Big Brain Theory: Childhood Development

By Heather Malm

December 15, 2022

Have you ever looked at someone and wondered, “What is going on inside their head?” The brain is the most complex part of the human body. This three-pound organ is the seat of intelligence, interpreter of the senses, initiator of body movement, and controller of behavior.


I’m sure we’ve all heard the expression of someone being right brained or left brained but, the brain is  actually made up of 5 different portions: the frontal lobe with executive function like memory, decision making, planning, and emotional response; the parietal lobe handling sensory process information like touch, heat, cold, and pain; the occipital lobe being your vision processing center; the temporal lobe with all things verbal as well as controlling your unconscious automatic responses like hunger and thirst; and the cerebellum sometimes referred to as little brain since it’s were you find motor control, fine motor skills and emotional control regulation. Each portion handles different functions of the brain, but they all work together as one unit that makes you, you.


Brains start developing in the womb. As a newborn, you have all the brain cells you’ll have for the rest of their life. Ninety percent of brain growth happens before a child reaches kindergarten. In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second. After this period of rapid growth, connections are reduced by a process called synaptic pruning. During pruning, the brain eliminates extra synapses. Synapses are brain structures that allow the neurons to transmit and signal to another neuron, which is the brain’s way of sending messages.


Sensory pathways for vision and hearing are the first to develop, followed by language and higher cognitive functions. As time goes on and new connections are made, old connections are pruned, and more complex brain functions are built upon old ones. On average, the brain stops developing around age 25. However, that doesn’t mean we stop learning. Forming and changing interconnections is ongoing throughout our lives. As we age it just happens slower. So, you can in fact, teach an old dog new tricks, so to speak. it just might take us longer to learn them.


Scientists are now finding a major component to child development is the “serve and return” process. You’ve probably already done this unconsciously. Serve and return works like a game of tennis between child and caregiver. The child “serves” by reaching out for interaction like babbling, facial expressions, and gestures. A responsive caregiver will “return the serve” by responding with the same kind of vocalization or movement. In absence of such response, the brain’s architecture doesn’t form as expected which can lead to disparities in future learning and behavior.


As kids get older, we take a different approach to child development. Emotion is essential to children learning, more specifically, positive emotion. Positive emotions affect our brains in ways that increase our awareness, attention, and memory. If we want children to retain the information they are taught, we need to give them constant positive feedback and affirmations. Something simple like saying “good job” or giving high fives when a child achieves a goal can make a major impact on a child feeling successful. When kids feel successful, they get excited and want to learn more. 


Why is all this important? Understanding how children learn and develop will allow us to teach them better. It will help children gain a strong sense of confidence and determination in a world that pulls them in a million different ways.