A Brain-Based Approach to Supporting Children’s Transitions – Guest Post.

As part of my series of blog posts about transition to Year One. I have asked Mine Conkbayir to write a guest blog from the point of view of the psychological impact that effective and not so effective transitions can have.

 

mineMine is the author of ‘Early Childhood Theories and Contemporary Issues’. Her latest book, ‘Early Childhood and Neuroscience: Theory, Research and Implications for Practice’ will be published in March 2017. She is currently undertaking a PhD in early childhood education and neuroscience to further her work in the complex and challenging subject of infant brain development and to further explore its application in early childhood research, policy and practice. Mine is a member of the National Early Years Trainers and Consultants (NEYTCO) and a lecturer, trainer and author in early childhood education and care. She was previously Acting Head of the Centre for Research, Learning and Development at London Early Years Foundation, UK.

 

 

From Foundation Stage to KS1: taking a brain-based approach to supporting children’s transitions

It’s a common enough situation – parents and carers wave goodbye to their little one and wish them luck before they leave the school gate. It’s their first day in Key Stage 1. The adults may well feel anxious as their mind races, full of questions and uncertainty. It is also a momentous occasion for you who have the pressure of holding that child’s happiness – and educational attainment – in your hands.

How might this child be feeling at this moment? How we prepare children emotionally and psychologically for this moment and for the transition journey itself, can make all the difference in how they manage this all-consuming experience – and beyond. So, those words of reassurance and hug at the school gate from a parent or carer before their child takes their first step into their new world, can make all the difference in helping them to draw on their resources in times of need. The Department for Education and the Department of Health’s document, Families in the Foundation Years (2011: 1) makes the bold assertion that:

By the end of their foundation years, children should be equipped for life and ready for the next stage of school.

How a child manages their emotions when making the transition from Foundation Stage to Key Stage 1, shapes pathways in the brain, which in turn create the ‘blueprint’ for future emotional responses and behaviours (the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2011). Neuroimaging studies show that structures including the amygdalae, hypothalamus and the prefrontal cortex are pivotal in producing emotions, memory and the regulation of behaviour and emotions (Trevarthen, Aitken, Vandekerckhove, Delafield-Butt and Nagy, 2006).

How the adult intervenes can make all the difference to the child’s future responses in similar situations. This is where brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex (PFC) are also important. Maturation of the PFC enables the child to develop emotional competence as they exert control over the limbic system and facilitates higher order thinking such as planning, decision making, problem-solving and impulse control. This means young children will be better able to think before they act. Within the daily routine this might look like a reduction in emotional outbursts and improved concentration during their learning and interactions with adults and peers.

When we look at stress and its physiological and cognitive impact on children, we really should take time to consider the impact that stress exerts on a child’s developing brain. I should add here, all this would be happening at a time when the brain is growing and developing neural pathways so, during this emotionally demanding time, it is important not to dismiss any child’s stress and anxiety as ‘poor’ behaviour.

Remember, continued (or chronic) stress is inhibitive to higher cognitive functions such as reasoning, problem-solving and concentration (each integral to learning and academic achievement). Research taken from fMRI studies is gradually beginning to inform educators about the brain’s responses to poor attachments, toxic stress and transitions. We know all too well that when a child does not have a safe emotional base from which to understand and experience the world, their social, emotional and cognitive development becomes adversely affected. Immordino-Yang and Damasio (2007: 1) explain:

Recent advances in neuroscience are highlighting connections between emotion, social functioning, and decision making that have the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the role of affect in education. The neurobiological evidence suggests that the aspects of cognition that we recruit most heavily in schools, namely learning, attention, memory, decision making, and social functioning, are both profoundly affected by and subsumed within the processes of emotion.

Self-regulation can also prove difficult for adults to master, especially when we’re feeling low or particularly anxious and our amygdalae hastily enter into defence mode. This is particularly true for young children, whose central nervous system is still at an immature stage. Healthy brain development thus requires adult input which is reflective, positive and consistent.

The amygdalae (singular, amygdala) play an integral part in children being able to self-regulate in times of stress or perceived danger: this is where the amygdala hijack can come into play (Goleman, 1996; LeDoux, 1991). When emotions hijack the brain, it means that the ‘thinking’ parts of the brain instantly become compromised and thus not able to execute their functions, as there is no time for rational thought.

The thalamus and the neocortex (which receives and stores information for remembering and decision making, and helps us to judge our responses to our surroundings) get bypassed, with a weighty and immediate reduction in memory, rational thought and planning. The result of this inability to respond rationally is that our actions are led by our emotions, not our calm, rational brain (Gunnar and Vazquez, 2006; Sapolsky, 1996).

The amygdala response to stress and its impact on close proximity neural regions:

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Understanding which neural mechanisms are affected by the amygdala hijack and how, can assist us when we are trying to help children avoid the amygdala hijack from taking over during times of stress. Talking through alternative responses and modelling these with children can encourage them to use these simple strategies instead of acting on their emotions (which is easier said than done sometimes!)

The pressures and stresses of modern day life are resulting in babies and young children experiencing very high stress and anxiety levels (Meadows, 2016). Less time spent with key family members means that very young children often have to find their own ways of managing stress.

In a hectic school environment this can further add to a young child’s distress if practitioners misinterpret signs of stress for ‘poor’ behaviour. These signs will differ according to the age of the child which means practitioners need to be knowledgeable about stress in young children and how to manage it.

This knowledge can inform practitioners’ interventions as well as help them to minimise the presence of stressful situations for babies and young children. Effectively managed stressful moments can thus be turned into opportunities for young children to establish self-regulating skills. Young children respond very differently to stressful situations – and what is perceived as stressful to one child, may not seem so bad to another.

What is vital is practitioners’ ability to show empathy, patience and respect when a young child is experiencing overwhelming feelings in response to the transition. When an adult fails to empathise with the child and instead resorts to shouting or quickly issuing reprimands, this serves to further antagonise the child and does nothing to tackle what has caused the amygdala to go into overdrive (in this instance, the pressures of making the transition from Foundation Stage to Key Stage 1).

Warning signs that a child might be stressed

  • Refusal to come in to school
  • Inability to focus on their learning
  • Experiencing mood swings (being emotionally labile)
  • Regressive behaviours (which may include bed-wetting or thumb-sucking)
  • Difficulty in regulating emotions (such as uncontrollable crying or aggressive behaviours)
  • Change in sleep patterns (often resulting in disturbed sleep patterns)
  • Change in eating habits (which may mean a loss of appetite or comfort eating)

Some of this information you would need to find out from your discussions with parents and carers.

 

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Although the current EYFS does have Personal, Social and Emotional Development (PSED) at its core this emphasis is

lost when as children progress through their education, in which the focus is on academic outcomes. With so many children requiring extra support emotionally, embracing new perspectives of learning from neuroscience informed attachment could make a lasting difference to well-being and outcomes both in the short and long term. This is recognized by Siegel (2012: 311) who explains the role of supportive attachments in optimizing brain development:

The attunement of emotional states is essential for the developing brain to acquire the capacity to organize itself more autonomously as the child matures.

 

So what makes an effective transition to Key Stage 1 from Foundation the Stage?

  • Keeping personal stress levels in check so that you can be emotionally present and regulate children’s emotional well-being from the start. This will lay the foundations for resilience and adaptability during transitions
  • Acknowledging children’s feelings and giving them strategies to manage and verbally express their feelings
  • Taking a positive approach by praising children for each step they take on this increasingly autonomous and formal academic journey
  • Know the children’s stressors and try to prevent these from occurring – don’t forget to share successful strategies on a need-to-know basis
  • Being happy knowing that your children can form friendships and enjoy the company of other children while they make their way through this challenging yet exciting time
  • Using ‘homework time’ as time together, where you can give your undivided attention and scaffold their learning.

I see our role as practitioners and educators, as brain builders. To be effective in this pivotal role, we cannot afford to ignore current findings from neuroscience concerning brain development and what the research says about those factors which exert a neuroprotective effect on the young brain through transitions which facilitate its healthy brain growth and its subsequent capacity to learn and thrive.

Keeping your child’s happiness as the priority (over ‘school readiness’) is vital if we are to raise resilient and confident individuals who truly feel they have the necessary resources to navigate their way in their ever-changing world.

 

 

Thanks Mine. That was a really interesting read and reassuring to know that the science backs up the theory. I look forward to reading your new book.

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You can contact Mine by using the links below.

Email: Mine.conkbayir@westherts.ac.uk

Early Childhood and Neuroscience Theory, Research and Implications for Practice: http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/early-childhood-and-neuroscience-9781474231930/

LinkedIn: Mine Conkbayir

Instagram: Neuroinsta85

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: Child Initiated Learning, Transition

29 Comments

  1. Great blog Mine – full of insight, research and practical tips – a very tricky balance to achieve but you have done it! This is helpful for parents, practitioners and researchers and I shall recommend it as a good read!

  2. This blog is very interesting. I found is useful and informative. Just want to add that parents play an important role during settling in process. Based on my personal experience, I have noticed that the parents who show anxiety or distress when dropping off their children make them feel the same. Parents always ask; Why my child is upset or clingy every morning? Parents simply (without realising) compare nurseries to childminder-which is (I believe) inappropriate because, we are talking about two different service providers. I always encourage parents to talk to their children about their new nursery and key person in order to make them feel more secure and to build sociological foundation.

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Richard.
    We were only discussing the issues and threats that the 21st century poses for our children (while acknowledging the positives) and how difficult it can be to make time away from it all. Time for children to just ‘be’, exploring and pursuing their own interests and from this, developing the dispositions and skills that are necessary to thrive not only in school but in life.
    As you identify – there are far too many ‘knee-jerk’ reactions from the government in response to failing initiatives and desperation to get results. This only serves to add unnecessary pressure and stress on children which ultimately undermines their ability to learn – and thrive.

  4. This is food for thought as I read this alongside Justine Greening’s DfE announcements around testing in ks1.
    Until reasonable expectations are set, pupils and families function better at home as layers of 21century stress are removed and schools are better trained and resourced to deal with childrens’ needs, I see more initiatives being introduced under the guise of teaching strategies.
    Thanks for bringing the child to the fore!

  5. Bedwetting or nocturnal enuresis is not an unusual problem in younger children. Most of the time, bedwetting can be outgrown once a child turns 6 years old, but there are a number of children who can’t outgrow their bedwetting problems. One method of treating it is by purchasing a bed wetting alarm, visit http://which-wetting-alarm.com/ to solve this problem.

    • Absolutely – it is not uncommon at all. I merely highlighted that during times of deep anxiety, that it will occur with some children. I personally don’t think a bed-wetting alarm is necessarily the best solution even though it might work for some.

      • Yes, a bedwetting alarm is not always the best solution. If bedwetting is caused by a trauma (eg: divorce), a bedwetting alarm may help in keeping the sheets dry but won’t actually get to the root of the problem. The same goes if the bedwetting is caused by constipation or bad daytime potty habbits. However, a bedwetting alarm will probably work if bedwetting is caused by the late development of bladder control.

  6. Thankyou Mine, your article was extremely interesting as it makes you examine this area of development in the young child in a totally different way. As I am a parent and childcare lecturer research into brain development and how experience especially positive experiences can shape a young child, has such wide implications on how we guide our children through the minefield that is education. I look forward to using your book in my teaching as neuroscience is an area I am not fully confident in teaching; as so many theories on this subject over complicate what it actually means and its implications for early years practitioners.

    • Hi Melissa,

      I’m so happy that you found the article useful and that you think my book could be a useful resource in your teaching. This was my ultimate aim. Let’s hope that the teaching of (relevant) neuroscience is soon embedded across child care qualifications too!

  7. Thank you Mine. This is an area which is vastly underrated by many and even the transition to Reception from Nursery, or into a new home causes similar anxieties. I’m interested in reading the full text. Can we pre-order your book?

    • Hi Dawn,

      I really appreciate your feedback – thank you.
      I wholeheartedly agree – adults often expect so much from young children without giving due thought to how these life transitions impact emotionally – indeed, holistically. We need to raise more awareness on the subject of transitions and how we can really support each child through these major events.
      Yes – my book is available to pre-order on Amazon and Bloomsbury.
      Best wishes,

  8. Thank you so much for a fascinating article. Like Lynne, I can see many aspects of this in one of my own children as he as struggled through the transition from Y1 to Y2. This seems to be a particularly challenging time for children who experience particularly intense emotions and this article has certainly made me consider my own responses to children as an EY2 teacher.

    • Thanks for your comments Lizzy.
      I totally agree. As teachers (and parents) we can often forget to take a step back and think about the impact of these huge transitions on our children – expecting them to get on with it and that they will miraculously make the transition without issue. What I have found useful is really tuning into my daughter’s preoccupations and concerns on a daily basis. At present, these are ‘having new friends to play with’ and ‘the new children being nice to her’. Sounds about right!

      An endless supply of empathy and patience every step of the way : )

  9. Amazing blog Mine. I work with the younger age group and that getting it right from the start and building the base to explore from is key. It’s a big step to transition into KS1 and it’s so wonderful to have an advocate like you acknowledging and explains how these, still very vulnerable children can be supported. My children are grown up now, I wish I nad their teachers had this information as their journey into school would have been a lot less traumatic.

    • Thanks so much for your feedback John.
      I agree – there is so much pressure put on our youngest children without due consideration given to their emotional well-being amidst all the expectations. How can we expect children to thrive socially, intellectually and academically if we don’t start with their happiness and sense of security at school?

  10. I found this very interesting as an eyfs / ks1 teacher but also as a parent of a child going through this exact phase at the moment. The role of the Year 1 teacher is so important…yet often underplayed! Thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks so much for your feedback Lynne. Indeed, I too am going through it the same! I am that parent who needs to be physically removed from the classroom ; )

  11. Hopefully a conceptual shift to recognition of early years practitioners as ‘brain builders’ will contribute to much overdue raising of the status of early years roles.

    I wondered if you had the full referencing details for the Siegel quotation as I would like to read of the full text.

    • My sentiments exactly Lynette. Though I (along with many other colleagues) cannot help but feel that the age-old barriers are still preventing this from happening… On a positive note, we are continually pushing for this change (which is the crux of my PhD also), with the aim of embedding more teaching concerning neuroscience and early brain development across early years qualifications. This will hopefully equip practitioners with a more contemporary perspective of early childhood development and further enhance their work with babies and children…
      Below is the full reference for the Siegel quotation.

  12. Very interesting and informative. I completely agree that the transition is key and at such young ages we expect so much despite recognising the adverse effects that could be created if not managed correctly. Teachers need to be aware that it’s not just about ticking boxes and that PSED is just as vital if not more so, to the state of mind and the way children approach situations in the future.

    • Thanks Andrea – this is very true. It is a huge pressure for children to make such a leap – both psychologically and academically. The focus needs to be brought back to having PSED at the core of practice in order to first build confidence, resilience and a sense of security – and
      moving on from this point. We cannot afford to dismiss the importance of children’s emotional well-being at this highly vulnerable stage of their lives.

  13. As a new parent this was a very interesting read, with information that I can use when it comes to my daughter reaching school age.

    • Really happy you found it useful Charlene!

  14. Very interesting read, thanks for sharing…

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the read Gill : )

  15. I very much enjoyed your post, very interesting. I am glad to see the growth of knowledge developing and combining on the importance of healthy attachments, emotional support and its connectiin to brain development and its impact. Look forward to more ?

    • Thanks so much Monica : )

      Yes, I feel strongly that we cannot expect our youngest children to adapt to such significant transitions, so early on in their lives, without acknowledging the huge impact this has on their holistic well-being.

  16. I’m currently doing a research project for my level 6 early years practice, I’m looking into transition and school readiness and this looks like it may be able to help me with my research. Any more info please will be gratefully received.

    • Hi Lois,

      I’m so glad you found it useful. Which aspects will your work focus on specifically? Let me know and I’ll be happy to send you further information.


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