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Beginnings, Brains and Biochemistry; Why They All Belong Together!

It’s a new year, but difficult to get into the mindset of a ‘new start’ because the ‘news’ is anything but new…
Still, I feel compelled to start 2022’s blog posts by thinking about beginnings, because they’re so much more profound than many of us realise.

It’s very standard practice, especially in schools, to offer children end-of-the-day rewards; for achieving goals or hard work etc.; and I’m not saying there’s nothing wrong with that.

However, what we do with the beginning of our time with young people is a golden opportunity that’s often overlooked because of the inevitable hurry to get on, get started and achieve all of the things that need to be achieved.

Anyone who has raised their own school-aged children knows that simply getting them out of the door in a morning is frequently stressful beyond measure, for everyone.
For those children who live less-than-ideal lives, or who; for whatever reason; are aversive or resistant to school; the beginning of the day may be truly horrid.

Just as is true of adults, many children are capable of masking their distress, or even not being aware of their discomfort to begin with…
But their bodies are still having a stress response, flooding their brains with acidic hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which can inhibit learning capacity, significantly.

The upside is that flushing out these toxic neurotransmitters, and putting healthy hormones in instead re-balances brain chemistry, is easy. Thus everyone’s brain is more ready to receive whatever comes next!

The downside is that the activities which generate these healthy biochemicals in young brains often feels counter-intuitive.
With that in mind, here’s a quick overview of three of those, and some practical ways that make beginnings feel rewarding; enabling you to reset, to motivate, to establish positive expectations and healthy relationships in your setting which then help get the best out of the young people you support (and yourself!)

Turbocharge Dopamine
Whether it’s with a game, some good-natured silliness, pro-social activities or movement, all of these turbocharge this feel-good hormone.
It’s gold dust for learning because it not only sluices toxic stress out, but also speeds up neural connectivity; i.e. learning capacity. And with that, your children are much more likely to be able to process, understand and respond to whatever they’re there to do.

Notice your children needing to move around, those who have an urge to talk to each other or inject some humour… Disruptive it may be, but their nervous systems may just be seeking out a dopamine top-up so they can function better!

Slow Down With Serotonin
If your children need more of a reset, to calm down, to connect; with themselves or their surroundings; serotonin can be just the ticket.
A few grounding moments are never wasted!; Help your children, individually or as a group, to mindfully notice the shapes, the colours, the sounds etc.

Step outside for a few moments… have a few gentle stretches. Resist the urge to rush them through it. Sorting their brains out is the most important work.

Work on breathing intentionally for just a couple of minutes; the 4-7-8 technique; breathing in for 4 counts, holding it for 7 and releasing it for 8; is proven to reset the whole nervous system.

So notice when your children (or yourself) sigh or keep taking a deep breath, especially if they’re struggling to connect to the task. Do they need to ‘do better’, or work faster, or concentrate, or do they just need to re-balance their brains?

Connect With Oxytocin
Beginnings are not just about time… Every time that we re-connect with the children we support is a new beginning and so the quality of that connection – our presence – is far more profound than our practice.

Oxytocin is our bonding hormone, and the power of being part of a group; belonging and acceptance; can create it, in buckets!
Play a group game… Have a collective discussion where everyone is invited to contribute; would you all go or what would you be for one day, if you could?

However you create strong sense of community, trust and connection will help young brains feel deeply and emotionally safe; off goes the stress response, on with fully charged ready-to-learn brains.

So notice those children who struggle to make friends, belong, or are finding (albeit often unsophisticated) ways of saying ‘connect with me’.

The most important thing to hold in mind about changing brain chemistry, especially using beginnings to do that, is that it neither complicated or time consuming.

It is, however, essential. If a brain is flooded with acidic stressor hormones, you can’t expect to make any more than a slight adjustment with the promise of a reward 6 hours away.
You’ll accelerate a healthy brain a whole lot faster by just creating the conditions to make that brain work better for them-and you!   

So why save the good stuff for the end of the day when it does so much good stuff for the brain?!
In whatever setting young people are in, if it feels rewarding – from the start – it goes without saying that we don’t need to rely on offering so many at-the-end ‘rewards’ to keep them engaged.

Last year I worked with IVE to create this pack of 30 cards (an A-Z and 4 ‘wildcards’) to practically and creatively bring these kinds of insights 👆 to life; for teachers, and any other practitioners tasked with the healthy development of children and young people.

They’re about to become available, nationally, for a limited time only, so if you’re interested in grabbing a pack (or a few) for your setting, just reply ME for details. Read more about how they’re making an impact here.

And don’t forget to sign up to our mailing list to get magic like this landing straight in your inbox!
You’ll get our FREE pdf “What’s Going On In Their Head?” as well!