Why Relationships Education matters

Parents Mental Health
26 June 2019
Dr Kerry Ashton-Shaw
Dr Kerry Ashton-Shaw is a Chartered Clinical Psychologist working in private practice in Liverpool. In her spare time she works with FASTN. 
Our brains are incredible things – think of them as built-in mega computers that regulate our emotions. But, of course, computers rely on data – our brains take theirs from the environments we live in and from our experiences.

If we put in the right type of data, our brains can get what they need to develop. If we put in the wrong type, then it can all slow down and stall. So where can we source that right kind of data – the right kind of experiences? It’s found in positive relationships and nurturing environments. 

How relationships grow our brains

When we’re born, we have most of the brain cells we’ll ever need but our brains don’t fully develop until our late twenties. From birth to around four, the hardwiring’ is put in place. A baby’s brain can double in size that first year alone. By the time we’re three, it can be 80 percent the size of the adult brain. So what is growing? It’s the connection between the neurons. And what makes connections? Relationships. 

A baby’s first relationship is with the primary carer – let’s call them you’. So, when you look lovingly into their eyes and coo sweet nothings in a loving, soft, sing-song voice, their brain becomes excited, their eyes find yours, and if they are bright and wide and ready to receive this most magical of gazes – their brain just lights up! That loving relationship is the right kind of data! It’s quite literally growing their brain. 

What happens in schools and how can RSE help? 

When children first go to school, they have a whole new world and set of relationships to contend with. Teachers and friends will also provide the experiences now. Those relationships can support healthy brain development. So we need to get the right kind of experiences for those young brains – that’s where relationships education comes in. 

By supporting children to develop positive relationship skills, they learn to make friends, manage conflict, understand people, increase empathy and, as a result of that, decrease bullying.

On the flipside, if interactions are negative, it can cause sadness and confusion. When children struggle with relationships, it impacts many other things. They may find it difficult to seek support and are likely to struggle to manage emotions – when this happens, they may lash out, misbehave or disrupt the class – or zone out. Learning relationship skills will have a significant impact on a child’s emotional and social wellbeing. By having RSE in schools, the opportunities for positive interactions increase.

As we move into secondary school, all of the above remains true – and more so. The need to be part of a group is hard wired into us humans but as we age, social settings become increasingly complex. There are far more opportunities for negative or positive interactions. If children are supported and equipped with the skills to overcome conflict, to understand and manage their emotions and behaviours, then it can increase that young person’s resilience and potential.

What does this mean?

I am a Clinical Psychologist. So I get to spend my time working with amazing people, adults and children, who have experienced the pain that life can bring. When I first meet with someone I hope to work with, one of the first things I need to know about is – relationships. Can this person form relationships – can they trust and get comfort from other humans? If they can’t, the risk is greater and their road to recovery, although not impossible, is more difficult.

By adulthood the opportunities to positively influence brain development have dramatically decreased. The benefits of learning relationship skills, at an early age, are unbounded. Relationships Education offers an exciting opportunity to support young people and to enable them to achieve their full potential in life and in work. It can give them the resilience they need to face life’s inevitable ups and downs. That is why Relationships Education is one of the most important subjects of all.

Tips for parents:
  • Find out what RSE actually involves – the Department for Education’s website is a great place to start
  • Talk to your child’s school to find out what they will teach in RSE and how they will teach it – it could be lessons, workshops, sport programmes, a whole school approach or a mix?
  • Consider how you can support the school to make RSE a success and how you can reinforce what your child learns at home