In our Seen + Heard Fife programme we work with looked after children, with different care experiences – foster care, kinship care or looked after at home. A common thread running through many of these children’s lives is that they are living with memories and experiences of trauma, separation and uncertainty. This is at odds with feeling safe, secure and curious about the world.
Children need safety and security to explore and grow; at a basic level, children who are on constant alert, have anxiety, second guess their safety and don’t understand their emotions do not have the capacity for play, learning and curiosity. This results in children being unable to take in any information that is not related to immediate survival – and when it comes to whether the brain can learn about maths or needs to remain at full alert to protect itself, then biology promises that the brain is going to choose survival.
All of life is experienced in the context of our relationships – neural connections and meaning must come through other people, we simply cannot do this alone. This means that our children are relying on us, the adults in their lives, to provide those relational opportunities to learn about other people, the world and themselves.
Dr. Bruce Perry has stated that we, as a society, are “materially rich but relationally impoverished.” Children simply aren’t getting the quality and quantity of relationships that are needed to build up a robust, resilient and healthy brain. He warns that without these building blocks children cannot engage in essential social skills, including empathy.
At Children’s Parliament we believe that #itsallaboutrelationships. We know that the gift of empathy is something we cannot afford to withhold from our children. We need to do everything we can to increase Scotland’s relational wealth, and we need to do this by providing opportunities for all children to have more and better interactions with adults and children.
“No part of the brain can change easily without being activated,” says Perry, “you can’t teach someone French while they are asleep or teach a child to ride a bike by talking to them.” We believe that we need to invest our resources and time in children to create spaces where relationships can flourish and repair. One adult cannot do relational work easily with large numbers of children; we must do long-term work where ratios of available and interested adults to children are high, where connections are maintained for as long as possible.
For our Seen + Heard Fife programme, we put this understanding of trauma, attachment and relational capacity building into action. We prioritise having multiple, supportive adults working with our small groups (up to 10 children with at least three adults), we invest time into relationship building rituals such as daily emotional check-ins and reflections; we emphasise processes over outputs; focusing on creative activities and discussions which build relational connections between adults and children; and encouraging peer-to-peer bonding, such as recognising personal qualities and achievements and practising empathy and social skills which activate relational healing.
When we think about a safety net for our children perhaps this is what we need to be considering – a web or net of social connections and relational riches that allow our children to take risks, explore and stretch themselves, knowing that should they fumble they have a net of relationships which will support them.
What can you do to increase the quantity and quality of interactions you have with children? What can we do together to build the relational wealth of Scotland?
Seen + Heard Fife Project Worker