How cognition affects teaching in different age groups

November 22, 2020

Brandes Gress

According to the American Psychological Association, the human brain begins to form, grow and create its own brain waves before birth, and does not finish developing until the age of 25. Scientists studying the brain in utero have discovered that during pregnancy, the human brain can create as many as 250,000 nerve cells, or neurons, per minute, and a 12-14 week embryo generates roughly 15 million neurons per hour.

Throughout gestation and the first years, the brain develops through a delicate process of creating neurons, meticulously migrating these cells to regions of the brain and spinal cord they will contribute to, and finally the intricate dance between neurons will begin. The formation of neurons and neural connections, called synapses, is roughly completed by 18 months, but the pruning of needless formations will continue for years. Synaptic pruning is a vital part of brain development, and with technological advances in neuroimaging, scientists are able to see how this elegant process occurs and continues throughout childhood and adolescence. How does neural formation and this complex dance between neurons affect behavior throughout a child’s life? And how can we as educators use the breakthroughs in neuroscience to better understand and help our students?

Technological advances in neuroscience may be new, but cognitive studies were around long before computer imaging. Jean Piaget, a renowned psychologist, is most famous for his theory of cognitive development, which continues to provide the infrastructure for our understanding of cognition and human behavior. One of Piaget’s notable ideas is object permanence. This is the understanding that objects and people continue to exist even when they cannot be seen or heard.

The child knows when someone leaves, they continue to exist.

As adults, it is obvious that our car still exists in the garage even if we’re not there to see it, but in younger infants that aspect of cognition hasn’t yet developed. In a study that involved hiding a ball under a blanket, Piaget found that children under 8 months old do not look for a toy when it is hidden from them. This formed his theory regarding the development of object permanence occurring in infants around the 8 month mark. It is now widely understood that children develop on a varied timeline, so object permanence can be seen in infants from 4 to 8 months old. As their brains develop, so does their ability to remember.

Awareness of object permanence

Inside the infant’s brain, memories are formed when neurons establish strong connections to one another, called synapses, which allow the rapid transmission of information. Synapses are a major key to memory, and as the human brain develops a complex synaptic network, it strengthens the ability to remember.

An example of this developmental milestone is the child’s awareness of object permanence. Further, around the time of formation of object permanence, the child also displays signs of DSA, which stands for developmental separation anxiety (Guthrie, 1997, p.486). The relation between object permanence and DSA is clear. The child knows when someone leaves, they continue to exist. Researchers in child brain development found this to be a common pattern that usually begins at 10-12 months and continues until 24 months. Characteristics of this behavior are excessive stress when separated from the primary caregiver, reluctance to go to school, and reluctance to sleep unless the primary caregiver is nearby.

A reluctance to come to school is a quintessential characteristic of DSA. A once easy hand-off between parents and teachers is now met with cries or screams. There are several helpful tactics that can ease the stress of a child in this developmental phase. The establishment of consistent routines and a secure child-teacher attachment can be helpful during this tempestuous time. Consistent routines and familiar patterns give the child a sense of expectation. A stable, dependable child care environment can secure a child’s emotional health, improve social competence, and accelerate cognitive development (Eliot, 2000).

Although they will still cry for their caregiver when they are dropped off at school, their cries quickly subside when put into the arms of a teacher they are attached to, and in an environment that is consistent and dependable. In addition, games like peek-a-boo can reassure the child that when things disappear they come back which can ease this developmental anxiety. As their brain develops, they will transition themselves out of this cognitive phase and into the phases associated with preschool aged children.

The fontanelle, or “soft spot”, where the cranial bones haven’t yet fused at the top of the newborn’s skull, serves a dual purpose. First, it allows the cranium to pass through the birthing canal, and secondly, it allows rapid brain growth. By age 3, the human brain has reached 80% of its adult size. During these first few years of accelerated brain growth, early childhood educators will notice dramatic progression in behavior and development.

These notable behaviors have well-known nicknames depending on age, the “terrible twos” and “threenagers”. According to information from the Center for Disease Control, this age group has immense thinking, learning, social, and language skills. These behaviors are related to the progression of their brain development, and during this time, the brain shows some of its most dramatic and robust anatomical changes.

Language development and cognitive functioning

Children aged 2-3 are sponges for knowledge. They are observing, imitating, and learning feverishly about their environment. Inside a preschooler’s brain, structural growth is accompanied by increases in the cerebral cortex and cerebral structure (Brown & Jernigan, 2012). The neurons in the brain are surrounded by a fatty substance called myelin, and this allows information to pass faster between neurons, and enables more complex brain processes.

The formation of myelin begins before birth and is completed by the age of 2. The Broca’s area, a region of the frontal lobe, is associated with speech production and researchers have found a correlation between the production of language and grammar to myelination (Rosselli, et al., 2014).

Encouraging children to use their words when upset gives them the opportunity to pair language with emotional regulation.

Myelination helps link the brainstem to the cerebral cortex and frontal lobe which results in language development and cognitive functioning. By his or her first birthday, a child will have mastered an average of 20 words, but by age 3 they will know up to 1,000 words and this number will double by age 5. Children at this age are known for their desire to be more independent, and their vast language acquisition which they often use to defy or protest adult requests. The tantrums, fits, and defiance of a 2-or 3-year-old rears its ugly head during this development phase because, although the language acquisition is well underway, the part of the brain that allows them to express strong emotions verbally isn’t.

The prefrontal cortex is associated with emotional regulation and finishes developing around the age of 25. Children around the ages of 2 and 3 find it difficult to put their sadness, fear, or anger into words which is why they express their vehement emotions through a physical display we adults call a tantrum. As an educator, working through this developmental stage can be exhausting. The smallest requests to clean up their toys, share, or finish their food become grounds for battle. Encouraging children to use their words when upset gives them the opportunity to pair language with emotional regulation. Once they’ve calmed down, a 3-year-old may be able to tell you they don’t want to clean up because they still want to play. Talking and discussing why you are making a request also helps them understand the reasoning behind it.

For example, you may tell a 2-year-old that they need to try their vegetables, so they can grow big and strong. At either age, a positive reward for good behavior is always an advantageous tool. Something as simple as a high-five, a sticker, or verbal praise can teach the toddler that good behavior is rewarded and encouraged. As the brain continues to build and strengthen connections, school-aged children exhibit their own set of behavioral characteristics linked to brain development.

Logical reasoning

School-aged children, between the ages of 6-12 years, are distinguished by their ability to use logical reasoning, they begin to self-regulate, develop a longer attention span and dramatic memory advancement. As with the earlier years, the brain of a school-aged child continues to rapidly process, store, learn, memorize, and digest information. As they develop advanced cognitive functions, teachers may also notice an increase in lying or the fabrication and exaggeration of stories.

Research by Lewis et al. (1989) tested lie-telling behavior in children aged 3 to 7. The children were told not to look for a toy hidden under a blanket, while the researcher wasn’t looking. While only 38% of 3-year-olds lied about peeking at the toy when asked, this percentage increased to 64% of the 4-7 year-olds. As the brain matures, so does the ability to lie successfully. In older children, lying becomes more complex as they gain language, memory, and executive function skills. Verbal deception in children younger than 8 is not fully skilled because, unlike older children, they lack the ability to maintain consistency between statements (Talwar & Lee, 2002). The reasoning behind a lie may be socially or emotionally motivated, but the ability to do so, and to execute it well, is a cognitive function that progresses with brain maturity.

As educators of school-aged children it is important to deal with this behavior in a calm, understanding, and clear way. Addressing the lie, calmly discussing it in private, attending to the origin of the lie, and using punishment sparingly will decrease the chances of future lying. As children grow into adolescence, they go through behavioral changes often linked to hormones, but inside the adolescent brain the neural connections are becoming more concrete, and the prefrontal cortex is still maturing.


Teenagers are often stigmatized as moody and reckless, which are traits stereotypically attributed to the hormonal changes happening as a result of puberty. Although some of these behavioral changes can be related to hormones, others can be associated with the immaturity of the prefrontal cortex. Neuroimaging, such as magnetic response imaging (MRI), functional MRI (fMRI), and computed tomography (CT), have shown neuroscientists empirical evidence that the adolescent brain is not fully developed. One of the regions that is the last to develop is the prefrontal cortex, which is best known for executive function.

Executive function is essential for decision-making, the relation between future consequences to current activities, long-term goal orientation, self-control, and planning. A study using fMRI found impulse control and response inhibition are related to changes and maturity of the frontal lobe (Luna & Sweeney, 2004). Teenagers often engage in risky behavior without thinking of the consequences, and make impulsive decisions that can be linked to a lack of maturity in the prefrontal cortex. Researchers found that when executive function in the frontal lobe is underdeveloped, it can lead to poor judgement and impaired decision making (Johnson et. al, 2009).

In the classroom, teens may exhibit disruptive or negative behaviors that can make teaching difficult, especially in a classroom full of them. Setting behavioral and academic expectations outlining consequences of their actions can help them understand that current decisions have future implications. Teenagers are often known for their risky behavior, and teachers can benefit from this by encouraging them to take chances in the secure classroom environment. This can inspire teenagers to challenge themselves by taking academic risks.

Shortly after conception, the human brain begins to grow and continues to do so throughout life. The rapid, yet delicate process which involves the formation of neurons and the careful construction and elimination of neural connections will continue throughout childhood and adolescence. As the brain matures, its capacity to process, learn, and memorize information continues to advance as does its ability to connect with different regions of itself to develop language, emotional regulation, and advanced thought processes. From inside the womb until the child’s mid-twenties, the brain undergoes immense developmental changes which affect behavior.

As educators, it is not only imperative to understand cognitive development to create enriching learning environments which stimulate and challenge cognitive function, but to recognize its influence on student behavior so teaching techniques can be implemented to encourage the progression of neurodevelopment.

  1. Ackerman S. Discovering the Brain. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1992. 6, The Development and Shaping of the Brain.
  2. Brown, T. T., & Jernigan, T. L. (2012). Brain development during the preschool years. Neuropsychology Review, 22(4), 313–333.
  3. Eliot, L. P. (2000). What’s Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. Bantam Dell Pub Group.
  4. Guthrie, A. (1997). Separation Anxiety: An overview. In American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (7th ed., Vol. 19, pp. 486-490).
  5. Johnson, S. B., Blum, R. W., & Giedd, J. N. (2009). Adolescent maturity and the brain: the promise and pitfalls of neuroscience research in adolescent health policy. The Journal of Adolescent Health : official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 45(3), 216–221.
  6. Lewis, M., Stanger, C., & Sullivan, M. W. (1989, May). Deception in 3-year-olds.
  7. Luna, B., & Sweeney, J. A. (2004). The emergence of collaborative brain function: FMRI studies of the development of response inhibition. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1021, 296–309.
  8. Mcleod, S. (1970, January 01). Object Permanence.
  9. Rosselli, M., Ardila, A., Matute, E., & Vélez-Uribe, I. (2014). Language Development across the Life Span: A Neuropsychological/Neuroimaging Perspective. Neuroscience Journal, 2014, 585237.
  10. Swanson, W. S. (2015, November 21). How to Ease Your Child’s Separation Anxiety.
  11. Talwar, V., & Lee, K. (2002). Development of lying to conceal a transgression: Children’s control of expressive behavior during verbal deception. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 26(5), 436–444.
  12. Talwar, V., & Lee, K. (2008). Social and cognitive correlates of children’s lying behavior. Child development, 79(4), 866–881.
  13. United States, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Center of Disease Control. (n.d.). Toddlers (2-3 Years of Age).

Did you enjoy this post?