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Invest in Emotional Health and Outcomes for Children

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.

It might 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.

References

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/

Why Boundaries Help Children to Feel Safe

Photo by Vidal Balielo Jr.

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.

Starting School from a Social and Emotional Perspective

Starting school

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?

How can we help?

“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.

Talking about emotions

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.

Practical tips

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.

Using mindfulness

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.

Sleep

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.

Supporting distress

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.

In summary

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.