The Basics of Child Development Children develop skills the way builders build a house. They start with the foundation. What gets built on that foundation at different stages of development determines what the house looks like and how to get from room to room. Here are eight key things to know about how kids learn and build on different skills.
Building the Brain’s Wiring SystemEach brain cell (neuron) looks a bit like a baby tree. As babies take in information about the world, their neurons branch out and create connections with each other. Called neural pathways, these connections are like an electrical wiring system. Each neuron can have multiple connections to other neurons.
The “wires” don’t touch. Instead, they pass information at the gaps between neurons—the “electrical boxes” known as synapses. Brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) help power the system to get these messages through.
How Neural Pathways WorkEach neural pathway is a circuit. When electricity goes through a circuit, it powers a response. For example, when you flip a light switch, a light comes on. Some brain circuits, like the ones for breathing and circulation, are already developed at birth.
Other circuits are “activity-dependent.” They need input to work, and the more input they get, the better they work. That input is more complex than just flipping a light switch. It comes from all the experiences kids have. Sounds, sights, tastes, smells, the way things feel and emotions all help the brain to release neurotransmitters and power those circuits.
Pruning the PathwaysThe neural pathways that are used more often get stronger. Circuits that are not used weaken and disappear over time through a process known as “pruning.” That’s okay—young children have more circuits than they need. Pruning happens all the way through childhood and adolescence. That means kids’ brains are flexible enough to work continuously to build new circuits and refine commonly used neural pathways. This is known as “plasticity.”
The Power of PlasticityPlasticity is especially important for kids who have learning and attention issues. Their brains process information differently and don’t always use brain chemicals effectively. These brain differences make it harder to create or strengthen some neural pathways. Intervention to teach kids alternative ways to process information takes advantage of plasticity. It helps neurons build new pathways. The information may have to take a detour and take a little longer to get where it needs to go, but it can still get there.