All children and young people have different life experiences and journeys. Lots of things impact on a child’s developmental journey or ‘trajectory’, including genetics, life experiences, family life, medical history, and educational opportunities.
Different children and young people start and end their journeys in different places and this can change across their whole childhood.
Mindprint Learning; Source: Roalf et al (2014) Within-individual variability in neurocognitive performance: age- and sex-related differences in children and youths from ages 8 to 21, Neuropsychology, 014 Jul;28(4):506-18.
What can affect a child or young person’s cognitive ability and developmental journey?
- Exposure to alcohol, drugs, certain medications, and environmental toxins can impact brain development – this could be during pregnancy and/or during childhood.
- Not having access to developmentally appropriate toys, activities and interaction can impact on the development of skills. Interaction and positive relationships are particularly important, helping to develop language, cognitive and social skills. Children also need access to physical activities to be able to develop physical skills – e.g. a baby who spends most of the day in a bouncer will have limited opportunity to learn to crawl.
- Children (and adults) need to feel safe to be able to learn. Not feeling safe – e.g. through unsafe living conditions, trauma, violence, abuse, homelessness or the risk of it, or lack of food availability – puts the brain into ‘fight or flight’ mode and makes it very difficult to learn or process information.
- Where a child grows up, and the culture they grow up in, can impact on what experiences they are exposed to and what is prioritised among the community. This can look like differences in development, because different things are taught and prioritised. Standardised assessments tend to be very Western-focused (often written and standardised in the USA).
- See https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/child-health-development/childhood-trauma-brain-development for more information, resources and signposting.
- If a child or young person is experiencing poor mental health in the form of low mood (e.g. depression), unusual experiences (e.g. psychosis – visual or verbal hallucinations, developing very strong unusual beliefs, developing grandiose ways, feeling and thinking in paranoid ways) or high levels of anxiety (e.g. panic, separation anxiety, particular phobias or general anxiety), this can all impact on their learning and cognitive development.
- There is a lot of evidence that neurodivergent children and young people can be more likely to develop mental health difficulties such as anxiety and depression. In turn, resulting changes to children’s mood and behaviour can affect concentration, focus, memory and executive skills such as sequencing, problem solving and planning.
- This can set up negative loops for children and young people in which their mental health affects their learning and vice versa. Some children and young people can become anxious or depressed in response to struggling with their learning as they are aware that they are finding tasks at school or at home more difficult than their peers. This can lead to a sense of difference at times which can compromise young people’s sense of self-esteem.
- Mental health difficulties can also impact on cognitive development and abilities through reduced school attendance and the impact of this on young people’s progression and development over time
Physical health and acquired health factors
- Children and young people’s cognitive development and learning can be strongly affected by other health conditions including epilepsy, acquired or traumatic brain injury and many other physical health conditions.
- Epilepsy can impact on children and young people’s learning in a range of ways. Absence seizures, unless well controlled through medication, can affect children’s concentration and attention, with knock on effects on what children remember of their learning. This can break up the flow of learning or disrupt their understanding of the sequence of a task and how far they have moved through certain tasks, without the child necessarily knowing this ‘break’ in concentration has happened.
- Seizures of other forms (e.g. tonic-clonic seizures) can also disrupt young people’s consciousness for a period of time, leading to breaks in their learning and attention. Some seizures also lead to periods of confusion before or after the seizure has occurred.
- Traumatic and acquired brain injury can also lead to long term effects on children’s attention, working memory, executive functioning skills and memory. Without helpful support to accommodate these areas of need, children and young people may find their learning more difficult.
- There are many other health conditions which can affect children’s schooling where ongoing medical treatment may require periods away from school. This indirectly affects their educational access and can affect their progress and learning over time. Additional support can help manage this well for young people.
- Every day, we manage various demands on our attention, from paying attention and controlling impulses, to managing emotions and prioritising tasks. To do this we use skills known as executive function skills. One way to think about these skills is like an air traffic control system at an airport. With practice and the right support, children learn to organise and control the tasks in their mental headspace, like an air traffic controller organises and lands aeroplanes in a busy airport. Children depend on these emerging executive function skills as they learn to read and write, develop arithmetic skills and interact with peers.
- Executive function skills develop throughout childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. It’s important to give children opportunities to develop these skills through experiences appropriate to their age and ability, and with appropriate support from adults.
- Executive function skills develop over time and with practice. Just as a newly trained air traffic controller begins at a smaller airport before working up to directing traffic at a major multi-terminal airport, children need opportunities early on to practice their executive function skills in supportive environments.
- A child’s ability to manage competing demands is a skill that develops over time, requiring practice and support. There are always ways to help children develop their air traffic control skills but this should be done in a way that is appropriate to their current level of development and with the support of caring and sensitive adults.
- Children with less-developed executive function skills are likely to be less able to manage competing demands on their attention, to plan and prioritise, and to manage their emotions. This can lead to them feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and anxious, which might in turn lead to behaviours like forgetfulness, lashing out, or withdrawing. Supportive strategies could include calm environments, a stable routine, and lots of practice, play, support and encouragement.
Sleep is vital for us to perform at our best. It is recommended that children obtain the following hours over a period of 24 hours:
- Infants: 12 to 15 hours
- Preschoolers: (3-5 years) 10 to 13 hours
- Children: (6-13 years) 9 to 11 hours
- Teenagers: (14-17 years) 8 to 10 hours
- Adults: (18+ years) 7 to 9 hours
Lack of sleep will affect a child’s cognitive functioning, especially the ability to process information.
Sleep can also affect mental health leading to lower mood and/ or increased anxiety which will also affect the brain and all the processes above.
For children who already have difficulties with cognitive functioning, a lack of sleep will compound these difficulties leading to a double disadvantage.
For further information the impact of sleep and how to improve sleep, please see the Sleep section of this website.
Eating and Nutrition
Frontiers for Young Minds say, “The brain performs many essential functions, including regulating our mental health and physical well-being. So, we should work hard to keep it healthy!
There is a direct relationship between the foods we eat and the functioning of our brains. Proper, healthy nutrition can benefit the brain in several positive ways. A healthy diet can increase the production of new neurons, a process called neurogenesis.
The hippocampus is one of the most important structures of the brain. It helps to regulate memory and neurogenesis. A healthy diet can improve neurogenesis in the hippocampus. This can improve our learning, memory, mood, attention, and mental health.
A healthy diet is important to help the brain function at its best.
Did you know that the gut and the brain are connected? These two body organs are connected by neurons that transmit messages back and forth between them. The food we eat is sensed by the neurons of the gut, which then send signals to alert the brain. This connection and the resulting communication are called the gut-brain axis. Because of the gut-brain axis, it is not surprising that an unhealthy diet can cause problems with cognitive functions such as remembering, learning, or thinking.
An unhealthy diet causes the body to release too much of a type of stress hormone. This can cause inflammation in certain parts of the brain, including the hippocampus. Inflammation in the hippocampus can negatively affect our cognitive abilities, which makes it harder to plan, focus, or remember things. This inflammation can even lead to depression.
A high-fat diet is also unhealthy because it can lead to oxidative stress in the brain. Oxidative stress is a harmful process that can disrupt several structures inside cells. In addition, scientists have found that consuming a high-fat diet can cause inflammation in both the hippocampus and the hypothalamus, which are important areas of the brain. The hypothalamus is responsible for control of body weight, among other functions. Inflammation in the brain’s weight-control centre can make a person eat more.
Trans-fats are artificial fats that are considered the worst type of fats to eat. Trans-fats have many negative effects, but in the brain, they can increase the risk of cognitive problems and anxiety. Trans-fats can be found in margarines, frostings, snacks, and store-bought cookies and cakes. So, avoid them to protect your brain!”
For more information about the importance of nutrition and maintaining a healthy diet for children and young people, please see the Diet and Nutrition page of this website.