It’s a heady responsibility. Thanks to the rapidly expanding field of brain research, parents now know just how malleable (or plastic) their children’s brains are and — particularly when children are young — how much influence they can have on “feeding” their child’s growing mind. (Hint: we’re not talking flash cards.) To make sense of the latest research, we spoke with Jane Healy, bestselling author of numerous books on children’s brain development, including the widely acclaimed Your Child’s Growing Mind.

We know our kids are supposed to eat their broccoli, but how does nutrition directly help with brain development?

My new book, Different Learners, provides advice on how to prevent kids from having learning problems. The last third of the book is a how-to on healthy brain development, and the foundation is nutrition.

A healthy brain lives in a healthy body. If your child is dragged down by poor nutrition, if their body isn’t functioning at its best, they will have a much higher risk of ADHD, dyslexia, and even poor handwriting. If your child has a slight genetic disposition to any of those issues, it takes 10 times the brainpower to overcome the obstacles. You need to optimize their nutrition. Adequate sleep is also very important. If the physical body and brain are well tended to, the child will have enough cortical energy to meet their growing challenges.

Brains also require water. Evidence shows that children with attention and memory problems are often just dehydrated. Teachers are now being encouraged to give kids water breaks. But remember, there’s absolutely nothing good about giving kids soda pop to drink, and don’t give them anything with an artificial sweetener. We don’t know yet what that does to a kid’s brain.

There are some very astute researchers, one is from Oxford, who believe that cod liver oil can be very beneficial to the brain. Remember that it needs to be purified to remove the heavy metals. I’ve seen cod liver oil work on children in my own practice, and I take it myself. There are flavored varieties, like lemon, so the taste isn’t offensive like it used to be.

What about exercise? How important is physical activity for brain development?

Yes, there is terrific research on cognition and exercise. There’s a direct link between active physical exercise and how kids score on exams. If you take kids and run them around a track, when they come back to the classroom they will very likely score better on a test. The brain runs on blood, so if blood is flowing robustly through the brain, it will be healthier and function optimally. But don’t forget to give kids water after they exercise.

Exercise also relaxes the stress mechanisms. Bad stress can damage their attention and their memory. Good stress sharpens the motivation, attention, and memory system, but bad stress erodes it. In today’s society, the overall noise level and the amount of screen time that children experience is very damaging, and exercise is one of the antidotes to this physiological stress. I recommend that the whole family get out on weekends and exercise and play and act silly. Being outdoors on green turf is also extremely healthy for the brain.

Do you regard all these new online brain games as being beneficial to a child’s cognitive development?

Before you introduce any kind of man-made activity into your child’s brain development, you need to see good research. We know that exercise, play, and good teachers are beneficial to the brain, but we don’t know yet if anything that appears on a screen is actually healthy. You don’t want your child to be a guinea pig that doesn’t thrive because they were given the wrong product.

The culture of the 21st century is hostile in many respects to good child development. Too many children are failing. It’s your job as a parent to ensure that your child’s brain is receiving precisely what it needs for its health.

We’ve been hearing more lately about school phobia. What’s the best way a parent can respond if their child says, “I don’t want to go to school”?

My book Different Learners addresses that problem: children with school phobia who don’t want to go to school. If your child says this repeatedly, it’s a serious sign that things need to be looked into. You need to find out why they are saying that, and you need to do two things:

  1. See if you can get your child to tell you what is happening during the day. Are there bullies on the bus? Is their desk in a bad place so they can’t see the teacher? You need to find out if there’s a learning problem. Talk to your child. They may or may not tell you. Perhaps your child needs a physical checkup. My son complained about a tummy ache and it turned out to be a hernia.
  2. Go to school and talk to your child’s teacher. Say, “We have some concerns because Sarah is saying in the morning that she doesn’t want to go to school.” You might have to go in and observe the classroom.

There are three specific stages in child development when problems may show up. They are first grade, third grade, and fourth grade — when there are new demands for organizational skills, plus homework requirements — and at the beginning of adolescence. I really advise reading Different Learners. It is written to address this exact problem.