The PEAR Institute: Neuroplasticity, the Brain, and Student Self-Concept and Growth

This post is part of a series about the workshop presentations delivered at the ACT Skills Summit.

Caitlin McCormack, Manager of Training and Curriculum at The PEAR Institute, shared with workshop attendees how neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life – underpins the Thrive skills of growth mindset, self-efficacy, and self-regulation, and how a basic understanding of brain development can help adults better activate Thrive skills in young people.

The brain develops in the following order:

  1. Brain Stem – Takes in energy and information from the body. When we are using this part of our brain, we are focused on the question, “Am I safe?”
  2. Limbic Area – Controls emotions, memory, fight/flight/freeze response. This part of the brain focuses on the questions, “Am I loved? Am I happy?”
  3. Cortex – Manages perception of the world, rational thinking, reason, reflection, and communication. This part of the brain focuses on the question, “What do I think?”
  4. Prefrontal Cortex – Regulates and integrates the various parts of the nervous system. This part of the brain focuses on the questions, “What do I want to do? How do I want to be? What can I learn from this situation?”

The prefrontal cortex does not complete developing until the age of twenty-five, and is critical for activating the Thrive skills. Attendees learned that each time they help young people learn and practice these skills, they are reinforcing connections in the prefrontal cortex.

Attendees also learned how neural pathways impact learning new skills and behaviors. For example, if a young person associates adults with fear, that neural pathway is the strongest connection between adults and any emotion for that young person. It takes continued practice and effort to form a new pathway, say for example between adults and trust or safety. “Relationships are the most powerful way to make new connections in the brain,” commented Caitlin of PEAR.

Attendees reflected on how difficult it can be to use growth mindset, self-efficacy, and self-regulation skills when a person is “stuck” in one of the lower parts of the brain, focused only on the questions of, “Am I safe? Am I loved?” They then practiced responding to different behaviors of a young person with this new understanding of brain development in mind, and learned how mindfulness exercises, reflective practice, games and challenges, and positive thinking can be integrated into program activities.

The PEAR Institute partners with school districts, out-of-school-time programs and youth-serving organizations to promote social-emotional development in the service of student engagement, academic achievement, and life success. PEAR’s integrated student support system includes tools and services, all based on scientific research, that can be used across educational settings to better understand the non-academic picture of students. Boston After School & Beyond and PEAR have collaborated to align these tools and services to support the ACT Skills Framework.

All materials used at the workshop can be found here.