Early childhood is a time of rapid growth and brain development. In the first 3 years of life, our brains are growing at an astonishing rate and our brain cells are firing millions of times every second. These brain cells (neurons) fire to create connections (synapses) and form pathways that become superhighways of information processing. When we are born only a small percentage of our brain cells are connected. Every time our neurons fire and connect a pathway is activated. The more the pathways are active the stronger and faster the information is transmitted. You can think of this like a well-worn path through the woods. The more it is traveled the easier the pathway is to find and follow.
Science has demonstrated that our brain development is experience dependent. (Harvard Centre for the Developing Child, 2019). The nurturing, interactions, love, and care that we receive will shape our brain and lay down the pathways in response to the life that we experience.
This information can help us understand why it is important to create connections and positive pathways in the brain. The language that we are exposed to also impacts on the pathways that are developed. In the 1980’s two researchers, Risley and Hart, (2003) conducted a study that demonstrated the impact of the language that children are exposed to in early childhood. The study highlighted the need for children to be exposed to lots of language and a mix of directive talk as well as descriptive, flowery, and positive talk.
seem natural that you would talk to your baby and many parents instinctively chat
away about nothing, however parents that have not been parented this way may
not naturally talk and be responsive with their baby. Other factors can get in the
way of this such as mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse.
The research examined the number of words that children are exposed to, but also the quality of the language and there was shown to be a huge difference in outcomes for children that were exposed to chatty, more descriptive language as opposed to directive or stern language. For example, children that hear directive phrases such as “get down from there, don’t touch that, stop yelling, eat your dinner” without the balance of the chatty more engaging phrases such as “look at your little toes, I can see them wiggling in the sand”, at nappy change time it might involve singing songs, at the supermarket, it could be talking about the different colours, or the smells. These are all examples of what can be called dancing talk. It is the kind of talk that is chatty, kind, descriptive, loving and playful.
Of course, we all need to use the directive talk to teach and keep children safe and to generally get through the day with a young child. But it is the children that receive more of the dancing type talk that flourish.
We can use the analogy of an emotional health piggy bank. We need to fill up the piggy bank with lots of dancing talk, praise, and positive words so that when we deduct from the piggy bank by using directive language we are still leaving the child with a positive balance.
If the positives and the dancing talk are what fills up the piggy bank it stands to reason that when we use the directive language and the more negative talk that this deducts from the piggy bank.
If the positives and the dancing talk are what fills up the piggy bank it stands to reason that when we use the directive language and the more negative talk that this deducts from the piggy bank. As we said this is a necessary part of learning, developing, and staying safe, so what we need to do is fill up the piggy bank with all the positives so that when we deduct the child is still left with a positive supply in the piggy bank. Risley and Hart, (2003) suggest that we invest six positives for every negative that we take away.
By investing in the richness of our child’s language and filling their piggy bank with lots of positives we are creating an environment in which they are learning and creating the pathways that tell the child that they are seen, loved, and worthy. These pathways if activated frequently will grow a strong healthy foundation for future brain development.
Hart, B. and Risley, T. 2003, The Early Catastrophe The 30 million Word Gap by Age 3, https://www.aft.org/ae/spring2003/hart_risley
Harvard Centre on the Developing Child http://developingchild.harvard.edu/
So often I am asked what do I do with CHILD SA?
I’m a child and family health nurse working in the early learning sector. It doesn’t make sense to some people. Some of my family don’t really understand what I do.
So here is my what and my why in a nutshell………
When young children don’t get the connection they need from family, day-care, early learning, kindy, or school, they may not learn, grow, and develop to their full potential. At the most severe end, disconnection can create long term behavioural, relationship, social and emotional, mental health, and physiological health issues. That’s where the nursing interest comes in.
“All behaviour is communication and the answer is connection.”
Children’s behaviour tells us that they have unmet needs, so often we get it wrong, labelling the child as naughty or punishing the child in some way, sometimes even our body language or our tone of voice can drive disconnection. How often have you heard the advice to ignore negative behaviour? Or heard children called attention seekers? All behaviour is communication and the answer is connection.
Let’s reframe attention seeking as connection seeking. Ignoring a child that is trying to seek a connection with you, or punishing a child that is trying to reach out to you through their behaviour doesn’t make sense when you look at it through this lens.
“Let’s reframe attention seeking as connection seeking”.
Reacting to behaviour doesn’t work, reminding children of the rules, or saying things like “we don’t hit our friends” when children have heightened emotions doesn’t work either. What children need is to feel safe, and have a calm, predictable and regulated adult to respond with empathy and genuine connection. Only then can children learn from the experience and develop the skills for managing their emotions and behaviour.
So this is what I do …….I use my knowledge of child health, early childhood development, with my teaching, coaching and mentoring skills to help families, educators, teachers reflect on their knowledge, skills, attitudes, and awareness of how they are connecting with children, how they are taking care of themselves so that they are emotionally available for connection.
When we get this right, we will significantly improve relationships, behaviour, educational and long-term health outcomes for children.
I can’t think of a better or more important way to use my skills. If you would like more information about CHILD SA and what we offer please check out our website, email me, or drop me a message.
As early childhood teachers we have an incredible opportunity to make a meaningful difference for children through the power of connection. This article explores connection from the angle of connection to self. We will discuss the power of mindfulness as a tool for our own emotional regulation and wellbeing.
For us to truly connect with the children in our care we need to be connected to our own emotional state. We need to have our emotions regulated in order to be emotionally available. We can use the Circle of Security Model to explore this further. As teachers, we are the safe hands for the children. Our aim is to enable children to flourish in the early learning environment, to grow healthy brain connections, and to develop executive functioning skills. For this to occur, children must feel confident that they are in the hands of a safe and trusted teacher. Teachers must be available to share in the children’s exploration, to delight in them, to help them when needed, and to be a safe haven to come into when children need us to organise their emotions and comfort them when necessary. https://www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/, accessed 24/2/2020
Research tells us that children need to feel safe and secure before they can access their executive functioning skills. When a child feels unsafe, anxious, worried or scared they function from the lower part of their brain. This area of the brain, the brain stem, is responsible for our fight or flight response. When a young child experiences the feeling of being disconnected, stressed and unsafe, these experiences activate pathways in the brain and shape brain architecture. There is a saying, “cells that fire together wire together” coined by Donald Hebb the father of neuropsychology. https://can-acn.org/donald-olding-hebb/ accessed 26/2/20. We are born with a genetic blue print, but it is the combination of our life experiences and relationships that determine how the genes are expressed.
A key point in this model is that we must be emotionally available, safe and predictable in our responses. If we are dysregulated, or emotionally unavailable we may not be able to successfully meet the needs of the child. If the child is met with unpredictable responses from the teacher, they have the potential to learn mistrust of adults and may miscue their needs. This can have a significant impact on the child’s stress hormones and may have a detrimental impact on the child’s learning and development potential.
Practicing mindfulness is an effective and practical way in which we can begin to connect with our emotional wellbeing. Research has shown us that mindfulness can help reduce stress, boost creativity, strengthen relationships and improve attention, working-memory and concentration. When teachers learn mindfulness, they not only reap personal benefits, but their schools do as well. In randomised controlled trials, teachers who learned mindfulness reported greater efficacy in doing their jobs, had more emotionally supportive classrooms and better classroom organisation. https://www.headspace.com/science/meditation-benefits, accessed 24/2/2020.
In this article we have explored the importance of self-regulation when building relationships with children, the power of meaningful connection, and using mindfulness as a tool to support teacher wellbeing and resilience in the workplace and for the development of social and emotional wellbeing in young children.
Over the past decade there has been an enormous amount of research informing us on how the brain develops, and technology now brings this information into the palm of our hand. We know that the first 1000 days are critical in a child’s development and that the first five years is the most impactful time to positively influence the developing brain. As early childhood teachers we have an incredible opportunity to make a meaningful difference for children through the power of connection. This series of three blog articles will explore connection from three different angles and how we can apply this to our important work supporting children’s healthy brain development.
From birth an infant’s behaviour is designed to draw in and keep an adult close. Infants cannot survive without a someone to care for them; this is an in-built biological survival mechanism. Children’s attachment systems are always “on”; therefore, an infant will seek connection with an adult that is in close proximity and is emotionally available. This means that an infant will provide attachment seeking cues and if these cues are met with a sensitive and predictable response, the infant will start to develop trust, and an emotional connection will be formed.
Emotional connection creates the biochemistry that optimises the function of the brain. An infant learns how to feel about themselves, how to be in a relationship, and how to regulate their own emotions through being in a sensitive, responsive and predictable relationship.
Forming a meaningful connection with a child is one of the most powerful ways that early childhood teachers can support children’s social and emotional wellbeing. In doing so, we are creating the opportunity for the growth of neural connections that lay the foundation for future relationships, learning and development.
When the brain activates certain pathways, the connection is strengthened. This explains why when we practice something, we get better at it, and when we don’t practice a skill for a long period of time, the brain prunes this connection and we lose it. When a connection is repeatedly activated the brain lays down a special coating over the neural connection, which turns it into a superhighway for transmitting information.
As a teacher in the early learning environment there are many opportunities for meaningful connection throughout the day. Children travel around the circle of security hundreds of times in a day. If we are attuned to children’s needs, read their cues and are emotionally available, then we can respond appropriately with connection moments of shared delight, comfort and care.
Conscious discipline discusses four elements of connection, eye contact, touch, presence and playfulness. Our bodies produce a chemical called oxytocin, this is sometimes known as the hormone of love, every time we share a connection moment our brain and body is flooded with the chemistry that tells us that we are safe, connected and loved. https://consciousdiscipline.com/the-power-of-connection/ accessed 02/03/20
Forming meaningful connections with the children in our care is foundational to building healthy brain architecture. In this article we have explored the importance of building relationships with children, the power of meaningful connection.
When children are learning and developing in the early years it’s important that they have the opportunity to make choices, explore their world and take risks. This helps to build resilience and a positive sense of self whilst learning about themselves and their world.
Children like to feel in control and need to be allowed space for this occur. However, as adults we need to set clear and consistent boundaries that allow children a safe space to learn and develop. If we allow children positive choices and the flexibility to move within the boundaries (think of a set of tram lines), it allows for a sense of autonomy and accomplishment, contributing to a positive sense of self. When children cross the line that has been set to keep them safe there should be a consistent, gentle and safe approach that guides them back into the acceptable and safe zone.
Our own experience of being parented, our socio-cultural background, our personal values and beliefs will all influence our view on what makes an appropriate and safe boundary for our child.
“Always be bigger stronger wiser and kind.”Circle of Security Parenting 2019
Children need to know that a kind, caring and trusted adult is able to step in and take control of a situation when necessary. Many decades of research have informed the Circle of Security Parenting Model. The Circle of Security literature suggests that children respond best to sensitive and responsive parenting. As adults it is our job to always be “bigger, stronger, wiser and kind.”
Inconsistent and unpredictable responses to children can lead to confusion, anxiety, a lack of trust and feeling unsafe. It can also impact on the developing relationship and attachment style in the early years.
Some children will test and push the boundaries to work out if the adult truly has control of the situation. When we are consistent, fair and predictable in our responses, we are building trust. Not only trust that we are reliable, but it also demonstrates that we are in control of the situation. This can help reduce anxiety in children and they can feel reassured that someone they trust will be there when they need it.
In order to respond appropriately, we need to be very clear on the boundaries that we set and be in control of our own emotions. If we are not regulated and our emotions are heightened, then we are not able to effectively take charge of the situation in the way that children need us to.
Children that struggle with trust and who have not had a positive experience of feeling safe will push harder to keep checking for your response. They may also feel that they need to be in control due to anxiety created by past experiences with unsafe, inconsistent or unpredictable adult relationships. This is why it is even more important to remain calm, patient and predictable in the responses that we provide.
The key points to remember are that all children need a loving adult in their lives to set clear and consistent boundaries in which they have some choice and control in their life. They also need a calm and predictable adult to lovingly guide them safely back within the tram lines when necessary. Ultimately, we want our children to grow up safe, resilient and healthy whilst experiencing the richness of their world.
Today is the first day of term here in South Australia and there will be many little ones starting out on their journey of education. For some it will be exciting and full of joy, for others there will be lots of anxiety and stress.
Don’t be surprised if your child has a major meltdown when they get home from school and is transformed into some kind of a monster. Some children may behave in a way that you have not experienced before. This is their pressure valve exploding.
Some children manage to hold it together just long enough to get home to a safe space where they know that they are loved and where they can safely let it all out. They may be hungry, tired, they may have been holding in their toilet business all afternoon. They have probably been trying to manage their emotions all day long.
If at all possible go straight home after school, or allow some time to run it off in a park after school. They need to breathe deeply and relax in a place where they can unwind and let it all out.
Avoid asking lots of questions, even though you are probably bursting to know what it was all like, who they played with and did they have a good time? The chances are that they had a great day, but they will be exhausted and may not want to talk about it.
There is only so much that a 5 year old can take and you may just be on the receiving end of their pressure valve release.
Please be patient and calm with them. There is only so much that a 5 year old can take and you may just be on the receiving end of their pressure valve release. This is not a time for punishment or yelling, give them what they need from you, validation of their emotions, lots of love and reassurance. It will get better as they adapt to their new school life.
You can take some comfort from this and know that your child feels safe with you and loved enough to finally let it all go. And that is a wonderful gift that you have given your child.
Starting school is a huge milestone, laced with excitement, anxiety and fear and that is just how the parent can feel. There is so much build up to starting school, all the expectations associated with meeting this milestone.
The child may have heard words like “when you are a big boy or girl you will go to school”, or you are a big boy/girl now that you are going to school”. If they have older siblings this may be something that they have looked forward to for years and they are finally able to join their siblings in the ranks of the big kids!
For children that have not had any experience of what school is they may have a lot more questions, anxiety and worries about what it all means. What does it mean to be a big boy or girl? They may conjure up all sorts of worries and expectations of themselves, like, am I allowed to cry? Will I get into trouble? What will happen if I need my family?
“If a child is recharged, has their emotional cup filled and feels as if they can manage their own emotions, then they will be more likely to feel comfortable going out into exploration“
So, what can we do to help get our children emotionally ready to start school? The Circle of Security parenting model talks about children needing a secure and safe base to explore from. This is a person that meets their needs for emotional support, comfort, re-charges and helps to regulate their emotions. If a child is recharged, has their emotional cup filled and feels as if they can manage their own emotions, then they will be more likely to feel comfortable going out into exploration for example starting school.
To enable this, we need to regulate our own emotions and keep them in check making sure that we try to avoid sharing our anxiety about starting school with our children. Children will feed off our emotions and they are very good at picking up our non-verbal communication.
We need to make ourselves emotionally available to our children, so that they can feel connected and safe. If our children have developed a trusting and secure relationship with us, they are more likely to be able to develop trusting and secure relationships with their teacher and will have more success in making friends with their peers.
Other ways that you can help children is to talk about their feelings and how it might feel to be nervous. Give them a name for the butterflies they might be feeling. Share examples of when you have felt the same. Help them learn that this is normal and give them some ways that they can help calm themselves down if they are feeling like this.
There are lots of practical strategies that support children to get ready for school too such as transition visits, connecting with other families in the area that will be attending the same school. You might like to arrange a play date so that your child can build friendships before they start. Try to talk about school in a positive way, but without putting pressure on them to be big and grown up. You can read books about starting school if they are interested, but try not to push this on them as they may already be feeling overwhelmed and uninterested.
A great way is to teach children about their breathing and when to recognise that they are breathing fast and shallow. Teach them to tune into their breathing and slow it down by taking nice deep slow breaths into their tummy. You can practice this at home by placing a teddy on their tummy and asking the child to breath in until the teddy goes up high and then to breath out slowly watching the teddy go down without falling off. You could try this together and it can be a fun and nice way to connect and teach practical skills to calm down. Other ways of connecting to breath is using bubble blowing and blowing windmills.
Getting enough rest is essential, especially in the lead up to school. Try to implement a predictable bedtime routine that sets them up for success. It is a huge step starting school and some children may have only recently dropped their afternoon naps. One of my children fell asleep on the way home from school every day in his first few months and we only lived a 5-minute drive away! We know how being tired can affect our mood, our ability to function and can significantly add to the sense of overwhelm.
If your child gets distress or anxious about starting school the best thing that you can do in this situation is to comfort them and let them know that you are there for them. Stay with them and allow them to let out their emotions and acknowledge them by validating whatever it is that they are feeling. By doing this they will feel heard and their feelings will be validated. By staying present and maintaining that connection with your child you are building on your relationship which will be even more important as they grow up.
Starting school can be an exciting and emotional time for everyone. It is a great opportunity to build your child’s confidence and skills in regulating their own emotions. A secure loving relationship with your child is the most valuable gift that you can give them and this will support them to build relationships and develop their social and emotional wellbeing for school and life.