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SEEN 246Teaching children about early child development

From a project by the Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford

The University of Oxford has been piloting SEEN: Secondary Education around Early Neurodevelopment in 21 secondary schools. It is part of a project to develop and pilot curriculum for Key Stage 3 pupils. It aims to embed the key principles of early child development and neuroscience for young people.

The first 1001 days (pregnancy and the first two years of a child's life) is a critically important period for development that significantly influences a child’s long-term health, well-being, learning and earnings potential. It provides the foundation for children’s nascent emotional wellbeing, resilience and adaptability. Sensitive and responsive parent-infant relationships have been shown to be pivotal for the development of infants’ social, emotional, behavioural and cognitive outcomes. It is therefore essential to develop a community-wide understanding of the neuroscience that underpins how caregivers' behaviour contributes to children's future outcomes.

The team developed three KS3 science lessons, with lesson plans, resources and training for teachers. The lesson topics covered brain development, the caregiver's role in early years development and the ongoing development of the brain throughout life:

  • Lesson 1 – Brain development in the early years. This lesson introduces the neuroscience that underpins child development. It covers the rapid proliferation of neurons following conception. Both genes and the environment affect brain growth in the early years. Connections are made between neurons as babies are exposed to new experiences. These are strengthened or weakened depending on a baby’s experience. The ability of the brain structure to change based on experiences, or neuroplasticity, is introduced.
  • Lesson 2 – Caregivers and the early years. Caregivers are the baby’s main influencer of day-to-day experiences. Their actions directly affect brain development. Students will learn how a caregiver can ensure healthy brain development during the sensitive early years (conception to 5 years). This includes caregiver-child interactions; baby talk; playful learning and the development of executive function skills. The students have the opportunity to apply new knowledge and skills through a choice of activities. There is an option to extend this to an additional lesson or homework activity.
  • Lesson 3 – Brain development throughout life. Students will learn that a combination of principles from social science and neuroscience guide our understanding of early years development. This understanding can be used to ensure more favourable long-term outcomes. Research from longitudinal studies shows the importance of the early years for health outcomes. The early years are not deterministic though – another sensitive period for brain development exists during adolescence. In addition, supportive relationships and the development of executive function skills can improve resilience at any life stage.

Each lesson includes a full lesson plan, links to resources, worksheets, teacher guidance and additional sources of information. They have been designed so that they can be delivered in the classroom or via online lessons.

Analysing the results, the SEEN Oxford project has successfully taught over 3700 pupils the importance of neurodevelopment in the early years. The 3 lessons have improved 11-14 year olds’ knowledge about the neuroscience of the first 5 years; pupils’ new understanding is also manifest in their practical ideas about how to support children’s brain development for life long health.

This project has shown that it is possible to engage pupils and teaching staff with these concepts and implement new curricula into existing school timetables. The results have the potential to improve outcomes for future generations. They propose that this new knowledge should be consolidated at later time points during education, professional training and perinatal education, with the aim of establishing a community wide understanding of the importance of the early years.

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See full details of SEEN here.

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From a project by the Department of Psychiatry, Un, 02/02/2022

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