Neuroscience of habits vs. EYFS: even more ways to disadvantage the disadvantaged child

This blog post goes beyond the usual consideration of, for example, cognitive load theory, or the need for explicit instruction and retrieval practice in reception year and into the realms of the neuroscience of habits. I think that ‘best practice’ in EYFS does not consider this aspect of neuroscience. Yet!

It’s been a privilege this year to oversee the education of children in reception year and if I’m honest, I certainly couldn’t do as good a job as our current reception year teachers – the experience has given me real food for thought as I have dwelled on the eternal conflicts that could be summarised in the following questions:

  • These [disadvantaged] children need to be taught, by adults, what they do not know, and they need to be encouraged to practice what they have been taught in order to commit knowledge to long term memory – why is this truth almost frowned upon?
  • Even though we know that learning and development comes from being taught and then being given opportunities to practice, why do we insist on waiting for children to be ‘ready’, only to then label them SEN when they don’t miraculously discover or do what everyone’s waiting for?
  • Why does cognitive load theory not seem to apply to EYFS? All these children flitting about and thinking about their choices, or with the teacher in a group having to process much more than a child in year 1: struggling to concentrate as their young minds consider what to write, the phonics, the pencil grip while other children constantly but inadvertently interrupt the teacher’s words and the child’s thoughts – their working memories must surely be overloaded?
  • All that constant noise (or ‘learning buzz’ as so many call it) – how do they not go mad or just switch off altogether? The closest we come to stillness and focus is when we are listening to a story, or when we are receiving our phonics instruction, but there isn’t even 5 minutes of silent, whole-class reading or writing when they are alone with just our own thoughts and struggles

This last bullet point is what I am thinking about most at the moment, which is why I have ended up pondering how the neuroscience of good habit formation might be applied in reception year (or what happens in its absence). When I consider our most disadvantaged children and the lives they lead, I realise there is probably no moment of peace during their day in which they imagine themselves in a story. The equivalent for us adults is when we create space in our lives and minds to think about or invest in our future. How is this possible? We humans have this marvelous ability to do more than the bare minimum of existing through the creation of rules, habits and routines, an automation of thought processes, decisions and actions that make us more ‘efficient’ and then happier because we feel we have achieved more, or because we have facilitated opportunities for relaxed conversation, time to read a book even.

The thing about creating good habits and routines is that you need to have some willpower to start them off and the resolve to keep doing the same thing until you no longer have to think about it (if you want to read more of the science, try this). The habit formation loop relies on a cue, the repeated activity and then the reward at the end. For most of us, the ‘cue’ tends to be a signal for a particular time of the day, and the ‘reward’ is the satisfaction of having got something done or making someone else happy. Many of our good habits were actually developed when we were children because our parents made us form them: brushing our teeth before going to bed, always cooking and eating vegetables with every meal, always ironing shirts and shining shoes on Sunday night, making our bed every morning, practising the piano after dinner, being polite to granny even though she asks the same question over and over – we had no choice but to put our whining to one side and just get on, resulting in greater willpower and concentration that helps us at school and that we carry through to adulthood, enabling us to form whatever habits are necessary to for us to achieve as parents, colleagues and friends. It’s a virtuous circle of good habit formation which facilitates even more willpower, concentration and ordered thinking that makes us more successful as adults.

What about the disadvantaged child? You know, the one living on that estate and who is permanently tired, messing about, can’t read, not interested in anyone or anything to do with learning? What good habits does he have in his life? When he wakes up, it won’t be to an alarm and there won’t be a set routine for getting dressed, brushing hair, having breakfast at the breakfast table, finding and putting on shoes and then going to school in an orderly manner. No, he’ll awake, late, to a cacophony of noise, drama, rushing around and his mother will berate him for not being able to find his tie – but nobody showed him how to lay out his uniform and bag before bedtime as a matter of routine or then ensured it was done every single night until it became a habit, such that he could simply put on his tie on in the morning like any other child. How on earth is he going to develop some willpower and ordered thinking if he’s never been taught and then expected to practice those typical rules, routines and systems that then create good habits and the accompanying willpower?

Does this boy think about his future, stories or life’s curiosities, or does he live merely ‘in the moment’, condemned to think only of the here and now, of how hungry he is (because there is never a fixed time for dinner and he’s got into the habit of constantly asking her about it), of when he’s next going to get on the XBox and the fact that his mum seems to be stopping him from doing what he wants to do? In the absence of willpower, direction and parental authority, he begins to develop bad habits: being disrespectful (it creates a risky buzz of excitement), pushing boundaries and breaking society’s rules (another risky buzz), not bothering to listen till the end of a sentence, automatically deciding to do the bare minimum until he can get back outside to play, never sticking with any activity for longer than a few minutes, developing automatic defiant reactions to being asked to do anything that is not what he wants to do (partly because he is so cranky from lack of sleep). Over time, these bad habits become ingrained. The trajectory is set and it ain’t upwards. It doesn’t help that mum’s support worker said that she needs to let him have more choices so that he can ‘develop independence’, and to reason and negotiate with him rather than tell him off when he throws a tantrum so that he develops ‘his own understanding of kindness and right and wrong’. If she’s honest, she feels powerless and lately a little bit scared of him.

And then he starts school.

He has no willpower, and he physically and mentally flits about, doing his best to avoid anything that involves a bit of effort. The teaching assistants notice that he never washes his hands after going to the toilet, so they set about teaching him how to wash his hands, then watching him and reminding him to ‘wash your hands!’ until the hand washing becomes a habit. But does the teacher notice his bad habits in the classroom? She may not; lack of willpower or willingness to please others is not really a problem in the EYFS phase because this phase is child-led. If she does notice, what is the automatic reaction? There is no mention of the value of home rules, habits and routines in terms of helping him to acquire some willpower, concentration, a notion of obedience. Instead, we may have the usual recourse to ‘he’ll do it when he’s ready’ and then they will wait for this miraculous overwriting of neural pathways to happen, only to watch him get worse and worse as he simply reinforces those bad habits over and over again. In the meantime, they put him on an IEP for SEMH and he attends a lego therapy club twice a week.

If the baseline didn’t crystalise just how much he is missing, the need to assess constantly makes it glaringly obvious that something isn’t quite right. The professionals come together to nod sagely and talk of ADHD or ODD, and his mum reveals she has been thinking about this for a while. His ‘needs aren’t being met’ and if he carries on this way, he’ll end up being excluded – he’s now starting to hit children in order to satisfy the habit loop of always getting his way. At the end of reception year he hasn’t achieved many of the ELGS, particularly the more academic ones and ‘Year 1 will just make him kick off! He needs to have more ‘active learning’ and ‘choices’ because ‘he has low concentration‘. So, he goes up to year 1, but spends most of the morning back in reception year repeating the phonics and the early maths, and then choosing activities that he wants to do. He never quite learns to read and write like other children his age, because he never had the willpower to concentrate on the adult teaching him in the first place. He never experiences the joy of listening to or reading a whole story.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out where I’m going with this. I’m coming to the conclusion that poor behaviour, including the kind that leads to so many thousands of children being excluded, has its roots in the entrenching of bad habits all the way back in EYFS. Part of the problem is in how we also automatically dismiss poor parenting on ‘austerity’ and alleged lack of help for disadvantaged parents. The answer always seems to be more mental health support, more money, more provisions, never anyone actually taking ownership for the true cause of the situation which is that these children just haven’t been put on the right path towards greater willpower, concentration, can-do attitude. It costs nothing to decide to put your child to bed at night at exactly the same time, and follow a set routine until that child goes to sleep, but today’s disadvantaged parents have themselves grown up without rules, routines and good habits such that they too are mired in the ‘here and now’ and there is no time or space in their lives to invest in teaching their own children.

Likewise, many teachers do not even see the real point of rules, routines and the deliberate formation of good habits (to overwrite the bad habits), merely seeing it all as a way of ‘forcing’ children to behave in a certain way for the sake of everyone else’s convenience. ‘Why are we even making them waste time lining up in silence after lunch?‘ they say to me, ‘Surely the learning time in class is more important?‘ I say to them, ‘but this is also their learning’. They argue that we should let children be who they are meant to be, and to let them choose rather than automatically comply, knowing full well that the disadvantaged child will never automatically choose to work as hard as his advantaged friend, or even to work at all towards the higher goal of success and happiness in life.

I think this is the real reason why, despite massive investment in the promotion of, for example, knowledge-rich curricula, plus intense focus on the how and what of teaching, certain pockets of disadvantaged children still trail behind. This is why I think children need more structure, routines, rules and deliberate formation of good habits in the early years of school life, rather than for us to inadvertently allow bad habits and poor concentration and willpower to become entrenched. Until we get our heads round that, and start taking into account the neuroscience of habits when it comes to teaching and learning for younger children, those disadvantaged children just won’t access knowledge-rich curricula the way their advantaged friends do.

Who’s with me?



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