How Brain Development Impacts the Social Development of Children


Once upon a time, we used to think a baby’s brain was not very developed at birth but now, with the technology available, we are learning more and more about what happens, how a baby’s brain develops and the role it plays in the social development of children.

To understand it, we need to understand a few basics about the brain and how it develops.

The Brain is the Most Developed Organ at Birth

The brain is the most developed organ at birth. It has much more growing to do but when born, our brain is filled with about 100 billion nerve cells called neurons (about the same number as stars in the Milky Way), each of those brain cells having around 7500 connections.  It is through these connections that messages travel to different parts of the body and we are able to see, move and hear.  Everything is processed through the brain, so it is vital to our survival.

Even though that sounds like a lot of connections, normal brain development requires a minimum of 100 trillion connections.  That’s about 1,000 times the number of stars in the Milky Way,  and can be anywhere up to 1,000 trillion connections. 

These connections develop rapidly in the first 2 years of life until at the end of this period, they have double the connections of an adult brain. By age 3 years, we have about 80% of the brain connections we will have developed in our lifetime.  You can see the importance of child brain development in those first 3 years of life.

Use It Or Lose It

After this frantic time of pronounced brain development, it is followed by a process called pruning.  We have all heard of the phrase “use it or lose it.”  That is where this phrase came from.  When we experience something new, a new connection is made.  When we do that action over and over, the connection is made strong and signals to the brain that we need to keep it because it is of use to us.

If we did something once or twice and never experienced it again, the brain would work out that we don’t need it and get rid of it to make way for other connections that are being used.  In other words, when cells are active together, these connections are strengthened and preserved.  The process of pruning (or getting rid of the connections we don’t need) continues until late in the 16th year.

We now know that early experiences have an enormous influence on brain development, behavior, learning, memory and the social development of children.

At birth, although the brain is the most developed organ, it is immature.  It will have nearly all the nerve cells we will ever have at birth.  However,  the connecting of those nerve cells is minimal.  In fact, It isn’t fully mature until about 25 years of age.

A baby’s first priority is to get his needs met.  When he cries, if his caregivers respond to those cries, he then knows he is safe and secure, and his needs are being met.  Once that has been established, the brain is then free to focus on and explore all the wonders around him.

Diana F Cameron

It is much like wiring a house.  When a builder contracts an electrician to install the wiring, he brings everything they need to complete the job..  Wiring, socket plates, tools.  They lay it down on the slab before starting.  Does this mean you have electricity?  Without wiring in place and without connection to the power source, we can’t switch a light on in the house.  Our brains have the nerve cells needed when we are born, but wiring only comes through life experience.

The brain has sections and each section is responsible for processing different functions. The brain is highly influenced by experience during this connecting phase..  For example, if born without sight, the parts of the brain that normally process vision are rewired and come to process sound.

If born without hearing, the parts of the brain that normally process sound are rewired and come to process vision.

The First Priority of the Brain is Survival

The first priority of a baby’s brain is survival through making sure needs are met.  If cries are responded to by caregivers, a baby knows he is safe and secure.  The brain then recognizes needs are being met.  At this point, the brain is then free to focus on and explore all the wonders around him.

If needs are only sporadically met, or met with harsh words and handling, then the brain focuses on getting needs met.  The brain is then not able to take in other things.  As a result, he will have more trouble interacting with people.  The social development of the child will be affected. The brain will shut out the stimulus needed to develop cognitive function and social skills.

These early experiences and social relationships go a long way to ensuring the success and emotional development in an adult in later years.  Studies that have looked at individuals who have been successful despite many challenges in their lives.   All had one thing in common: at least one adult that they were able to form a stable, supportive relationship with.

While genetics play some part in a child’s brain, and social emotional development, research has now proven that early experiences have a much greater impact on brain growth than we have ever imagined.  There is mounting evidence that these early experiences influence how genes are expressed.  Whether they turn on or turn off.

So, early experiences have a direct impact on brain development which has a direct impact on the social development of children.

Experiences after this period are also important.  All experience helps to shape the actual architecture of the brain

5 Things Caregivers Can Do To Help The Social Development of Children:
  • For very young babies, make sure their needs are met not only physically, but emotionally.  Respond to their cries with a gentle touch, or kind words.  This reassurance gives the brain the information it needs to know its needs are being met which aids in social emotional development.
  • With older children, it is never too late to start.  Reassurance and response doesn’t always have to be verbal.  A look, a touch, a gesture (hug) or even singing to a child can help them to feel emotionally secure.  This in turn aids the ability to process and acquire social skills
  • Make sure children have positive social interactions with others – both of their own age and adults.  This could be at school, playgroups, family, church communities or play dates. 
  • Positives responses could include games such as peek a boo, cuddling up together, reading a book or singing together.
  • Encourage the child to do new things.  This helps to build confidence which in turn helps with social interactions

Diana Cameron

Diana has over 32 years in the early childhood industry and has been a guest lecturer and workshop facilitator both nationally and internationally for the past 20 years. She has a passion for inspiring educators to use creativity and imagination in their teaching.

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