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Research emerging from the neurosciences has been the subject of much controversy with educational neuroscientists urging caution about the application of findings into practice.
Whilst we should be careful of how we interpret neuroscientific research and acknowledge some of the limitations of both the evidence base and its methodology, there are nonetheless some pertinent messages derived from our growing understanding of brain development that are worth considering for our classroom practice.
Increased understanding of the brain is highlighting how it is both expectant of, and dependent on, social relationships, so much so that some academics extol the new three Rs to be Relationships, Relationships, Relationships.
Different areas of the brain create neuronal connections at different times, with some development being driven by human maturation following a predictable pattern. But the vast majority of brain development is neither linear nor predictable, and hinges upon the child’s accumulating experiences within and from the surrounding environment and context, most particularly from our social relationships.
There appear to be two neurobiological and neurophysiological systems – the stress regulation system and the social engagement system – that lay the foundations for more complex learning. The millions of connections that make up our ‘social engagement system’ are primarily driven by our need to connect with others.
This interconnected system facilitates our interactions with and understanding of each other, helping us to make sense of our social relationships, to enjoy them and to develop social cognition, enabling us to thrive in society.
Our primal ‘stress regulation system’ exists essentially for our survival, and its sole purpose is to protect us from actual harm or perceived threats. It incorporates our capacity to respond to real and imagined dangers, including social encounters, to regulate our stress, and enable us to regulate our emotions, and therefore our behaviours.
The integration of these complex neural networks linking brain and body and mediated by our social interactions, literally lays the groundwork for all our learning and our capacity to self-regulate.
Self-regulation is our ability to adapt our physical, mental and emotional state so that we can meet the demands of a task or situation, resist distractions and persist even when things gets challenging.
Research from the neurosciences seems to be suggesting that effective integration of our stress response system with our social engagement system helps establish our ability to self-regulate and, in turn, our capacity to learn effectively in the classroom.
Supportive relationships help to moderate the stress response and have been shown to have positive significance for the development of brain functioning. Teachers’ relationships with their pupils, therefore, have important implications for their learning.
Brains require nurturing, socially and emotionally, to work at their optimum and to allow for healthy growth and development. Brains can be worked and changed with time and practice, but they suffer if lonely, isolated and overly stressed.
Understanding how children develop self-regulation can help teachers create a more optimal learning environment.
Key to the development of self-regulation is the social relationships we encounter and the conditions of the environment. As the adult attunes to a child’s needs, the child develops a ‘sense of belonging’ – a critical factor in helping the brain to feel safe and secure.
When a brain feels safe, its stress response system is in a balanced state and is more receptive to exploration and cognitive learning. When pupils feel that they ‘belong’ in a classroom, they are more motivated and academically successful.
One useful strategy that promotes a ‘sense of belonging’ and behavioural self-regulation, is emotion coaching. This involves helping children to become more aware of their emotions and to manage their own feelings, particularly during instances of misbehaviour.
It entails being aware of the underlying feelings behind behaviour, validating, empathising with and labelling children’s emotions, setting limits where appropriate and problem-solving with the child to develop more effective behavioural strategies.
Emotion coaching is a relational approach to behaviour management that works with the brain and body to facilitate self-regulation.
Self-regulation is strongly associated with the development of executive function skills. Executive functioning entails the operation of three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility and self-control, all of which encompass the capacity to self-regulate.
As always, the more integrated and coordinated these networks are, the more effectively we can learn.
Executive functioning essentially comprises a skill set that enables us to filter distractions, control impulses, focus and redirect attention, hold and manipulate information, prioritise tasks, set, achieve and adapt goals – all vital for ‘academic’ learning and ‘school readiness’.
Not surprisingly, children with stronger executive skills have a better capacity to regulate behaviour, focus their attention and a stronger working memory, and thus do better academically.
Executive functions are ‘trainable’. Research suggests that improvements in executive function skills can enhance behavioural self-regulation and vice versa.
Let’s take working memory as an example. In order to learn, children need to transfer information from their working memory (where it is consciously processed) to their long-term memory (where it can be stored and retrieved when necessary).
Teachers need to consider children’s working memory capacity, which can be become overwhelmed if too much information is supplied at once. This is why we break things down into achievable steps, scaffolding and differentiating children’s learning, attuning to children’s capacity to cope with particular cognitive demands.
Research shows that working memory capacity plays a primary role in how well we are able to resist distractions during a task and maintain focus, inhibiting inappropriate behavior and following the classroom’s rules.
Adults who employ sensitive interactions take notice of what might be happening in a child’s mind, provide appropriate stimulation and scaffolding, and gently encourage children’s decisions and goals, appear to generate more effective executive function skills in children. Integral to this process, is helping children to manage the stress of learning.
Brain regions and circuits associated with executive functioning have extensive interconnections with deeper brain structures that control the developing child’s responses to stress.
Learning in the classroom is a stressful endeavour – we need to tolerate ‘not knowing’, tolerate making mistakes, persist even when it gets difficult and focus when tasks may be undesired.
Moreover, you may have children who are encountering other stress-inducing contexts outside of schools, such as a disruptive home environment.
It can be argued that whenever teachers endeavour to operate within the ‘zone of proximal development’ in order to build on pupils’ capabilities with increasing complexity, they are essentially ascertaining their ‘zone of tolerable stress’ – by attuning to a child’s capability to take on the stress of a new challenge or become frustrated by it.
Differentiation in the classroom incorporates tuning into pupils’ ability to cope with the stress of learning, requiring the teacher to provide activities that revisit and/or build on pupils’ knowledge and skills within their ‘zone of tolerance’, scaffolding their learning and presenting tasks in a way that will sustain interest and effort without the pupil feeling overwhelmed and disengaged.
Teachers may be a buffer for pupil stress by providing a positive, reliable, consistent and calming learning context. Other factors that create ‘stress optimal’ learning includes Dweck’s ideas about supporting pupils’ ‘growth mindsets’. Teachers can mitigate against fixed beliefs about intelligence by praising productive effort and other strategies that are under pupils’ control.
You can prompt pupils to feel more capable by supporting them to monitor their own learning and encouraging their own learning goals that will help improve their learning, rather than focusing on performance goals. You can provide feedback in a way that shows you believe in their ability to meet a higher standard.
Teachers need to be both caring and daring – fostering curiosity and supporting uncertainty. Much of a teacher’s day might be spent in ascertaining when a child needs more caring (reinforcing, scaffolding, support, nurturing) and when they are ready to be more daring (acquire new learning, problem-solve, tackle something independently).
They can ‘care’ for their children, facilitating positive relationships and a ‘stress optimal’ learning environment, where pupils can develop ‘growth mindsets’, are not emotionally overwhelmed and where tasks are matched at achievable levels.
They can ‘dare’ their pupils, operating as a source of inspiration and energy for learning and exploration, stimulating them to take risks and rise to a challenge. It is a safety/risk paradox.
The teacher needs to be able to recognise and adjust the classroom environment, their relationship with the child and the nature of their interactions to sustain a ‘golden’ balance to optimise every child’s learning.
Dr Janet Rose, is Principal of Norland College, Founder of Emotion Coaching UK and author of research papers and best-selling early years publications. She is an expert offering insights into the impact of neuroscientific research and the importance of attachment theory in early years education.
Janet will be appearing at the OSIRIS EYFS Conference in London on 1 December 2017 – for 20% off your ticket, quote OsirisEY17 when booking via 0808 160 5160 or see osiriseducational.co.uk to find out more.
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