Four key principles for schools to remember
1. The brain is an adaptable, learning organ
We know that early adverse experiences can influence brain system development in unhelpful ways. However, the brain can adapt again in response to new positive experiences. Exploration, play, and trusting relationships can create opportunities for the brain to keep learning.
2. The brain learns through trusting relationships
If we are with people we know and trust, then our minds are more open to new experiences. For children who have experienced adverse experiences, including abuse and neglect, a lack of trust may be one factor that explains their greater difficulty in learning. They may not be able to focus their attention on what excites and engages them in the classroom or at home.
As a result, we need to work harder to earn the trust of such young people, ensuring that we are consistent and transparent in our approach and communication. We should also help the child or young person cultivate and maintain trusting relationships with others, inside and outside of school.
3. Brain adaptations may contribute to behaviour we find challenging
Sometimes a child behaves in ways that are not typical or expected. This can make it hard to know how to help them because we can feel rejected or even angry.
It is important to remember that early adverse experiences can mean that the child in our care may not experience the world in the way that we do. Their brains may have adapted to survive a dangerous or unpredictable world. This can mean that they may find it more difficult to regulate and manage their emotions.
We all have a role to play in helping children develop more effective ways to regulate their emotions and behaviour – this is a foundation stone for positive development. However, this requires us to have effective ways to regulate our own emotions, including advice and support from our friends and colleagues.
4. Challenging behaviour can be a form of communication
When a child or young person behaves in a way that we find challenging, we need to step back and reflect and look beneath the surface. The behaviour may have had an adaptive value for the child’s survival in the past, or it may be a coping mechanism for them now.
When a child or young person acts aggressively, we can choose to read their behaviour at a surface level. However, if we can uncover the worries, fears or doubts hiding beneath a child’s behaviour, we are better placed to understand them and build a relationship that endures over time.
This is key if we are to help a child’s brain adapt in new ways.