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Session 11/13

Page 2/4: Topic Introduction A: How is cognitive learning connected with social and emotional child development

Topic Introduction A: How is cognitive learning connected with social and emotional child development


In some studies, up to 57 % of children who have been placed outside home remain unemployed and never receive any formal education in their adult life. They often develop marital problems, criminal behaviour, and drug abuse problems.
There are a number of reasons for this sad circumstance.

First: Being excluded from family and relations means that children do not get family support for educational purposes. The relatives of orphans often have no tradition for education.

Second: Living in an institution or foster family is in some countries a stigmatizing social stamp which makes the child feel inferior end excluded in school. Many institutions also isolate the children from participating in social life outside the institution. This circumstance you can influence, as we shall encounter in the next session.

Third: Early deprivation or maltreatment can reduce intelligence development and cause behaviour problems which exclude the child from school life. Deprivation can cause more permanent symptoms of hyperactivity, stereotype, aggressive and impulsive behaviour. These problems can make teachers find the child “naughty and disobedient” and annoying instead of referring the child to a special needs teaching program.

Children placed outside home also have a higher frequency of low birth weight, premature birth, severe birth complications and problems from maternal abuse during pregnancy. There is a close connection between a schoolchild’s low birth weight (2400 grams and lower) and its results in a school age IQ test (WISC). Low birth weight and premature birth can also increase the frequency of sensory-motor problems, behaviour and learning problems and the number of exams the child is able to pass during school life. There is a close connection between caregiver stimulation and brain activity and growth.

Fourth: A lot of children who are normally or very intelligent do not use their learning capabilities because of their emotional lack of a secure base and their feelings of low self-esteem. There is a very large learning potential in helping children feel secure and thus support natural exploration behaviour.

In Romania for example, a special school for intelligent children of very poor countryside parents has reached astonishing results. The children live at the school and have caregivers and teachers offering kindness, attention and security. The children often win national math contest prizes.


This is why the FAIRstart program is based on the concept of “lifelong learning”: Emotional, social and cognitive learning is promoted by secure care giving from the minute the child is born, through the preschool years, and in school and adult life. For the first few years, any stimulation and care promotes emotional, social and cognitive learning, only around age 3-5 does cognitive learning become a process of its own. If you stimulate a baby well and talk to it while you feed it, you support at the same time the emotional, the social and the cognitive development of the child. When a child starts in school and is ready for learning, its achievements and grades are much based on the care it received in preschool years.


The two most important remedies for giving a child a good start in school you have already exercised:

Secure caregiver behaviour is a premise for learning. As you remember from session 4 (“How to Practice Professional Caregiving?”) proper care provides the child with a secure base. This happens when caregiver behaviour is coherent; the caregiver is sensitive towards the child and accessible when the child feels threatened, the caregiver is calm and kind when the child is out of balance, and the care giver often has dialogues with the child about understanding the thoughts and emotions of others. This style provides the child with a feeling of having a secure base.

And if you also remember from session 4 the terms of Task and Relation, it becomes very clear that the educator or teacher must provide a secure relation for the child and focus on the relation. In order to succeed with tasks and make the child understand math, grammar or do homework, the child must experience a positive social relation with the teacher.

In other words: if children are afraid of their teacher they probably will learn very little, no matter how bright they are.

Having a secure base teacher relation “turns off” the exhausting activity of the attachment system, and gives room for “turning on” the exploration system: the child crawls away from the caregiver and begins to explore the environment, plays, is curious, and experiments with toys and makes social contact with others. To the list of exploration behaviours we can add “learning and studying” from age 3 and up. Learning – also in school – simply becomes a joyful experience. The child is not just a passive recipient for knowledge, but an active partner in the learning process who is able to cooperate with teachers and peers.


Learning has two premises: you must be able to perceive the world around you clearly, and you must be able to know how to pay attention to what the teacher says and the materials you are presented with. This you must learn in order to learn anything at all.

A baby is provided with these tools and functions necessary for learning by the way the caregiver provides contact, communicates and interacts while she gives care. For this reason the mother or the first caregiver is the most important teacher in life.

How will a good caregiver interact with her baby, and how does this give the child valuable tools for learning? A good caregiver will respond in ways that help the baby how to learn and build necessary functions. Children who had depressed, confused, angry or unpredictable caregivers will therefore often have problems with learning and cognitive development later in life:


A young baby can only concentrate on looking at the caregiver for a few seconds. But the caregiver will always try to keep the attention of the baby for a-little-while-longer. She will raise her voice, cuddle the baby, try to make eye contact again, and gradually the baby learns to look at her for maybe 20 seconds. If she keeps doing this, the baby will also start attending to a toy or an activity a little longer. So when it is 5 years it can play with the same things or friends for maybe 5 minutes. When it starts in school it can concentrate on reading a book for 10 minutes or play with peers or a longer while. And it will be able to concentrate on what the teacher is saying for still longer periods. When it grows older it will be able to read for maybe an hour without losing concentration.

Children who had aberrant care from 0-2 will often have problems in concentrating for sufficiently long periods.

Focusing and understanding what is important and what is not – Being able to focus and discern the important figure from the unimportant background:
The caregiver tries to evoke positive emotions in the child. This means that when the baby is in contact with the caregiver, it will feel a lot of emotion in her presence, and this automatically makes it focus on the caregiver. It will not focus so much on a piece of soap or a towel that does not evoke strong emotions like the caregiver does. The child now learns to direct attention only towards what is important, and to forget or ignore what is unimportant. This means that in school the child will be able to focus on what the teacher is saying, and ignore all the noise from the other children. Later it will also be able to find the important parts of a text or a piece of math quickly, and ignore all the circumstances or words that are not important.

Children who had aberrant care from 0-2 will often have problems in focusing on the relevant person and matter, and they will have problems in discerning what is important and what is not.


Recognition, recalling and memorizing, preferences and critical/aesthetically sense: 
Because the caregiver/child contact starts a lot of positive emotions in the child, it will become able to recognize her in particular and respond much more when she comes back. This is not only because the caregiver has the same dress or tone of voice, but because the strong feelings are the same every time caregiver and child are in contact.
So recognition is really based on: “Here she comes, and I feel the same strong positive feelings again!” – “Here is an unfamiliar person, she is not someone I remember, so now I start crying even though she is kind – I want my caregiver back!”.

Thus the child can later learn to recognize “someone it has seen before, a text it has read before, a math formula, what we did in school yesterday, there is my teacher again!”. It can learn to prefer some things in school to other things, and have a critical sense “This story I really like, this story does not please me so much”.

Children who had aberrant care from 0-2 will often have problems in recognizing and recalling items, persons, themes and methods, patterns and rhythms in daily life.


Relations between things, sense of proportions, understanding the meaning of language: 
Because the baby is constantly in interaction and dialogue with the caregiver, it gradually starts understanding that there is an “I” and a “you” and a “they”, and how we relate to each other.

This makes the child understand later what grammar is all about – the relations between words: “I” must be the subject in a sentence, “he, she, it, they” must be the object in the sentence, and what happens between us must be the verb: “I smile to you, you giggle when I smile to you“.

The caregiver will not only talk to the child, she will also express words in a very emotional tone of voice that corresponds with the meaning of the word. She will not just say in a flat tone “mother-is-happy”, she will say “Oh, mother is soo HAPPY with you!” while her voice goes up and down.

This practice makes the baby able to connect feelings and words – it not only hears “angry, happy, sad”, it also learns to feel angry, happy or sad just because it hears the word. This is why the child not only can grasp a word, but also feels the meaning (emotion) evoked by the word.
So when the teacher is talking in class or the child is reading a text later in life, the child understands the meaning and intention of what is said because the words evoke the appropriate feelings. Try yourself and say the word “ghost” – how does it make you feel? Then try saying “A warm, soft and wonderful afternoon”. Can you feel the difference as you say the words?
That is why you understand the meaning of language – your mother taught you to feel what you hear or read.

Children who had aberrant care from 0-2 will often have problems in understanding relations between elements (for example the elements of a piece of math and how you should structure and relate the various words in a sentence). They will often have problems in understanding the meaning of words and sentences and tend to repeat them without really understanding them.


Motivation and frustration tolerance:
A baby learns to feel long term motivation because the caretaker is often in a positive, curious spirit and feels positive about anything the baby does. This makes the baby feel positive and curious about anything or anyone it encounters later in life. She also protects the baby from feeling frustration and soothes and comforts it if it is too much in pain, and she supports it to try things that are a little difficult or dangerous in the eyes of the child. In this way the baby builds a general feeling of motivation and frustration tolerance. So when it enters school it is positive and excited towards trying new and difficult tasks, and it can endure much frustration in order to learn.

Children who had aberrant care from 0-2 will often have problems in feeling motivated for sufficiently long periods. They will often have problems in postponing their needs and impulses while finishing a task, because they become too frustrated by something difficult.

All these qualities are more important for school life and social success in school than how “intelligent” a child is.

An example: In one study, a group of four-year-olds were presented with a piece of candy. They were told that if they could wait for 15 minutes while the instructor was out of the room, they would be rewarded with one more piece. If they ate the piece before the instructor came back, they would not have another piece. Some of the children were able to control themselves and wait for the return of the instructor; others were not able to resist the temptation.
The children were studied again at age 17: those who could wait at age four were all being educated, also those who were not so intelligent. Those who could not wait at age four were not being educated, even the most intelligent ones.
So, the basic functions learned from the first caregivers are probably just as important as being “intelligent”.


10 minutes

  • Which of these problems do we see in some of our children?- Concentration problems, focusing problems, etc.?
  • How does this make activities and learning processes difficult for them – and for us to plan and practice?