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If You Want ‘Learning’, Create ‘Belonging’ First… Why It Matters More!

Many kids are a year out if practice with navigating friendships and social skills, so it’s unsurprising that plenty are struggling to find their feet in their peer relationships. As their world opens back up to them, this is going to keep being an issue for many children who’ve suffered a year of social starvation already.
We often don’t talk about ‘fitting in’ as a very serious subject, and with the extra challenges around ‘catching up’, the focus on friendship skills, conflict management and the like etc., may not be priority for many settings. But IMO this is completely the wrong way round. WHY? Because, quite simply, that’s not how young brains work!

The primary need in a developing brain is to feel safe and this is not the job of the thinking brain to decide. This is the work of our deepest, primitive brain structure; a tiny organ in the ‘survival brain’ that operates without any conscious awareness.
The upside of this decision-making process is that it’s very efficient. The downside is that it’s not very accurate. In other words, children’s brains don’t necessarily care how many people say ‘it’s ok, it’s safe, don’t worry about it’. That tiny little organ doesn’t think, it feels, and if it doesn’t feel safe, the thinking, learning brain can’t work at its best-or at all.
‘Survival’ will always come first and taking your eye of the possibility of danger in order to learn is not an option.

So what makes a young brain feel safe enough to risk learning? Without fail, acceptance and belonging. Every time. Because children, be nature, are dependent, so having someone know you’re there, look out for you and care for you is key to staying safe. It’s human nature to need the support of others.

Rejections and ‘struggling to fit in’ are so often categorised as kids ‘just being kids’, or who ‘should learn to stand up for themselves’ (They can’t do that if they’re learning brain’s not on duty anyway) but it is way more important that this.
This survival brain is ancient; it’s been on the planet long before humans and, just as a zebra rejected from the herd is hugely vulnerable, so are those children who struggle to secure friendships and find their sense of belonging. Rejection = danger. It rattles the whole nervous system.

Right now, the job of all of us involved in the life of children is to repair the ruptures of the last year, and central to that is nurturing their sense of connectedness. It’s not just the ‘fluffy extra’ reserved for playtimes and golden time. Three things we can all do to help children thrive AND learn;  

1)    Teach Empathy; There are exceptions of course, but most children who hurt another’s feelings are just short of empathy. Understanding another’s perspective is a learned skill.
Being empathetic towards each other helps children learn to negotiate, accept each others differences and treat each other well.
Children who’ve learned to believe that the world, and the people in it, are mean, uncaring or inconsiderate will develop a brain more primed to respond to threat that to learn. A culture of empathy helps to flip that narrative.

2)    Cultivate Kindness; ‘Be kind’ is not just for hashtags and suicide awareness. Issues with peers, conflict and rejection will keep happening in their lives, and children will cope better with those if they ultimately believe that the world is a good place to be, that most people in it are good.
The world is a pretty scary place if you don’t trust it, and expecting the worst from the people in it leads to over-alertness, reactivity and defensiveness. Great for staying alive, but these inevitably do little for learning capacity.  

3)    Teach Acceptance; Acceptance isn’t all about everybody being friends, it’s about accepting not being friends as well. When children can accept the diversity amongst them them, they can accept that not everyone has to like them, they don’t have to be the most popular kid, and that’s ok. That not everyone wants to be their friend, and that’s ok too… That that’s about the other person, not you.
And how much easier is rejection to bear if you can accept that, amongst us, there’s just a few who haven’t learned kindness yet, or who didn’t practice it in that moment? 

These ‘unmeasurables’ often get reserved for assemblies and ‘wellbeing days’, but warmth, love, acceptance and belonging ultimately determine whether the brain feels safe or not.
And feeling safe will ultimately determine whether the brain learns or not. It’s that simple. High-quality relationships have to come first, every time!

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