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Developing bright minds from birth to age 12

Developing bright minds from birth to age 12

ACER news 9 minute read

If you had to choose two facts to show how extensive brain development is between birth and 12 years, they might be these:  

  • 90% of a child’s brain develops in the first 5 years of life. 

  • The connections in a 3-year-old’s brain are understood to number around 1000 trillion and reduce through the next 10 years to settle at around 500 trillion in adolescence.  

The ‘wiring’ that occurs in our brains during the first years of life is complex. It programs our development, with connections (synapses) prioritised according to how often they are used, and the brain’s networks or circuits being ‘pruned’ into unique pathways. 

The science shows the extreme challenge that early childhood and primary years educators face in supporting learning across this dynamic period. 

On the one hand, the potential for a child to absorb knowledge and secure a foundation for further learning is at its greatest between birth and 12 years. However, these are also the years when a child’s development is most vulnerable to external influences. 

Brain development can be helped through things like positive relationships and interactions and hindered through things like poor living conditions and toxic stress.  

Children who experience good quality early childhood programs can close learning gaps on their more advantaged peers, and those children who develop positive dispositions and mental health at school entry achieve better academically at Grade 3.  

Children who experience neglect or abuse can experience learning difficulties in varying degrees, including poor planning and problem-solving capability, reduced memory and ability to regulate their behaviour. 

Recent research on Australian children shows that about 22% are assessed as developmentally vulnerable in their first year of primary school.  
By Year 4, 20% are not meeting the Australian proficiency standard in literacy, and by the time children begin high school, about 20% will be 3 or more years behind their peers, lacking foundational literacy or numeracy skills.   

And, while poor results in international assessments that began before the pandemic are notable in Australia, they are also part of a bigger picture, with international concern about a global learning crisis


Plugging in effective practice at the right points 

Dr Dan Cloney, a Senior Fellow with the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), is an expert in measuring the impact of educational approaches and practice on children’s learning. 

He says the tools teachers have now to measure children’s capabilities do not equip them to progress individual learning, because they are often limited to assessing school readiness or whether children are meeting curriculum expectations.   

‘It’s not useful for a child to know they’re behind and not meeting expectations,’ Dr Cloney says, ‘and it doesn’t tell teachers what strengths a child has and, therefore, where they can plug in their practice to continue that growth.’ 

The evidence backing a new approach for assessment, monitoring and teaching practice that supports learning over the continuum is available and building, he says. 

‘If you start thinking of learning as a trajectory that starts at birth and then goes through school, then that gives us points to intervene.’ 

As part of the drive to share the most powerful research, practice and innovation on improving the continuity of learning from birth to 12 years, ACER has convened Research Conference 2023, to be held in Sydney in September. 

A diverse array of speakers will bring extensive practice, international experience and a breadth of knowledge from recent and current work with the power to inform planning for future impact by policy makers, researchers and educators. 


Programs and approaches for success  

Dr Cloney, who is on an advisory panel contributing to the development of a preschool outcomes measure in Australia, says what assessment looks like in early childhood is changing.  He will speak at the conference on how the sector can prepare for the future with a common language to describe the impact of early childhood educators' knowledge and practice on children’s learning. 

A perspective on managing assessments for the best outcomes, including how and how often, will be shared provided by Professor Anne Castles - an ARC Laureate Professor at the Australian Catholic University’s Australian Centre for the Advancement of Literacy. 

Professor Castles will present a way forward for those teachers trying to achieve early identification of issues for struggling students without over testing those learning more quickly. 

Innovations that progress continuity of learning between early childhood and school settings will be shared. 

For example, the Learning through Play project has been found to increase engagement, inclusion and skills development and shows potential for extension. 

Rachel Parker, a Senior Research Fellow at ACER, has led educational research and development programs in more than 15 countries, as well as two major longitudinal studies. 

She will co-present with Dr Bo Stjerne Thomsen – a frequent advisor to governments and the Chair of Learning through Play for the LEGO Foundation – drawing on her longitudinal study of the program’s impact on teachers and students in Ukraine. 


Making the connections  

The research of Sally Brinkman, the University of South Australia’s Professor of Human Development, Education Futures,  aims to improve the healthy development and early learning of young children and is conducted in countries in Asia, the Pacific, Latin America and the Emirates.  

Her presentation looks at important distinctions and potential alignments of the key drivers of development – health and early childhood education – through a co-ordinated approach, collaboration, common goals and professional development opportunities. 

Dr Jenny Donovan, CEO of the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO), has also led the National Learning Progressions and Online Formative Assessment Initiative and Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation. 

Recent work by AERO, supported by an ACER assessment of the evidence-base, has created practice tools around early childhood learning trajectories

Dr Donovan’s presentation will highlight the connection between continuity of learning and outcomes and draw on evidence to show where and how to remove obstacles.  

Sharon Goldfield is a Director at the Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health who also works with the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute; she has a decade of experience in state government as a policymaker in health and education. 

Professor Goldfield says considering the environments in which children are born, live and play can help ensure children have positive learning and developmental pathways.   

‘Recent research is telling us that these (successful) outcomes cannot be achieved by a single intervention but rather by stacking them over time for mutual benefit.'

Professor Goldfield will describe how the ‘ECEC-to-school universal learning stack’ is an important backbone for the process. 


ACER’s recent and current work to support children from birth to 12 years

ACER is involved at every level to support the continuum of learning – providing evidence from research and assessment to lead reform, help shape policy and deliver effective practice resources to educators to improve student outcomes. 

‘What ACER does well is we know how to turn research and data into quality assessment and to use that data to support practice and promote growth,’ Dr Cloney says. 

Internationally, ACER is a partner to the United Nations in its Sustainable Development Goal (4) of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. 

After leading a consortium in the international administration of the OECD initiative International Early Learning and Child Well-Being Study (IELS), ACER published this report looking at five-year-olds in three developmental areas – emergent literacy and numeracy, self-regulation and social and emotional skills, providing data that could be used to make informed decisions about curriculums and teaching methods. 

Currently, ACER is a partner in projects in the Pacific and in Indonesia, focussing on early childhood and optimum conditions to support future learning. 


Learn more 


Can intensive early childhood intervention programs eliminate income-based congnitive and achievement gaps? 

Positive Mental Health and Academic Achievement in Elementary School  

Tracing differential pathways of risk  

The effect of trauma on the brain development of children 

International Early Learning and Child Well-Being Study 2020

Research Conference 2023 


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