At a glance
Kids learn by building brain connections called neural pathways.
The more these neural pathways are used, the stronger they get.
Kids pick up different kinds of skills at different stages of development.
Kids 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.
Watching kids learn can be a lot like passing a construction site daily. All of a sudden you may notice the house going up faster than you expected. Other times, you may not see very much happening, but there’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes.
Here are key things to know about how kids learn and build on different thinking skills.
Building the brain’s wiring system
Each brain cell (neuron) looks a bit like a tiny tree. As babies take in information about the world, their neurons branch out and create connections with each other. Each neuron can have multiple connections to other neurons. These connections, called neural pathways, are like an electrical wiring system.
The “wires” in the brain don’t touch. They pass information at the gaps between neurons — the “electrical boxes” (known as synapses). Brain chemicals called neurotransmitters help power the system to get these messages through.
How neural pathways work
Each neural pathway is a circuit. Think about the lights in your house. When you flip a light switch, a light comes on. That’s because the activity of flipping the switch makes the electricity go through a circuit, and it powers a response. Some brain circuits are “activity-dependent” like that electric circuit. But others, like the ones for breathing and circulation, are already developed at birth.
Activity-dependent circuits need input to work, and the more input they get, the better they work. But 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 pathways
The more often a neural pathway is used, the stronger it gets. Circuits that aren’t used get weaker and disappear over time through a process known as pruning. That’s not only OK, it’s expected. Young kids have more circuits than they need.
Pruning happens all the way through childhood and adolescence. That means kids’ brains are flexible enough to continuously build new circuits and refine often-used neural pathways. This flexibility is known as plasticity.
The power of plasticity
Since not all kids process information in the same way, plasticity is important. Some kids’ brains don’t always use brain chemicals as effectively as expected. That can make it harder to create or strengthen some neural pathways.
But teaching kids different ways to process information takes advantage of plasticity. It helps neurons build new pathways. The information may have to take a detour, taking a little longer to get where it needs to go, but it can still get there.
Learning through the senses
Kids don’t have to think about developing neural pathways. It happens naturally as they explore and learn about the world. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget came up with a famous theory about how children develop cognitive (or thinking) skills in stages.
The first stage is when babies use their senses — sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell — to start to make connections. You’ve probably seen babies taste, shake, and throw objects. They also start to roll and reach for things and, eventually, crawl and walk.
All of these activities — even chewing on everything in sight — help build neural pathways. Those pathways control things like movement, vision, and language development.
For example, babies keep making sounds that get them the attention they need. They keep putting things that taste good into their mouths. And they keep moving to places they want to see.
As they keep doing these things, the brain strengthens those circuits and helps make the activities easier.
Learning through language
Between the ages of 2 and 7 years, language development takes off. Kids typically learn more words, use more complex sentences, and even read a little. This is a critical time to provide children with a language-rich environment. The more words and ideas they’re exposed to, the more neural pathways they develop.
Kids also now use objects to play more imaginatively. For example, you might see your child use a big stick as a horse or turn a box into a rocket ship.
On the other hand, social skills develop slowly at this age. That’s because kids aren’t ready to understand logic, reasoning, and other people’s perspectives. They often have difficulty putting themselves in other people’s shoes and can be critical of others’ choices and behavior.
Learning through logic
From 7 years old to about middle school, kids begin thinking more logically. During this stage, kids are more able to make connections between things. They become “detectives” who can see clues and put them together.
Socially, kids typically develop the ability to take turns, see other people’s perspectives, and understand that actions have consequences. The circuits that process emotion and feelings strengthen and mature. At this stage, you can help kids along by teaching them to reflect on things like cause and effect.
Learning through reasoning
Teens start thinking more abstractly and with more complexity. They consider the “what ifs” of situations to figure out possible outcomes. In school, this means they’re ready to learn more complicated math skills and understand characters and plots in deeper ways when they read.
Socially, these new skills help them see that other people’s reactions are sometimes based on different perspectives and experiences. Physically, it means they’re able to put different types of skills together to do more complicated things like driving.
Once kids hit their teens, they don’t stop developing thinking skills. In fact, executive functioning skills — the skills that help all of us plan, organize, and complete tasks — don’t fully mature until age 18 or 20. As kids get older, the wiring system of the brain just becomes more intricate: Circuits intertwine with other circuits to allow all those skills to work together.
New experiences and exploring the world help kids build neural pathways.
Some of these pathways aren’t fully developed until the late teen years or early twenties.
Teaching kids different ways to process information takes advantage of the brain’s ability to build new pathways.
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Donna Volpitta, EdD is the founder of Pathways to Empower. Her work draws on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology, and education.