Building awareness of the importance of early brain development

Author: Richard Batcheler, Isos Partnership
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HRH the Princess of Wales visited Nower Hill High School and observed a SEEN lesson

The rapid brain development that occurs during pregnancy and early childhood provides the foundations for every child’s future development. Yet, despite its clear importance, awareness of early brain development remains low.

This case study highlights one programme, Kindred2 foundation’s SEEN Programme (Secondary Education around Early Neurodevelopment), which aims to teach the next generation of parents and carers of the importance of interactions with infants in supporting early brain development. Improving understanding of the evidence of the developing brain during early childhood is key for raising awareness of the extraordinary impact of the early years [1].

The case for change

While nine in ten adults (91%) in the UK recognise the importance of early childhood in shaping later life [2], there is a clear need to build awareness of the period of rapid brain development that occurs during this period. Among UK parents of a 0–5-year-old, nearly two-thirds (64%) were not aware of the uniquely rapid period of brain development that takes place from conception to age two and over one quarter (28%) did not appreciate that it is both a child’s genetic make-up and environment that influences how children develop during the early years [3]. Only 17% of UK adults think that the start of pregnancy to 5 years is the most important period for shaping a person’s life [4].

As the Big Changes Starts Small report acknowledges, embracing the extraordinary potential of the early years requires supporting long-term and intergenerational change. One opportunity for change includes working to support the next generation of parents and carers, so that they understand the tremendous impact on the lives of their children and those they care for. The SEEN programme seeks to educate the next generation about brain development in the first years of life and the importance of caregiver-infant interactions.

Secondary Education around Early Neurodevelopment (SEEN)

The programme comprises three early neurodevelopment science lessons for key stage three students. The lessons cover how the brain develops, the critical role of caregivers in providing experiences that shape brain development and the scientific evidence linking experiences in the early years with long-term outcomes.

Lesson 1 – Brain development in the early years: The neuroscience that underpins child development including the rapid proliferation of neurons following conception. Both genes and the environment affect brain growth in the early years. Connections are made between neurons as babies are exposed to new experiences. Connections are strengthened or weakened depending on a baby’s experience. The ability of the brain structure to change based on experiences, also termed neuroplasticity.

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The development of synapses during the early years from SEEN lesson 1

Lesson 2 –Caregivers and the early years: The key influence of caregivers on babies’ day-to-day experiences. Caregivers’ actions directly affect brain development and can ensure healthy brain development during the sensitive early years (conception to 5 years). Key behaviours include responsive caregiver-child interactions; baby talk and playful learning. Practical application of this knowledge and skills. Extension or optional homework activity about development of executive function skills.

Lesson 3 – Brain development throughout life: Research from longitudinal studies show the importance of the early years for long term health outcomes. The early years are not deterministic, and adolescence is another sensitive period for brain development. Supportive relationships and the development of executive function skills can improve resilience at any life stage. The early years remain the most effective period for improving outcomes.

The lessons were developed for Kindred2 by the University of Oxford and experts in psychiatry, neuroscience and education. The programme is fully resourced with lesson plans, activities, teacher pack and staff training and are available free of charge to all schools. The lessons were designed to align with schools’ science and broader curricula.

A total of 3,722 pupils took part in the programme’s pilot lessons across 29 schools, involving over 100 teaching staff. The pilot demonstrated the considerable potential of teaching about early brain development. 100% of teachers and 91% of pupils that took part in the lessons said they felt the lessons should be taught to other pupils of a similar age. After the lessons, 86% of pupils could give a practical example of how to maximise a child’s development through daily activities or play and 74% of students reported that they will change the way they interact with babies and young children as a direct result of the SEEN lessons [5].

Excellent student engagement and fantastic discussion topics to stretch and challenge students' ability to make the connection between scientific aspects of the brain and their daily lives.

— Feedback from teacher delivering SEEN lessons

In November 2021, towards the end of the pilot, HRH the Princess of Wales visited Nower Hill High School and observed a SEEN lesson with year 8 students in practice.

We feel the content is very important for young people to learn about and have embedded the lessons into our year 8 curriculum provision. We have developed booklets for use by students in class and these also help teachers to deliver the programme without much additional work.

— Head of Key Stage Three science Liza Dimitriades, Nower Hill High School

Following the visit and during a roundtable with HRH the Princess of Wales, several large Multiple Academy Trusts (MATs) agreed to deliver the lessons in their schools. Nine large MATs committed to deliver the lessons from January 2022, and the national rollout has continued since.

One MAT that signed up was the Outwood Grange Academies Trust, with SEEN lessons delivered in 25 schools to a total of 3,106 year 9 pupils since March 2022.

“The first days, weeks, and years of a child's life has a long-lasting impact on their long-term well-being.  Therefore, it was obvious to us that we must teach all children in our trust the vital importance of early brain development.”

— Sir Martyn Oliver, Chief Executive, Outwood Grange Academies Trust

To date, around 8,500 students have received the SEEN lessons, with Kindred2 working to roll out the SEEN lessons to as many secondary schools as possible. The programme continues to gather evidence of impact that, it is hoped, will support the inclusion of content on early brain development in the national curriculum. The team at Kindred2 are now in the process of developing a curriculum for Key Stage 2 lessons, so that learning about the extraordinary impact of the early years can be extended to children in primary schools.

For further information about SEEN, including how to get your school involved with the project, visit https://kindredsquared.org.uk/seen-programme/.


[1] Raising awareness of the extraordinary impact of the early years is one of the six areas of opportunity in the early years identified in our Big Change Starts Small report.

[2] Ipsos. (2022). Understanding public attitudes to early childhood. The Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood.

[3] Ipsos MORI. (2020). State of the Nation: Understanding Public Attitudes to the Early Years. The Royal Foundation.

[4] Ipsos. (2022). Understanding public attitudes to early childhood. The Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood.

[5] University of Oxford and Kindred2 . (2021). SEEN Oxford – Secondary Education around Early Neurodevelopment.