In his recent Rethinking Education TED Talk ‘Relationship Matters’, Dr Gordon Neufeld, Developmental and Clinical Psychologist explores the role close and connected relationships play in our children’s ability to learn.
Neufeld explains that children learn more in the first four years of life informally than in all the rest of their formal education put together! This is because children are naturally curious, exploratory and playful when they are learning within nurturing relationships. Neufeld explains how a child’s emotional well being and their cognitive capacities emerge as a result of their close attachments to us.
Children learn more in the first four years of life informally than in all the rest of their formal education put together.
A child’s attachment relationship with their parent or caregiver unfolds over the first 6/7 years of life. It is in the context of this attachment relationship that children’s socio-emotional and cognitive capacities emerge; such as a capacity for curiosity, to play, a sense of self efficacy and the ability to be able to express and manage one’s emotions in relation to others. These capacities Neufeld argues are not genetic or learnt but are the result of ‘fulfilling relationships’. The attachment relationship provides what Neufeld describes in his TED Talk as a ‘psychological womb’.
In terms of learning ‘relationship matters’, we learn from those to whom we are attached. Neufeld explains: “We attend to those to whom we are attached, we talk like those to whom we are attached, we take on the same form of those we are attached, we are open to be influenced by those we are attached, we adopt the values of those we are attached to.”
It is in this relational context that optimal learning takes place and this Neufeld suggests is why children who learn at home actually do better academically than children who are taught at school. After all, Neufeld notes the irony that: “While teaching happens in the context of school, learning (at least for the immature) happens in the context of relationship. These two contexts have drifted apart in our society.” We see children learning and thriving at home both emotionally and academically when they get the individual support and nurturing that they need (See research in the US & the UK).
While teaching happens in the context of school, learning happens in the context of relationship.
Neufeld explains that we have lost sight of the fact that it is the context of trusting relationships that the child’s developmental and learning capacities unfold. We have created a educational and care system which doesn’t value attachment relationships; a system where children are often entering pre-school and school (and other forms of child care) before they are developmentally ready and without the parental/caregiver support and nurturance that they need to flourish. Children are having to survive in environments where their attachment needs are not being met and many will struggle as a result in the short and longer term. In order to help facilitate close and meaningful relationships from an early age we undoubtedly need changes to both policy and practice.
Unschooling: Creating a Context in which Learning can Thrive
Unschooling families recognise that relationships are central to a child’s well being and that each child will follow a unique developmental trajectory. There is no need to hurry or pressure a child to do things that they are not ready or able to do. The parent plays a vital role in supporting, nurturing and partnering their children so that they can explore the world in ways which feel safe and meaningful to them.
Unschooling families recognise that relationships are central to a child’s well being and that each child will follow a unique developmental trajectory.
Being able to provide this level of individual nurturance and support is undoubtedly one of the major benefits of home education, where the child is not coerced into entering school or separating from their parent before they are developmentally ready. For unschooling families learning continues seamlessly from early childhood and into their adults lives, often as a result of following interests and passions developed along the way.
Whether a child is learning at home or at school what is important is the kind of relationship that the child has with their parent or teachers. Whether they can feel safe, relaxed and able to learn is influenced by the environment and the relationships in which they find themselves.
We live in a society which does not often recognise the importance of attachment relationships, not only in our early years but throughout our lives. If we can provide the right kinds of conditions that can help to facilitate close and connected relationships then it is more likely that our children will learn and thrive.
The good news Neufeld says about relationships is that, “It’s never too late. There’s always something we can do. It always begins with getting a convincing invitation across to them [the child], to the other, that they are invited into our presence and nothing will come in between”. For specific ways of nurturing close and connected relationships with our children see my article 15 Ways Parents Can Nurture Close Relationships With Their Children And Teens.
‘Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers‘ by Gordon Neufeld
Publisher: Ballantine Books; Reprint edition (21 Oct. 2006)
The Neufeld Institute – Gordon Neufeld’s Institute with links to courses, research, resources and blog.
Nurturing Children Why Early Learning Does Not Help – Gordon Neufeld talks about the problems of sending children into social environments before they are developmentally ready and how home education can facilitate socialisation.
All Work & No Play – Gordon Neufeld explores the development of attachments, the importance of play and the difficulties children face in early learning and school environments.
Are Children Better Socialised in Day Care? – Video: Gordon Neufeld explains why day care is not an ideal environment for nurturing young children’s socio-emotional development.
Research Comparison 4 to 5 Year Olds In & Out of School – Dr Paula Rothermel, Child & Developmental Psychologist talks about her UK research looking at learning and socio-emotional outcomes of children at home and at school.
Writing and articles by Dr. Emma Marie Forde, DClinPsych – Parent, Clinical Psychologist and Unschooling Advocate.