New research sheds light on the effects that childhood experiences both good and bad have on the developing brain. But are schools keeping up?

The 20th-century education system was never designed with the knowledge of the developing brain, says Pamela Cantor, MD, who is part of a cross-disciplinary team of experts studying the science of learning and development. So when we think about the fact that learning is a brain function and we have an education system that didn't have access to this critical knowledge, the question becomes: Do we have the will to create an education system that's informed by it?

Contrary to the long-held belief that brain maturation is largely complete by the age of 6, we now know that our brains are malleable and continue to change dramatically well into our 20s. This has profound implications for learning throughout the school age years.

Because our neural tissues change in response to our environment, our experiences, and our relationships, a young child who faces persistent adversity at home, for example, will frequently retreat into fight or flight mode to protect themselves from violence or abuse. Over time, the brain's circuitry rewires, favoring aggressive or anxious tendencies at the cost of cognition, reasoning, and memory. These children are also more likely to be placed in special education programs, be held back a grade, and have behavioral issues at school, according to recent research.