Monday, 5 September 2016

Nathan Mikare-Wallis

In the July holidays I was fortunate to be able to attend a one day workshop with Nathan Mikare-Wallis. I was doubly fortunate in that I was able to take 8 other members of staff to hear Nathan speak. I find PD that is shared among a staff much more valuable than PD you attend on your own.

1990-1999 was designated The Decade of the Brain by U.S. president George H. W. Bush as part of a larger effort involving the Library of Congress and the National Institute of Mental Health "to enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research".
However up to the 1990s research was mainly focused around the anatomy of the brain, this was until the advent of MRI and CT scans - whereby it was possible to see the brain in action.

The brain is genetically and biologically designed to gather data in the first 1000 days, with conception being the starting point. This is to work out what type of brain you will need for the rest of your life, the outcomes are determined by the time you are 2 1/2 -  3 years old. The data gathering you are doing in your first 1000 days is predominantly about your primary caregiver, which is usually your mother.

One of the points Nathan made which I found most interesting was around the assumption that there is an intelligence gene, when in fact there are 35,000 genes in a human and 23,000 genes in a fruit fly. This lends to the suggestion that there is no gene for intelligence - just enough genes for the human to exist. The latest theory is around the brain being designed to be moulded by the environment with 70% of our genes set by the environment.

Oliver James - Not in your genes

Nathan spent some time covering the anatomy of the brain which was interesting - particularly in light of the fact I am parenting teenagers. Very simplistically, in the human neuro-sequential brain model we have 4 brains
  • Brain 1 - Brain stem - this is for survival; flight, fright, freeze - fear and anger are the only emotions needed for survival.
  • Brain 2 - Cerebellum - movement and coordination
  • Brain 3 - Limbic system - emotion
  • Brain 4 - Cortex - thinking and learning (it is worth noting that the frontal cortex doesn’t finish being developed until the late 20s,  for males it is between 22-32 and for females it occurs between the ages of 18-24)

There is no competition between learning and survival (survival trumps learning)

Nathan went on to talk about the different parts in the brain with Brain 1 and 2 being the reptilian brain,  meaning that a reptile can survive and move but because it has no limbic system it won’t be pleased to see you when you get home. Combining brains 1,2 and 3 gives you the mammalian brain, thinking here about a dog, if your dog can do it then it comes from one of the first 3 brains. Brain 4 is the cortex, which is  thinking and learning - if you can do it and your dog can’t, ie speak then it comes from the fourth brain. The fact that the human brain hasn’t evolved for reading and writing was a point that Nathan made early on in this part of the workshop,  written literacy is a relatively new human skill developed over the last 300 years, the brain has evolved for the purpose of human interaction. Face to face contact engages more of the brain than anything else, this has been proven by the use of MRI scans. One of the implications for teachers is that telling a learner to be quiet is the equivalent of telling most of the brain to shut down.

The two parts from this session that I found most interesting were that brains work in order from 1-4, which for educators and parents it is worth knowing that if the child doesn’t have the first three brains in optimum condition then learning will not occur. We need to meet the needs of the brain from the bottom to the top. The second finding from this session which I found interesting was the fact that brains 1,2,3 are compulsory but brain number 4 is optional. It is also worthwhile noting that the human brain is designed to survive - therefore brain gives more attention to negative feedback, which is why you can hear a plethora of positive praise about something but one negative comment will receive all your attention. Also worthy of note was that empathy, controlling emotions and consequences are in the frontal cortex.

Nathan spent some time covering what the risk and resilience factors are for brain development. Gender and birth order determine outcomes and whether or not you are a first born or not are neuroscience factors in your outcomes.
Boys who are not the first born have the biggest risk factors, this is a statistical reality, they form the biggest group in prison and have the largest suicide rate. First born females have the biggest win when it comes to resilience factors, and at home parent in the first year is the biggest indicator of future success.

Nathan went on to discuss the importance of the dyadic relationship, as humans we are born to have attachment relationship with one person, this forms the blueprint for the rest of your relationships.
Some interesting points were made in this part of the session. In your first 1000 days the number of words spoken to you directly co-relates to your earning power at age 32. Interesting to note that the language you hear in the first 1000 days has to be from a  person who is emotionally invested ie the primary caregiver,  it can’t be language heard via a third party such as from the TV or radio.

Ross Greene the importance of the primary care giver and the building of relationships

There was discussion around the ability to self-soothe which Nathan said came from the dyadic relationship and from having the primary caregiver provide the soothing in the first 1000 days before the child learns to self-soothe.  "you learn to do it partnership before you learn to do it by yourself" When questioned about the phenomenon of abandoned babies in large orphanages not crying out for attention Nathan made the point that they hadn’t learned to self-soothe - they’d learned that crying wasn’t worth the effort.

One of our team members is a new mum to a gorgeous baby girl, when she heard Nathan talk about the importance of providing a pro-social environment, this is where we are shielding children from an aggressive response from the environment. One of the main contributors to what Nathan terms an aggressive response was that the earlier your child starts in Child-Care the more quickly they get an aggressive response, or the slower their social skills will develop. You could see on her face this information was a game changer in terms of when she will potentially be coming back to full time work.

Scandinavian countries spend most taxpayers in the early years and their education systems are the world’s most highly regarded. Nathan pointed out some interesting observations which are as more money is spent in quality early child education the lower the incarceration rates are. Finland is quite often the media about the quality of their education system but their open door prison system is also worth taking a look at.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to listen to Nathan as I have often quoted his Radio New Zealand interview on what 3-7 year olds need to know
My biggest takeaways were firstly my learning around the four different parts of the brain and the fact that learning will only occur when the first three brains have had their needs met. Secondly the importance of the dyadic relationship and the brain development of the first 1000 days.

If you ever get a chance to listen to Nathan I highly recommend him as both an informative and gifted speaker.

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