Hardwired to learn – so long as we feel safe

D was explaining recently what his ideal school would be like. If this school existed, he concluded, he would probably go. And so would I! D’s school would have no more than six children in each class. The spirit would be entirely collaborative, so no competitions, medals, or being top of the class. Instead, each small group would be there to help and support each other, and to be sounding boards for one another’s individual projects. Students would choose what they were going to work on, and these would be projects or topics that were meaningful to them in their lives. If there was something else that absolutely had to be learned, it would be done in such an enjoyable and creative way, that it would still be interesting. Oh, and no exams. Because they would create stress and worry, and distract from the fun of learning and doing. We didn’t talk about acoustics or timetables, but I am guessing it would need to be well designed so that ambient noise was not an issue for those like D who have tremendously sensitive hearing (sometimes a superpower, but often overwhelming). And I imagine that a few hours a day would probably be enough for him.

When I reflect on this ideal school, I see that D has intuitively described the kind of environment in which he simply thrives and learns. Small groups of likeminded, friendly people, calm surroundings, freedom to choose his activities, and an adult who knows how to hold the space without judging or taking away autonomy. This environment is many things: stimulating, enjoyable, friendly… But more than anything else, he has described the kind of place where he feels safe and relaxed.

Before we can begin to talk about learning, we need to think about safety and feeling relaxed. We are mammals after all. It might be reassuring to pretend it is our higher, evolved brains that are in charge of our lives, but, alas, that isn’t true. It is our autonomic nervous system, a system we share with all other mammals, that calls most of the shots, and it cares very much about our safety.

One of the primary purposes of the autonomic nervous system is to keep us out of harm’s way, and throughout the day we respond to our environment and our thoughts by shifting between its two parts: the sympathetic, and the parasympathetic. When we’re in the parasympathetic, we are relaxed. Our breathing is slow and regular, and the blood flows evenly through our bodies. When we sense any kind of danger, we snap quickly into the sympathetic, often known as fight or flight. Our breathing gets fast and shallow, the blood rushes to our big muscles, and adrenaline and cortisol flood our bodies. We are primed to fight for our survival. Butterflies in the stomach, a thumping heart, sweaty palms, a dry mouth, these are all signs that some part of us is feeling under threat.

Other mammals cope with this whole thing a lot better than we do. They sense danger and their system responds. When the moment of danger has passed, they naturally shake to release the adrenaline from their bodies. Humans are the only species that walk around keeping all that adrenaline and cortisol bottled up inside. And, unlike other animals, we don’t need to be in any real danger to feel threatened. Our massive neocortex can summon up worrying thoughts any time of the day, and our body will dutifully respond by pressing the panic button and kicking into survival mode. Financial struggles, an unpleasant boss, speaking in public, an argument with a partner…when things feel too challenging or emotionally unsafe, (even if we are physically safe), our body will naturally produce these stress hormones.

Can we learn when we don’t feel safe? When our bodies and mind are in survival mode? Not really. Learning is essentially the forming of new connections of cells in our neural networks. Studies show that we are only primed to remember under stress, if the stress and the subject matter are related. That makes sense. If we get out alive, we’ll certainly remember to avoid that situation in the future. What doesn’t work so well is learning about anything else whilst under stress. Our brains fail to make those new neural connections. This also makes sense. Why would my mind be open to picking up new skills when I am predominantly concerned about surviving? My mammalian brain has understood perfectly that new information is of no use whatsoever to me if I’m not around to use it later.

Feeling safe is an intensely personal thing, of course. In the same environment, one person may feel perfectly relaxed and secure, whilst another feels extremely uncomfortable. We’re wired differently and we’ve had different life experiences, so our responses naturally differ. A neurodiverse child or one who is naturally more anxious may well need a more gentle environment, or they may need more autonomy to feel safe. For some children, having no control over their circumstances is immensely stressful – strict hierarchies and imposed schedules can trigger a powerful fight or flight response.

I think back to my early primary school days. It was not a scary school. It was the only primary school in a small town, and as safe and nurturing as any institution was allowed to be in the 1970s. But nonetheless, I was always scared. I was among the youngest in the year and shy. My classmates seemed smarter and more sophisticated than me, I was worried about being asked a question and not knowing the answer, being made fun of, not understanding a joke. And all that noise – a constant scraping of chairs and shouting. I never refused to go to school, but I do remember hiding my school shoes and feigning stomach aches. In fact I remember my brief times of genuine sickness fondly. Resting on the sofa at home, safe and sound with my mother busying away nearby.

Most of those years are a blur now, but I do have one precious memory. Probably from when I was six or seven. Although over time I became adept at masking my discomfort, my teacher at the time clearly noticed I was struggling. For perhaps some weeks, I was taken out of my huge class of 28 witty, clever people and put in a tiny class of five children. I have no idea what this class was or why it existed. I guess it was a way to deal with misfits like me. Anyway, it was just the five of us under the watchful eye of the gentle Mrs Burton. And for those weeks, I was the happiest child in the world. The room looked onto the playing fields and was carpeted. We sat around a big table and although I don’t remember my classmates, I do remember the lack of tension and expectation. Mrs Burton had a calm, strong presence, and I felt safe and appreciated in that little haven. My lovely days were only interrupted by lunch and the insanely loud playtimes. Happily, Mrs Burton was often on duty, so I would stay by her side, holding her hand and feeling safe and protected. I imagine she was relieved to see the back of me at the end of the day, though she never showed any irritation at having me stuck to her side. At some point, I must have been considered fit for society again, and I was returned to my big class, where I got back to the exhausting work of navigating my way safely through the day, my systems on high alert and definitely not primed for learning.

I think D would have approved of Mrs Burton’s room. Unlike me as a child, my children have the choice of what they engage with beyond the home. And I see that they only choose environments which they know are healthy for them. They each have different safety thresholds and needs, and what feels safe for E doesn’t necessarily feel safe for C or D. The size of the group is important to D but much less so to E. But the environments all have certain things in common, whether it’s carpentry, drama, history or a club. If there’s an accompanying adult, they are friendly and calm and treat every person respectfully. The children in the group are given as much autonomy as possible. The group inspires a sense of belonging and community. And, they feel safe and accepted. As they grow older and more confident in themselves, I see the definition of safe expand to include more challenging environments and more independence. But, they always look for autonomy, acceptance and a cohesive group. And in these places, where they are relaxed and at ease, the learning naturally flows, just as it does at home.

So back to mammals. It makes all the sense in the world that our young have a huge capacity and desire to learn. What species would ever survive if their young were not primed to learn? And, since neuropsychology tells us we most effectively create new neural pathways when we are at ease with the world, then making learning itself a stressful experience paradoxically makes it harder for our children to learn.

Rather than worrying about if they learn, what they learn and how they learn it, we’re probably better off just asking ourselves how our children are, and what they need. Do they feel safe? Do they have the autonomy they need? And, when they do feel safe, relaxed, and free to be themselves without judgement, they are without a doubt learning. It’s what they’re hardwired to do.




3 thoughts on “Hardwired to learn – so long as we feel safe

Add yours

  1. Esther, so many beautiful parts to this post. I love D’s wonderful vision, how you explore the intensely personal nature of feeling safe and of course, the link to learning.

    I remember reading once how we’re only meant to feel stressed in the last 5 minutes of our life, really drives home the importance of cultivating that ‘rest-and-digest’ recovery mode other animals have got down so well 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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