Case Study: Understanding Student Needs Through Brain Science

Brains are not just born. They are also built. The human brain is shaped by much more than genetics. Experiences, relationships, patterns and shared knowledge are just some of the factors that influence brain development. What happens in a person’s childhood influences the trajectory of their entire life.

The Brain Story Certification is a free, online course about the role that early childhood experiences play in brain development. The Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI) developed the Brain Story to make the neuroscience more accessible to professionals working with children and teenagers. The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) collaborated with AFWI to expand the program nationally, including translating it into French. Together, they hope to raise awareness of Brain Story science and substance use as a public health issue, reduce stigma, and change policy and practice.

The Brain Story Certification covers the relationship among early childhood experiences, brain development and health outcomes. It explains that children cannot build healthy brains by themselves; their environment plays a major role. They need positive, nurturing interactions with parents or caregivers throughout their lives, particularly in their early years and into their mid-20s. Early trauma and other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are often linked to mental health and substance use later in life.

ACEs are stressful events experienced before the age of 18 years that increase the risk for negative health outcomes across a person’s life. These include child mistreatment, neglect and household dysfunction, which can include violence. Studies show that the more ACEs one experiences, the more likely they are to report smoking, heavy drinking and illegal drug use. ACEs are also linked to an increased likelihood of depression and other mood disorders, the need for mental health treatment, and attempted suicide. Heart disease, cancer and stroke are also linked to ACEs.

There is hope. Every positive interaction a young person has with a protective, nurturing adult who shows them support counts. It can help them to feel valued, important and loved, and that their needs are truly met. When educators identify how and when to support children and their families, it is possible to change the way the story unfolds, leading to healthier lives, stronger communities and reduced risks for mental health issues and substance use.

Importance of the Brain Story for school personnel

Although parents play a major role and affect their child’s development, educators can also influence the child’s brain architecture. How teachers, counsellors and other school staff respond to stress and behaviours affects their own lives. Professionals do not need to be neuroscientists to be able to use this knowledge. They can create change by being aware of the science behind brain development and sharing that knowledge with colleagues.

When a child experiences trauma, it impedes their ability to learn, regulate emotions, make choices and suppress impulses. Everybody is starting from a different place and their foundation might be stronger or weaker based on experiences in early childhood.

Implementing the Brain Story in educational settings

To expand the Brain Story science throughout Canada, AFWI and CCSA launched the Brain Builders Lab in 2018. More than 60 professionals from across Canada participated in the project.

Participants came from different sectors including education, addiction, mental health, social services and public health. CCSA provided them with mentors, workshops, the Brain Story Certification Course and professional networks. Participants developed grassroots projects to bring the Brain Story science to their workplaces and their communities. Between 2019 and 2021, several projects were designed to help bring brain science to educational settings.

The Brain Story in action: Bayview Glen Independent School

One of the Brain Builders Lab participants, Samantha Yarde was an educator at Bayview Glen Independent School, which provides education from preschool through to Grade 12. As an educator, Yarde had already learned about brain science through her early childhood courses and child development studies. She deepened her understanding through the Brain Story Certification Course. She said she felt education professionals could benefit from improving their understanding of brain development and its role in learning, health and well-being.

Seeing the potential of this knowledge to benefit her entire school, Yarde wanted to spread and embed Brain Story science in the school’s teaching staff, programs and classrooms. She had leadership support for her project from the start and gained broader backing from school staff through workshops and surveys to tailor her focus. She emphasized the importance of educators in contributing not just to learning outcomes but also to health and well-being as students mature into adulthood.

Yarde developed workshops on social and emotional learning, and the importance of adult relationships in supporting the learning process, which were tailored for teachers in preschool to Grade 5. The second phase to target teachers in grades 6–12 was delayed when the pandemic hit in March 2020. However, Yarde quickly pivoted to make her workshops available online.

Workshop feedback showed that staff found the information useful. Many staff members reframed their understanding of students’ classroom behaviours, and brain science concepts started to permeate discussions about classroom issues. Attitudes and beliefs among teachers about where student behaviours stemmed from shifted and a greater understanding of the relevance of social–emotional learning on student outcomes began to emerge.

School leadership also began to place more emphasis on the importance of social–emotional learning in students, including implementing a program to support it. This shift in culture and allocation of school resources has the potential to create significant effects on teaching practices and student outcomes as it continues to unfold.

The Brain Story in action: School District 91

A psychologist in School District 91 in Nechako Lakes, B.C., Stephanie Lindstrom also participated in the Brain Builders Lab. The district serves about 4,000 students in 20 educational sites. While the effect of trauma on students’ ability to learn and succeed academically was already on the district’s radar, the understanding of why this happens was missing from those conversations. Lindstrom hoped to use the Brain Story to create a common language for this issue to align opinions and response strategies in the classroom.

Lindstrom developed a workshop that wove core Brain Story concepts together with psychological theory and a parent–grandparent perspective. She used short AFWI videos to illustrate key concepts. The workshop was well received, and she was invited to deliver the same session to another school during their next professional development day.

Lindstrom said she was surprised how quickly the knowledge was embraced by high school teachers because she thought they might see it as less relevant than their elementary school colleagues. Brain Story science began permeating staff discussions and started to create a common understanding and language across the district. Conversations about trauma and its impact on student experiences started happening regularly, and staff started exploring new ideas about how to respond to this issue in the classroom.

The district has since asked all principals to complete the Brain Story Certification Course and encourage their teaching staff to do so as well.

Brain Story science: Moving forward

Applying brain science to education can mean a fundamental shift in how educators see students and how students see themselves. To learn more about the Brain Builders Lab, read more stories and watch videos of how brain science affected communities and workplaces, please visit www.ccsa.ca/adverse-childhood-experiences.

For more information on the free Brain Story Certification and to access a library of resources, please visit

By: Doris Payer, Addiction Neuroscientist and Senior Knowledge Broker, Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addition