As we learn more about the workings of the brain, we discover that there is no meaningful way to separate cognitive from emotional learning. We know that we become proficient at the things we practise; this is how our brains work. If we are explicitly practising healthy relationships from the Early Years through to leaving school, then we are likely to be more proficient at creating and maintaining healthy relationships in our lives. The reverse is also true. We learn through our experience of the key relationships around us.
How do we get into good habits of relating?
A whole school approach and true partnership with parents is important to support all learning and even more so in this area. When a key adult wants to clear us up as we finish eating in our high chair, do they thrust a soggy cloth in our face and get cross if we protest, or do they either ask if it’s ok to wipe our face or hand us the cloth in case we might like to do this for ourselves? If we show distress as a small child, are we met with any empathy or just told we are being naughty? Is there any acknowledgment that feelings drive behaviours and encouragement in trying out different ways to manage difficult feelings?
These are all the experiences which form the foundations of our understanding about healthy relationships and they can be supported, explicitly taught, and modelled from birth onwards. We know more now about how the brain develops its habits of relating in these early years (the crucial 1001 days). The good news is that it can keep learning and indeed reaches another long patch of particular plasticity during adolescence. If we can support the relationships between a child/young person and the key adults in their life, then a healthy relationship model can become hard-wired. I have never met a parent who doesn’t want to do the best they can for their child, however we are all of us the product of our own experiences as children and it takes time, good support and a certain amount of resilience to take the decision to move beyond our own experience and choose to do things differently with the children in our care.(This is true for teachers as well as parents).
When to start the conversations?
Most of the relationships we have in life don’t involve sex, and if prior learning and experience of healthy relationships can happen before a young person embarks on their first sexual relationship, then the understanding of what it feels like to be in a healthy relationship is already there. Similarly conversations and learning around what it feels like if things don’t feel right/healthy will also have been had. Children soak up the models around them from the very beginning and these relational behaviours are therefore what we see in the classrooms and the playgrounds of our schools.
When two children fall out, it is an opportunity for us to explore the feelings which are around and to guide without criticizing whilst children learn to develop a wider range of strategies for developing a healthy relationships with themselves, their bodies, their minds, other children, and the adults in their lives. Instead of a “behaviour” policy, schools could choose to have a “relationships” policy. Matters around consent can begin when a child is very small, whether that is in the home or at school. Sharing a language with parents around looking after our bodies, respecting other people’s bodies, choices, opinions and so on in everyday life can allow for time to practise these crucial skills as young children. For example, when a child tells another child in the playground “if you play with x instead of me today then you can’t be my friend any more”, we can recognize this as a form of controlling behaviour. Discussions can be had around feelings and how they drive our behaviours, guidance around developing other strategies for managing a difficult feeling which doesn’t impact on our relationships and so on.
Before puberty arrives and hormonal surges flood the brain and the body, a firm basis of what a healthy relationship feels like can be hard-wired through years of guidance, practice and understanding. If school and home are working in partnership to provide this, then the experiences can be well integrated and can be a strong protective factor for young people as they begin the long journey to adulthood. In young people who have had adverse childhood experiences, we can use the plasticity of the brain to support them through a positive relational culture so that they might begin to relax, feel able to open their minds and start to learn.
How can we feel more confident in talking about sex with our children?
Of course relationships education must include intimacy, sexual behaviours, attitudes, and sexual health. However if sex education is presented within the context of a healthy relationships culture, then this might feel a less daunting task. Online behaviours and the access this brings to the adult world is causing anxiety and misunderstanding. There needs to be a culture in schools where children and young people can discuss what they have seen, encountered, how it made them feel and can be encouraged to sit this alongside what they have learned about healthy relationships.
If parents can be supported to have their own conversations at home too then this can be even more powerful. We need to offer more than a one-off information session for parents about RSE; parents need time, as do many teachers, to think together and gain confidence in discussing matters around sex. For some adults even naming body parts correctly feels very uncomfortable. As part of a longer, well-developed programme, these crucial discussions can grow out of the atmosphere of support, partnership and a non-judgmental working together. At their core, all religions promote respect and care of others; parents generally are very keen to work with schools to protect their children from the dangers of grooming etc.
We know now that the prefrontal cortex, responsible for helping us to assess risk and make healthy choices for ourselves, is not fully developed in our brains until we are in our mid 20s. We need to recognize that these are difficult skills for us all, adult and child. In addition to this, we need to be alert to how our social relationships are collectively organized within our shared cultural model. Our mission statements might be clear on our attitudes around equality, however unless we check out regularly what the lived experience is for different personalities, genders, races, religions, ages, we will miss the clues which might tell us it is time for some realignment.
Discussing issues around equality, healthy relationships and sex will always be important. More important still however will be the lived experience of being a part of a shared relational culture. This is where we need to focus our primary attention. It is in an emotionally healthy relational culture that each human brain in the school community can practise enough to be able to develop healthy habits of mind and relating.