This article was written for health professionals. If you are a parent, check out our Emerging Minds Families resources about children’s developmental experiences and how you can support your child’s healthy development.
Children develop best in supportive, responsive environments. Their physical, social and emotional needs and abilities vary, depending on what’s going on around them and where they’re at in their developmental journey.
Understanding a child’s ecology – their relationships and the environments in which they live, learn, play, and grow – and how brains and bodies develop is an integral part of supporting healthy development and wellbeing. When coupled with a curious, respectful practice approach, this knowledge can help you to scaffold children’s learning and development and equip them with the tools they need to grow and thrive.
Children develop in the context of their relational and social environments. A child’s development is shaped by their unique genes, experiences and the opportunities they’re given. It’s therefore best to think of development as a path or journey that every child travels in their own way and at their own pace.
That said, while every child’s developmental journey is unique, there are some recognisable characteristics of development at different points between birth and adulthood:
- infancy and early childhood (0–5 years)
- middle childhood (6–12 years)
- adolescence (12–18 years).
There are different developmental milestones – key skills, behaviours or abilities that typically emerge as children progress through each stage of development. Again, these milestones can vary from child to child, so it’s important to consider them as a general guideline only. Some children will reach certain milestones earlier or later than others, which is completely normal. However, significant delays or deviations from these expected milestones can be a sign of underlying difficulties that may require more support.
The human brain is constantly adapting to both positive and negative stimuli. This ‘neuroplasticity’ allows us to change and shape our brains throughout our lives. However, there are certain ‘sensitive periods’ of development when a child’s experiences and environments have a greater impact on their growing brain and body. During these periods, the brain is more receptive to learning new skills, but also more easily influenced by its surrounding environment (Malave, van Dijk, & Anacker, 2022; Puderbaugh & Emmady, 2022).
Brains are built from experiences, like building blocks, and that includes the birthing parent’s experiences during pregnancy. Stress and anxiety not only affect the parent’s wellbeing; they can also have long-term impacts on the baby’s development (Lewis, Austin, Knapp, Vaiano, & Galbally, 2015). As a practitioner, you can make a big difference by exploring the causes of the parent’s stress and anxiety, and by working with them on ways to manage these feelings (and where possible, address their cause) during and post-pregnancy.
Brain development in infancy and early childhood – the ‘first thousand days’ – lays the foundation for all future development, as well as lifelong wellbeing. Consistent, nurturing relationships and safe, supportive environments are key to healthy brain development during this time.
A baby’s brain grows as it is stimulated via interactions with the people and environment around it. When a baby cries for food or comfort, and they receive it, it strengthens their brain’s neuronal pathways. The baby learns how to communicate and get their needs met, both physically and emotionally, and their caregiver builds a trusting bond with their child.
In terms of brain architecture, early childhood is the time when children begin building on the ‘foundation’ they developed during infancy. They develop a ‘framework’ of basic cognitive abilities that will scaffold more complex skills in later years. They also begin to develop skills and strategies for navigating social interactions, which in turn support their positive wellbeing (Ștefan, Dănilă, & Cristescu, 2022).
Adolescence is considered a third ‘window of opportunity’ for brain development. During this time, connections in the brain can be rewired based on the young person’s experiences and environments (Mendez Leal, & Silvers, 2021). In the following video (34 seconds), Dr Sally Staton (Developmental Scientist at the Queensland Brain Institute) explains how you can support young people’s development and wellbeing.
A child’s development determines how they experience their world, how they make sense of the things that happen to them, and how much influence they feel they have over these events. It informs their ability to manage stress and solve problems.
Stress is a normal part of everyday life. Short-lived, mild stressful experiences, such as learning a new skill or meeting new people, are good for children’s development. These types of ‘positive’ stress help children to practice and develop their problem-solving and decision-making skills and build their resilience.
However, when stress is prolonged, chronic or extreme, and/or experienced in the absence of support, it’s considered ‘toxic’. Toxic stress can have impacts on the developing brain and body, such as increased inflammation, hormonal dysregulation and reduced brain functioning. But the support of trusted caregivers can help children to navigate stressful experiences and build skills to help them face challenges in the future.
Children who experience trauma (whether it’s a one-off traumatic event or ongoing abuse and neglect) may regress in their developmental milestones. For example, a child who had previously mastered going to the toilet alone may return to wetting the bed; or a child who had grown socially independent may start clinging to their parents again. Trauma can also have a damaging effect on school-aged children’s development, impacting their learning, friendships and academic success (Gerrity & Folcarelli, 2008).
It’s important to remember that not all children respond to experiences of trauma in the same way, and the impacts on their development and wellbeing may not become clear until sometime afterwards. While most children will receive the support and care they need to recover, it’s important to recognise signs of trauma at different stages of a child’s development so you can intervene early and prevent long-term negative impacts.
The following fact sheets outline the typical trauma responses you might see in infants, toddlers and school-aged children.
Experiences of stress and trauma can impact multiple generations within a family. Commonly referred to as ‘intergenerational disadvantage’, these experiences are often characterised by a lack of resources, social capital (relationships, support networks and community connectedness) and opportunities. Intergenerational disadvantage has the potential to negatively affect children’s mental health, wellbeing and brain development (Bubonya & Cobb-Clark, 2021; Chicote, 2018).
In the following video (1 minute, 14 seconds), social worker Chris Dolman shares why it’s important to explore a family’s stories of intergenerational strengths and resilience, as well as their experiences of disadvantage.
Resilience begins to develop in infancy. A child who has learned that their caregiver is available, reliable and responsive to their needs will feel secure to explore the world around them, and confident that their caregiver will be there if they need them. These supportive relationships and interactions form the basis of a child’s resilience.
It’s important to remember that resilience is not an outcome; it’s a process that continues to develop throughout a person’s life and reflects the supports available to a child or family when challenges occur. This means that a child may appear resilient in response to one event and not another. The importance of child-adult relationships in the development of resilience means that the adult’s level of resilience also matters (Alberta Family Wellness Initiative, 2023).
Having constructive conversations with parents and families about ways to support their child’s resilience is a key part of supporting healthy development. This includes considering how children can thrive on challenges within supportive environments, so long as those challenges don’t lead to prolonged stress or fear of their environment or those around them.
Strategies to support children’s development need to account for the individual factors that make every child unique. A child’s ability to form close and secure relationships, explore their environment, learn, and regulate and express their emotions will depend on their individual development, their previous experiences and their current circumstances. In addition, changes in one area of a child’s life can lead to changes in other areas, meaning that things that might not seem related to a child’s development, such as relationship conflict or financial stress, can in fact have a big impact. Therefore, it’s important to consider the child’s ecology when deciding the best strategies and supports to use with a child or family.
In the following video (31 seconds), Dr Sally Staton talks about the important role a child’s environment plays in their brain development.
Select the following headings to read more about how you can support healthy development at different stages of a child’s life.
As a practitioner, you can support the healthy development of infants and toddlers by:
- supporting the adults in the child’s life to establish or reinstate responsive routines and predictability during times of transition or uncertainty
- equipping caregivers with the tools they need to respond to big emotions and behaviours in a consistent and compassionate way; and
- highlighting the importance of children having familiar storybooks and toys, including a comfort toy/blanket to take with them as they move between locations (i.e. from Mum’s house to Dad’s house).
You can support preschool-aged children’s development by:
- helping parents to understand the reasons behind their child’s behaviour and to respond empathically
- emphasising the importance of play, especially child-led activities, for children’s development and wellbeing
- helping parents to maintain responsive routines and structure in their child’s life as much as possible, and to provide age-appropriate explanations when things change; and
- choosing interventions that prioritise consistency, responsive interactions, repetition, soothing touch and comfort.
You can support the growth and development of school-aged children by:
- identifying and addressing any learning and self-regulation difficulties the child may be experiencing, which may be impacting their schooling and other areas of their life
- helping children to name and express their emotions, through activities such as drawing or symbolic play
- guiding parents on ways to recognise and help their child to regulate their emotions; and
- encouraging families to maintain routines and social connections for their child. Regular school attendance in particular provides opportunities to form friendships, which is especially valuable for children.
You can support the healthy development of pre-teens by:
- helping children to identify their strengths, and helping their family to provide opportunities for children to develop these skills (especially if there are areas of development that they’re struggling with)
- providing children with opportunities (e.g. talk therapy) and strategies to process strong emotions and conflicting feelings and build their resilience
- supporting parents to maintain as much routine and social connection for their child as possible, especially during times of stress or adversity; and
- helping children to connect with other children of a similar age and development and who’ve been through similar experiences. This can help children to normalise the emotions they’re experiencing, to understand that change is a part of life, and to differentiate between things they can and can’t control.
Neurodiversity is an umbrella term that refers to the diversity in brain functioning and is associated with a range of developmental conditions and experiences (McLean, 2022). It’s the idea that ‘people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways’; that there is no one ‘right’ way of thinking, learning and behaving, and differences should not be viewed as deficits (Baumer, & Frueh, 2021).
Children who are neurodivergent learn and make meaning in unique ways. What supports one child’s ability to grow, learn and thrive may not be as helpful for another. As well as an understanding of the child’s ecology, it’s important to understand the strengths and barriers that exist for them as a learner, and the strategies that work best for them. With these understandings, you can help the child and family to build on their strengths and improve their independence in manageable stages (McLean, 2022).
The following resources provide more information about supporting children who are neurodivergent:
You can also help by connecting parents with useful, relevant, reliable and practical information on child development and wellbeing. This can include topics that are of particular interest or relevance to parents (e.g. toileting, mealtimes), as well as information on ‘what to expect’ in their child’s behaviour, growth, and development, now and into the future.
Emerging Minds Families has developed resources for parents about child development and ways they can support their children’s healthy development.
In the following video (50 seconds), Dr Melinda Goodyear (Senior Research Fellow, Monash University) shares how listening to parents and acknowledging their efforts can make a big difference.
No matter the kind of service you work in, you have an important role to play in supporting children and families to build resources for lifelong wellbeing. Taking an interest in a child’s unique developmental journey and working in collaboration with the family to support their mental health and development is a key part of this.
It’s important to note that a child’s age and development are not one and the same. While a child’s age can give you an idea of where they might be on their developmental journey, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. Observing, engaging with and seeking the perspectives of children and young people, as well as the people around them, will help you to develop an understanding of the ‘whole child’. It’s this understanding that will allow you to create sensitive and tailored responses that support children’s developmental needs, enabling them to grow and thrive.
The following resources provide more information on child development and the impact trauma can have on child and adolescent development.
Child development resources for families
When we understand children’s developmental journeys, we can nurture and respond to children in ways that match their age and capabilities. This collection of resources is for parents and other adults caring for children between birth and around 12 years of age. They describe the main developmental experiences for children at different ages and offer ways parents and caregivers can support children’s healthy development and wellbeing.
Baumer, N., & Frueh, J. (2021, November 3). What is neurodiversity? Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School, Harvard University.
Bubonya, M., & Cobb-Clark, D. A. (2021). Pathways of disadvantage: Unpacking the intergenerational correlation in welfare. Economics of Education Review, 80, 102066. doi:10.1016/j.econedurev.2020.102066.
Chicote, K. (2018). The Long View: Designing a proactive service system to prevent intergenerational disadvantage. Winston Churchill Trust, Department of Communities.
Gerrity E., & Folcarelli C. (2008). Child Trauma Stress: What every policy maker should know. National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.
Lewis, A. J., Austin, E., Knapp, R., Vaiano, T., & Galbally, M. (2015). Perinatal maternal mental health, fetal programming and child development. Healthcare, 3(4), 1212–1227. doi:10.3390/healthcare3041212
Malave, L., van Dijk, M. T., & Anacker, C. (2022). Early life adversity shapes neural circuit function during sensitive postnatal developmental periods. Translational Psychiatry, 12(1). doi:10.1038/s41398-022-02092-9
McLean, S. (2022). Supporting children with neurodiversity (CFCA paper no. 64). Child Family Community Australia.
Mendez Leal, A. S., & Silvers, J. A. (2021). Neurobiological Markers of Resilience to Early-Life Adversity During Adolescence. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience & Neuroimaging, 6(2), 238–247. doi:10.1016/j.bpsc.2020.08.004
Puderbaugh, M., & Emmady, P. D. (2022). Neuroplasticity. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. PMID: 32491743
Ștefan, C. A., Dănilă, I., & Cristescu, D. (2022). Classroom-wide school interventions for preschoolers’ social-emotional learning: A systematic review of evidence-based programs. Educational Psychology Review, 34(4), 2971–3010. doi:10.1007/s10648-022-09680-7