Neuro-Nurturing: Deborah McNelis on Child Brain Development

Deborah McNelis is an award winning author of Naturally Developing Young Brains and the Neuro-Nurturing Interaction Series and founder of Brain Insights. She has devoted her life to helping adults make a positive impact on children’s development.  This is a review of her recent webinar with Educa.

You ARE Making a Difference

Deborah  began her webinar with a simple assertion for all educators: You ARE making a difference. These simple words were echoed throughout her program, reminding educators that the nurturing they provide for young children will have an exponential impact on children’s development. Put another way, early childhood educators are “brain developers.” By influencing young children in direct and indirect ways, teachers play a major role in early brain development.

Keep It Simple

Deborah contends that the term “brain development” can sound complicated and intimidating. However, understanding the basics is quite simple. With scientific research informing ways to develop a brain in optimal and advantageous ways, parents and educators simply need to ensure four aspects of development are provided:

  • Provide the physical and security needs of a child
  • Provide nurturing interactions and play


A few years ago, Deborah trademarked the term Neuro-Nurturing®, a less intimidating name for teachers and caregivers. The emphasis of this concept is to use brain science to provide all of what children need most. Neuro-Nurturing® is about caring deeply for the whole child by providing opportunities for play, nurturing the child’s sense of self, and making a child feel secure and safe. To simplify understanding, Deborah created four categories of needs and developed a tool to share the concept. It is called the Creating Great Connections Model.  The model is circular, emphasizing the interaction of all four areas that need to be provided.

Experience is Everything

Experiences physically determine how brains are wired. The more experiences a child has, the more connections are made in the brain. All children need nurturing and stimulating experiences. If these types of experiences are lacking, the child’s brain development may be impaired.

A young child’s brain is forming at a rapid rate in early childhood. The brain adapts to its environment and experiences- both negative and positive. Nine months in the womb is not nearly enough time to connect eighty-six billion brain cells, so in many ways, Deborah sees early childhood as “another trimester of development.”

Developmental Paths to Brain Development

The only part of the brain finished developing at birth is the brainstem. This is the part of the brain that regulates basic survival mechanisms such as heart rate and breathing. Babies also begin to develop the midbrain, an area of the brain that regulates sleep patterns, physical response to stress, and motor skills.

Over time, a young child’s limbic system completes development, which is the main area for activation of emotion and memory. As any adult will tell you, emotion and memory are closely connected. Lastly, the Cortex develops. This is considered the “thinking area” of the brain.

The pre-frontal cortex takes almost twenty five years to fully develop! This important area of the brain allows humans to imagine, creatively problem solve, and anticipate consequences. In healthy development, this powerful area has the ability to take control of the other, lower-functioning areas of the brain. This is called executive function.

An example can be seen in two children- ages eighteen months and four years. An eighteen-month-old bounces between interesting objects and doesn’t plan what they are going to do next. A four-year-old on the other hand, has a more developed pre-frontal cortex and can begin to do some planning as this area of the brain is beginning to become a bit more organized.


In moments of emotional overhwhelm, adults can contribute to invaluable brain connections when co-regulating with a child. Co-regulating is when an adult helps a child calm through big emotions that they do not yet know how to deal with, due to an immature pre-frontal cortex.

When a person is upset, they rarely want to hear “calm down!” or “You will be fine.” Deborah explains that using empathy and naming emotions helps to calm a dis-regulated brain. A child’s brain is only ready for the process of reasoning and problem solving after getting back to a state of calm. An example of co-regulating with a child might be saying, “I know it is hard when you can’t have what you want” with a nurturing tone and body language.

Out With the Old, In With the New

Repeated experiences create strong pathways in the brain. This gives adults the opportunity to repeat the most optimal experiences for young children, creating stronger, more positive pathways. Deborah explained, “think of brain pathways as a path on the ground.” It is repeated experiences that create strong pathways in the brain, in the same way that a well-worn path is developed on the ground when used repeatedly.

Despite the tendency for the brain to return to strong pathways, it is important to remember that the brain is highly adaptable. Brains grow and change throughout our lives. This is called plasticity.

Deborah also described the billions of connections in a young immature brain as “disorganized.” After making trillions of connections, the brain becomes “disorganized.”  the brain naturally “prunes” or eliminates some connections, creating organization. If an experience does not happen frequently, the brain will not keep the connection. This is how the brain adapts to the environment it is exposed to.

The takeaway for early childhood educators is to provide predictably nurturing interactions for young children. These positive experiences will create strong pathways in children’s brains leading to an increase in likelihood for overall well-being in life.

Feed Your Brain

Brains develop best when physical needs are met including sleep, nutrition, and hydration. While currently there is a great deal of research on the impact of sleep deprivation on the brain, scientists agree that sleep is essential for brain development. A greater understanding is that sleep provides an opportunity for the brain to convert experiences into memories.

Scientists have found that physical touch impacts a child’s development and growth. Humans are inherently social and need interaction and touch from infancy in order to form secure attachment and develop a positive sense of self.

Evidence demonstrates that nature also plays a role in healthy brain development. Nature beautifully provides children with the opportunity to explore and learn about the natural world. It also allows the brain to relax and release feelings of stress.

Security and Predictability

Consistency reduces stress levels in the brain. When we know what is happening next, our minds are comforted. For this reason, predictable routines and order have long been staples in the early childhood classroom.

Predictability helps infant’s brains develop and allows them to form secure attachments. In infancy, children begin to understand that their needs will be met by a caring adult. Research demonstrates that secure attachment built upon predictable responsiveness in infancy has an impact on a person’s ability to develop relationships with others, as well as regulate emotions.

Stress response systems are activated in the brain if children do not feel emotionally and physically safe. Similarly, children are stressed when they feel limited control over their environment. For this reason, it often calms children to have choice in a situation.

What the Brain Needs Most

In summary, Deborah believes that healthy neuro-development for young children hinges on adults understanding brain development. No degree in neuro-science is necessary! Most early childhood educators understand that children want to play, be loved, and understood. By meeting a child’s physical and emotional needs, we can feel confident in creating positive experiences that will impact their future selves and help them be who they fully are.

Neuro-science may be complex, but understanding the ways to positively impact children is quite simple!

You can register to watch Deborah’s webinar here.

Be sure to check our webinar schedule and replays for relevant topics in early childhood education led by some of the world’s experts in this field.

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top