by Anna Smee, Managing Director of Thrive
The Princess of Wales’s early years campaign conveys the importance of connecting with others. She knows that caring for young people’s wellbeing and mental health begins at birth and early years and education professionals have an invaluable role to play. Getting these fundamentals right means we will unlock attainment and avoid attendance and behaviour problems while young people are in education.
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.
Social and emotional skills
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 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 humans. 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.
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. They are likely to feel lonely, isolated, left out, or hurt. Research shows that these feelings increase the stress hormone cortisol which can, if it is prolonged, lead to health issues, such as heart disease and cancer. 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. 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. 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.
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. Prolonged loneliness and rejection can lead to mental illness, anxiety, depression, and in older pupils, substance misuse.
Tools and understanding
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.