Opinion: Respond with warmth

How do love and care impact on a child's holistic development and what happens when they are lacking? Jo Button flags up the importance of practitioners developing a knowledge of neuroscience to support children's sense of security.

Jo Button

After watching Disney Pixar's Inside Out I found myself thinking about my own brain as a command centre. Sometimes my emotional reaction to a situation means a particular emotion may be in charge when other more logical responses would be an asset. Yet, mostly my emotional responses can regulate my psychological response and consequent interactions (Conkbayir, 2019).

The brain is a fascinating organ, part of our nervous system, where chemical messages are created through neurotransmissions and sent to the rest of our body. These effect our ability to control and maintain our body's physical systems, and also our emotional reactions and responses. Often our emotional response to a situation is the primary way we make sense of that moment, and can determine any action we take thereafter, just like in the film.

But within early years practice, I do not always see emotional regulation or rational responses, especially when children encounter stress, challenge or difficulties. Therefore, an understanding of this development, should be essential for early years practitioners, and this can be accomplished through exploring neuroscience.

While early years educators are trained in psychology and these theories underpin an understanding of why children behave in certain ways, neuroscience can give a biological look at brain development and how this is shaping the behaviour, sleep, emotion, imagination, regulation, relationships, language, memory, concentration and, most noteably, how children deal with stress (Garvey, 2018).

As a teacher of early years education, it is important to me that the students training in this field are given a deeper understanding of how the brain develops and the impact love can have on the developing brain. Too often I have noted that the ‘care’ aspect of ‘early years care’ isn't promoted enough, with emphasis being on safety, theory and current legislation. It is almost an assumption that love and care will be innate in a childcare student, or the onus will be on individual settings to model how to ‘care’ through practical work placements. However, I am often asked by my students if they are allowed to hug a child, or how they can appropriately comfort a child who is in distress? Comfort and care are important for a child to feel and experience, so they build trusting and secure attachments with care givers. But what is the evidence behind this?

Science of love

Students tend to receive training on Bowlby and Ainsworth, and their attachment theories, studying secure attachment with primary caregivers. However, this skims the surface of why a child needs love, care and security, and why it is important in an early years setting. Understanding the neuroscience can help us see why this is the case, and can link perfectly to practice. For example we know that key workers are important and that care-giver attachments are significant in the early years, but to study the neuroscience behind this, supports a scientific inspection of the impact love and security has on a child's developing brain.

Conversely, neuroscience can give early years practitioners a deeper understanding of the impact of stress on a child. Toxic stress can cause a child to be in a ‘fight or flight’ stress response. This affects brain development and the body's chemical response, which may help a child cope in the moment, but can also have negative and lasting impacts upon the child's responses to stress throughout their life (Featherstone, 2017).

When identifying new curriculum topics for September, I came across the new Level 2 Neuroscience in the Early Years from NCFE CACHE. South Devon College is proud to be delivering this from September 2020. This is exciting, as we can offer this to adults who already work within the early years sector, who want to build their knowledge on this important topic, as well as those brand new to their early years educator journey.

Useful resources

  • NCFE CACHE Level 2 Award in an introduction to Neuroscience in Early Years: bit.ly/2JbE81A

  • Early Childhood and Neuroscience by Mine Conkbayir (Bloomsbury Academic)

  • Nurturing Personal, Social and Emotional Development in Early Childhood by Debbie Garvey (JKP)

  • Making Sense of Neuroscience in the Early Years by Sally Featherstone

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