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About cognition and learning

Scientific evidence demonstrates that social, emotional, and academic development are interconnected in the learning process.

When considering this area of development, it is important to acknowledge the developments in our understanding of cognition which have arisen from the field of neuroscience. Throughout life, and to an amazing degree in young people, the brain develops differently based on opportunities to engage actively and safely with rich and meaningful environments, social relationships, and ideas. Cognitive capacity is not fixed and brain development after birth does not just involve the brain getting bigger or stronger or increasing its number of connections. Instead, brain development involves the generation, pruning, and re-organisation of neural connections to form brain networks that reflect a person’s experiences and help him or her adapt to the world in which they live. As a child or young person engages with situations, new ideas, social relationships and problem solving, these experiences influence patterns of brain structure and function that underpin his or her level of skill (and future capacity) over time.

Just as a garden grows differently in different climates and with different plants, styles of gardening, and use, a young person’s brain develops in different ways depending on age, predispositions, priorities, experiences, and environment. When given adequate opportunity, support, and encouragement, children naturally think, feel emotions, and engage with their social and physical worlds. These patterns of thoughts, feelings, and participation organize brain development over time and in age-specific ways, influencing growth, intelligence, and health into the future.

Brain development that supports learning depends on social experience.

Brain functioning that supports learning depends on social experience. The quality of relationship and co-regulation that individuals experience in the home, community, school, and workplace influences their biological development, and in turn, how they live and think. Even in adults, close relationships are associated with hormone co-regulation, which has implications for cognition, sleep quality, and health. When supporting children and young people, it is important to hold in mind that the brain is malleable and changed by experience across the across the span of their life time. Specifically, the most important periods are those in which the brain is most actively changing: the prenatal period through childhood, adolescence, the transition to parenthood, and old age. It is also important to acknowledge that emotional regulation is key to enabling children to access, use and extend their problem solving and learning skills.

Lastly, prior to using this section, we need to acknowledge that, historically, there has been much debate about the benefits and draw backs of standardised cognitive assessments. At the present time, as educationalists, we therefore need to acknowledge the benefits of such assessments in providing a snapshot of development relative to peers of a similar age (for use in pre and post intervention assessments, for example), whilst holding in mind each child’s amazing capacity to learn, adapt and fulfil their potential

Support for learning difficulties may be required when children and young people (CYP) learn at a slower pace than their peers, even with differentiation. Learning difficulties cover a wide range of needs, including specific learning difficulties (SpLD), moderate learning difficulties (MLD), severe learning difficulties (SLD) and profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD).

Further reading

DfE: “Understanding Neurodiversity: A Guide to Specific Learning Differences” This booklet contains a brief overview of the most commonly occurring specific learning differences.

Last updated 9 September 2020

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