to be competent in the given duties.

Know Them

Deliberately take the time to get to know your students. Build it in to your weekly and daily schedule.

Keep Getting Better

Keep learning how to be a better educator. Students will sense this and even see you get better as the year, or years, go on. And they will respect you for it.

Explain Trust

Talk about what trust is. How we can both trust others and be trustworthy. Tell them how they can earn your trust and ask them how you can earn theirs.

Avoid Punishment

Find better ways to help kids make better choices and become more responsible. In many kids, punishment activates oppositional attitudes and habits.

Meaningful Learning

Show kids respect in the form of meaningful, challenging and rewarding learning activities that are truly worthy of their time and best efforts.

Listen Carefully

Remember, ‘You can listen someone into existence.’

Don’t Take It Personally

Don’t personalise the words and behaviours of your students. It’s not about you, it’s about them. Look deeply, past the behaviour, and see what it is about for them.

Be Fair

Fair means all students get the same rules, and exceptions to those rules. Unfair teachers will have serious trust issues.

Be Humble

Laugh at your mistakes. Don’t defend them. Apologise when you get it wrong. Trust isn’t built from always being right.

So take the time to reflect on the trust level you have with the kids you work with. Get curious about where you are paying Low-Trust Taxes and look for opportunities to build trust and eventually you will be reaping High-Trust Dividends.

Tip: Integrate Mindfulness – Choose one trust building idea for a week and bring it to mind every time your mindfulness bell brings you back to the present moment.

“You may not be able to control everything, but you can influence certain things. Trust starts with you.”

Stephen Covey

Further Reading

The High Trust Classroom:   Lonnie Moore

The Speed of Trust:   Stephen Covey

Discipline with Dignity: Curwin and Mendler

Article by James Ryan – Training Manager

Keeping up to date with the latest findings in resilience, mindfulness, social and emotional learning and wellbeing.

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