While the world is still in the grip of a pandemic, children are returning to our schools and settings to lots of change which will be very difficult for them. Some of these children will have faced traumatic times over the past six months and all of them have lived through the biggest upheaval society has seen for decades. We need to ensure that we are ready to offer them the nurture and support that they need. Children need to feel safe and secure and have a positive sense of wellbeing before they are ready to learn.
What is going on in our brains?
To help us support children’s emotional development and wellbeing, it is helpful to know what is happening in our brains. When we feel calm the thalamus sends the information from our senses to the thinking part of our brain, which Dan Siegel calls the ‘upstairs brain’. We are calm and able to make decisions, be resilient, and stay in control of our body and mind. However, when we feel very stressed or anxious, the thalamus sends the information straight to our amygdala and our ‘downstairs brain’ takes over. We are overpowered by our emotions, have an increase in the stress hormone cortisol and are unable to think clearly (Siegel & Bryson, 2012). You may have heard this referred to as ‘Freeze, Fight or Flight’ mode.
This response is designed as a survival technique to save us from threat or danger, but many children (and adults) live in this state of red alert all of the time leading to long term physical and mental health problems. Children need to grow up with healthy attachments and educators who can help them to co-regulate their emotional states, so that they can be resilient when they face danger, threat, anxiety or even a possible local lockdown.
Many of our children will have had increased cortisol during the past few months and as Mine Conkbayir says, “In small doses, it is very useful in helping children and adults alike to cope with threatening or stressful situations by preparing the mind and body to fight or flee” (2017, p.46) however, if a child is exposed to too much cortisol on an ongoing basis, they will “develop a hyper-reactive stress response” (2017, p.47). Even if there is no longer any danger, their brain will react as if there were, resulting in children who may be irrational, overly-emotional, fearful or withdrawn.
Being trauma and attachment aware
An important first step for us as educators is to become more aware of the impact that trauma can have on our children and families. We cannot become trauma and attachment aware overnight but we can begin to reflect upon these issues and adopt an approach informed by this growing area of neuroscience. Here are a few ideas of how we can encourage our settings to grow in awareness:
- Ensure all members of staff understand about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), trauma and attachment through engaging in professional development.
- Include being trauma and attachment aware in policies and procedures.
- Get to know children and families and be aware of their backgrounds, whilst avoiding making assumptions about their upbringing or ACEs.
- Re-frame ‘attention-seeking’ children as ‘attachment-seeking’ children (Brooks, 2020).
- Use strategies like emotion coaching and problem solving.
- Offer times in the daily routine to check-in with children.
- Prioritise wellbeing for staff and children.
- Provide calming areas, e.g. a den or pop-up tent filled with cushions and blankets.
- Use sensory resources and engage in sensory play, like bubble blowing.
- Have calming strategies up your sleeve and get to know which work well for specific children.
- Provide a visual timetable and Now/Next boards to help children to understand the routine of the day.
- Be a role model by having a calm attitude and demeanour.
- Use natural consequences for children when possible. For example, if a child has deliberately broken a toy, do not replace it immediately, instead let them play without it for a while. This helps them to develop an understanding of cause and effect.
- Avoid public praise or reward systems built on social compliance, instead use labelled praise and encouragement.
Looking to the future
Where do we go from here? Well, for me it’s not about a recovery curriculum for our returning children, it’s about a nurturing environment keeping children central to our provision, planning around them and focusing on their wellbeing. It’s about being trauma and attachment aware and also keeping the characteristics of effective learning in mind. These skills will help our children to be good learners and become more resilient.
So start with the child: what they know and can do. Spend time getting to know them really well, consider their emotional development and attachment needs, keeping transitions to a minimum and routines consistent. Practice empathy and offer additional support to those who need it, whether children, families or staff. Ensure that, regardless of how confusing our own guidance from the government can be, we offer clear guidance to the families and children ourselves. If we adopt a more trauma and attachment aware approach this will prioritise wellbeing and ensure that our children feel nurtured, safe and secure and ready to learn.
Getting back to the new normal:
- Avoid the deficit model of ‘catching up’ for everyone. Instead start with the child and what they know and can do.
- Spend time getting to know each other again and learning any new routines.
- Consider emotional needs – plan staff rotas around key children and their attachment needs.
- Offer security and safety by keeping routines consistent and limiting transitions during the day.
- Practise empathy – it has been a difficult time for everyone.
- Offer additional support and time for settling in and re-introducing children to our settings.
- Offer clear guidance to families and explain any changes to children.
- Remember that all behaviour is communication – what are your children and families trying to tell you?
References / Further reading
- Brooks, R. (2020) The Trauma and Attachment Aware Classroom: A Practical Guide to Supporting Children Who Have Encountered Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences. London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers
- Conkbayir, M. (2017) Early Childhood and Neuroscience: Theory, Research and Implications for Practice. London: Bloomsbury Academic
- Siegel, D. & Bryson, T. (2012) The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Proven Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. London: Robinson
About the author
Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.
Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.