The brain is developed through an ongoing process that begins during pregnancy and continues into early adulthood. The foundations of the brain begin to form between birth and five years of age as a child sees, feels, tastes, hears, and smells. Seven hundred new neural connectors are formed every second during a child’s first years. This forms the sturdy foundation that will affect the learning, health, and behaviors that follow.
The process of pruning begins after this initial period of rapid proliferation. During pruning, neural connections are reduced, cause brain circuits to become more efficient. Then, sensory pathways, such as basic vision and hearing, develop. Next, the development of early language skills and higher cognitive functions begins. These connections proliferate and prune in a specific, beginning with basic function and then moving on to more complex brain circuits built upon earlier, simpler circuits.
A close relationship between the child and the caregiver is the best way to nourish the child’s growing brain. Young children learn by interactions with adults—the children babble and make facial expressions and gestures, while the adult responds with similar vocalizations and gestures. In the absence of such responses—or if the responses are unreliable or inappropriate—the brain’s architecture does not form as expected, which can lead to disparities in learning and behavior.
Brain development can also be impaired by chronic or unrelenting stress that occurs in early childhood from events such as poverty, abuse, or sever maternal depression. Positive stressors are important and necessary for typical development; however, toxic stress can caused damaged neurons that will inadequately shape the developing brain.
40 Developmental Assets
The Search Institute identified the 40 building blocks necessary for healthy development—known as Developmental Assets—that help young children grow up healthy, caring, and responsible. This particular list is intended for adolescents (age 12-18).
“Minor is Major: How Adolescent Braind and Behavior Development Can Affect Competency, Culpability and Other Determinations in Criminal Court” by Cathryn S. Crawford, NACDL 2016 Mid-Winter Meeting. Download the presentation.
SCIENTIFIC PAPERS AND ARTICLES
“How Should Justice Policy Treat Young Offenders?: A Knowledge Brief of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience” by Richard J. Bonnie, BJ Casey, Andre Davis, David L. Faigman, Morris B. Hoffman, Owen D. Jones, Read Montague, Stephen J. Morse, Marcus E. Raichle, Jennifer A. Richeson, Elizabeth S. Scott, Laurence Steinberg, Kim Taylor-Thompson, and Anthony Wagner (2017)
Abstract: The justice system in the United States has long recognized that juvenile offenders are not the same as adults, and has tried to incorporate those differences into law and policy. But only in recent decades have behavioral scientists and neuroscientists, along with policymakers, looked rigorously at developmental differences, seeking answers to two overarching questions: Are young offenders, purely by virtue of their immaturity, different from older individuals who commit crimes? And, if they are, how should justice policy take this into account?
A growing body of research on adolescent development now confirms that teenagers are indeed inherently different from adults, not only in their behaviors, but also (and of course relatedly) in the ways their brains function. These findings have influenced a series of Supreme Court decisions relating to the treatment of adolescents, and have led legislators and other policymakers across the country to adopt a range of developmentally informed justice policies.
New research is showing distinct changes in the brains of young adults, ages 18 to 21, suggesting that they too may be immature in ways that are relevant to justice policy. This knowledge brief from the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience considers the implications of this new research. Purchase access to the brief.
“Gender Differences in the Developmental Cascade From Harsh Parenting to Educational Attainment: An Evolutionary Perspective” by Rochelle F. Hentges and Ming-Te Wang, Child Development (2017)
Abstract: This study utilized life history theory to test a developmental cascade model linking harsh parenting to low educational attainment. Multigroup models were examined to test for potential gender differences. The sample consisted of 1,482 adolescents followed up for 9 years starting in seventh grade (Mage = 12.74). Results supported indirect links between harsh parenting and low educational attainment through the development of extreme peer orientations, early sexual behavior, and delinquency. Among male adolescents, harsh parenting was related to the development of an extreme peer orientation, which further led to increased delinquency, and subsequently lower educational attainment. Among female adolescents, harsh parenting predicted extreme peer orientations, which increased both delinquency and early sexual behavior. Early sexual behavior further predicted lower educational attainment in female adolescents. Purchase access to the full article.
“Searching for Signatures of Brain Maturity: What Are We Searching For?” by Leah H. Somerville, Neuroview (2016)
Abstract: Evidence of continued neurobiological maturation through adolescence is increasingly invoked in discussions of youth-focused policies. This should motivate neuroscientists to grapple with core issues such as the definition of brain maturation, how to quantify it, and how to precisely translate this knowledge to broader audiences. Purchase access to the article.
“Applying the Science of Child Development in Child Welfare Systems” by Steven D. Cohen, The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2016)
Abstract: How can we use insights from cutting-edge science to improve the well-being and long-term life prospects of the most vulnerable children in our society? This is both a critical challenge and a powerful opportunity to affect the trajectories of millions of children in the United States and around the world. It is a question of particular importance to those who make or affect public policy. This paper shows how the science of child development can be leveraged to strengthen and improve the public child welfare system so that it can better support the children, families, and communities it serves.
The paper is intended for leaders in the public agencies responsible for child protection and related functions; in the private, non-profit agencies that provide many of the services in these systems; in the courts, which play a critical role in child welfare; in legislative committees that oversee child welfare and related services; and in the many other public systems, such as early childhood education, mental health, and juvenile justice, whose support is essential to success in child welfare. Read the full paper.
“The Enduring Predictive Significance of Early Maternal Sensitivity: Social and Academic Competence Through Age 32
Years” by K. Lee Raby, Glenn I. Roisman, R. Chris Fraley, and Jeffry A. Simpson, Child Development (2015)
Abstract: This study leveraged data from the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation (N = 243) to investigate the predictive significance of maternal sensitivity during the first three years of life for social and academic competence through age 32 years. Structural model comparisons replicated previous findings that early maternal sensitivity predicts social skills and academic achievement through mid-adolescence in a manner consistent with an Enduring Effects model of development and extended these findings using heterotypic indicators of social (effectiveness of romantic engagement) and academic competence (educational attainment) during adulthood. Although early socioeconomic factors and child gender accounted for the predictive significance of maternal sensitivity for social competence, covariates did not fully account for associations between early sensitivity and academic outcomes. Read the full article.
Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2014)
Abstract: An “environment of relationships” is crucial for the development of a child’s brain architecture, which lays the foundation for later outcomes such as academic performance, mental health, and interpersonal skills. However, many of our nation’s policies fail to consider the importance of adult-child relationships for child well-being. This working paper from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child explains how these relationships shape child development, and identifies ways to strengthen policies that affect those relationships in the early childhood years. Read the full paper.
The Science of Neglect: The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2012)
Abstract: Young children who experience severe deprivation or neglect can experience a range of negative consequences. Neglect can delay brain development, impair executive function skills, and disrupt the body’s stress response. This working paper from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child explains why neglect is so harmful in the earliest years of life, and why effective interventions can improve long-term outcomes in learning, health, and the parenting of the next generation. Read the full paper.
Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2004)
Abstract: This working paper from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child defines the concept of “toxic stress”—what happens when children experience severe, prolonged adversity without adult support. It discusses how significant adversity early in life can alter a child’s capacity to learn and adapt to stressful situations, as well as how sensitive and responsive caregiving can buffer the effects of such stress. The paper also suggests how to create policies that minimize the disruptive impacts of toxic stress on young children. Read the full paper.
“Brain Development During Childhood and Adolescence: A Longitudinal MRI Study” by Jay N. Giedd, Jonathan Blumenthal, Neal O. Jeffries, F. X. Castellanos, Hong Liu, Alex Zijdenbos, Tomás Paus, Alan C. Evans, and Judith L. Rapoport, Nature Neuroscience (1999)
Abstract: Pediatric neuroimaging studies up to now exclusively cross sectional, identify linear decreases in cortical gray matter and increases in white matter across ages 4 to 20. In this large-scale longitudinal pediatric neuroimaging study, we confirmed linear increases in white matter, but demonstrated nonlinear changes in cortical gray matter, with a preadolescent increase followed by a postadolescent decrease. These changes in cortical gray matter were regionally specific, with developmental curves for the frontal and parietal lobe peaking at about age 12 and for the temporal lobe at about age 16, whereas cortical gray matter continued to increase in the occipital lobe through age 20. Read the full article.
“Piecing Together Mother’s Stress and Baby’s Genetics to Understand Brain Development” by Jim Hudziak, The American Journal of Psychiatry (2015)
This article analyzes how the circumstances of pregnancy, especially stress levels for the mother, interacts with offspring genomic architecture to influence brain development. Read the full article.
Monkey Love (2005)
This documentary explores the life of Harry Harlow, a psychologist who focused his research on maternal separation, dependency needs, and social isolation. This film clip features his experiments using rhesus monkeys to study the role of caregiving and companionship in social development and cognitive development.