Navigating Life with Compassion: Harnessing the Power of Your Child’s Brain Through Behavior

By Rebecca Behnke | January 24, 2024

Our Brains Listen to Our Behavior: Harnessing the Power of Child Brain Development and Neuroplasticity

Childhood is a wondrous and expansive phase of life full of opportunity and growth. It can also be messy, challenging, and confusing, both for children and for parents and caregivers who navigate this phase of life with them. But, what if we could harness what we know about child brain development to work with the way the developing child’s brain works rather than against it?

Play is a child’s work, and a child’s brain is capable of amazing growth and learning through play, adventure and enjoyment. Children do this through a process known as “neuroplasticity”, or our brain’s ability to shape neuronal pathways based on our experiences and behaviors. 

Our brains can form neuronal connections, known as “synapses”, in as little as minutes after some experiences. The developing child’s brain is hard at work creating synapses as they experience new things and have novel thoughts and ideas. Because children are experiencing and learning so much about the world around them, their brains also complete a process known as “synaptic pruning”. This pruning process discards (or “prunes”) synapses we have created but no longer use, allowing us to create new connections. 

Our brains continue this process throughout adulthood, but the developing child’s brain is unique in that it is still figuring out what connections to prune. By adulthood, we have mostly figured out which of these synapses are helpful, and which are unhelpful. The good news is that parents can support and guide children in maintaining positive synapses and pruning negative patterns by encouraging certain behaviors and praising positive choices. 

Our brains are always listening to our behavior. If we continue a certain behavioral pattern, our brains tend towards continuing this pattern. We can change these neural connections by changing our behaviors. Behavioral change is not easy (for children or adults) and requires us to have healthy minds and well supported nervous systems.

One thing that we can do to encourage a child’s brain development and to facilitate behavioral change is to ensure that they are getting a balanced and healthy “diet” of enrichment and care for their minds. Dr. Dan Siegal uses the idea of a Mind Platter to visualize what our brains need to integrate (or, to complete the creation and pruning of synapses based on information about ourselves and our environment). 

The Mind Platter includes the following “brain nutrients”: 

Focus Time: When we closely focus on tasks in a goal-oriented way, we take on challenges that make deep and lasting connections in the brain.

Make a to do list, complete homework, read a book, practice an instrument

Playtime: When we allow ourselves to be spontaneous or creative, playfully enjoying new experiences, we help to spark new connections in the brain.

Draw or paint, make up a game, sing a silly song, try a new recipe, build with Legos

Connecting Time: When we connect with other people and to the world around us (especially through nature), we activate and reinforce the brain’s relational circuitry.

Go on a nature walk and collect leaves, give someone a compliment, call a friend or loved one

Physical Time: When we move or exercise we strengthen the brain’s connection to our bodies

Ride a bike, play basketball, do jumping jacks, have a dance party, practice yoga or stretch

Time In: When we quietly reflect internally, focusing on sensations, images, feelings and thoughts, we help to better integrate information.

Journal or write down your thoughts and feelings, practice mindfulness or meditation, practice grounding by focusing on your 5 senses

Downtime: When we are non-focused, without any specific goal, and let our mind wander or simply relax, we help the brain recharge and relax

Watch a comfort TV show, listen to music, color in a coloring book, drink a cup of tea

Sleep Time: When we give the brain the rest it needs, we consolidate learning and recover from the experiences of the day.

Keep a consistent a bedtime and morning routine to promote quality, restorative sleep. 

All of our brains work better when they receive a generous helping of each of these “mind nutrients” every day. As you work towards ensuring your child’s daily routine includes these activities, don’t forget to consider your own mind platter! Are you getting all of the “brain nutrients” that you need?   Sleep and Downtime can reduce stress, Time In and Focus Time can increase productivity and concentration, Physical Time can increase energy and endurance, Play Time can foster creativity and flexibility, and Connecting Time can promote compassion, understanding, and patience for yourself and your child.

Having a healthy, well balanced “mind platter” can be incredibly helpful in protecting against parenting burnout and promoting child growth, learning, and overall mental health. With the power of brain science on your side, you can set your child up for healthy behavioral growth, and resource yourself to parent throughout childhood with resilience, knowledge, and compassion. 


Resources for further learning:



About The Author

Rebecca Behnke

Therapy with me: I work with children and families on their path toward healing and with adults whose inner child is continuing or just beginning this journey. I consider the client to be an expert in their own experiences and feel that therapy works best when the client feels a sense of empowerment and agency within the therapeutic process. I often incorporate play, art, music and movement in my work with clients and enjoy finding creative, individualized and collaborative approaches to sustain clients’ growth and wellness.