To measure or not to measure? Understanding emotional resilience in early childhood

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We seem to have reached another ideological crossroads in the field of early years education and care, with practitioners being instructed to work from one extreme to another. On the one hand, Ofsted recommend, with renewed vigour in Bold Beginnings (2017: 5) that practitioners must place reading and other academic skills at the heart of the curriculum because this is ‘at the heart of every successful curriculum’. This is at odds with the likes of the distinguished Sir Anthony Seldon, who warns us that if children’s wellbeing is not used in league table indicators for measuring wellbeing in our schools, we are heading for an epidemic of mental health issues in children and young people. I think the epidemic is already here, with 720,000 children and young people currently experiencing a mental health problem in England and a 27% jump in hospital admissions for self-harm by children aged three to nine in England in just five years (A Time to Deliver, 2016).

Sir Anthony Seldon (2017) explains that:

“The evidence is totally clear that wellbeing interventions enhance wellbeing and allow students and young people to cope best with problems,” Sir Anthony said. “As long as the only metric on which schools are being assessed is their exam performance, our schools will never have the incentive to take wellbeing as seriously as they should.”

I have been a great admirer of Sir Anthony Seldon’s work for many years. His research on and implementation of wellbeing has penetrated political agendas, and even some school and college curricula. While I welcome his passion and forthright approach to addressing the ongoing issue of mental heath and wellbeing in schools and colleges, I feel that his latest recommendation is flawed. My justification is simple: how can schools be measured against the nurturing of those complex qualities which manifest as wellbeing and emotional resilience? Take this further and you will realise how deeply entrenched and urgent this issue is. Under our current education system, early years teachers and nursery practitioners feel deeply frustrated by all the demands placed on them due to ever-growing orders to measure and categorise children’s academic ability. Attempting to do the same to children’s wellbeing is not the answer to the mental health crisis we are grappling with in the United Kingdom. While action is urgently needed to address this epidemic, league tables are certainly not the solution.

Why we must not measure mental wellbeing/emotional resilience:

• Mandatory/Initial Teacher Training does not consistently address early brain development or the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s)
• Continual professional development (CPD) lacks in consistency, accredited delivery of early brain development or the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s)
• Teachers and nursery practitioners are consequently ill-equipped to identify and support young children with mental health issues
• Current ‘behaviour management’ policies and procedures are at odds with nurturing mental and emotional wellbeing
• Ingrained culture of reward and punishment which fails to meet children’s needs for co-regulation and self-regulation
• No-touch policies in (some) early years settings
• Teachers’ existing workloads/pressure which result in mental wellbeing being last on the agenda – and therefore, outcomes for children

So, how can anyone think we are in a position to start measuring wellbeing and emotional resilience when so much of current policies and procedures go against the prioritising of children’s mental wellbeing and emotional resilience?

Each of these challenges must be addressed, as opposed to hauling in researchers to get out their tools to measure the unmeasurable. If more thought is not given to the impact of such potentially damaging initiatives, we will be adding to the same old issues that academic league tables present us with – schools fudging their data to reach the top, while having no positive impact on children’s wellbeing at all – or their teachers’. Moreover, at the risk of pointing out the obvious – happier children are far more likely to achieve anyway! So why don’t the likes of the Department for Education and Ofsted channel their resources into revising their priorities and outcomes for children, making mental wellbeing the priority, so that all teachers are fully trained and enabled to truly nurture each child’s emotional resilience, self-regulation and ability to thrive at school (and beyond).

Self-regulation is the greatest gift we can give to children. Children who experience nurturing and stable care-giving, go on to develop greater resilience and the ability to self-regulate uncomfortable and overwhelming emotions.

Consistently embedded qualifications and CPD in the neuroscience of early brain development, alongside more compassionate and useful strategies which actually equip children to manage overwhelming emotions is what we must strive for. This is critical in raising children who can navigate their way through relationships, friendships – and life.

Learning to manage one’s emotions occurs over time as a result of complex interactions both within and external to the infant. What is of great importance during this rapid time of growth and change is how the child’s varied (and often intense) emotional states are recognised, acknowledged and nurtured by significant adults. These responses help to create the neurobiological foundations for healthy emotional development and how the child learns to manage their own emotional responses. Furthermore, each child’s neurobiological markers are unique, based on their individual experiences and temperament. It is therefore our responsibility to familiarise ourselves with their home background, attachment experience and history prior to attending the setting. When you consider each of the bullet-pointed challenges above, you’ll see that we are caught up in a seemingly inescapable system which does not equip its workforce to instil wellbeing and emotional resilience, but rather, one which brings it to its knees in demands which go against nurturing these vital qualities.

Let’s take two commonly debated and disliked factors from the above list: the damaging no-touch policies and time out. Two ill-informed strategies that only do harm. To a young child who is still trying to understand her own emotions and how to manage these, being told to sit in isolation, or that they cannot have a cuddle when they want it, sends all the wrong messages, with immediate negative impact on the brain and body. With repeated exposure to such adult responses, the synaptic connections in the developing brain wire in response to those perceived rejections and hurt.

As Siegel and Payne (2014: 19) explain:

When the response is to isolate the child, an instinctual psychological need of the child goes unmet. In fact, brain imaging shows that the experience of relational pain—like that caused by rejection—looks very similar to the experience of physical pain in terms of brain activity.

The 4th century Chinese philosopher, Chuang-tzu, is quoted as saying reward and punishment are the lowest forms of education. I agree. The majority (if not all) of schools operate under archaic regimes of ‘behaviour management’, using strategies such as time out and the traffic light system, which leave no room for co-regulation. What happened to ‘time in’ with adults helping to guide children’s emotional responses? We need to move towards a culture of recognition – recognition of feelings, behaviour and learning ability. Whole-brain approaches to instilling positive behaviour are needed, which do not isolate and humiliate children for expressing themselves in ways they only know how.

One most heartening and hopeful example of outstanding practice is provided by Highfield Nursery School. Here, all practitioners receive ongoing CPD in child mental health and the neuroscience of early brain development and adversity. All new staff are inducted in their neuroscience-informed policies and procedures. Crucially, Highfield has developed a unique resource – the Highfield Resilience Tracker. The head teacher, Lil Newton, told me that:

Research has found that most parents and care givers do not know about resilience or how to promote it in children. How parents and other caregivers respond to situations, and how they help a child to respond, separates those adults who promote resilience in their children from those who destroy resilience or send confusing messages that both promote and inhibit resilience.

Below is the framework within which practitioners nurture and assess children’s emotional resilience, using the Highfield Resilience Tracker. They find this far more effective than the descriptors and assessments laid down in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) which fail to give a true picture of the whole child.

The training and the Resilience Tracker enable all staff to nurture each child’s wellbeing and support their emotional vocabulary and behaviour in line with their individual needs. Resources like this, sadly, are not widely used. The Government’s ongoing obsession with measuring everything takes precedence, which leaves vital interventions like this viewed as a novelty and insignificant in Ofsted’s list of priorities. Why can’t practice like that achieved at Highfield be the norm? I know there exist pockets of similar practice but this is not enough. We all need to keep campaigning, via social media and contacting MPs, drawing on the support of influential professionals across the sector to get our message across. The next generation is already being set up for failure by the current education system. The sooner we act, the better.

Where do we need to be?

• All Early Years qualifications and CPD to have embedded the neuroscience of early brain development and the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s)
• A trained lead for mental health and wellbeing in every school, college and university
• Ofsted prioritising mental wellbeing and having regard to this during inspections of a nursery/school/college
• Safe spaces created within all settings, where children can go to ‘cool down’ if they are feeling overwhelmed
• Stronger focus on mental health and wellbeing within nurseries/schools
• Improving links between the NHS and nurseries and schools
• Helping schools to decide what other support they can provide
• Finding alternatives to time out and other archaic strategies to ‘manage behaviour’ and moving towards more responsive ways to nurture positive behaviour

I want to leave you with a statement from the eminent Professor, Bessel van der Kolk (2014: 351) who tells us:

The greatest hope for traumatised, abused and neglected children is to receive a good education in schools where they are seen and known, where they learn to regulate themselves, and where they can develop a sense of agency. At their best, schools can function as islands of safety in a chaotic world. They can teach children how their bodies and brains work and how they can understand and deal with their emotions.

This is where we need to be.

About the author

Mine is an award-winning author, lecturer and trainer. She has worked in the field of early childhood education and care for over 17 years. Mine is the winner of the Nursery Management Today (NMT) Top 5 Most Inspirational People in Childcare Award.

She is the founder of the Cache Endorsed Learning Programme, Applying Neuroscience to Early Intervention. Mine is currently collaborating with the Metropolitan police force, undertaking independent research which explores the connection between adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s) and criminality.

She is also undertaking a PhD in early childhood education and neuroscience to develop her work in the complex and challenging subject of infant brain development. Her key objective is to bridge the gap between neuroscience and early years discourse and practice. She hopes that her research will provide the necessary evidence to seek solutions to this persistent issue, with the ultimate goal of enhancing provision for babies, children and young adults.

Use code minediscount10 for 10% discount off Mine’s neuroscience-informed online training programme.

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