How Occupational Therapy uses neuroplasticity to support a child’s development

What is Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is a fundamental underlying principle of much of the work we do at KidsBrainTree FoCo and the work that OT’s do in general. A lot of what we do relies upon the fact that our brains aren’t hard-wired, that they can change and develop. The good news from that is – if there is a glitch in your brain, we can do something to fix it. How? The magic is that our whole body is wired to our brain. All our nerves that tell our muscles to walk, that enable us to see, and that make us pull our hand away from a burning flame are connected to the brain. The brain sends signals to whichever part of the body it needs to have do a task, and we do it. See a ball coming? Signals go from our eyes, via our brain that then orders our hands to catch it; See an angry person coming – read their body language for social cues and know if …and how to talk.

The great news is that it isn’t a one-way street. It isn’t just the brain relaying messages. We can have an impact on the brain through the exercises we undertake. Researchers have found that if you do aerobic exercises it increases the amount of grey matter in the brain and improves your spatial memory as well as your ability to make decisions. That’s pretty neat. Everything we do, every single day feeds up through our nervous system and has an impact on our brain. This means that our brain has the ability to change throughout the course of our lives. So, in an extreme case, if you suffer a trauma like a stroke, the plasticity of your brain means it can rewire itself to compensate for that injury. But even just through day to day living the proportion of grey matter we have can change and our brains can rewire themselves to adjust to the tasks we are carrying out.

This may be very different to what you learned as kids. We used to believe that only children’s brains grew and that once we reached adulthood, nothing changed. We’ve since discovered that isn’t true, our brains change in response to our activities and our environment throughout our lives. What is true is that children’s brains are even more plastic than adults. They are constantly growing and adapting to their environment and soaking up information on how to respond physically and intellectually to the world. Trauma – like concussions from football or sport,  or perhaps falling and hitting one’s head, is the biggest risk facing the young developing brain as it puts a strain on the sympathetic nervous system causing constant activation. Trauma, therefore, alters the way a child’s brain develops and grows and can lead to a child who is hyper-vigilant or overly aroused. This can lead to all sorts of quirks in children from ADHD to meltdowns and a number of other little things that might make them seem a little odd, but not too concerning. See this page on quirky kids for a full list of behaviours that might indicate your child is a quirky kid.

How OT uses neuroplasticity to support a child’s development

A lot of treatments for quirks in kids focus on counselling and medication. Whilst those can both be useful in helping your child, you can gain additional benefits and often times resolutions, if you add Occupational Therapy into the mix. Because of neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change), physical motion can be used to remodel the brain to help your child overcome their quirks. There’s a saying around neuroplasticity that goes: “neurons that fire together, wire together”  / “neurons that fire out of sync, fail to link”.

As Maxine Haller OTR/L says, “The ability of nerves to make different and new connections depending on what they experience in life, is fundamental to what we do. For you to feel a sensation, a nerve has to fire. For you to know what to do about that sensation, that firing nerve has to be connected to a group of muscles, and it needs to go via a process of deciding whether this is important enough or not to warrant a movement response. That whole connection piece gives an outcome – hopefully that is functional.”

An Occupational Therapist knows what activities your child can do that will help your kid’s body and brain learn what is important, and get the kind of outcome you want. For example, if your child suffers from epic meltdowns and it takes hours to restore calm, there are a series of exercises that you and your child can do that can help your child cope and therefore no longer have meltdowns. See more detail about that on our website article here. Occupational Therapists have worked out a vast array of interventions that tackle all sorts of quirks from clumsiness to ADHD. They are uniquely qualified to look at any activity and find the place where the difficulty is, and change the skill or the activity so that the desired outcome can be reached.

Using what OT’s know about neuroplasticity isn’t only for kids with big problems. Anyone can benefit from fine-tuning their body and brain. You can think of it like an annual car service, your car may be running fine, but that annual service makes it run smoother and prevents future breakdowns. Your child may be doing just fine at home and at school, but they could still benefit from some targeted Occupational Therapy techniques the level up their ability and skill. It will give them extra resilience and help them achieve their full potential. Cardinal Capers has an annual Summer Sensory Motor Program, that will give your kids a head start in life by improving their ability to concentrate and focus, be precise and co-ordinated. Read more about it here.

Whether your child is quirky or not, check out the services we provide at KidsBrainTree FoCo, and book a free 20 minute consultation to discuss your kid’s needs. It could make all the difference for your child and your family.

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