Mastering the Mind: Brain Development and Social Emotional Learning

How do physical, social, and emotional development shape who we are and the ways in which we learn?


Hush Naidoo Jade Photography / Unsplash

Electricity is associated with ideas, and similarly, the brain is constantly shifting, developing, growing, and responding to stimuli.

The brain is sometimes likened to a rubber band, snapping back and forth like a child’s plaything. Our brains have plasticity – the ability to shift, adapt, and “bounce back” as necessary. However, as the maturing brain specializes, while it is still able to adapt to change, learning patterns become more entrenched.

At the start of one’s life, more than one million new neural connections form each second. The brain rapidly develops as early experiences cement the foundation for all of one’s health and learning to come.

Before age ten, however, brain development begins to stagnate, with connections reducing in a process called pruning that makes brain circuits more efficient. Sensory pathways for fundamental vision and hearing develop first, then early language skills, and eventually higher cognitive skills, building upon the simpler circuits.

The timing of neural connections generally follows genes, but experience also matters. For example, the “serve and return” relationship between children and their caregivers, where young children use noises, facial expressions, and motions to communicate, and adults respond with eye contact, words, or a hug, help develop the brain. If responses are lacking or negatively connotated, the brain architecture may not form as needed, causing learning disparities later in life.

The quality of a person’s relationships directly shapes their physical and mental development. Stable, kind interactions with adults across childhood enable healthy development, promoting emotional well-being and social skills crucial for cognitive abilities and future academic and workplace success.

The role of adult figures who consciously and unconsciously shape their children is of great importance. Whether it is through clear academic contexts — as Kendrick Perez ’26 remarked, “My parents really want me to do well in school, so I want to make them proud” — or more subtly, authority figures help to determine how youth approach situations. (Janis Lucas / Unsplash)

On the other hand, maternal stress impacts the prenatal brain of infants, and influences toddler behavior, child temperament, and general adolescent development. The brains of youth who undergo adversity cope by strengthening circuits that emphasize aggressive and anxious tendencies in lieu of building cognition, reasoning, and memory

Sleep, toxin exposure, and puberty are examples of health-related factors that influence social-emotional development. Facing toxic stress — such as repeated abuse or extreme poverty — can damage brain architecture, the under-developing neural connections necessary for establishing lifelong behavioral, learning, and physical success. For example, pre-teens with socially aggressive parents (i.e. who give ultimatums or the silent treatment) experience puberty earlier. The reasoning stems from science: stress shortens the time of increased neural plasticity and growth in adolescence, thus predicting earlier sexual maturity.

Neuroscience indicates that early intervention in such circumstances is far more beneficial than later remediation. When adequate support is provided, children strengthen thinking patterns and heighten emotional awareness. As a person gains new experiences, their brain structure changes, as do their skills.

Social emotional learning (SEL), tied to a “whole child approach,” understands that access to safe and welcoming learning environments and experiences can radically change one’s development. It begins as preschool students transition to kindergarten, centering humanities and STEM studies while teaching cognitive skills and emphasizing children’s natural curiosity.

Across a variety of ages, implementations related to SEL have demonstrated improved neural and cognitive functioning and emotional health. Using an example provided in Nurturing Nature: How Brain Development Is Inherently Social and Emotional, and What This Means for Education, when an exhausted parent lifts a crying child and places the child’s head so they hear the parent’s heartbeat, both the parent’s and child’s blood pressure lower, stress hormones return to normal, and socially affiliated hormones increase. These hormones open a window of plasticity in the parent’s brain development and tell the infant’s brain to grow. Physiologically, this interaction affects immune functioning, digestion, memory regions of the brain, and executive functioning (self-regulation and goal-directed behavior).

Dr. Michael Posner, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Oregon, explained, “Neuroscience can provide specific brain networks that are altered by training in specific areas, such as learning to read or compute. In some cases, this can influence curricula and provide incentive[s] for human learning. These research findings are an asset to teachers, and provide a useful incentive for learners, but [they] in no way replace the need for a creative curriculum to foster learning.”

Successful development of social-emotional skills, including critical thinking, persistence, and problem solving, has been tied to fewer repeated grades, stronger college completion, and the increase of stable employment. In fact, children who demonstrate increased social-emotional strength as early as kindergarten are 46% more likely to have a full-time job by age 25 and are 54% more likely to earn a high school diploma. In contrast, weaker skills correlate to criminal activity (a 67% greater likelihood of arrest during early childhood), poor mental health, and substance abuse (a 52% greater chance of binge drinking).

In a different vein, according to The impact of a lack of mathematical education on brain development and future attainment by George Zacharopoulos, Francesco Sella, and Roi Cohen Kadosh, lacking a certain type of education, for example, mathematics, can reduce brain inhibition levels connected to reasoning and cognitive learning. They found that not only could neurotransmitter concentrations detect if an adolescent studied math but also predict changes in mathematical reasoning more than a year later. Well-rounded and thoughtful education shapes brain cognition for decades to come.

One’s mindset also plays a critical role in the capacity to learn. Foundational work in this area by Carol Dweck highlights the difference between a fixed mindset (that intelligence is unable to change over time) and a growth mindset (that intelligence, abilities, and talents are learnable and capable of improvement through effort). 

Research confirms the importance of a growth mindset’s impact on learning and adds, “The mindset of plasticity is critical for students; belief can change their brain in a way [that] provides the framework for future learning. The new finding that training the growth mindset works through the executive attention network is a strong link that suggests both quick and lasting changes can occur through student beliefs.”

In all settings, studies of brain functioning prove learning connects to to physical development and relies on social and emotional experience. This then shapes humans’ biases, their responses to situations, and social emotional growth. In other words, relationships in individuals’ lives influence biological development and, thus, how they process information and live.

The brain remains malleable and changes with social relationships across one’s lifetime. The most crucial times of SEL are those where the brain most actively changes: from the prenatal period to childhood, adolescence, transitioning to parenthood, and old age. Even adults’ close relationships influence hormone co-regulation and affect cognition, sleep quality, and health. Literacy and reasoning are also key.

Posner emphasized, “Literacy can be acquired at any stage of life, but for most people it is not exactly the same as early-developed language skills. Early development allows more time to practice the skill, and it is at a time when new connections form more readily.”

Furthermore, the capacity to learn is connected to how we take care of ourselves, especially how much sleep we get. Mental and physical health, mood management, and problem solving directly relate to sufficient amounts of it. Although frequently neglected by busy students, sleep helps to determine one’s neural plasticity, aids in the consolidation of memories, and removes toxic proteins that build up in the brain during waking hours. Sleep deprivation prevents brain networks from regulating and organizing, which directly harms one’s cognitive and emotional capacities. Chronic sleep deprivation, in fact, impairs creative thinking, social and situational awareness, emotional regulation, and memory.

Individuals have differing needs for sleep, but this basic self-care is necessary for ideal learning and motivation, emotional wellness, and thoughtful social behavior. Nutrition and abstinence from environmental toxins also cause healthy brain development and social-emotional functioning, especially in children.

In addition to sleep, another basic need associated with learning is nutrition. Quality of diet connects to the health of the gut microbiome, which relates to physical and emotional health and cognitive functioning. Nutrient deficiencies and diets of heavy refined sugars and saturated fats compromise this microbiome and impair emotion and mood, memory, learning, and cognition.

Environmental toxins stemming from poor sanitation and hygiene, contaminated water, and lead exposure can yield permanent damage, increasing aggression, restlessness, and anxiety. Drug and alcohol exposure, especially for adolescents, increases the likelihood of impaired regulation and social functioning.

Contrastingly, physical activity and fitness bolster the efficiency and organization of neural networks. Exercise has been proven to improve academic performance, children’s behavior, and physical, mental, and psychosocial wellbeing across all ages, both short- and long-term.

It is crucial to remember that your brain is forever changing, developing, and growing with relationships directly playing a role in mental and physical health. The quality of our interactions directly impacts our brain’s functioning and our ability to learn. Teachers and students especially should be cognizant of their interactions with each other, the tone employed, and the skills focused on. Education on all fronts is key to a successful future. The brain is always reacting, and it remembers.

In all settings, studies of brain functioning prove learning connects to to physical development and relies on social and emotional experience. This then shapes humans’ biases, their responses to situations, and social emotional growth. In other words, relationships in individuals’ lives influence biological development and, thus, how they process information and live.