Understanding the Warning Signs: Recognize the profound changes

Photograph by Lynn Johnson

This is part three of our series on Brain Health based off an interview with Jeremy Richman, a neuro-pharmacologist who runs a foundation dedicated to preventing violence and building compassion through brain health research, community engagement, and education. We sat down with him to talk about what he has learned in his time studying the brain, what we can do to educate students about brain health and how we can help empower them to advocate for themselves and their peers when it comes to brain health and brain illnesses. In this article, we will identify some behaviors that may indicate that an adult should intervene in relation to a child’s brain health.

Let’s start by saying teachers are not meant to be therapists. In reality, neither are parents. We often talk about the importance of teacher wellness and self care. We recognize the fact that teachers, in particular, wear many hats every time they step into a classroom, but as Dr. Richman explains:

“No one is ever expected to become a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist, unless that is the specific career path you’ve chosen for yourself.” 

What is important, however, is that teachers and parents are able to recognize changes in demeanor or behavior. Risks  of poor brain health can be identified  as early as three years old and you can continue to see signs throughout the span of a person’s life. The better someone knows a particular person, the more likely they are to be able to identify these signs.  This makes parents and teachers ideal people to recognize change.

But how do you know when a change is natural and when it could be a sign or symptom of poor brain health? Understanding how the brain changes throughout a person’s lifespan can help.

The Three Changing “Periods”

Throughout a person’s development, the brain really goes through profound periods of change. The first is in early childhood and starts around the age of three.

At about three years old your brain really blossoms in terms of its development and its potential for acquiring new information, particularly in terms of language and motor development. It’s explosively prepared to do those things.  At around six years old, that explosive development begins to wane a little bit.”

Researchers originally thought that this was the time when child development decreased significantly. Now they’ve realized that the brain is actually still developing rapidly, but it’s beginning to change how it develops. From around age six to adolescence, the brain is focused on making connections. This period usually ends between 20 to 24 years old for women and a little later for men. During the third and final “period”, the brain is still developing but, most importantly, it’s focused on making connections within the frontal cortex. So what does this mean? Dr. Richman explains:

“Up until this third period, our thoughts and decisions were really led by the lower brain and emotions. So when a teenager makes a mistake, and we ask, ‘What were you thinking?’ the answer is really pretty simple. They weren’t. That might seem concerning but it’s actually really important. They’re not accurately assessing risk, which gives them the courage to really explore what’s important to them. Then as they reach the last ‘period’ they begin a pruning phase, in which they actually begin cutting away some of the synapses and connections they formed so far. That pruning period is how people create their unique individuality.” 

When taking into consideration these three periods, it becomes clear why it’s important to advocate for protective factors (link to article) starting at an early age.  A person’s core values, behaviors and habits are being built in that “dual explosion” phase between early childhood and adolescence. The “dual explosion” phase also means there are going to be a lot of changes that are totally acceptable and natural, which brings us back to our original question:

How do you know when a change could be an indication of poor brain health?

The “Live, Laugh, Love Equation”

During the dual explosion phase a lot changes. People’s interests, physical appearance, belief systems, and circles of influence all change. In adolescence, people begin to define who they want to be philosophically, politically and ethically, but these are all likely to change with age and experience as well. These changes are okay. In order to differentiate between a natural change and a warning sign, Dr. Richman recommends using the “Live, Laugh, Love Equation.”

“The Live, Laugh, Love equation asks you to consider  how the change is affecting the person as well as those around them. Is the change in demeanor or behavior affecting their ability to enjoy the things they normally did? Is the change influencing their happiness or someone else’s happiness? If it is, that’s a problem.” 

Dr. Richman explains a specific example:

“Let’s take a look at an anxiety disorder. You’re a little bit obsessive compulsive. You have to line your books in a particular way. If they’re not lined up correctly, you’ll go back and do it again. That might be the sign of a very small brain abnormality. But is it affecting your ability to live, laugh or love? Probably not. It might not be a typical behavior but it’s also not a problem. “

The “Live, Laugh, Love Equation” can help teachers and parents identify changes in behavior that might warrant intervention or additional support for a particular child.  One way that adults can support all children is through social emotional learning. Social emotional learning helps students better identify, understand and express emotions within themselves and in others. This can help them identify warning signs within themselves and their peers as they mature. Thinking back to the three profound periods of brain development, it’s now understood that until early adulthood, most decisions are made on a purely emotional basis without accurately assessing risk. Prioritizing emotional intelligence can help students make healthier decisions and develop the resilience needed to bounce back when mistakes are made.

In next week’s article we’ll continue discussing warning signs and three SEL “skills” to that we must develop in children for them to live happy, successful lives.


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