Brain Power, Like Brawn, Requires a Workout


By Kate Rogers, Special to the Independent


Judy Willis
Judy Willis

Clinical neurologist and educator Dr. Judy Willis discussed the application of neuroscience to practical aspects of child rearing during a recent PTA Coffee Break workshop.

As Dr. Willis unbundled her concepts, listeners realized that in simple and easy-to-apply techniques parents really could make a difference in unlocking greater brain functioning in children.

Willis pointed out that an international survey among employers showed that the ability to find and evaluate information is far more valued than the archaic concept of “years of experience.” The mental tools to adapt to this changing landscape undergo profound development during the late teen years and can be strengthened with exercise, she said.

The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the human brain to mature and is the control center of executive functions such as judgment, critical analysis, prioritizing, deduction, induction, imagination, communication, goal development, planning and perseverance, Willis explained.  A strong executive function correlates with school success, she said. “Maturation” is a physiological process, thickened and reinforced through use, she explained.

What we ask of the brain has a very direct impact on how it develops and what its capabilities become, Willis said, who went on to identify ways to promote brain development.

Encourage children to ask questions, she urged. Parents should promote curiosity and imagination and not provide answers. If a question arises, encourage kids to analyze, predict, and evaluate the situation themselves.  “Remind them what they already know, and plan with them what information they can find themselves,” she said.

Remember that decision-making builds judgment.  Invite children into family decisions such as planning family vacations or making a large purchase and allow them to participate in the analysis.  Discuss goals and have them to develop their own approach, she advised. Kids could also be allowed to participate in the stock market, and gain experience researching, estimating and assessing their own success or failures.

Another opportunity is when a kid declares something “isn’t fair.”  We can ask “why not?”, and suggest that it can be explored, she said.  A letter to the editor can be suggested.  Another technique could be to have them predict the counter-argument to their position and respond, Willis suggested.

We can also help kids learn how to analyze by comparing sources of information and looking for potential bias. She suggested discussing fact versus opinion and teasing apart advertising claims.

If your kid feels comfortable with an online source, ask what underlies that choice and what characteristics make them confident of its accuracy, she said.

Through simple shifts, parents can make a difference in their children’s ability to develop higher brain function, Willis said.

For more detailed information, a video recording of the morning can be found at


Parent Kate Rogers is involved in organizing PTA’s Coffee Break workshops.

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