What is Cognitive Development?
Updated: Sep 11
The term cognitive development is frequently used by therapists, doctors and educators. We have also used those two words together in a lot of content published here in our blog. But do you know what it means?
In an interview from December 2019 for the Maria Cecília Souto Vidigal Foundation — which has worked for the cause of early childhood and the first stages of child development since 2007 — doctor Drauzio Varella explained a little about cognitive development.
“We are born with our entire neurological equipment set up, but not ready: our brain is a miniature of the adult brain, i.e. morphologically speaking, the shape is well-established. However, what allows for the development of cognitive activities isn’t brain shape but the neurons. It is the links between them, because it is through them that information is communicated, through these established connections. If you stimulate these connections with games, made-up stories and by reading to children, they will start to develop their cognitive ability based on the stimuli of synapse formation, which is the interaction between neurons,” he explained.
Three core concepts of cognitive development in early childhood
In order to explain these connections that happen in our brains a little further, we will present three core concepts of early childhood development, developed by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child from Harvard University.
These three concepts show how the advancement of neuroscience, molecular biology and genomics offers a much more thorough understanding of how our first experiences are built in our bodies and brains, for better or worse.
1. Experiences shape the brain’s architecture
The experiences lived by children during their first years of life have a lifelong impact on their brain architecture and development. Genes represent the diagram to be performed, but experiences shape the process that will define whether the brain will build a strong or weak foundation for learning, behavior and health throughout their lives.
During this important stage of development, billions of brain cells called neurons send electrical signals that communicate among themselves. These connections build the circuits that establish the brain’s basic architecture. Circuits and connections are multiplied quickly and are strengthened by their frequent use.
Our experiences and the environment we live in determine which circuits and connections will be used more. The most frequently used connections get stronger and become permanent, whereas rarely used connections disappear through a normal process called pruning. Simple circuits are built first, forming the foundation upon which more complex ones will be built later.
It is through this process that neurons build circuits and connections for emotions, motor skills, behavior control, logic, language and memory. All of this happens during the early stages of development.
With repeated use, the circuits become more efficient and connect to other areas of the brain more quickly. Despite originating from specific areas of the brain, the circuits are interconnected and there cannot be one type of skill without others that complement it. It is similar to building a house, everything is connected, and whichever comes first builds the foundation for what will come later.
2. Serve and Return Interaction Shapes Brain Circuitry
A solid architecture of the brain is shaped through the serve and return interaction between the child and the adult. In this game of development, the neurons create new connections in the brain as the child instinctively makes face expressions, sounds, and gestures, and the adult reacts in a very significant way and with a focus on the child’s action.
This starts quite early in life, when babies try to express themselves and the adults interact by calling the babies’ attention to their faces or hands. This interaction shapes the foundations of the brain circuitry upon which all future development will take place.
The serve and return interaction helps to create connections by means of the neurons from all brain areas, establishing the emotional and cognitive skills that children need to live. For example: language and literacy skills are formed when a baby sees an object and the adult utters its name. This builds connections inside the baby’s brain between the specific sounds and their corresponding objects.
Later, adults show to kids that such objects and sounds can also be represented by marks on a page. With the adults’ constant support, children learn to decipher the writing and, then, to write themselves. Each stage is built from the previous one.
Ensuring children’s caregivers are involved in the serve and return interaction from their first few months is to promote the construction of a solid foundation in the brain for learning, behavior and health — for the rest of their lives.
3. Toxic stress harms healthy development
Learning to deal with stress is an important part of healthy development. When we experience stress, our response system is activated, the body and brain become alert, adrenaline takes over and heart rate increases, as well as the stress hormone levels.
Stress is relieved when children get the nurturing support they need from an adult. Their bodies react to the adult’s response and slow down, returning to homeostasis in no time. In severe situations, such as continuous abuse and negligence or when there is no nurturing adult to soften the impacts of stress, the response to stress remains activated. Even when there is no apparent physical damage, the prolonged lack of care and attention on the part of the adults is able to activate the stress response system.
The constant stress response activation overwhelms the developing systems. As a result, there are serious long term consequences for the children, and this process is known as toxic stress. Over time it results in a stress response system that is permanently on alert.
Science shows that the prolonged activation of stress hormones during early childhood can reduce the number of neuron connections in these important regions of the brain in a period that children should be developing new connections. Toxic stress can be avoided if we ensure that children grow up and develop in warm, reliable and stimulating environments.
When questioned about early childhood development and lifelong health on The Brain Architects Podcast by Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, the center director, Dr. Jack Shonkoff, explains that one of the new science’s most important messages compels us to connect the brain to the rest of the body. “Because what happens early on is not only important for learning and social and emotional development and school achievement, but it’s an important influence on your physical and mental health for the rest of your life. .”
Jack also says that there are no perfect brains or immunological systems. “How we grow up, how we learn, what our health is like is related to the interaction between how we are individually wired to begin with and what our life experiences are about. And the important part of our life experiences, the most important, is the environment of relationships that we grow up in. And then also of importance is the physical environment in which we grow up.
How safe is it? How protected or exposed are we to toxic substances in the environment, lead, mercury? How much space do we have to move around? So all of these things together, interacting with how everybody is unique from a genetic point of view results in a wide, wide range of normal development.”
How pedagogy explains cognitive development:
In order to understand how pedagogy explains cognitive development, we talked to Carol Mota, who is an educator, clinical psychopedagogue, and author of the book “Autism in Children’s Education: an Outlook on Social Interaction and School Inclusion” (loosely translated). She explained that play is the best way to stimulate this development.
“As children play, they are continuously learning. When they play by exploring a specific toy that involves spatial or sensory matters, for instance, their logical thinking and memory are stimulated,” she said.
“While playing amongst themselves, they are also learning a way to engage with others, which in turn expands their cognitive processes. We need to think that, even though cognitive processes exist, they don’t expand outside a cultural context of social interaction. It is by interacting with others, with an interactive exchange between pairs, between children and adults, that kids take ownership of new skills,” explained the educator.
Interaction is key:
Carol highlighted that, more than games that stimulate logical reasoning, what is key and most important is the social interaction that happens during these moments.
“Social interaction and interactive exchange: that is how we are going to approach these matters in a more significant way. As we interact, communicate and talk to each other, we need to reflect about our behavior, we need to think about which answer to give to specific questions. When we reflect and formulate questions, our cognitive processes are active and it is in this dialogue between me and the other person that these processes expand, and that cognitive development starts to emerge.”
“It is through play that children will learn how to use their bodies, from the contact with different languages that may involve music, visual arts, etc. Therefore, children will get to know others and the world through several different perspectives, which helps to develop cognitive skills,” said the psychopedagogue.
Written by Débora Nazário
Translated by Mariana Gruber