Neuroscience and Behaviour: What Every Teacher Needs to Know
By Jess Chalmers, Story Project Summer Project Intern
Hello readers! I’m Jess, a qualified teacher and soon-to-be-qualified Play Therapist who is currently undertaking a Summer Project with The Story Project. My main role over this period is to develop a Social and Emotional Skills curriculum map for The Story Project that can sit alongside their main PSHE and RSE scheme. Since undertaking my MA in Play Therapy, I have realised that there is a distinct lack of neurodevelopmental knowledge among teachers, yet the knowledge can be so valuable for helping teachers to understand their pupils’ behaviour. In this blog post, I hope to share some of my learning with you, in the hope that you can use it to better understand, empathise with and manage the children in your care. I present to you now the three things that I believe every teacher should be aware of:
1) The Triune Brain Theory (MacLean, 1973)
The Triune Brain theory is a metaphor for the brain that was developed in the 1960s and 70s, much of which still holds true to this day. The theory argues that the human brain evolved in three stages and each new area brought a different skillset. In developing humans today, we can see these three areas and use them to understand an individual’s behaviour. The stages of development are:
The Reptilian Brain (present at birth). This part of the brain enables basic survival mechanisms. Whenever I try to explain it, I think: “what can a reptile do?” A lizard (for example) can move, breath, eat, detect danger and sleep but is not capable of any complex emotion or thinking; it’s the same with humans when we are born. When babies cry, it’s not because they know what’s upsetting them, it’s merely because they are uncomfortable or something in their body feels a bit off and they don’t know what is happening.
The Mammalian Brain (develops during the first year of life) – also known as the Limbic System. This is the part of the brain responsible for motivation and emotions. It also contains the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for the formation of memories. Thus, babies begin to attach emotional responses to memory. Infants begin to learn what each emotion feels like and what can be the sources of that emotion. For example, a hug from their caregiver can might make them feel happy or calm.
The Neocortex (develops from around 9 months to 25 years old), the area of the brain responsible for higher-order decision making, including planning, perception, abstract thought and perception, is the final part of the brain to develop. This is the part of the brain responsible for making us ‘human.’
Importantly for teachers, it is through interactions with caregivers that young infants learn to make sense of their emotions as their limbic system develops. In cases where caregivers respond appropriately and predictably to the infant’s needs, the infant learns that they can tolerate their emotions, that the world is a safe, predictable place and that they can depend on other people to have their needs met. However, if caregivers consistently respond inappropriately to an infant’s needs – for example, by ignoring infant cries or constantly overstimulating the child – then an infant isn’t able to trust their own emotions and their internal model (world view) can become skewed and the world is less safe and predictable. Thus, interactions with their early caregivers shape the infant’s attachment style, which acts as a blueprint for all future social relationships.
2) Attachment Theory (Bowlby, 1979)
Many teachers will have heard of attachment theory, but perhaps not fully understand the cause and implications of distinct attachment styles. The image below characterises the four main attachment styles and how they may present in school-aged children.
‘Securely’ attached children are those who had their needs met consistently by a loving caregiver. In school, they are able to focus, play nicely with other children and have emotional reactions that are proportionate to what is going on. Most children in a class will be ‘secure.’
‘Avoidant’ children are those whose parents usually responded to their bids for attention, but often inappropriately or did not meet their need. For example, they may have been shouted at for crying. These children therefore become very reliant on their own internal resources and show a form of pseudo-independence, for fear of attracting unwanted attention from adults (who might be untrustworthy). In class, these children might go ‘under the radar’ or be overly compliant, almost as though they don’t need any help from the teacher. Sound familiar? You may have an avoidantly-attached child in your class. If that’s the case, it would be helpful to identify these children and ensure that you ‘check-in’ with them regularly to make sure that they really have understood any instructions and that everything is going well for them in the playground.
‘Ambivalent’ children often have parents who are very unpredictable. Sometimes, parents might not respond to the child’s needs at all yet other times they could respond perfectly. This gives rise to attention-seeking behaviour in infants and children to ensure that they are not forgotten about and that a caregiver remains close by. Think of the children in your class: are any of them especially clingy or disruptive? They could have an ‘ambivalent’ attachment style.
Children who have a ‘disorganised’ attachment style are unlucky enough to have caregivers who responded neither appropriately nor predictably to their needs. These children build up internal working models of the world being a dangerous, unreliable place, and they also learn to not to trust their own feelings. Therefore, their behaviour can seem ‘all over the place’ and be very unpredictable. This attachment style is the most uncommon but also has the most noticeable long-term impact on the individual’s future happiness and success in relationships.
Interestingly, attachment style has been shown to influence the synaptic connections (i.e. the ‘wiring’) in the brain, meaning that behavioural patterns can become more entrenched the more the behaviour is repeated. Thus, small changes in behaviour from an adult might elicit a larger emotional reaction from insecurely attached children. For example, if an adult who is usually calm then raises their voice at a pupil in their class, an insecurely attached child might become disproportionally distraught as their brain has developed shortcuts for feeling scared and producing an emotional reaction when an adult is cross. Therefore, it is important that any adult working with children endeavours to remain calm, consistent and predictable – even when they feel like screaming! Teachers should ensure that the rules and routines in their classrooms are embedded and that all children know they need to follow the rules. This will help insecurely attached children begin to build up a picture of school being ‘safe,’ and allow their neocortex to focus on learning rather than predicting the behaviour of the adults around them.
3) The Window of Tolerance (Siegel, 2012)
Remember the Triune Brain theory? Well, the theory states that when all three parts of the brain are regulated and functioning properly – often referred to as being ‘online’ – then a human is capable of complex, higher-order cognitive tasks which include learning and evaluating ideas. However, if a human detects a threat, then their neocortex will ‘shut down’ and they will be unable to reason about their behaviour. They will, instead, revert to acting like a mammal – perhaps by crying or shouting. In more extreme cases, the reptilian fight-flight-freeze response might be triggered in the individual and they will act on impulse with little rhyme, reason or ability to be reasoned with.
What does this mean for children and teachers? Well, if a child feels exposed to a threat then their brain will not be in a fit state for learning and their behaviour might become impulsive, highly emotional and difficult to manage. Think about it for yourself: imagine you have just fallen over and badly scraped your knee because someone pushed you. Your knee is really hurting, blood is dribbling down your leg and you feel a sense of rage out of the unfairness of it all. Now imagine someone comes over, tells you to ‘calm down’ and makes you sit down and learn the 12 times table. Think you’d be able to concentrate? No way! You would be seething with indignance about your treatment in the playground. In fact, your neocortex (thinking brain) has shut down and your limbic system is doing all the work.
Thus, if teachers want children to learn, they need to ensure that all parts of a child’s brain are ‘online.’ If this is the case, we can say that they are operating within their ‘Window of Tolerance.’ However, for children who have had a challenging start to their life and have insecure attachment styles, their brain will be more hardwired to detect threat and danger, and their window of tolerance will be narrower than secure children. Here are two useful videos from Sussex-based Beacon House to better explain the concept:
For teachers, it is important to notice when a child is operating outside of their Window of Tolerance and support them in turning their neocortex back ‘online.’ This can be done by using a number of calming or invigorating activities, shown in the images below.
It’s also important that adults show attunement to children in distress by matching their tone of voice, level of affect and repeating the child’s own words back to them using their own language. This helps children to see that they have been fully understood by an adult and that their feelings are valid. Next time a child in your class is upset or excited, try paraphrasing their words back to them and seeing the effect that it has. I find that it’s usually met with a nodding of the head and a ‘yeah and…’ and they tend to offer more detail.
The purpose of my Summer Project at The Story Project has been to develop a Social and Emotional Skills curriculum map. In doing so, the aim is to help children become aware of their own emotional and relational behaviour patterns and give them the tools to help them regulate themselves so that they can stay within their Window of Tolerance. This should enable them to develop self-confidence, self-esteem and learn the conventions of healthy relationships, all of which are just as important (if not more important) than academic knowledge for successfully navigating their way in the world. It is therefore vitally important that teachers have an understanding of neuroscience so that they can best guide children in this way.
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