How does neuroscience affect education

How do children learn? Early childhood education in the light of neuropsychological research

Axel Bernd Kunze

Neuroscience has become extremely popular over the past two decades. New sub-disciplines emerged at the interface between brain research and the humanities and social sciences, for example neuroeconomics within economics, neurotheology within theology or religious studies or neuro-didactics within pedagogy. Is it now possible to explain what was previously only comprehensible in everyday theory?

The neurosciences help us to better understand the inherent laws of the mental and psychological - without reducing humans to their physical, chemical or physiological conditions alone. Gerhard Roth (2015, p. 371) drew attention to this. Because these inherent laws, which as such are not at all surprising, lead to a certain autonomy of mental processes in the brain, which are particularly evident in the processing of new information that is important for life or survival as order-creating and shaping factors. That brings us to learning.

But what we know as colorful images of the brain are not simply images of learning processes, for example. Rather, it is a matter of high-density constructs that are intended to illustrate the physiological processes, for example in learning processes. Such research cannot replace pedagogy, but it allows general statements about what promotes or hinders learning. The neurosciences cannot provide a mathematical formula for human learning processes; Their findings must also be re-contextualized from an educational point of view, i.e. made compatible with the specific situation, the individual learning or the specific learning group.

Ralph Schumacher (2012) has clarified the relationship between neuroscience and education in the following picture: Neuroscience does not provide instructions for building a sailing boat, but it does provide information on how the boat to be constructed pedagogically can be used efficiently on the open sea. Learning stands in a larger context that educational professionals have to grasp didactically and that extends beyond the horizon of neuroscience. Excessive expectations have now been withdrawn here.

But the neurosciences can provide important information on ensuring the right conditions for successful learning - with the aim of preparing children well for life, making them strong and at the same time resilient when they are faced with stress. From a neuroscientific point of view, this can confirm experiences that have long been known from educational-psychological experience.

The following questions will be asked on the basis of neuro- and developmental psychological findings:

  1. How do children learn?
  2. How should learning processes be designed?
  3. What makes children resilient? - and
  4. How can resilience be promoted in day-care centers?

1. How do children learn?

The search for the famous "Nuremberg funnel" may be tempting, but it will be educationally unsuccessful. Because learning does not take place passively, but is an active process of information processing (cf. for the following Spitzer 2006/2014). Changes in the learner's brain can be detected. A special, if not exclusive, role is played by the hippocampus inside the brain, a kind of "working memory" (the name means "seahorse", which is reminiscent of the approximate appearance of this part of the brain).

Pedagogically, a neuropsychological view of learning is not primarily about looking for deficits. Rather, the aim is to design the framework conditions for the activity of learning as conducive as possible. It is not just a question of quantity - according to the motto: as early as possible, as much as possible. This was a mistake in the thinking of so-called "hothousing" programs that spread in China and the USA after the first PISA study. Babies should therefore be confronted with as many stimuli as possible at an early age.

Rather, it depends on the quality of the learning processes. In the early years the brain changes a lot, so early education for the development of the individual should not be underestimated. In the first two years of life, the nerve cells are connected as a uniform network, but this is not preserved. The synaptic connections between the individual nerve cells - the important "data paths" in our brain, so to speak - are increasing. In the further years up to puberty, some of these pathways intensify; to stay in the picture, "information superhighways" emerge, which are "used" stronger, faster and more frequently than others. The strengthening of individual synapses depends on learning processes, on the accumulation of impulses in relation to certain brain activities that play a role in learning. In adulthood, the more or less structured network that has been formed up to that point is available. However, recent studies show that our brain is by no means rigid, even in adulthood. Depending on the "input" that it receives, our brain rebuilds itself again and again.

The stored information is not simply stored as an image by the brain; rather, they are representations in the form of complex neural patterns. Synapses do not work symbolically, they only know the activation or inhibition by impulses. The information in our brain is represented by synapse strengths. Just as we do not see what is going on in the individual chips when working on the computer, the "work" of our synapses is also not directly accessible to us; Neuroscience has only succeeded in reproducing some of these processes through complex imaging processes.

Compared to computer technology, our brain "learns" extremely slowly and needs constant support through practice and repetition; however, it processes and stores information in a much more complex way. Because it is not enough that we simply store an "image" of something when we are learning. It depends on the rule behind it - only then can we retrieve something we have learned under different conditions and in a different form. For example, when it comes to language acquisition, it is important for children not to learn individual words alone; they have to understand the rules behind them and process them neuronally.

Overall, neuropsychology has drawn attention to the important role that emotions play in holistic, effective learning. Our neural circuits are largely determined by interpersonal experiences. The attempt is made to explain this with the help of so-called Mirror neuronsas Giacomo Rizzolatti called special nerve cells. However, research in this area, which was initially carried out on primates, is difficult to transfer to humans; the examination of individual human neurons is only possible for very specific clinical pictures.

Mirror neurons make it possible to understand what has been copied from others. For children, mirror neurons are, so to speak, the "ticket" into the world because they encourage the unconscious tendency to imitate, e.g. in the motor area. By analogy, the assumption was made that this also applies to emotions: Feeling-related mirror neurons - so the assumption - made it possible to participate in someone else's actions, enable empathy and would help to understand others intuitively - without long thought. However, there is still no reliable evidence to support such an assumption.

Children learn from the model, from the lively and tangible role model of the educator - educators should always be aware of this. Studies have shown that when "learning robots" are used, the mirror neurons are virtually switched off. It is the task of the educator to empathize with the children and to build an atmosphere in which learning is fun and can succeed. The pedagogical art consists in making clear the right balance between understanding and leading.

2. How should learning processes be designed?

What indications can neuroscience give for creating a thriving learning atmosphere and successful learning processes? As has always been the case in the history of upbringing, the following also applies here: It cannot be about ready-made recipes, possibly even a uniform porridge that everyone likes - because every child is different. However, principles can be formulated on which pedagogical action can be oriented (compiled from Caspary 2012 and Jackel 2008).

  1. Neuroscience has drawn attention to the fact that learning is also a physiological process Children learn more effectively when they can have experiences that appeal to their senses in diverse and complex ways. Children who, for example, have built a raft together in a longer project and then tried it out, will have learned more than with many small individual activities: from the first considerations, drawing up a plan, searching for information, making a model to building, Test and reflection phase.
  2. The brain is a "social organ" - Or to put it another way: Learning takes place to a decisive extent through the inclusion of social interactions. These come into play, for example, in theater-pedagogical forms of learning, in philosophizing with children or in joint movement games.
  3. The human Relationship between child and educator plays a crucial role. Children learn more effectively when their interests and ideas are valued and included by the educator, when what they have learned is classified as personally significant. Forms of participation should therefore be used again and again, as well as forms of documentation and presentation that appreciate one's own performance.
  4. Learning happens, as has become clear through that Formation of neural patterns, a process of order and categorization is decisive. Children learn by combining existing prior knowledge with new patterns, for example when they can combine a certain technical skill that is already present with a new experience. The more a new content can be connected to what is already there, the more it is anchored by neural representations.
  5. Accompanying positive emotions play an important role in this pattern formation, reinforcing the reception and processing of information - e.g. cuddling while reading aloud.
  6. Our brain processes information simultaneously in parts and as a whole. Understanding presupposes that overriding regularities are recognized: picking up new things - classifying them - practicing. When learning, an understanding of the whole should be provided so that children can connect the individual details.
  7. Learning happens about peripheral as well as directed attention. Attention can be deepened through clearly structured, rhythmic or consciously designed learning environments. For example, when researching and experimenting (in early science education) attention can be focused by performing the experiment in a spatially delimited manner on a cardboard pad. Games with the so-called "flitz bow effect" - such as "All the birds are here" - train attention and quick reactions.
  8. Learning happens both consciously as well as unconsciously. In order to deepen it, it is important to give the individual child time and space to consciously reflect on their own learning, for example through portfolio work, a developed feedback culture, daily and weekly planning or working with "strength profiles".
  9. Our memory knows different ways, To absorb and process information. When learning, different paths should be allowed so that diverse links are created between different information, what has already been learned and new experiences. Linking learning content with personal performance means that they stick better.
  10. At the same time, individual differences in terms of development, knowledge, skills and needs should be taken into account when learning. Learning is a individual, development-dependent process. Inner differentiation, individual support plans and child-active learning methods take this knowledge into account.
  11. Permanent Fear is a bad advisor - also when learning (something else is fear in alarm situations, which can sometimes be life-saving). Learning is easier in a supportive, motivating, appreciative environment. But that does not mean that children should not be challenged: they need one challenging environment for learning. Those who refuse children the necessary support, but also the demand to make an effort, take important suggestions for them to further develop their own skills in the face of the challenge. It is an atmosphere of "relaxed attention" that drives the mind to higher-order functions. Movement and discovery play support learning processes, which is used, for example, in rhythmic and clapping games.
  12. Another point directly follows: No education without attachment. Children need to feel safe so that they can discover new things. The pedagogical specialist is an important companion who supports and activates the learning through good contact with the children. The importance of establishing contact also becomes clear when it comes to the question of what children should learn and acquire so that they can cope with stressful situations. The previously mentioned learning principles will recur as protective factors.

3. What makes children resilient?

The starting point of resilience research was the observation that individual people can sometimes produce amazing life courses despite the most adverse conditions. Resilience describes the ability to deal with stressful living conditions or the negative consequences of stress.

Risk factors that favor disease or inhibit development can lie in the person of the individual as well as in the family or wider social environment. Child-related vulnerability factors are, for example, birth complications, chronic illnesses, anomalies, a poor ability to self-regulate tension and relaxation, psychophysiological factors such as a noticeable level of activity or insecure attachment. The stressors that result from the psychosocial environment include, for example, the loss of a close caregiver, bullying by peers, alcohol and drug abuse by the parents, very young parents or unwanted pregnancy, frequent moves, a low socio-economic status or large numbers of siblings .

Many mechanisms of action are involved in whether risk factors have an impact or not, for example their duration, continuity, intensity, sequence or accumulation. In general, it can be said: the more risk factors there are, the greater the likelihood of a developmental impairment. And the earlier exposure occurs, the greater the likelihood that further risk factors will later lead to hazards.

Corinna Wustmann's definition has generally prevailed in the resilience debate. The speaker at the German Youth Institute understands resilience as "psychological resistance to biological, psychological and psychosocial development risks" (2004, p. 18). Such resilience is neither innate nor a mere individual trait or personality trait. A child cannot simply be held responsible for a lack of resilience.

Rather, resilience is a dynamic process of adaptation and development. Upbringing, education, family and other social networks have a central influence on this. And it is precisely this that makes resilience an important issue in early childhood education. In their work, educators can do a lot to strengthen resilience in children - which, however, does not mean that resilience is simply taken over by the child passively. Rather, resilience is acquired in the interaction between the child and his environment. The child is actively involved in building up and developing his or her strengths.

Resilience is not a fixed asset once and for all, but a variable. The individual can prove to be resilient in a specific situation or phase of life, but not in another. Also, resilience does not have to be equally pronounced in all areas of life. A child can prove to be resilient and competent in their free time, but have to struggle with weaknesses in kindergarten or school.

Resilience-oriented concepts are primarily interested in the protective factors in a high-risk environment. The construct "protection factor" was developed as a positive counter-term to the risk factors mentioned, but it is by no means simply the downside of the coin - as if it were all about the lack of corresponding risks. Rather, the protective effect depends on the interaction of risk-promoting and risk-mitigating factors.A certain factor only becomes a "protective factor" when there is a hazard or risk exposure and its pathogenic effect is mitigated or compensated for. If a factor has an effect even in the absence of a risk burden, we should not speak of a protective factor but, in general, of a condition conducive to development.

Protective factors promote the adaptation of an individual to their environment and make it difficult for disorders to settle. This enables the child to deal better with problematic situations. As with the risk factors, here too child-related, familial and social factors play a role. A good adaptation to transitional or stressful situations guarantees multiple protective conditions. A stable caregiver who promotes trust and autonomy is very important. Further protective factors in the family can be, for example, an authoritative upbringing style, stability of the family situation, supportive family network, constructive communication, age-appropriate household responsibilities or close sibling relationships. Resilience-promoting factors in the social environment can be identified, for example, in positive friendship relationships, prosocial role models, reinforcement of the child's performance and willingness to make an effort, as well as clear, transparent rules.

Particularly interesting for early education are the personal, child-related resilience factors, the development of which can be decisively promoted through the educational work in the day-care center. Klaus Fröhlich-Gildhoff and Maike Rönnau-Böse (2010) from the Evangelical University of Freiburg name six main factors:

  1. Perception of yourself and others: the ability to adequately perceive one's own and other people's feelings and thoughts and to be able to reflect on oneself.
  2. Self-control: the ability to regulate one's own emotional states and one's own actions.
  3. Self-efficacy: a trust in one's own abilities and the conviction that a goal can be achieved even against resistance.
  4. Social competence: in assessing social situations and in dealing appropriately with others.
  5. Stress management: through an appropriate assessment of the situation and the right knowledge of your own limits and possibilities.
  6. Problem-solving skills combined with cognitive flexibility: This refers to strategies for analyzing and processing complex situations using existing knowledge and skills.

Educators should pay particular attention to these factors in their observations and development discussions.

4. How can resilience be promoted in day-care centers?

Day care centers are important socialization institutions. Unlike school, they reach the children (and their parents) at a very early stage and can thus contribute a lot to strengthening children's resilience in the long term from an early age (cf. for the following Rönnau-Böse / Fröhlich-Gildhoff 2010).

The promotion of resilience in the area of ​​early education is all the more effective if it starts at several levels and is embedded in an overall educational concept of an institution. But even for the best prevention program, there is no standard program that is equally suitable for all target groups and all environments. Pedagogical professionals must have the educational, didactic and diagnostic skills to adapt the measures to their institution and the specific situation. The following is intended to show at which points in a day-care center resilience-oriented work can be anchored:

  1. at the level of the mission statement and organizational development,
  2. in the work with the children,
  3. in working with parents and
  4. at the level of network formation.

First: Many well-intentioned programs or projects depend on the commitment of individuals - and disappear immediately when there is a change in personnel. Sustainability is only ensured if a program has been conceptually anchored through a process of mission statement, team and organizational development. A mission statement is not an end in itself. Rather, it is about a common process in which the team members agree on common goals.

Such a process begins with a team taking a look at its own workloads and resources. The demands on the job have by no means become less: Today, pedagogical specialists should co-constructively support the self-education processes of children, actively shape the educational partnership with the parents, react appropriately to challenging behavior of children and network their own work with other institutions. Behavioral and relationship-related measures to ensure one's own resilience and job satisfaction must not be forgotten - on the contrary.

If an institution decides to work in a resilience-oriented manner, this benefits all children and can have a relieving effect on the work in the institution. Once problems have become entrenched, children demand a great deal of educational attention and resources of educational support. It is therefore all the more important and also easier for work not to practice indicated or selective prevention alone, but to apply it broadly in the sense of universal prevention. Experience from corresponding programs shows that this contributes to relaxed pedagogical work.

Secondly: There are two ways of working directly with the children: on the one hand, structured programs and, on the other hand, prevention work and the promotion of resilience in everyday work. The wheel does not always have to be reinvented, because a lot is already running - but you may not even be aware of it. In the context of team and organizational development, it may then be less important to redo everything than to redistribute the weights. And it is important to make the children aware of what they experience, live through and cope with in everyday life. Then social experiences actually become educational experiences to which the children can relate consciously and which help expand their self-determination. The starting point for all prevention and resilience promotion remains the establishment of contact and the bond with the child.

How can the aforementioned resilience factors be promoted in educational work with the children?

  1. Self-awareness: A "feeling clock" that shows different faces instead of numbers can help the child to communicate his mood and to pay attention to his own facial expressions and gestures. It is important that the educators who work with it can speak about their own feelings and coordinate their body language. Adequate self-awareness can also be promoted through games, sensory spaces or picture books on the subject of feelings. In times dominated by the media, children sometimes first have to learn to perceive with all their senses by separating individual senses in a playful manner (this is achieved, for example, by tactile memories or a barefoot course).
  2. Self-control: Regularities in the daily routine, clear structures and rituals promote self-control, but also rule games. Unlike adults, children do not manage to play through internal processes in their heads so well, to mentally "take a deep breath" before moving on. They need clear feedback about their actions and external memories that encourage self-reassurance and impulse control, for example a "traffic light system" (which at the same time strengthens their personal responsibility). Ritualizations in everyday pedagogical life restrict the scope for action and interpretation of those involved, they relieve the burden and create freedom. But ritualizations also standardize and limit the subjective availability of individual situations. But only the question of its meaning turns a mere ritualization into a ritual, a staging in which an experience that is meaningful for the subject or the community is symbolically conveyed. Therefore it remains important for the educational use of ritualizations to ask about the meaning that is expressed in these constellations.
  3. Self-efficacy: Age-appropriate challenges, an atmosphere of trust in the children's abilities, the transfer of responsibility (e.g. when preparing the meal) or forms of participation (e.g. in the form of a children's conference) promote self-efficacy.
  4. Social competence: Role and cooperation games promote social behavior, relationships and empathy. Above all, the importance of everyday situations for promoting social skills should not be underestimated. In listening, in constructive conflict resolution or by taking on sponsorships for younger people, children gain rich social experiences. It is important that the educators enable the children to reflect on their everyday experiences in the group and thus learn to deal with them consciously.
  5. Dealing with stress: Active and flexible coping behavior towards stressful situations is to be promoted, but also avoidance strategies, especially towards uncontrollable stress factors. Stress management is served on the one hand by relaxation exercises, imaginary journeys as well as retreats, rooms or corners of silence, on the other hand there are also sufficient opportunities for movement, e.g. B. Movement games or moving construction sites.
  6. Problem solving ability: The children learn planning and structuring skills in coping with complex everyday tasks, e.g. when shopping and cooking together. The educators exemplify constructive problem-solving behavior through their model behavior. Looking at picture books and reading aloud also makes problem-solving behavior clear.

The German didactic specialist Saskia Koj (2008) has explicitly put together criteria for the selection of picture books under the idea of ​​resilience. These are:

  • In the book, coping strategies and alternative solution options are presented, whereby the stress situation is presented comprehensively, but not in a way that is too demanding.
  • The main character initiates the solution to the problem. Successful strategies for regulating emotions are presented.
  • The story introduces positive forms of relationships and enables the children to change their perspective.
  • The main character is taken seriously, including in their weaknesses.
  • Finally, role stereotypes are avoided.

Third it is about involving parents or other important caregivers in the work. Here, too, the team's attitude is crucial: What do we understand by education in the team? How would we like to work with the parents? What are the limits of cooperation? In which points do we possibly need outside support, for example through supervision? The needs and opportunities analysis should be honest; practical questions such as the availability of parents must not be lost sight of. In general, it is advisable to concentrate on focal points - no team can do everything and change the world. Parents should also not be overwhelmed by expectations and measures that are too complex. As with the work with the children, there are two ways of working with the parents: structured parenting courses and the establishment of more or improved communication options in everyday encounters with the parents. However, pure information, e.g. in the form of letters from parents, is not effective, as studies have shown.

Fourth Networking with other partners (e.g. associations, cultural or advisory institutions) should be mentioned. A target group-specific network formation presupposes that the needs are carefully identified and analyzed. Networks are not a sure-fire success, they have to be maintained and reflected on again and again.

This leads to the fifth point: The work should be evaluated - on all levels mentioned so far: The educational specialists receive arguments that are important for the acquisition of future resources from the executing agency. They document the children's strengths, for example in a portfolio or strength profile. You are more aware of your own strengths and successes. You get a good basis for development discussions with the parents, and you can plan further work in a more target-group-oriented manner. It is helpful to combine different perspectives and methods in the evaluation in the sense of triangulation.

Closing word

Learning is made possible by the brain, but controlled by the environment. There are many ways to learn, just not the Nuremberg funnel, which could free the individual from every effort to learn. Neurological and developmental psychological conditions do not make learning new in this respect either. But they provide important information on how we can design the conditions conducive to successful learning and educational processes. Educators, teachers and pedagogues are used to working in an interdisciplinary manner. It is their job to incorporate psychological, sociological and neuroscientific knowledge into their educational work.


Caspary, R. (Ed.): Learning and the brain. Hamburg: Nikol, 7th edition 2012

Jackel, B .: learning how the brain likes it. Practical suggestions for learning and playing for kindergarten, elementary school and family. Kirchzarten: VAK 2008

Koj, S .: Childlike strength and children's literature. Criteria for assessing children's books under the aspect of "promoting resilience", edited and edited by Jochen Hering. Bremen 2008

Rönnau-Böse, M./Fröhlich-Gildhoff, K .: Promoting resilience in everyday daycare. What makes children strong and resilient. Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder 2010

Roth, G./Strüber, N .: How the brain makes the soul. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 5th edition. 2015

Schumacher, R .: How much brain research can education take? Beyond the limits of neurodidactics. In: Spitzer, M .: Learning. Brain research and the school of life. Heidelberg: Spectrum Academic Publishers 2006/2014

Wustmann, C .: Resilience. Promote children's resilience in day care centers. Weinheim: Beltz 2004


Axel Bernd Kunze
P.O. Box 15 13
71305 Waiblingen, Germany
Email: [email protected]

You can find information on key areas of work, further training offers or publications on the Internet under the science blog "Education Ethics - Articles and news on a social ethics of education",

Selected book publications by the author:

  • Are educational issues social issues? Reflections on the democratic educational significance of a right to education. Cologne: J.P. Bachem Media 2015
  • Empowerment for freedom. Contributions to the nature and task of educational and upbringing communities. Munich: AVM Akademische Verlagsgemeinschaft München 2013
  • The right to education. Legal and political implementation requirements. Munster i. Westf .: Waxmann 2013
  • Freedom in thinking and acting. A pedagogical-ethical and socio-ethical foundation of the right to education. Bielefeld: W. Bertelsmann 2012
  • Education as a right to freedom. A critical interim assessment of the discourse on equity in education. Berlin: Lit 2012