The Regional Municipality Of York


Brains aren't just born, they're built

Known as The Brain Story, the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI) explores in detail the science of brain development and how experiences, prenatally and from birth onward, shape the brain and impact one’s future learning, as well as their lifelong physical and mental health.

This information has been adapted from content created by the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative.

The early years of life are crucial by influencing a range of health and social outcomes across the life course:

  • overall well-being
  • obesity/stunting
  • mental health
  • chronic disease (i.e. heart disease, diabetes, etc.)
  • school readiness (competence in literacy and numeracy)
  • criminality
  • economic participation throughout life
  • influences other social determinants of health

Children depend on their parents and/or caregivers to help them grow and develop. When parents know what to expect at each stage of development, it can be easier for them to meet their child's needs and understand their behaviour.

"The first six years of a child's life [have] the greatest impact on their future learning, health and development" (McCain & Mustard 1999)

Learn more about the core concepts in the brain story development

Brain Architecture

The structure of our developing brain is determined by more than just our genes. Early experiences also play a key role, in fact, the early years in a child’s life have the greatest impact on their future learning, health and development.

Nurturing experiences and positive interactions help to build sturdy brains and reinforce important cognitive, social, and emotional skills that are necessary for learning, forming close relationships, as well as lifelong physical and mental health. It’s crucial to build a strong foundation for brain development throughout early childhood, starting prenatally.

Learn more about brain architecture:

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Serve and Return

Interaction between young children and caregivers is essential to brain development. The positive back-and-forth exchange between a child and a caregiver are known as serve-and-return interactions.

These serve-and-return interactions occur when young children interact (serve) through babbling, making facial expressions, gestures, and using words while responsive caregivers return these serves with similar vocalizing, gesturing, and emotional engagement. This consistent back-and-forth helps to establish sturdy brain structure and lays the foundation for a lifetime of good physical and mental health.

When caregivers are sensitive and respond to a young child’s signals and cues, neural connections are built and strengthened. However, over time unreliable, inappropriate or absent responses when a child reaches out can weaken brain architecture and impair the development of skills, abilities, behavior and overall health.

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Toxic Stress

Not all stress is bad. Stress can be positive, tolerable or toxic. This depends on how strong the stress is, and how long it lasts.

Positive stress, like meeting new people or starting school is a healthy part of development especially when a caring adult can provide support.

Tolerable stress is stress that causes a more severe stress response and is usually related to a major life event such as a death in the family.

When a caring adult is there to support a child by soothing and teaching coping strategies, tolerable stress does not cause lasting damage to child development. However, without support from a caring adult, tolerable stress can become toxic. Toxic stress disrupts brain development and increases lifelong health risks such as physical and mental health problems, including addiction.

Toxic stress is the result of intense, repeated and prolonged response to stressful events where no caring adult is available to help. The most common triggers of toxic stress in children are:

  • parental mental illness
  • parental substance abuse
  • parental abandonment or divorce
  • emotional abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • physical abuse
  • witnessing domestic violence
  • emotional neglect
  • a family member in prison
  • physical neglect

Learn more about stress response and toxic stress:

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Air Traffic Control

When we think of the term “air traffic control” we may start to picture a large tower directing airplanes and controlling our airspace. However, in the Brain Story, we use the term air traffic control as a metaphor for our brain’s advanced skills and abilities known as executive function.

The brain’s air traffic control system helps us to pay attention, plan ahead, prioritize tasks, problem solve and control our emotions. Building these executive function skills is one of the most important and challenging tasks of early childhood. These skills help young children follow rules, focus their attention, control their impulses, regulate their emotions and problem solve.

The brain’s air traffic control system develops when a young child experiences positive nurturing and responsive relationships.

Learn more about Air Traffic Control and Executive Function:

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Learning how to cope with stress and hardship is known as resilience and is an important part of healthy child development. Resilience is an individual’s ability to respond and bounce back from major life stress and is why some people are able to cope positively when faced with hard times while others might struggle.

The more resilient we are, the more capable we are of managing stress and staying healthy. Not everyone starts out in life with the same ability to be resilient, but having a responsive and nurturing relationship with at least one parent, caregiver or other adult can help children build resilience and thrive.

Our positive and negative experiences shape brain development overtime and can “tip” our resilience scale. Like weights on either end of a scale, positive experiences in a child’s life can tip the scale towards good outcomes like success in school, work and good health, and negative experiences can tip a child’s resilience scale toward bad outcomes such as diabetes, heart disease, anxiety, depression, and addiction. A nurturing and supportive caregiver, parent or adult can help to balance the resilience scale and stop it from tipping in a negative direction.

When a young child is supported by healthy adult relationships, the negative effects of a child’s stress response can be avoided and balanced quickly.

Learn more about resilience and the resilience scale:

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Parenting Resources:

Learn how to incorporate Brain Story concepts into your parenting techniques


child development,early development,brain,learning The Regional Municipality of York en-US A mother holding a baby Brains aren't just born, they're built Brain Story is about the science of brain development: how experiences shape the brain and impact learning and lifelong physical and mental health

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