As Dr Seuss so eloquently states, it will only be in the future that we will be able to recall our memories from this unprecedented period in time.
There is a well-known theory in the area of early years development that our children’s memories are more tuned to remembering how they ‘felt’ at a certain time in their childhood than the actual facts. How many of us can recall how they felt when a song from their childhood comes on the radio? It can stir an emotion first, that then brings back the factual memory. Our children’s memories are biologically developed through their feelings, sensory perceptions and concrete experiences. At around the age of 3, children develop an explicit memory that allows them to store facts at quite an alarming rate (Peterson & Tani, 2008). By age of 6 or 7, our children’s memory capacity is a similar size to ours. I won’t go into the numbers here, I’ll keep them for another discussion, but the rate of early years brain development is quite extraordinary. Featherstone’s (2017) research into the importance of understanding neuroscience in the early years, explains that memories when suffused with emotion are far more likely to form earlier in children and last longer. In other words they need to feel happy to remember. During this unexpected time of upset, when parents and carers are being asked to home school their children by the government, there is a danger that some parents and carers will feel under immense pressure to ‘educate’ their child in the fear that if they can’t or don’t, their child will either forget what they have already learnt or they will learn nothing of use at home. Gathecole & Alloway (2007) would dispute that this can’t happen. They, and other experts in this field of neuroscience, such as Conkbayir (2017) and Abbot & Burkitt (2015) agree that if a child is overloaded at the wrong time with too much information, they go into a type of ‘distraction’ mode of thinking. They may look to the outsider that all is calm, but very little is getting past their misfiring neurones. In fact, they could actually forget what they have learnt in school, as the emotional stressors from their limbic system crowds their thinking. In this state of ‘disequilibrium’ according to Piaget’s cognition theory (cited in Crowley, 2017), children no longer remember and cannot make the vital connections in their memory. Children cannot learn anything new unless the physical environment and the emotional environment are conducive. During this extremely worrying period of history for adults, it is so important that our current fears and anxieties are not relayed in such a way to worry our children. They are going through quite an extraordinary stage in their childhood, one that we have never had to deal with or could have imagined.
At the risk of this discussion sounding alarmist, there has never been such an importance placed on the quality of parent-child interactions. The strong influence of parent-child interaction on the development of a child’s memory is well known by early years researchers. Referred to as ‘memory talk’ by experts such as Burger & Miller (1999) Coppola et al (2006) and Vaughan et al (2007), memory experts are aware that parents who talk to their children a lot play an important role in the number of memories children can form and retain. Children are born talkers. Parents and carers need to trust that the child’s teacher and their educational setting has taught them well. Keenan et al (2016) confirms that when good teaching has taken place, a child has enough knowledge or ‘anchor points’ to be able to attach new meaning. This new meaning does not have to be in the form of set homework, an educational app or a workbook, but by recalling in a safe emotional space, something they already know and feel confident in. This can be in the form of discussing it out loud, questioning, hypothesising or carrying out a wider project on the theme, maybe adding music, rhyme, storytelling or dance to it. Schools only have a certain amount of time to deliver a new topic before they have to move on. Is it possible that our children now have the chance to return to something they were previously interested in, that got moved on due to the constraints of the curriculum? Learning has to be meaningful to a child. When else are they going to be able to spend such a length of time with the most meaningful people in their life? Put the homework sheet down. This could be an opportunity for them to plan their own ‘scheme of work’ around their own interests, designing and planning their own ‘teaching’ timetable. It is also an opportunity for them to be innovative and creative or perhaps do nothing, maybe just talk to you. Their education is not being lost, it is still inside their brains and will with gentle parent-child interactions stay intact and safe until they need to recall it.
About the author
This blog was written by Maggie Crowley, Teaching Fellow, Early Years Programmes.
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