In a time before Covid 19, I asked Mine Conkbayir to write a guest blog post for me from the point of view of the psychological impact that effective and not so effective transitions can have. In these now uncertain times when children will be returning to a very different ‘version’ of school life, it is more important than ever that effective transitions are at the forefront of our thinking.
Whether children return before the Summer break or in the Autumn term, it is really crucial that (as much as is possible) the provision they return to is centred on their wellbeing . There will huge uncertainty for children and staff, but it is imperative that we avoid a ‘catch up’ culture and ensure that what we provide is developmentally appropriate.
So, here is a reminder of what Mine said…
Mine is the author of ‘Early Childhood Theories and Contemporary Issues’ and ‘Early Childhood and Neuroscience: Theory, Research and Implications for Practice’ w. 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 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:
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.
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.