Learning and the brain

As well as theories of learning and development, Te Whāriki draws on several different approaches to guide kaiako pedagogy. One of these is the relatively new scientific research into the brain – how it influences, and is influenced by, all aspects of human development throughout the lifespan.

On this page, you can read about research into the brain, why it is important for early learning, and how kaiako can apply it in practice.


What's this about?

Neuroscience is the term used to describe the study of the brain and nervous system. It provides new information we can use in early learning services. It sits alongside established theories and cultural approaches as one of several sources that together inform effective practice.

Children’s brain development is influenced by their experiences, so what happens can help or harm their well being. There are some important points to know about the brain and how it influences development, especially in the early years.

All children are born with unique potential to learn and develop

Perhaps the most important point to understand is that all children are born with the potential to develop their mental processes and that their relationships with people, places, and things influence what and how they learn.

Brain architecture

The architecture of the brain consists of thousands of neurons primed to find other neurons and create synapses, or connections. The growth of these connections is particularly prolific in the early years. What is happening in the environment surrounding the child influences whether or not the pathway will survive or become redundant. The more a pathway is used, the stronger and faster it becomes.

Harvard University video – Experiences Build Brain Architecture

What does this video tell us about priorities for curriculum design?

The brain is divided into different but interconnected sections

Modern technology has allowed us to see that different parts of the brain do different things. The pathways go between different parts of the brain, depending on what we are doing.

The brain uses different processes and skills

Two important processes involving our brains are executive function and self-regulation. Executive functions are just what they sound like: high-level mental processes that help us to concentrate, make decisions, and juggle more than one idea at a time.

Self-regulation is essential for children to develop a sense of wellbeing and belonging and to reach their potential. Self-regulation is about controlling impulses and thinking about things like the consequences of our actions. These two processes depend on three key skills.

Executive function and self-regulation depend on three skills

  • Working memory: the ability to remember experiences and use them appropriately
  • Mental-flexibility: the ability to respond and adjust to the situation as it changes
  • Self-control: the ability to make a judgement and exercise self-control

Nurturing nature – supporting brain development in the early years

We used to think that the brain a child was born with was set from birth but we now know that the human brain is very responsive to what is happening in the child’s environment. What’s more, we also know that the first 1000 days of a child’s life is when the brain is growing rapidly and that the neural pathways formed in the early years are very influential.

The brain needs responsive human interaction to learn

Scientists have used the metaphor of “serve and return” to describe the importance of responsive, reciprocal relationships with babies. This requires two things – warm, responsive interactions with caring adults and ongoing, stable relationships.

These conditions are necessary to build important neural pathways that support mental processes and brain functions.

Harvard University video – Serve and Return Interaction Shapes Brain Circuitry

What does this video tell us about priorities for oral language and interactions in curriculum design?

Why does it matter?

Knowledge about brain development and its impact on learning is just one piece of the jigsaw that informs teaching and learning. Kaiako who draw on neuroscience effectively will make a point of using this knowledge alongside cultural ways of knowing, being, and doing as well as theoretical frameworks.

Self-regulation is one area of learning where recent understanding of how the brain and environment interact has been particularly useful in guiding practice. The ways adults repeatedly respond to a baby, and a later a child, influence how the brain responds when self-regulation is required.

As we understand more and more about how the brain and body develop, we also recognise the important roles of kaiako in the early years to support children’s development. In particular, experiences during early childhood offer ways to learn about: focusing and concentrating, using past experiences, being flexible and patient, and working with and alongside others.

Focusing and concentrating

Learning to focus and concentrate requires us to shut out distractions and apply our minds to what is at hand. This is hard work and takes lots of practice.

Using past experiences

One way our brains develop is by remembering what we have already learnt and applying it to new situations. This mental process is about testing working theories.

Being flexible and patient

Not every working theory a child has works. A child’s ability to be flexible, curious, and courageous when it comes to working things out is critically important and requires patience as well as persistence.

Working with and alongside others

Working with and alongside others is the essence of human society. Only through experience and effective adult interactions can children learn how to manage self, make friends, keep friends, and solve conflicts peacefully. Learning these skills is best viewed as “a work in progress”, which often continues well into the school years.

These four elements are not discrete but should be regarded holistically. Kaiako interactions with children, social interactions with other children and whānau, and the cultural, physical, emotional, and spiritual environment affect the way a child’s brain is built.

Understanding the way the brain not just works, but develops, can help guide decisions about what learning matters here, the physical layout of a room and outdoor area, and kaiako practices. In particular, it highlights the importance of adult-child relationships and their role in influencing how a child develops.

How do we apply it in practice?

In the Harvard University definition of executive function and self-regulation, a neuroscientist likens the workings of the brain to an air traffic control tower – where lots of decisions about what is important, what to do, and how to respond need to happen at the same time.

These skills apply to children, to kaiako, and to whānau present at any one time in an early learning service. Bearing this in mind, reflect on the following:

Focusing and concentration

Think about occasions when children are particularly focused and concentrating.

  • What do you think facilitates this? What could interrupt it?
  • What is your role?

Using past experiences

Think about occasions when children use what they have learnt to make sense of what they are doing.

  • What do you think facilitates this? What could interrupt it?
  • What is your role?

Being flexible and patient

  • What alerts you to noticing when children are being flexible and patient?
  • What might encourage children to be flexible? What might make it difficult?
  • How do you support this brain function?
  • How do you talk to children about why this matters?

Working with and alongside others

  • When you see children working with and alongside others, how do you acknowledge this?
  • How do you support children to work with and alongside others?
  • What strategies do you use when children struggle to work with and alongside others?
  • Do you intentionally plan opportunities for children to practice working with and alongside others?

Where can we find out more?

Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University - Key Concepts

This site provides a number of short articles and videos on aspects of the brain development and learning including: brain architecture, resilience, executive function and self-regulation, and toxic stress.


Feeding your baby’s brain

A resource kaiako could share with whānau. It provides tips for talking to babies.


Manaakitia a tātou tamariki: Children’s Commissioner

This web page provides a brief summary of conditions that children need in order to flourish at different life stages.


Nourishing our babies: why listening and talking matter

This article explores the key ingredients of a rich and nutritious language environment.


The early years last forever

A booklet published by Brainwave Trust Aotearoa highlighting ways in which healthy brain development is helped and hindered. This booklet provides useful strategies for kaiako and parents alike.


Stress: the good the bad and the ugly

This article makes the point that “not all stress is created equal”.


The linguistic genius of babies

In this video, Patricia Kuhl illustrates the interaction between the developing brain and the environment as babies begin to learn one or more languages.


Wiring the Brain

New Zealand paediatrician Dr Simon Rowley, describes how neuro-imaging techniques and other sources have increased understanding of how the brain and environment interact to influence learning and behaviour from conception onwards.