Child Development and Learning

The brain can be split up into three parts; Reptilian, Mammalian and Rational. They are built on top of each other and all have completely different roles in our development.

REPTILIAN: This is the deepest and most ancient part of the human brain. It has largely been unchanged by evolution and is responsible for activating all instinctual survival-related behaviour e.g. breathing, hunger, temperature regulation, the fight/flight/flee response etc.

MAMMALIAN: Also known as the emotional brain or limbic system. This triggers strong emotions that need to be managed well by the rational brain. It is where our emotions are felt or processed in the brains.

RATIONAL: The higher brain is also known as the neocortex. It is the newest part of our brain and is about 85% of the total mass. Its responsible for such things as creativity, imagination, problem-solving, reflections, self-awareness, empathy.

How are these linked?

A child’s rational brain is far less developed than an adult’s. This is one of the reasons why they have many more meltdowns, tantrums and anxieties over what for some adults may feel like trivial incidents. They can have little control over these behaviours when young and need a supportive and comforting adult to help soothe them in order to develop the rational brain more efficiently. Think about a two-year-old dropping his ice cream on the beach. This would trigger a reptilian brain reaction. Complete disaster.
The reason they can have little control over these behaviours is because it is part of our brain’s evolutionary survival development which has helped us over the many millions of years we have been around. If we are in danger we need this part of the brain to kick in immediately without any hesitation. Unfortunately, if we use this part of the brain too often and without the right nourishment, this may prejudicially affect some children when it comes to learning, exploring, being creative and industrious.

Our brain is built layer upon layer, so that when we are born we have mainly our reptilian brain available. As we grow older and our brain develops, the mammalian and rational brains start to develop increasingly strongly and then link together with what are known as top-down connections. The brain does not fully develop until around 25.

Our ‘education’ and ‘learning’ takes place, for the most part, in the neocortex. However, without a good support network between neocortex and mammalian brain, the chances are that we act more out of the reptilian brain and the same type of fight/flight/freeze responses will kick in. Not very helpful.

What about Education and Learning?

So, in order for our lessons and learning environment to make an impact, it is very important to satisfy, explore and nurture our mammalian brain. Here strong emotions are triggered which then need to be managed by the rational brain. This includes memories of both positive and negative experiences. It is not unusual for a tutor to be called in when a child is having ‘negative’ experiences of learning: the child is not enjoying school; is not performing in a subject; or is not preparing for one of the many kinds of tests, from weekly times tables tests to GCSEs, that they must undertake.

Withdrawal, lack of enjoyment or ‘acting up’ in school could all be signs that a child is not developing these top-down connections from the rational brain.

The most common form of teaching which Michael Rosen terms the ‘Jug and Mug’ method (where children are treated as empty mugs who sit waiting for the teacher to pour in knowledge from a jug) will simply not work if the child is working more in their lower brain. For these children, simply sticking with this technique is pointless.

Now, this can be quite hard for a tutor when you are called in with the expectation that you will just pour the knowledge into the tutee from your jug. Maybe the parent thinks that the child is not understanding the subject or isn’t very good at it and just needs extra jugs of knowledge poured into them. But sometimes what they really need is just the space, time and environment to explore this subject with their rational brain. This can be done in a number of ways, and once the brain starts responding upwards towards the rational brain rather than downwards towards the reptilian brain, learning, exploration and creativity tend to become a lot easier.

What we can do in order to help create these top-down connections is to do everything that we can in order to create and then explore an environment in which the tutee is working with their rational brain.

How to nurture the Mammalian Brain and encourage top-down connections?

The rational brain is responsible for things like: Creativity, Imagination, Problem Solving, Reflection, Self-awareness and Empathy. So, any activities which encourage these qualities are a great way to start to establish these top-down connections. Any issues that there may be in a child’s learning – whether it is part of a class environment for the child; a teacher or a subject – can then be explored together. If you feel the child is responding in their lower brain more often than not, then maybe explore techniques that calm those automatic reactions; one of the best ways to do this is through mindfulness and play. And once you are satisfied that they are comfortable enough to start exploring the subject again, try some activities that might help foster these qualities and see where it leads.

One of the best things about tutoring, I believe, is that you can form a relationship with the child that is separated from the school environment; a place to explore learning, recognise lower brain reactions and work together on how to develop and link them more to higher brain reactions.

Children from a very young age these days are more likely to think that their ‘learning’ takes place in schools. If school is a place where they aren’t in their rational brain, then it can be so easy to get stuck in terms of development. If as tutors, we can help to facilitate this change in our tutees then we may start to see far more positive reactions to what is going on in school.

Based on what we described above, you could use this knowledge of the three brains to further help your tutees’ journey and empower them. The understanding of your students – developed through your weekly sessions – can help them create and bring a different mindset into their working relationships with teachers and parents using higher brain functions.