Giving Thought: Building brain awareness to support belonging

Allison Alexander
Giving Thought

Allow yourself to think back to middle school for a moment. Chances are, you’ll likely recall an awkward time that was anything but easy to navigate.

Middle school is a complex time in development. Bodies are changing, social networks shift and academics become more rigorous. This is not new. However, the impacts of the pandemic and isolation on adolescents are new and are just beginning to be understood.

Children in this age group undergo tremendous amounts of change not only on the outside and within their social structure, but also in their brains.

Neuroscience suggests that early adolescence, between ages 10 to 13, is a critical period for brain development and plasticity. As puberty is onsetting earlier, as young as 9, hormones impact development. Additionally, social-media usage and exposure adds another layer of variables to children’s lives and development.

Puberty brings a flood of new hormones to these young brains that they are not yet fully equipped to handle, which can lead to behavior and emotional struggles. The isolation of the pandemic left children disconnected and on their own in many cases to navigate these struggles.

Many children began turning to the internet for support or connection, and social media became one of the only options for answers or comfort.

Unfiltered access to information has allowed many children to access information beyond their development abilities to process or, in other cases, is harmful or dangerous.

Additionally, research suggests that increased exposure to social media increases cortisol levels, which increases stress and complicates learning and cognitive development. This period of brain development, combined with puberty and isolation, created a perfect storm for the disconnection and struggles many children are experiencing in our region and beyond.

The impact is evident to those closely connected to children as we continue to emerge from the pandemic. Children, especially those in middle school, are feeling disconnected, stressed, depressed, anxious, overwhelmed and disengaged.

FocusedKids — a local nonprofit focused on supporting children, families and schools in building healthy relationships and education through understanding the brain and practicing self-regulation — is expanding its services into middle schools at the request of teachers and parents.

Founded in 2013 by Kathy Hegberg, FocusedKids began working in classrooms with students ages 3-8 with a curriculum focused on exercises designed to support the development of executive function, like self-regulation.

At the center of FocusedKids training and classes are developmentally-appropriate strategies to help children understand the parts of the brain and exercises to help support its growth. For example, children are given a shared language to understand what is happening within themselves and how to better self-regulate — a skill that has been associated with academic and social success.

Over the years, they have expanded their offerings to support parents with groups and training designed to take lessons from the classroom and bring them into homes to create deeper impacts. During the pandemic, like many organizations, they began offering virtual learning opportunities.

Now, FocusedKids has expanded into middle-school classrooms at the request of school administrators and teachers who have experienced success with FocusedKids programs with their younger students.

Prior to FocusedKids intervention, one classroom of fifth-graders was asked on a scale of 1-10, one being unable to focus at all, and 10, I can easily focus and get my work done in class, and over half of the students reported a score of 5 or lower. One student reported, “I am a -1.”

Connection and belonging is also lacking for children as they resist sharing their emotions with peers. Students hesitated to share their feelings because “everyone will think I am crazy,” as one student shared. Belonging is a core need for humans, and the inability to share feelings and experiences is linked to negative outcomes in both personal and professional spheres.

In the middle-school program, students are able to practice developmentally-appropriate exercises and activities to support rebuilding connections, reducing cortisol and expressing their emotions. They are taught skills to support them outside of the classroom. Further, they have created a middle-school-specific journal with activities to support healthy coping strategies and space to express worries as well as feelings and improve confidence.

FocusedKids provides opportunities to support brain development and growth, while helping children understand they have agency over their lives in some ways through understanding the role of their brains. The curriculum emphasizes the pliability of the brain while simultaneously improving the learning environment as children collectively learn how to better manage their brains and emotions while rebuilding relationships in community. When these changes occur, cortisol levels can begin to lower, and learning becomes possible again.

While FocusedKids cannot remove the inevitable awkwardness that is inherent in the middle-school experience, it offers an opportunity to support the navigation of this tricky time with resources and a shared language around the brain.

Allison Alexander is the development director of Aspen Community Foundation, which with the support of its donors, works with nonprofits in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys.


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