The Developing Learner

Brain Development

The Brain in the First Two Years

Some of the most dramatic physical change occurs during the first two years of brain development. We are born with most of the brain cells that we will ever have; that is, about 85 billion neurons whose function is to store and transmit information (Huttenlocher & Dabholkar, 1997). While most of the brain’s neurons are present at birth, they are not fully mature.

Brain MRIs that show similar regions activated by adult brains and infant brains while looking at either scenes of faces.

Figure 3.4.1. Research shows that as early at 4-6 months, infants utilize similar areas of the brain as adults to process information. Image from Deen et al., 2017.

Communication within the central nervous system (CNS), which consists of the brain and spinal cord, begins with nerve cells called neurons. Neurons connect to other neurons via networks of nerve fibers called axons and dendrites. Each neuron typically has a single axon and numerous dendrites that are spread out like branches of a tree (some will say it looks like a hand with fingers). The axon of each neuron reaches toward the dendrites of other neurons at intersections called synapses, which are critical communication links within the brain. Axons and dendrites do not touch, instead, electrical impulses in the axons cause the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters which carry information from the axon of the sending neuron to the dendrites of the receiving neuron.

Parts of a neuron, showing the cell body with extended branches called dendrites, then a long extended axon which is covered by myelin sheath that extends to the synapses.

Figure 3.4.2. Neuron.

Synaptogenesis and Synaptic Pruning

While most of the brain’s 100 to 200 billion neurons are present at birth, they are not fully mature. Each neural pathway forms thousands of new connections during infancy and toddlerhood. Synaptogenesisor the formation of connections between neurons, continues from the prenatal period forming thousands of new connections during infancy and toddlerhood. During the next several years, dendrites, or connections between neurons, will undergo a period of transient exuberance or temporary dramatic growth (exuberant because it is so rapid and transient because some of it is temporary). There is such a proliferation of these dendrites during these early years that by age 2 a single neuron might have thousands of dendrites. 

After this dramatic increase, the neural pathways that are not used will be eliminated through a process called synaptic pruningwhere neural connections are reduced, thereby making those that are used much strongerIt is thought that pruning causes the brain to function more efficiently, allowing for mastery of more complex skills (Hutchinson, 2011). Experience will shape which of these connections are maintained and which of these are lost. Ultimately, about 40 percent of these connections will be lost (Webb, Monk, and Nelson, 2001). Transient exuberance occurs during the first few years of life, and pruning continues through childhood and into adolescence in various areas of the brain. This activity is occurring primarily in the cortex or the thin outer covering of the brain involved in voluntary activity and thinking. 

Video 3.4.1. How Baby Brains Develop explains some of the brain changes expected in the first few years of life.


Another significant change occurring in the central nervous system is the development of myelin, a coating of fatty tissues around the axon of the neuron (Carlson, 2014). myelin helps insulate the nerve cell and speeds the rate of transmission of impulses from one cell to another. This increase enhances the building of neural pathways and improves coordination and control of movement and thought processes. During infancy, myelination progresses rapidly, with increasing numbers of axons acquiring myelin sheaths. This corresponds with the development of cognitive and motor skills, including language comprehension, speech acquisition, sensory processing, crawling, and walking. Myelination in the motor areas of the brain during early to middle childhood leads to vast improvements in fine and gross motor skills. Myelination continues through adolescence and early adulthood and although largely complete at this time, myelin sheaths can be added in grey matter regions such as the cerebral cortex, throughout life.

Brain Structures

At birth, the brain is about 25 percent of its adult weight, and by age two, it is at 75 percent of its adult weight. Most of the neural activity is occurring in the cortex or the thin outer covering of the brain involved in voluntary activity and thinking. The cortex is divided into two hemispheres, and each hemisphere is divided into four lobes, each separated by folds known as fissures. If we look at the cortex starting at the front of the brain and moving over the top, we see first the frontal lobe (behind the forehead), which is responsible primarily for thinking, planning, memory, and judgment. Following the frontal lobe is the parietal lobe, which extends from the middle to the back of the skull and which is responsible primarily for processing information about touch. Next is the occipital lobe, at the very back of the skull, which processes visual information. Finally, in front of the occipital lobe, between the ears, is the temporal lobe, which is responsible for hearing and language.

Figure 3.4.3. Lobes of the brain.

Although the brain grows rapidly during infancy, specific brain regions do not mature at the same rate. Primary motor areas develop earlier than primary sensory areas, and the prefrontal cortex, which is located behind the forehead, is the least developed. As the prefrontal cortex matures, the child is increasingly able to regulate or control emotions, to plan activities, strategize, and have better judgment. This maturation is not fully accomplished in infancy and toddlerhood but continues throughout childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood.


Lateralization is the process in which different functions become localized primarily on one side of the brain. For example, in most adults, the left hemisphere is more active than the right during language production, while the reverse pattern is observed during tasks involving visuospatial abilities (Springer & Deutsch, 1993). This process develops over time, however, structural asymmetries between the hemispheres have been reported even in fetuses (Chi, Dooling, & Gilles, 1997; Kasprian et al., 2011) and infants (Dubois et al., 2009).


Lastly, neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change, both physically and chemically, to enhance its adaptability to environmental change and compensate for injury. Neuroplasticity enables us to learn and remember new things and adjust to new experiences. Both environmental experiences, such as stimulation, and events within a person’s body, such as hormones and genes, affect the brain’s plasticity. So too does age. Our brains are the most “plastic” when we are young children, as it is during this time that we learn the most about our environment. Adult brains demonstrate neuroplasticity, but they are influenced more slowly and less extensively than those of children (Kolb & Whishaw, 2011).

Video 3.4.2. Long-term Potentiation and Synaptic Plasticity explains how learning occurs through synaptic connections and plasticity.

The control of some specific bodily functions, such as movement, vision, and hearing, is performed in specified areas of the cortex. If these areas are damaged, the individual will likely lose the ability to perform the corresponding function. For instance, if an infant suffers damage to facial recognition areas in the temporal lobe, likely, he or she will never be able to recognize faces (Farah, Rabinowitz, Quinn, & Liu, 2000). On the other hand, the brain is not divided up in an entirely rigid way. The brain’s neurons have a remarkable capacity to reorganize and extend themselves to carry out particular functions in response to the needs of the organism, and to repair the damage. As a result, the brain constantly creates new neural communication routes and rewires existing ones.

The Amazing Power of Neuroplasticity

Video 3.4.3. The Story of Jody is a case study about a young girl that had the right hemisphere of her brain removed as a treatment for severe seizures. Due to neuroplasticity, Jody was able to recover from the damage caused by the removal of so much of her cerebrum.

Brain Maturation During Childhood

The brain is about 75 percent of its adult weight by three years of age. By age 6, it is at 95 percent of its adult weight (Lenroot & Giedd, 2006). Myelination and the development of dendrites continue to occur in the cortex, and as it does, we see a corresponding change in what the child is capable of doing. Greater development in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain behind the forehead that helps us to think, strategize, and control attention and emotion, makes it increasingly possible to inhibit emotional outbursts and understand how to play games.

Figure 3.4.4. Corpus Callosum.

Growth in the Hemispheres and Corpus Callosum

Between ages 3 and 6, the left hemisphere of the brain grows dramatically. This side of the brain or hemisphere is typically involved in language skills. The right hemisphere continues to grow throughout early childhood and is involved in tasks that require spatial skills, such as recognizing shapes and patterns. The Corpus Callosum, a dense band of fibers that connects the two hemispheres of the brain, contains approximately 200 million nerve fibers that connect the hemispheres (Kolb & Whishaw, 2011).

The corpus callosum is located a couple of inches below the longitudinal fissure, which runs the length of the brain and separates the two cerebral hemispheres (Garrett, 2015). Because the two hemispheres carry out different functions, they communicate with each other and integrate their activities through the corpus callosum. Additionally, because incoming information is directed toward one hemisphere, such as visual information from the left eye being directed to the right hemisphere, the corpus callosum shares this information with the other hemisphere.

The corpus callosum undergoes a growth spurt between ages 3 and 6, and this results in improved coordination between right and left hemisphere tasks. For example, in comparison to other individuals, children younger than 6 demonstrate difficulty coordinating an Etch-A-Sketch toy because their corpus callosum is not developed enough to integrate the movements of both hands (Kalat, 2016).

Adolescent Brain Development

The human brain is not fully developed by the time a person reaches puberty. Between the ages of 10 and 25, the brain undergoes changes that have important implications for behavior. The brain reaches 90% of its adult size by the time a person is six or seven years of age. Thus, the brain does not grow in size much during adolescence. However, the creases in the brain continue to become more complex until the late teens. The most significant changes in the folds of the brain during this time occur in the parts of the cortex that process cognitive and emotional information. Changes in the brain directly influence changes in behavior and mental process. We will discuss some of these issues.

Figure 3.4.5. The brain reaches its largest size in the early teen years but continues to mature well into the 20s.

Brain Changes

Up until puberty, brain cells continue to bloom in the frontal region. Some of the most developmentally significant changes in the brain occur in the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making and cognitive control, as well as other higher cognitive functions. During adolescence, myelination and synaptic pruning in the prefrontal cortex increase, improving the efficiency of information processing, and neural connections between the prefrontal cortex and other regions of the brain are strengthened. However, this growth takes time, and the growth is uneven.

The Limbic System

The limbic system develops years ahead of the prefrontal cortex. Development in the limbic system plays an essential role in determining rewards and punishments and processing emotional experience and social information. Pubertal hormones target the amygdala directly, and powerful sensations become compelling (Romeo, 2013). Brain scans confirm that cognitive control, revealed by fMRI studies, is not fully developed until adulthood because the prefrontal cortex is limited in connections and engagement (Hartley & Somerville, 2015). Recall that this area is responsible for judgment, impulse control, and planning, and it is still maturing into early adulthood (Casey, Tottenham, Liston, & Durston, 2005).

Figure 3.4.6. The limbic system.

Additionally, changes in both the levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin in the limbic system make adolescents more emotional and more responsive to rewards and stress. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain associated with pleasure and attuning to the environment during decision-making. During adolescence, dopamine levels in the limbic system increase, and the input of dopamine to the prefrontal cortex increases. The increased dopamine activity in adolescence may have implications for adolescent risk-taking and vulnerability to boredom. Serotonin is involved in the regulation of mood and behavior. It affects the brain differently. Known as the “calming chemical,” serotonin eases tension and stress. Serotonin also puts a brake on the excitement and sometimes recklessness that dopamine can produce. If there is a defect in the serotonin processing in the brain, impulsive or violent behavior can result.

The Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex, the part of the frontal lobes lying just behind the forehead, is often referred to as the “CEO of the brain,” the cognitive control center. This brain region is responsible for cognitive analysis, abstract thought, the moderation of “correct” behavior in social situations, the capacity to exercise good judgment, self-regulation, and future orientation. The prefrontal cortex takes in information from all of the senses and orchestrates thoughts and actions to achieve specific goals (Casey, Jones, & Hare, 2008; Walsh, 2004). Around 11 years of age, this region of the brain begins an extended process of pruning and myelination and is not complete until near the age of 25. This region of the brain is one of the last to reach maturity. This delay may help to explain why some adolescents act the way they do. The so-called “executive functions” of the human prefrontal cortex include:

  • Focusing attention
  • Organizing thoughts and problem-solving
  • Foreseeing and weighing possible consequences of behavior
  • Considering the future and making predictions
  • Forming strategies and planning
  • Ability to balance short-term rewards with long-term goals
  • Shifting/adjusting behavior when situations change
  • Impulse control and delaying gratification
  • Modulation of intense emotions
  • Inhibiting inappropriate behavior and initiating appropriate behavior
  • Simultaneously considering multiple streams of information when faced with complex and challenging information

Figure 3.4.7. Brain development continues into the early 20s. The development of the frontal lobe, in particular, is important during this stage.

The difference in timing of the development of the limbic system and prefrontal cortex contributes to more risk-taking during adolescence. Because adolescents are motivated to seek thrills that sometimes come from risky behavior, they are more likely to engage in reckless driving, smoking, or drinking, and have not yet developed the cognitive control to resist impulses or focus equally on the potential risks (Steinberg, 2008). One of the world’s leading experts on adolescent development, Laurence Steinberg, likens this to engaging a powerful engine before the braking system is in place. The result is that adolescents are more prone to risky behaviors than children or adults.

Brain Region Integration

MRI studies of the brain show that developmental processes tend to occur in the brain in a back-to-front pattern, explaining why the prefrontal cortex develops last. These studies have also found that teens have less white matter (myelin) in the frontal lobes of their brains when compared to adults, but this amount increases as the teen ages. With more myelin comes the growth of important brain connections, allowing for a better flow of information between brain regions. MRI research has also revealed that during adolescence, white matter increases in the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers connecting the right and left hemispheres of the brain. This development allows for enhanced communication between the hemispheres, which enables a full array of analytic and creative strategies to be brought to bear in responding to the complex dilemmas that may arise in a young person’s life (Giedd, 2004).

In sum, the adolescent years are a time of profound brain changes. Interestingly, two of the primary brain functions develop at different rates. Brain research indicates that the part of the brain that perceives rewards from risk, the limbic system, kicks into high gear in early adolescence. The part of the brain that controls impulses and engages in longer-term perspective, the frontal lobes, mature later. This delay may explain why teens in mid-adolescence take more risks than older teens.

As the frontal lobes become more developed, two things happen. First, self-control develops as teens are better able to assess cause and effect. Second, more areas of the brain become involved in processing emotions, and teens become better at accurately interpreting others’ emotions.

Video 3.4.4. Brain Changes in Adolescence describes some of the physical changes that occur during adolescence.

 The Teen Brain: 6 Things to Know from the National Institute of Mental Health

Your brain does not keep getting bigger as you get older

For girls, the brain reaches its largest physical size around 11 years old, and for boys, the brain reaches its largest physical size around age 14. Of course, this difference in age does not mean either boys or girls are smarter than one another!

But that doesn’t mean your brain is done maturing

For both boys and girls, although your brain may be as large as it will ever be, your brain doesn’t finish developing and maturing until your mid- to late-20s. The front part of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, is one of the last brain regions to mature. It is the area responsible for planning, prioritizing, and controlling impulses.

The teen brain is ready to learn and adapt

In a digital world that is constantly changing, the adolescent brain is well prepared to adapt to new technology—and is shaped in return by experience.

Many mental disorders appear during adolescence

All the big changes the brain is experiencing may explain why adolescence is the time when many mental disorders—such as schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders—emerge.

The teen brain is resilient

Although adolescence is a vulnerable time for the brain and for teenagers in general, most teens go on to become healthy adults. Some changes in the brain during this important phase of development actually may help protect against long-term mental disorders.

Teens need more sleep than children and adults

Although it may seem like teens are lazy, science shows that melatonin levels (or the “sleep hormone” levels) in the blood naturally rise later at night and fall later in the morning than in most children and adults. This may explain why many teens stay up late and struggle with getting up in the morning. Teens should get about 9-10 hours of sleep a night, but most teens don’t get enough sleep. A lack of sleep makes paying attention hard, increases impulsivity, and may also increase irritability and depression.

Educational Neuroscience

Educational neuroscience (or neuroeducation) is an emerging scientific field that brings together researchers in neuroscience, psychology, education, and even technology, to explore the interactions between biological processes and education. Researchers in educational neuroscience investigate the neural mechanisms for processes such as learning, memory, attention, intelligence, and motivation. Their research also attends to difficulties, including dyslexia, dyscalculia, and ADHD, as they relate to education. Researchers in this area may link basic findings in cognitive neuroscience with educational technology to help in curriculum implementation for specific academic areas, like mathematics and reading education. Educational neuroscience aims to generate basic and applied research that will provide a new transdisciplinary account of learning and teaching, which is capable of informing education.

Video 3.4.5. Introduction to Educational Neuroscience discusses how neuroscience can inform education and dispels several common myths about brain functioning held by teachers and students.

A Neuroeducational Case Study: Language and Literacy

Human language is a unique faculty of the mind, and the ability to understand and produce oral and written language is fundamental to academic achievement and attainments. Children who experience difficulties with oral language raise significant challenges for educational policy and practice. The difficulties are likely to persist during the primary school years where, in addition to core deficits with oral language, children experience problems with literacy, numeracy, behavior, and peer relations. Early identification and intervention to address these difficulties, as well as identification of how learning environments can support atypical language development, are essential.

Over the last decade, there has been a significant increase in neuroscience research examining young children’s processing of language at the phonetic, word, and sentence levels. There are clear indications that neural substrates for all levels of language can be identified at early points in development. At the same time, intervention studies have demonstrated how the brain retains its plasticity for language processing. Intense remediation with an auditory language processing program has been accompanied by functional changes in the left temporoparietal cortex and inferior frontal gyrus. However, the extent to which these results generalize to spoken and written language is debated.

The relationships between meeting the educational needs of children with language difficulties and the findings of neuroscience studies are not yet established. One concrete avenue for progress is to use neuroscientific methods to address questions that are significant to practice in learning environments. For example, the extent to which language skills are attributable to a single common trait, and the consistency of such a trait over development, are matters of debate. However, direct assessments of brain activity can inform these debates. A detailed understanding of the sub-components of the language system, and the ways these change over time may inevitably yield implications for educational practice.



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Educational Psychology Copyright © 2020 by Nicole Arduini-Van Hoose is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book