Brain development

in childhOOd and


Connections between neurons get

shaped and strengthened by

experience. The brain evolves rapidly

over early childhood and continues

to evolve over the first two decades

of life. In the first three years

neurons migrate, differentiate, and

build up synaptic strength.

After age three, the brain is

constantly sculpted (a critical process

known as cortical pruning) and the

strength of the connections in a

child’s brain improved (becoming

increasingly myelinated) [10]. The

different brain systems thus become

more fully evolved towards being


Developmental peaks

5 yrs AGE 20 yrs

Figure 2: Dynamic mapping of human cortical development

during childhood through early adulthood

Across childhood and adolescence

there are peaks in brain development

– at age 3, 8, 11 through to 15 and

even later at 19 [12]. Such ‘peaks’

are – like iceberg tips - only a small

indication of the complexity of the

underlying changes happening in

brain systems and their related

cognitive and emotional functions.

The frontal system begins to assume

control over socio-emotional and

purposeful behaviour from 3-4 years.

A four year old child may understand

how more ‘smiley faces’ on a chart

could be linked to a trip to a play

park and an ice cream and decide (or

not) that the trade-off is worth

sharing a toy for.

This capacity to link behaviour and

consequence accelerates rapidly in

development from around 7 to 11,

with language skills allowing logical

deduction and more abstract

thought [12]. See Figure 2. The

consequences of such cognitive

changes, in terms of control of

behavior, can be seen in the ability to

resist distraction being relatively

matured by 6 years or so and

impulse control becoming

established by age ten, and these

abilities continue to evolve over early

adolescence, with planning and dual

attention improving with age [13].

Gray Matter


© Gogtay, N., Giedd, J.N., Lusk, L., Hayashi, K.M., Greenstein, D.,Vaituzis, A.C., Nugent III, T.F., Herman, D.H., Clasen, L.S.,

Toga, A.W., Rapoport, J.L., Thompson, P.M., 2004. Dynamic mapping of human cortical development during childhood through

early adulthood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101 (21), 8174–8179.

Part One:

Brain systems and development


Each one of our



and emotional

capabilities is

built upon the


provided by early

life experiences”

(Fox [11] p. 28)

Repairing Shattered Lives © Barrow Cadbury Trust

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