April 3, 2023

Neuroscience and the power of connection

A teacher sitting down in a classroom and showing children a book

The crisis in children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing is finally getting the attention it needs and deserves, writes Anna Smee, managing director of Thrive.

The Princess of Wales’ early years awareness campaign, launched in February, is very much welcomed because of the strong messages she conveyed about the importance of connecting with others.

The Princess knows that caring for young people’s wellbeing and mental health begins at birth and it is clear that early years and education professionals have an enormous role to play. Getting these fundamentals right means that we will unlock attainment and avoid attendance and behaviour problems during the years these young people are in the education system.

I believe that we can reinforce the effectiveness of this approach by building what we now know about neuroscience into our work to support children and young people.

We now understand how young people’s brains work and develop over time, enabling us to identify the key moments in their lifetime when we should be supporting them to develop the social and emotional skills they need to be mentally strong and resilient.

Our work training teachers and other professionals working with children and young people is underpinned by neuroscience, specifically the neuroscience around the connection between adults and children.

The more we begin to understand about neuroscience, the more we understand that humans are in fact wired to connect with other human beings. When we’re connected, we have micro moments of synchrony where we share facial movements, expressions and body language. And it’s the mirror neurons in our brains that help us to read other people’s feelings and actions and enable us to feel what that person is feeling that we’re in connection with.

When that happens, children feel safe, heard and understood, and have a real sense of belonging. But when they experience low levels of connection, or even disconnection, their need for relationships is not fulfilled. As a result they are likely to feel lonely, isolated, left out, or hurt. Research shows that these feelings actually increase the stress hormone cortisol which can, if it is prolonged, lead to health issues, such as heart disease and even cancer.

Social connections enable effective learning. Our cognitive processes are inextricably linked in the brain to emotional ones. If children and young people don’t feel safe, they will struggle to access the parts of the brain that are required for cognition for learning.

The very same biological systems that promote connection also enable us to feel calm and regulate our emotions so that we can rest and restore our bodies. This social engagement system is a physiological state activated when we’re feeling safe and at ease in our environment and with the people around us. When children are in this state, they’re able to talk and listen, laugh and play, show care and nurture – and access the areas of the brain that are needed for learning. But if they feel their teachers or peers don’t believe in them or like them, this will impact on their cognitive ability and executive functioning. They’ll find it harder to follow instructions and will struggle to focus on complex learning or tasks because they will have poor memory and attention.

We also know that children and young people with poor social connections are much less resilient and therefore much more sensitive to social threats like bullying. The lack of a social safety net decreases their ability to recover. Prolonged loneliness and rejection can lead to mental illness, anxiety, depression, and in older pupils, they may even turn to substance misuse as a coping mechanism for stress or for loneliness.

The work we are doing gives adults the tools and understanding to deliver the right set of relationships and the right set of experiences to build those healthy brains and bodies. It’s relationships, quality connections and the experience of being cared for and responded to that shapes the way young children see themselves and the world around them.

It is through work like this, built on the knowledge and understanding gained from neuroscience, that the connections the Princess of Wales talks about in her campaign are forged and strengthened. The result will be confident, curious and motivated children and young people who will be firmly engaged in their learning.

 

This is an edited version of a piece which originally appeared in Children and Young People Now.

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