Building a Better Brain: Early Childhood Development and Mental Health

Published: February 25, 2020

how Building Better Brains makes a better future for all

Families are the first nurturers, educators, protectors, and caregivers in our society. When our families are strong and healthy, our community thrives. This is the reason why Families First exists. 

When we support strong, healthy families we are:

  • helping people work through their traumas
  • helping parents be better parents
  • educating families about the developmental needs of children
  • connecting supportive parenting communities
  • preventing future mental health conditions for children who experience toxic stress in the home

While we all share the strains and stress of family life, not everyone has the resources to deal effectively with family crises. And some problems are just too difficult to handle alone. It is during these times that many families can benefit from a supportive parenting community or a professional counselor, who can help them find solutions and navigate changes and transitions.

Reaching out for that help and support is one of the best things you can do for your children, especially while they are in the critical early development stages of life. Why? The answer has to do with how our brains are built.

Science has shown us that the experiences we have in the first years of our lives actually affect the physical architecture of the developing brain. Watch the video below to learn more about the core story of brain development, and how caregivers can help support healthy brain development for children.

brain builders - video with play button - links to another webpage with the video

Content and video from the Alberta Family Wellness Institute (AFWI). The AFWI developed the video with considerable input from their partners at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child and the FrameWorks Institute.

Our brains aren't just born—they're built over time, based on our experiences.

A house needs a sturdy foundation to support the walls and roof. And a brain needs a good foundation to support all future development. Positive interactions between young children and caregivers literally build the architecture of the developing brain. Building a sturdy foundation in the earliest years provides a good base for a lifetime of good mental function and better overall health.


How is a solid brain foundation built and maintained? One way is through what brain experts call "serve and return" interactions.

serve and return concept mother and child on a tennis court

Imagine a tennis game between a caregiver and a child. Instead of hitting a ball back and forth across a net, various forms of communication pass between them. From eye contact to touch, to singing, to simple games like peek-a-boo. These interactions repeated through a child's early years are the bricks that build all future development.

But another kind of childhood experience shapes brain development too, and that is stress.

Good kinds of stress, like meeting new people or studying for a test, are healthy for development because they prepare children to cope with future challenges.


Another kind of stress, called Toxic Stress, is bad for brain development. If a child is exposed to serious ongoing hardships like abuse and neglect, and he has no other caregiver in his life to provide support, the basic structures of his developing brain may be damaged.

Without a sturdy foundation to support healthy development, he is at risk for a lifetime of health problems, development issues, even addiction.

It's possible to fix some of the damage of toxic stress later on, but it's easier, more effective, and less expensive to build solid brain architecture in the first place.


You can think of executive function and self-regulation as the “air traffic control” at a busy airport. The controller has to pay attention to all of the things happening around them and react to those events, like:

  • Plan ahead
  • Pay attention
  • Share toys
  • Use inside voice
  • Sneak a cookie?
  • Put on pajamas

"Air traffic control" helps children pay attention, control their emotions, prioritize what they should do next. These kinds of executive functions are part of the developing brain architecture. Having this ability helps children avoid "collisions" and successfully react to the world around them.

Putting All the Pieces Together

Developing solid brain architecture, avoiding toxic stress, and developing good executive function and self-regulation—these are all things kids can't do on their own. And since strong societies are made up of healthy, thriving individuals it's up to all of us to make sure kids have the nurturing experiences they need for healthy development.

To build better futures, we need to build better brains.

Learn more about our Parenting Education classes, Or contact us today.