The holistic needs of pupils have been in the spotlight increasingly in the education sector over the years – no longer is the primary purpose of a school to simply teach a child enough for them to pass exams and enter the next stage of their education, or the world of work.
Now, their all-round wellbeing is first and foremost, with huge pressure on the sector to ensure teaching and support staff are nurturing their charges’ emotional and mental health needs as well as their learning and development.
Children in independent schools are generally benefitting already, with smaller class sizes providing an enhanced environment for stronger relationships between teacher and pupils, and a general ideology of creating incredible individuals meaning there is a core focus on cognitive enrichment.
But to reach these higher levels of cognition, the very core functions of the brain need to be working effectively – providing the foundation on which schools can metaphorically build upon. Where a child is very obviously struggling with their emotions or dealing with a particular trauma, there is (of course) pastoral care in place to ensure extra support is given.
But much of the talking-based emotional support and assistance which forms the majority of the support traditionally offered relies on children processing their emotions and experiencing a positive connection, not only to those around them but also a connection between their mind (cognitions) and body (emotions). This support also doesn’t get right down to that very basic level of brain activity.
It’s not just about trying to help with negative emotions, which is what we might naturally think about when it comes to children’s emotional needs
What is more effective – and very much needed – to help children feel calmer, more in control and to increase those higher aspects of cognitive thinking, is calming the lower areas of the brain (where stress, anxiety and low self-esteem are rooted). To directly address areas where anxiety and stress originate from, the body needs to stimulate neural networks through specific patterns of developmentally-sensitive rhythmic movement.
We all react with our body first and our mind second (for example, a sign of anxiety manifesting we can learn to spot is a child hunching over to make themselves physically smaller when struggling in a lesson) – which is why making those connections between mind and body (‘I feel calm and this is what my body feels like when it is calm’) has such an immediate and powerful impact.
It’s not just about trying to help with negative emotions, which is what we might naturally think about when it comes to children’s emotional needs – as we don’t want them to feel sad, anxious or stressed.
There is also an abundance of evidence which speaks of the need to make sure we’re exposing them to positive emotions. Regular bursts of joy, amusement and connection can make such a difference to the brain development of a child, and their ability to emotionally regulate – which ultimately will make the difference when it comes to their overall ability to engage with learning. By encouraging the experience of positive emotions, we are shaping the classroom to be a positive and purposeful learning environment.
The importance of positive emotions is based in the theoretical principles of positive psychology – which can be applied in the classroom environment by encouraging children to shift their mindset, creating and sustaining authentic experiences of happiness, joy and interest, to counteract any underlying anxiety, stress and agitation.
By adopting this ideology and understanding the need for the body and mind to be better connected, we can empower students to transform their health: physically, mentally, and spiritually.
An illustration of this was with a boy I worked with, who was 14 and a boarder at an independent school. He was struggling to connect emotionally and didn’t engage with or respond to others at all.
His presentation could be described as numb and disengaged, and the reason for this was his extreme homesickness due to the fact he had a close relationship with his mother. By introducing simple rocking exercises into his daily routine, and embedding movements in his day that were based around ‘joy’ and ‘nurture’, he started feeling (and dealing with) emotions he had previously been too distressed to acknowledge.
Rocking is one of the most powerful movements we can use to allow children to tap into their emotions, as it harks right back to the first movements they would have felt in the womb, and the rocking they will hopefully have experienced from their primary caregiver as a baby: the person they will likely be most attached to in the world.
Rocking is a movement they associate with the love, comfort and safety a baby feels when they are gently swayed from side to side, triggering the brain to release endorphins – the feel-good chemical. In that moment, we are also stimulating the experience of positive emotion (love) and helping develop vital connections within their cortex which will assist them as they navigate more complex emotions and experiences.
Sadly, some families may have financially invested in their child’s development but have focused far less on their emotional needs. This can often lead to the child being unable to process their emotions in a constructive way, meaning their behaviour may be negatively impacted as a result, because they have not had opportunity to develop and refine their emotional intelligence.
Rocking is one of the most powerful movements we can use to allow children to tap into their emotions, as it harks right back to the first movements they would have felt in the womb
Another example was a boy I worked with who struggled with exactly this. His emotional needs were not being met and as such he was involved in risky or cruel behaviour at school such as jumping out of windows, petty theft and playing tricks on fellow pupils.
After our sessions together, I quickly identified he was stressed and agitated, and was becoming involved in this behaviour as a way to release tension. Together we looked at using pressure points to quickly dilute and disperse feelings of tension and irritability.
Once he was in a calmer, more neutral state, then we could look at his feelings towards his peers – because his irritability wasn’t blocking his higher thinking, he was more open to compassionate dialogues, which allowed him to grow his empathetic responses.
In another school, there was a 15-year-old girl who was living with the experience of Asperger’s and could not connect her mind with her body, her movements were ‘clunky’ (a sign of poor brain integration) and this had the potential to become a severe problem for her. She was exceptionally intelligent but struggled with her emotional stability, partially because of the immense pressure she was put under at home causing intense anxiety about her capabilities.
Through a mixture of using pressure points, deep breathing and positive affirmations, she was able to quickly calm herself in moments of heightened anxiety. This positive habit-building provided an immediate way to ease her disconnect with mind and body and help her correctly understand what her body was communicating to her.
As we continue to navigate the coronavirus pandemic, which has impacted every single child in a manner of ways, having tools that educators can use to quickly and effectively regulate the barrage of emotions our young people are feeling, and help them connect with the people around them and their own bodies too, is only going to increase in importance.
The merging of neuroscience, child development and psychological theory demands we think about children’s emotional wellbeing in different ways – traditional methods are not proving as effective because we are missing out the stage of connecting the body and the mind (called somatic psychology).
Dr Sarah Taylor is a former teacher turned consultant clinical psychologist, and the founder of CalmBrain – a programme of music and movement for schools, based on the principles of supporting brain development, positive psychology and co-regulation.
Find out more about Children’s Mental Health Week – taking place 1-7 February 2021.