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Early Years Mental Health: Part Two - The Social Brain!

Early Years Mental Health: Part Two - The Social Brain!

In part one we looked at how to nurture relationships that will promote emotional development in your educational setting. This time, we're looking at how our brains are primed to try to anticipate the future and seek security, and how knowledge of this can help you nurture good mental health.

Our social brains can predict the future!

In order to understand what will help the children in your setting thrive, it’s helpful to keep in mind that children, like all of us, have a ‘social brain’. Psychologist Louis Cozolino uses this description to emphasise the way an infant’s brain is primed to seek interactions and how it depends on relationships for healthy growth. The interactions a baby experiences help its brain to predict what future interactions may look like, and lays the foundations for what the child will expect of relationships and the world around them. 

In this sense, a young child’s brain is a kind of ‘future-predicting machine’, as psychotherapist Graham Music puts it. Its development primes the child to navigate the world in a way that feels the safest, the least uncertain, and the most predictable. For all young children, the feeling ‘I am safe’ develops within a relationship, and it's their early bonds that will help them understand how to respond and interact with people in order to feel safe, and predict what will happen next. These ways of forming emotional bonds are commonly referred to as ‘attachment styles’.

Supporting emotional development

Let’s look at how these concepts can help you to nurture emotional development in your setting:


1) View behaviour as 'security seeking', not 'attention seeking'

When children find themselves in an environment that feels unpredictable or unsafe, they may behave in ways that we might label ‘attention-seeking’. Some children may be clingy, or may bombard you with non-stop efforts to keep you engaged with them. Alternatively, they may aim their aggression towards you and your colleagues, or get into scraps with other children. For those children who seem to want more from you, remember that they are ‘security-seeking’, rather than ‘attention-seeking’.

Instead of thinking ‘this child is hard work’, reframe it as ‘this child is working hard to get their needs met’, even if at times, the way they’re ‘working hard’ is counter-intuitive and ends up getting them into trouble. Aim to understand what is driving their behaviour and try to address the underlying emotional need. This will give you the best chance of helping a child overcome their challenges and form positive relationships. You can use the methods mentioned in part one of this blog, such as ‘serve and return’ interactions, to provide the attuned and responsive environment that they need.

2) Let children know you're keeping them in mind

Children who are constantly seeking security may find it very hard to share their favourite member of staff. They can easily feel left out or rejected, and can be particularly clingy. To help them, find ways to reassure them that your relationship with them continues even when you’re no longer in the same room. For pre-school children, keep in mind what’s important to them and what they like, and when the moment presents itself, demonstrate that you’ve remembered them. For example, if you come across something that has their favourite cartoon character on it, you can point it out and say, ‘I know you'll like this because you once told me it’s your favourite’ or ‘This reminds me of you!’


3) Reflect on your own 'social brain'

When you encounter challenges at work, it may be helpful to bear in mind that you too have a ‘social brain’ that has been influenced by a lifetime of interactions and emotional experiences. 

Another way of thinking about this is that we all have an ‘inner-child’, part of us, deep inside our minds, from where all our emotional needs and vulnerabilities stem. Our inner-child carries the emotional wounds from our childhood, and drives the way we behave and form relationships. 

It may be useful to ask yourself about your inner-child when you find yourself having strong emotional responses to situations at work. For example, let’s imagine a scenario in which a teaching assistant, Dan, is trying to help an upset child, Mo, settle in on his first day of reception. Mo has run into the furthest corner of the classroom, and when Dan approaches, Mo pulls faces at him and call him 'stupid’. Hearing the word ‘stupid’, Dan immediately feels angry and snaps at Mo, which only provokes further name-calling. 

Once the day is over, Dan takes the time to ask himself, ‘'What was I feeling?’ and ‘Why did I feel like that?’ He realises that the insult ‘stupid’ immediately sent his heart rate rocketing, rather like when he was a boy and his angry father called him that name repeatedly. Understanding this helps Dan feel calmer, as it makes more sense to him why things ended up going so badly with Mo. Once he’s calmed down, he’s also able to reflect that Mo's outbursts were probably his way of managing his fear and anxiety about his first day of school.

Thinking about his inner-child and reflecting on his feelings helps Dan distinguish between ‘This child was humiliating me!’ versus ‘I felt humiliated’. In other words, it helps him distinguish between which issues concern the child, and which issues belong to him.


4) Work with parents compassionately

From time to time, you may encounter parents who need you to be particularly mindful about your role and who you represent to them. When you run into challenges creating a positive relationship with a parent, remember that during interactions with you, their ‘social brain’ is firing off electrical signals along all the neural pathways they’ve formed over their lifetime. So, if life experience has taught them that the best way to stay safe and avoid uncertainty is to be guarded and standoffish, then that’s probably what you’ll encounter. 

There may be some parents who are wary of you because they anticipate that you’re going to tell them they're doing a terrible job. By contrast, other parents may be keen to form a personal connection with you immediately, and may talk very openly about private matters. 

In these moments, you can be sympathetic whilst keeping your professional boundaries. Consider that we all have ways of trying to protect ourselves within relationships, in order to keep things feeling predictable and ‘safe’. Establish firm boundaries, and gently but clearly refer back to these boundaries during more challenging moments. This is especially important if you don’t want to be drawn emotionally into a dynamic that goes beyond your role. Finally, speak to your colleagues about your concerns to find out what has worked for them when working with different families. 


When children feel that they're in a safe space, where they're cared for and free to be themselves, they'll thrive. By creating an environment that supports their social brains, and supporting your colleagues to do the same, you'll be helping your pupils get off the an amazing start.

If you're interested in learning more, the Mable Academy has lots of accredited CPD videos available to your whole staff. To find out more, why not get in touch