years of life. The old saying “give me the boy and at 7 I will give you the man” can be changed
to “….and at 3 I will give you the man”.
The key to understanding how to achieve a lifetime of greatness in the first three years is to
understand how the cortex develops in relationship to the brainstem. As the oldest part of the
brain, the brainstem is in many ways in charge because survival is a prime directive of the brain.
For the brain this means that any time the brainstem is aroused, it will correspondingly suspend
the thinking function of the cortex to first deal with the survival need. For the child’s brain that
is developing so rapidly in the first three years it is vital that the brainstem remain relatively calm
with the child experiencing safety and well being for most of the time for the cortex to develop to
its full potential. This is because the human brain is unique in that it is not ready at birth like that
of other animals. It spends three years gathering experience on how often it needs to use the
brainstem or cortex, and at around three years will hardwire the brain for a lifetime full of
whatever has been happening in the first three years of life. It is attachment that provides the
buffer to the stressful experiences of life, so the more time the child spends in an attached
relationship in the early years the less their brainstem is needed. The calmer the brainstem stays
in the first three years, generally the more the cortex will develop and maintain synapses for
lifelong use, with greater empathy, self regulation and higher cognitive functioning as a result.
When the brainstem is aroused, for example from a loud noise, a new experience, feeling
alone and vulnerable or unsafe, the ability to access the cortex correspondingly goes down. The
reverse is also true. Children who have not had this sense of safety and relationship as infants are
likely to operate more often in the lower regions of the brain as they move through school. This
can make not only literacy difficult, but will just as easily affect other functions of the cortex
such as control of emotions and seeing things from someone else’s point of view. Regardless of
the age of the individual, if we wish to encourage growth and learning, and access to the
advanced social skills, empathy and literacy of the frontal cortex, then we must meet the
biologically determined conditions for this. Safety, freedom of movement and emotional
engagement are necessary before thinking and learning.
This contrasts with the approach taken too often in the last 100 years of trying to punish or
scare a child into learning. This will likely send the child further into the lower regions of the
brain and move him or her away from the pro-social and higher functions of the frontal cortex.
Most of us know from experience that it was the teacher/social worker/professional who treated
us with the most respect and compassion that we actually learnt the most from. The
neurosequential model offers a scientific explanation of how children grow and learn best in the
context of high quality relationships, and remain focused on survival until they experience this
The message that a school social worker can take from this is to aim for high quality
relationships with children. Fostering positive relations between teacher and child is also a key.
However as the social worker and teachers are not likely to have a long-term relationship with
the child, we need to also enhance relationships the child has already. Too often we restrict our
focus to the parents and immediate caregivers whereas it may be the grandparent, an uncle, a
family friend or a neighbour with whom the basic ingredients of a quality relationship already
exist. Finding out who this person is and putting systems in place to enhance the relationship
may be the best secondary prevention we can do to build long term resilience when the window
of opportunity for primary prevention (0-3 years) has passed.
How would you apply this information to this recent case?