For centuries, humans have watched with fascination the systematic progression of children’s mental development. From simply looking at faces and smiling, to rolling over, to sitting, to walking and then the miracle of speaking — how does it happen? Why is it almost the same with all children?

Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, carefully studied numerous children, including his own, and their development and came up with a theory of cognitive development that children move through four different stages of mental development.

Piaget believed children take an active role in the learning process, acting much like little scientists as they perform experiments, make observations and learn about the world. At this time in history, children were largely treated simply as smaller versions of adults. Piaget pointed out children think differently than adults.

He proposed that intelligence is something that grows and develops through a series of stages, and older children think more quickly and better than younger children. The study of the brain and its growth (neuroscience) and how it functions has helped the understanding of how to enhance development and prevent harm.

Neuroscience research has shown the young brain literally changes in shape and size in response to everything encountered in the early years of life. A child’s relationships, environment and experiences can affect the brain circuits. A baby is born with roughly 86 billion neurons, almost the same as the adult brain. However, the baby’s brain’s size is 25 percent of the adult brain.

This size difference is because the infant’s neurons are connected by only 50 trillion neural connections while an adult has 500 trillion. The network of connection determines how a child thinks and acts. The network of synapses grows rapidly during the first year and through toddlerhood. By age 3, the synaptic connections have grown to 1,000 trillion. But not all the synapses will remain as the child grows.

Life experience will activate certain neurons, create new neural connections among them and strengthen existing connections, called myelination. Unused connections will eventually be eliminated. This is called synaptic pruning. Synaptic pruning is the process in which unused neurons and neural connections are eliminated to increase efficiency in brain transmissions.

This pruning allows a plasticity for babies to adapt to any environment into which they’re born. Young children require much care before they’re independent. Caregivers control the life experiences that influence these connections, either strengthening them or allowing their neglect and eventual pruning.

For instance, consistent love and care will strengthen the love-and-care connections as opposed to punitive and harsh parenting. This will result in the lack of use of the love-and care connections that are important to meaningful relationships throughout development to adulthood.

The strengthening of these connections is why therapies and early childhood education are so influential while the developing brain is improving the synapses or pruning them. The brain becomes less “plastic” and able to change its connections as the child ages.

Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.

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