The most remarkable feature of humankind is the flexibility of our brains. This neuroplasticity—or the brain’s ability to adjust its activities in response to new situations—is what has allowed our species to make dramatic changes from generation to generation. Humans have evolved from small hunter-gatherer clans to urban, digitally connected, international communities. The most malleable part of our brain is the neocortex, which can absorb and store more bits of information than the brains of any other species. This capacity for cognitive thinking allowed us to create language, democracy, and thousands of other inventions.
In fact, our most remarkable invention is public education: a structured system to provide the social and cognitive stimulation children need to take advantage of their brain’s malleability and develop knowledge and skills in mathematics, science, and history. By providing structured cognitive and social experiences, the U.S. public education system has expressed the potential of millions of children, which has, in turn, led to invention, creativity, and productivity that has transformed the world.
The key to the success of any educational experience is the capacity to “get to the cortex.” Yet, each year, nearly one-third of all children attending U.S. public schools will have significantly impaired cortical functioning due to abuse, neglect, domestic violence, poverty, and other adversities. Understanding the effects of trauma on a child’s brain and how these effects alter the ability to learn is essential to improving our public education system.
The brain has a set of crucial neural networks that mediate stress response. When children have attentive caregiving at home and supported emotional, motor, social, and cognitive experiences throughout their early years, they develop a well-regulated stress-response system. This leads to experiences in learning and growth that shape a child in positive ways.