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Oxford researchers involved nearly 4,000 children across the UK in three specially developed science lessons to educate pupils about brain development during early childhood. The SEEN (Secondary Education around Early Neurodevelopment) project was commissioned and funded by KindredSquared and is part of a wider drive to increase public understanding of how early experiences can shape the adults we become.

HRH the Duchess of Cambridge on a school visit to talk about SEEN. Dr Louise Dalton in the background.
©Kensington Palace

Dr Elizabeth Rapa, Co-investigator of SEEN and Senior Scientist, University of Oxford, said:

 

'This ground-breaking project could improve the lives of children for generations. In the same way that we teach children about the risks of smoking or poor diet, children also need to know about why experiences in our early years are so important for later health. We hope that the key principles of early child development into KS3/4 (aged 11-14) will now be taught in more schools.'

Just one in four (24%) adults recognise the specific importance of the first five years of life for providing lifelong health and happiness. This programme of work from the University of Oxford aims to increase public understanding of how the early experiences of babies and children can influence long-term mental and physical health. The ways in which we talk to babies, encourage learning through play and how to strengthen resilience are all important in early development.

The programme engaged 11-14-year-olds in three science lessons, which taught the neuroscience of brain development, and what that means in terms of how a child grows and develops. Evaluation of the project showed that after the lessons:

  • 86% of children could give a practical example of what they could do to maximise a child's development through everyday activities or play
  • Over 90% of pupils knew how a caregiver should speak to a baby to promote their language development
  • 80% understood that a child's environment affects their development
  • 80% correctly reported that a child's brain develops fastest in the first 5 years of life

 

Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, visited Nower Hill High School in Harrow, North London, and spoke to pupils about their experiences of taking part in the lessons and how this has impacted on their understanding of early years development.

HRH the Duchess of Cambridge on a school visit.

©Kensington Palace

Pupils said:

'I told my mum what we learnt about in the lesson like what stages a baby's brain develops the most and how playing games or talking with exaggerated facial expressions helps with serve and return interactions, memory and good brain development.'

'Baby talk is more than just playing, it is an important thing to baby's brain development.'

Crucially more than 40 teachers from across the 21 schools which took part in the project were unanimous in their view that brain development during early childhood should be taught in schools.

One teacher whose class took part in the SEEN lessons, said:

 

'This is a scientific topic that can have multiple applications to real life, students are a lot more engaged when they can see how something relates to them in their life, it has meaning.'

Dr Louise Dalton, Co-investigator of SEEN and Consultant Clinical Psychologist, University of Oxford, said:

 

'The change we have seen in children's understanding of how to promote children's development is astonishing, particularly in such a short period of time. The positive impact of the teaching programme is exciting to see, and the potential to easily scale up the programme to reach all children across the country, instilling this core knowledge in carers and parents of the future is so important.'

Felicity Gillespie, Director of Kindred2, said:

'The most significant levelling up that's needed in the country is to rethink our perception of early years. A child's development at 22 months serves as a strong predictor of education outcomes at age 26. Most of the human brain is developed before we can even talk and in the first year of life, the brain literally doubles in size. The evidence of the massive impact our earliest relationships, environments and experiences has on our future development is incontrovertible. This includes helping pupils understand that how a parent interacts with their baby impacts on their future potential. Working with 11-14-year-olds to educate them and to transform their own understanding early enough in their lives, means that we are not leaving these lessons too late. The hope is that the striking results of this programme will now be replicated in more secondary schools across the country.' 

 

The school visit event was followed by a meeting of Chief Executives of Academy Trusts at Buckingham Palace, where the implications of the research for schools and young people were discussed. It was chaired by Felicity Gillespie, Kindred2, the commissioner and funder of the SEEN project. Louise Aukland, SEEN project lead, presented results of the research and the experiences of teachers and students in another of the participating schools, James Hornsby School, Basildon. 

For more information about SEEN: Secondary Education around Early Neurodevelopment contact Dr Elizabeth Rapa and Dr Louise Dalton.

This research is funded by Kindred2, the early years charitable foundation.

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