Building the toddler brain

Hungry Little Minds

Hungry Little Minds is the new Department for Education campaign that encourages parents and carers to adopt positive activities and behaviours to boost children’s communication, language and literacy development.

The campaign aims to help parents understand that they have a massive impact on their child’s learning. Reading, playing and chatting with children are simple things parents can do to help them develop, even when they are too young to say much back.

Parents can access tips and activities from and also search for activities in their area using a new postcode finder service.


In simple terms self-regulation is the ability to manage our emotions and behaviour in different circumstances in a socially acceptable way. Read more about self-regulation, and how you can support children to develop the self-regulation skills they'll need as they grow.

Executive function

Executive function is a concept that is key to children's brain development. It's the group of skills that helps us to focus on many and different streams of information at once, and gives us the mental flexibility to revise our plans as necessary. This useful video from Harvard University in America explores the concept of executive function and how you can support a child's grasp of it. 

Putting brain development into practice

The neuroscience behind the development of a toddler's brain can feel overwhelming, so we spoke to award-winning author, lecturer and trainer, Mine Conkbayir about the science behind behaviour and how practitioners can help to support toddlers' developing brains.

We know that at birth, a child already has almost all of the neurons they’ll need for the rest of their lives – that’s approximately 86 billion!

Although a lot of brain development happens in the womb, there is still much to be done and you play a critical role in shaping the early brain development and overall wellbeing of the 2-year-olds in your setting.

As we know, being 2 can be a tricky time. They are making the exciting but sometimes scary leap from total dependency to wanting to go it alone, independently of adult support or guidance. Given this is a time of exponential growth and development, the more you invest now, the better the foundation you are laying for healthy future development.

At 2, children’s ability to use language suddenly increases rapidly. This is particularly important to consider with regard to (some) children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds who have speech and language skills that are significantly lower than those of other children of the same age.

Repetition and practice help promote neuronal growth and learning

Why it is important we know this

Everything we do and say – and how we do, shapes early brain development. This can have positive or negative consequences for a child’s wellbeing and development.

Whenever we perform an action, the neurons involved in that action start firing electrical signals, or action potentials, and form an active network of cells. One effect of repeatedly practicing the action may be increasing myelin (a fatty coating) around the network, leading to faster and more efficient processing of neuronal signals — and improved ability. This highlights the importance of good quality early experiences in laying a healthy foundation. This is significant because at approximately 5 years old, brain regions responsible for language, physical, cognitive, social and emotional begin to close down as those neurons that are not frequently used are pruned away and those that are frequently used, become strengthened.  

That’s not to say development cannot occur after this time, just that it happens at a slower rate.

What this means in practice and how we can support this

Consider Bruner’s concept of the spiral curriculum: re-visiting previous experiences results in the child consolidating their understanding as they continually return to basic ideas while new subjects and concepts are added over the course of a curriculum. When you plan these incrementally, the child has the opportunity to reflect on their learning, build on their knowledge and the ability to think creatively when encountering new learning experiences.

Facilitate learning through effective scaffolding (i.e. through simplifying the task, motivating, encouraging and providing a model for the child to imitate).

Make sure your 2-year-olds have opportunity to regularly practice skills such as language, movement and exploration and problem-solving. These in turn, build familiarity, confidence and competence.

Encourage learning extensions based on repetition of the child’s favourite story, activity, experience or song. This repetitive learning will help them to forge the neurological connections they need for more complex learning.

Ensure you have a robust observation and planning process that supports each child’s current interests and abilities so that you know how and when to encourage them to move onto the next phase of their learning.

Early years practitioners can support brain development.

Why it is important we know this

Early brain development occurs at an exceptionally rapid rate, especially from birth to 2 years old, with experiences, relationships and interactions shaping this precarious process for good or bad – and their legacy lasting across the life trajectory.

What this means in practice and how we can support this

  • Look critically at the learning environment and resources – do these encourage babies and children to engage using all their senses? Each brain processes, responds, reasons, thinks and solves problems differently!
  • Existing neuronal networks change in response to learning experiences – reflect on whether you (and your team) provide learning experiences which challenge the ability of the brain to respond actively, to assimilate information from a range of sources and generate new ideas
  • Do the activities and resources provide enough stimulation while encouraging problem-solving among toddlers?

The development of executive function and self-regulation

Research continues to show poorer children exhibit more conduct and behavioural problems than their wealthier peers – evident from 3 years old – and that these differences persist throughout pre-adolescence.

Why it is important we know this

We often expect far too much of infants and children. We expect them to listen on demand, to do as their told, to sit, to pay attention, to stop doing what they’re doing and to try harder (the list goes on). These are by the way, are executive functioning skills.

The issue is, if a child lacks self-regulation skills (i.e. Managing their emotional responses), they will find it very difficult to ‘do as they are told’.

At this age, children often experience emotional distress (unpleasantly called ‘tantrums’), which are often a result of their inability to express themselves clearly. Your role in helping to co-regulate these intense outbursts and bringing the child back to a calm and safe state is vital in nurturing self-regulation.

Co-regulation (the supportive, guiding process between two individuals and the strategies used in this process to help regulate the child’s emotional responses to triggers) is critical in the development of self-regulation.

Many factors influence a child’s ability to self-regulate and you need to be familiar with these. Use Dr Shanker’s five domains of self-regulation and stressors (biological, cognitive, emotional, social and pro-social) to help you identify stressors in your provision that may be inhibiting development of self-regulation.

What this means in practice and how we can support this

Familiarise yourself with the concepts of self-regulation and co-regulation.

Inform parents of what this is and why it is important to children’s all-round wellbeing and how they can help to nurture self-regulation at home.

Your three ultimate aims in co-regulating emotional responses, are to:

1. reduce stress levels

2. help the child return to a state of calm

3. model/provide self-regulation strategies for them to use in the future.

If you know this is an area for improvement – get planning!

  • Provide warmth and nurturing
  • Anticipate needs and swiftly respond to cues for engagement
  • Provide structure and consistent routine (while allowing for flexibility as necessary)
  • Provide swift physical and emotional comfort when a child is distressed or dysregulated, speak calmly, softly and giving affection
  • Adapt the environment to decrease demands and stress
  • Teach age-appropriate rules and expectations
  • Support children to label and express their emotions
  • Model waiting and self-calming strategies (e.g. Taking deep breaths, having access to a comfort object, doing some simple stretches or mindfulness activities – strategies that can be effectively used in the moment
  • Redirect the child’s attention to help regulate their behaviour (you will become adept at doing this with whatever resources you have around you at the time)

Language development in 2-year-olds

Language development for 2-year-olds goes through sudden, massive growth at this age, with research showing greater brain activity for children who engaged in more conversation at home.

Why it is important we know this

‘’Toddlers and other vulnerable children from disadvantaged communities can be as much as 10 months behind their more advantaged peers in vocabulary development by the age of 3.’’

Blanden and Machin (2010).

Children need to regularly experience genuine, reciprocal interactions with adults. This to-and-fro engagement shows them that are truly valued and listened to. Brain regions responsible for language are experience-dependent: they need your input to ensure healthy growth and development.

What this means in practice and how we can support this

Ensure you make plenty of time for face-to-face interactions with children. This is valuable in teaching them the rudiments of engaging in conversation – something which many children do not experience at home.

Encourage them to engage in conversations with their peers while being patient as they try to understand the ‘rules’ of effective communication (e.g. Listening, taking turns to speak ang giving eye contact).

Make lots of time in the routine for lots of singing, poetry and fun rhymes, to help build a love of language while promoting phonological awareness.

Consider creating communication friendly spaces.

Reflect on how you respond to young children’s invitations to conversations - especially babies’ and toddlers’!

Engage in dialogic reading. For more information about dialogic reading see this explainer from Nursery World.

Attachment and relationships affect how the brain develops

Attachment and relationships affect how the brain develops. The infant brain develops within an interpersonal context, where structural and functional networks are shaped by the nature and quality of early caregiver–infant interactions.

Why it is important we know this

Secure attachments are vital – from conception, across the life trajectory. If this loving, emotional relationship with at least one consistent and reliable caregiver does not take place, the development of the brain will be affected, in particular, the capacity for empathy and compassion towards others may be diminished.

Practitioners who are attuned to babies and children and consistently emotionally available to them are vital in building children’s sense of security, confidence and resilience.

What this means in practice and how we can support this

An effective key person system is vital. Children need to feel secure and valued in your setting. Ensuring that the key person builds a trusting and open relationship with families, is one way to pave the way for a healthy attachment with a child.

Small group experiences are also useful in building children’s confidence through acknowledging their voices and feelings.

Re-visit your key person policy. When was it last updated? Some simple ‘brain facts’ could help to enhance it while developing parents’ and staff’ understanding of their invaluable role in making the attachment process work.

Neurological changes in the infant occur in response to affirming interactions with the primary carer such as playing, comforting, holding and communicating both verbally and non-verbally through smiles and gazing – what are you waiting for!

The environment can influence brain development

Why it is important we know this

The environment has a profound influence on children’s wellbeing and development.

Two-year-olds need a balance between dependence and emerging independence. It may seem obvious, but 2-year-olds are no longer babies, nor are they fully able to be as independent as they wish. This can often lead to them getting into trouble for doing things that may be considered as dangerous.

What this means in practice and how we can support this

Could your setting be improved to better nurture children’s ability to thrive? Consider this with regard to:

  • adverse childhood experiences
  • children who have sensory integration difficulties
  • special educational needs or disabilities.

Closely refer to Dr Shanker’s five domains of stressors to facilitate your audit

  • In which ways does the layout of your indoor environment meet the emotional and cognitive needs of all children? A setting that is too cluttered and bright, with minimal space to move and communicate is detrimental to children’s health and development.
  • What are some of the barriers to achieving quality in the set-up of the environment in your setting? (Consider features of different areas such as noise levels, uncluttered and cosy spaces.)

Consider this take on the ABC of behaviour: Always Be Curious! This means taking the time and effort to consider what might be going on in the mind of the 2-year-old? Are they bored? Are they over-stimulated? Are they becoming frustrated as they are not being listened to or understood? Talk with your team to reflect our current approaches to planning the environment (indoor and outdoor) and what needs to be changed, in order to ensure every child can thrive.

Mine (pictured) has worked in the field of early childhood education and care for over 18 years. She is the winner of the Nursery Management Today (NMT) Top 5 Most Inspirational People in Childcare Award. Mine is the founder of the award-winning Cache Endorsed Learning Programme, Applying Neuroscience to Early Intervention. She is currently undertaking a PhD in early childhood education and neuroscience to develop her work in the complex and challenging subject of early brain development. Her key objective is to bridge the knowledge gap between neuroscience and early years discourse and practice.

Discover more about Mine and her work, visit her website. Use the code PACEY10 to get your 10% discount on her online courses.