Education responsive to children’s brain development can improve mental health


Is an education that responds to children’s ongoing brain development, supporting social and emotional development, the key to addressing the youth mental health crisis?

The UK’s youth mental health crisis is out of control. More than 4 in 10 young people in mainstream schooling are above the threshold for “probable mental ill health” according to a recent study by UCL and the Sutton Trust. In research with 13,000 teenagers in England, a third reported psychological distress, 11% reported self-harm and 5% said they had attempted suicide. These shocking statistics make us question what happens on the brain development journey from childhood to adolescence and what we can do about it as parents or educators.

Does mainstream school drive unhappiness?

Recent research at Cambridge and Manchester universities suggests mainstream secondary school could be making children unhappy as their levels of well-being fall between the ages of 11 and 14. A study of 11,000 children across the UK found their life satisfaction dropped significantly from when they left primary school and three years later, regardless of their family background. The researchers said this went “far beyond anything we would classify as moderate”. The academics claimed the decline was probably linked to the transition to secondary school but could be mitigated through initiatives to strengthen self-esteem in early adolescence.

In contrast, a more child-led, creative, and hands-on education has been linked to elevated psychological well-being. Research published by the University of Virginia in January 2022 found that mixed-age classes, greater social stability in school, hands-on learning, self-directed activity, and a collaborative play approach to education leads to better well-being outcomes in adulthood. The research found that those who attended a Montessori school for at least two years reported higher well-being as an adult than those who had not. In addition, the longer a person attended a school of this type, the higher their level of well-being in adulthood.

How can education support better well-being and brain development?

Montessori is one educational approach that supports children’s emotional well-being from an early age, with teachers specifically trained to observe children’s individual developmental needs and drives. Children in Montessori schools are supported to regulate their emotions and build resiliance and self-reliance as well as the ability to verbalise their feelings to encourage brain development. They also enjoy greater social stability and cohesion, retaining the same teacher and peer group of mixed ages for three years – a quality recognised by the 2022 Ofsted Report on London’s Maria Montessori School which said, “disputes, including incidents of bullying, rarely happen . . . this is because the school’s ethos is all about helping pupils to understand what respect and tolerance look like in real life.” Significantly, in Montessori mistakes are an integral part of the learning process, helping children to recognise and resolve errors independently and build confidence and creativity, rather than feeling like they are failing to meet expectations or to “get it right.”

From child to adolescent

Educationalists have long been aware of the period of transition that takes place in adolescence, and Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori approach, wrote a great deal about children’s development, including their emotional, psychological, and social development. Today we have the added advantage of research in the field of neuroscience which backs up many of the principles Montessori identified. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, noted the period of adolescence is when “a teenager’s social world changes the most dramatically”. When transitioning from primary to secondary school, there are many biological and cognitive changes: how teenagers use their “social brain” or the “network of brain regions” to interact with others goes under substantial development during this time.

Adolescents take greater risks with their friends which is just part of growing up, as Blakemore says: “There is a huge amount of evidence that they are very susceptible to peer influence – if you think about the risks we are worried about teenagers taking (smoking, binge drinking, experimenting with drugs, dangerous driving) they don’t do those things on their own. They are taking those risks when they are with their friends.” She continues: “There’s a drive for them to do that because they are particularly sensitive to being excluded by their peer group. To avoid social exclusion at any cost is their number one goal and that might result in them being more influenced by their friends than other age groups are.”

Blakemore goes on to discuss the critical role parents must play in the period of brain development during adolescence noting, “It is a necessary part of the period of adolescence to become independent from your parents. And in order to do that, you need to forge your own identity, establish yourself with your peer group, test things out and explore.” Schools have an equally vital role to play in providing mental health support to young people by making mental health a daily priority, not just one day per year, but a core part of a school’s whole ethos.

The Montessori adolescent programme responds to the unique characteristics of this stage of development identified by Blakemore by taking a vastly different approach to that of mainstream education. When teenagers are going through puberty (around 12-14 years), rather than focusing purely on exams and academic work, Montessori believed young people should be given opportunities to understand their changing bodies, feelings, relationships, and emotions before becoming ready again for academic work as older teenagers. Responding to the real developmental needs of young people is unsurprisingly better for young people’s mental health.

Prioritising emotional development is a necessity

An educational approach which prioritises children’s emotional and social development as much as academic outcomes clearly leads to more emotionally intelligent and robust adolescents and adults – and increasingly looks like a necessity not a luxury if we are to address the youth mental health crisis and raise a generation fit to meet the challenges of the future.

By Louise Livingston, Head of Training at the Maria Montessori Institute.

Source: www.openaccessgovernment.org

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