At Royal Far West we have an incredible team of Occupational Therapists (OTs) who support country children and their families. One of the key areas of development they focus on is regulation and behaviour – and an important aspect of this is building strong connections. So, what does this mean exactly? We spoke to one of our incredible OTs, Emmy King, to learn more about connection and why it is so important to a child’s development.
What is connection?
Though connection can take many forms, it is essentially being emotionally present and in tune with the child’s world and needs attuned. Connection is an essential part of a positive relationship and is key to a child’s positive mental health and development. Strong parent-child relationships, as well as good connections with siblings, extended family and friends, help guide a child’s wellbeing into adulthood.
Why is connection good for the brain?
From the moment they’re born, children need safe, consistent, nurturing, and responsive connections and relationships with adults. Strong and stable connections allow children to develop a sense of trust and safety in the world around them by regulating the nervous system.
The nervous system – the body system that includes the brain and nerves – knows it is safe when it knows there are people in the world who understand us and care about us. The more ‘safe’ people we have in our lives, the safer we feel. Children who have regulation challenges, such as struggling to feel safe and calm, need more ‘safe’ people in their life. Our ability to remain regulated (safe, calm and alert) throughout our day is greater if we have supportive, caring and responsive relationships with the people around us.
What are the positive impacts of connection?
Connection, neurological safety, and responsive relationships are vital parts of growing the brain. When we feel connected:
- We are calm because our body knows that it is safe in an environment and it is alert enough for the task at hand.
The prefrontal cortex – which is the part of the brain in charge of logic, thinking and learning – is turned on and we can use it.
We are more likely to have the confidence, self-esteem and resilience to engage in new activities and challenges. The social engagement system – the muscles in our face that help us to socially engage with others – is turned on and we can connect with other people. This supports social skills like eye contact, turn-taking and reading facial expressions.
We find it easier to control our behaviour. When adults are responsive to their needs, children begin to make sense of their world. This helps them to regulate their emotions and learn to recognise and respond appropriately to emotional states in others.
How to build connectedness into the day:
Spend time each day engaging in child-led interactions. This means following their lead in conversation, play, or activity choice. For example, just go with their ideas and try not to show them how to do something a different way. This puts value on their actions and processes, while supporting natural problem-solving. Use facial expression and tone of voice to show your child that you are interested in them and try to put your screen away during this special time.
If you find play difficult, rest in the knowledge that just being with your child while they play, without actually playing yourself, is just as effective. If you aren’t actually playing, it is important to pay attention to the child during this time and respond enthusiastically when they engage. For example, when your child points to the tower they built you can say something like ‘wow you built a tower!’
Consider the 2 x 10 Strategy at school. Spend two minutes per day, every day, talking with the student about anything they want to talk about, or engaging in activities they enjoy. The strategy builds a rapport and relationship between teacher and student, and lets the child see that you genuinely care about them as a person. The children who have regulation challenges are those who need this the most. It is also a time investment – if you put the two minutes in each day, eventually you will spend less time needing to correct behaviour.
Set aside time for play. Play performs multiple essential roles in a child’s development. It strengthens their imagination, allows children to explore relationships and learn social skills, and helps with problem-solving and physical development. Play can be a way to express big emotions and fears, and a safe means to connect with adults. Think of playtime as a way to build your child’s skills, form or deepen relationships, and stimulate growth after trauma. Adding five minutes of child-directed play to your daily to-do list can develop your child’s confidence, relationships, and resilience.
Validate emotions. Use empathy when you can see your child is experiencing any emotion. Try to use emotion in your voice and make a statement about what is bothering them, rather than focusing on the behaviour they are demonstrating. Then use deep pressure and/or heavy work strategies to release the emotion from their body.
Make statements about the events that impact your child. Statements bring attention to the event itself without putting any pressure on your child to decide what to do. They might start making connections between the problem/event and the solution, but you do not need them to tell you. Statements also show kids that you know how they are feeling, and you do not need anything from them – you are just there for them. For example, you could say ‘Your tower fell down! Oh dear,’ or ‘You had such fun at the park; it was hard to leave.’
Show curiosity. Try to avoid judgement and ask opened-ended questions in a non-confrontational way. Phrases such as ‘I wonder if you felt like…’, ‘what do you think was going on when…’ or ‘I could tell that you felt really upset when I said no, can you help me understand what that was about?’ can be useful when connecting with a child.
Consider playfulness. We are able to neurologically disrupt the child’s anxiety or stress response with play. The human brain cannot be engaged in both stress and playfulness simultaneously. Therefore, by engaging with a little wistfulness, we can help the child become less stressed, less self-protective and more open and engaged to our connections with them.
Use children’s interests and preferences to provide opportunities for learning and connection.
Create multiple opportunities to engage in positive relational interactions. Promoting healthy connections with teachers, coaches, community, and family members allows kids to create new beliefs about themselves, others, and the world.
You can learn more about regulation here.