Applying brain science to parenting




A new workshop on brain development aims to inform community members about the impacts of trauma and spur intentional interactions between parents and children.

Ruth Charles, a professor in the social work department at Winona State University, said the workshop, “Building Brains, Building Parents,” is available to any group that is interested.

“As parents to an almost eight-year-old and five-year-old, my husband and I are always interested in learning more about positive parenting skills and ways to help our children be as happy and well-rounded as they can be,” Winona community member and workshop participant Kate Carlson said. “Unfortunately, we live in a world with endless online articles, parenting blogs, ‘expert’ advice and more, and that onslaught of parenting information can be overwhelming. The ‘Building Brains, Building Parents’ workshop was a great opportunity to learn from local professionals and spend some time reflecting on the day-to-day challenges and excitement parenting brings.”

Charles shared that the goal of the workshop is to help parents gain a deeper understanding of how the brain develops and how to forge connections with children based on that information.

“For any child, any age, the most important thing is being there,” Charles said of how parents can best help children. She added that “being there” could mean attending children’s athletic events and musical performances and simply checking in with them.

Charles said advocating for parents is a future goal. “It’s really hard for a parent who has to work extra hours and then come home … to be at some of those events,” Charles stated. “If we really value children, we would support parents so that they can earn enough and they can be able to do enough so that they can be at those events, and that they can be a more active parent.”

Workshop attendees learn about how the brain develops through the Brain Architecture Game. In this activity, cards describing various life experiences are drawn to determine which materials are used to construct model brains. A pipe cleaner and a straw are gained for each positive experience, while just a pipe cleaner is gained for every negative experience.

Weights representing stressors that one may face in life are then hung from the brains so attendees can see whether the brains will fall or stay standing.

“This is the basis for people’s behavior, whether you’re a child or an adult, and it connects with the research we did on adverse childhood experiences [ACEs],” Charles said of brain development. “What that research showed us was that if you have trauma early in life, you’re going to have disrupted neurodevelopment, and if you have disrupted neurodevelopment, it then impacts your social, emotional and cognitive ways of connecting to people.”

In the past, the question arising from negative behavior was, “Why did you do that?” Charles explained. Now, the question is, “What happened to you to make you behave this way?” she said.

“When you understand why people are behaving [the way they are], it doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it gives you a better way of understanding and working with it,” Charles noted.

Attendees also discuss how to ask children questions in a way that leads to more thorough responses, Charles stated. She added that such responses help children analyze and process the positive and negative parts of a day.

“It was empowering to be able to talk to teachers, professors and counselors about our own real-life examples, and then to practice scenarios in which we could more intentionally interact with our children,” Carlson said.

Charles said she wishes she knew this information about brain development when her children were young. She added that she uses the information in a variety of ways, such as helping her students when they are feeling anxious about substantial assignments.

Carlson said she would recommend the workshop to others. “I would encourage any parent, guardian or community member who works with children in our region to learn more about this research and take advantage of local learning opportunities,” Carlson shared.

The workshop will be presented as part of Resilient Winona County, a coalition of over 40 organizations and 200 individuals striving to bring about a community that is trauma-informed and resilient through educating people about trauma, advocating for people impacted by trauma and policies that address its causes, and elevating the voices of those impacted by trauma. To date, the workshop has been presented at Winona Senior High School through Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Community Education. Those interested in having the workshop brought to their group can email

Other WAPS Community Education programs include Baby Connections, Early Childhood Family Education classes, early childhood screenings, Key Kids child care and adult enrichment classes. Learn more at or by calling 507-494-0900.


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