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Going back to school after disrupted learning, COVID19, and during uncertain times has to be difficult for kids of all ages. It is critical for parents, caregivers, and teachers to understand that children cannot learn or interact when anxiety is high, or their sensory systems feel threatened. Nor can the central nervous system learn if it doesn’t feel safe and secure. 

Back to school is an exciting time but can also be a source of nerves and fear for children and teens who suffer from anxiety, sensory processing disorder, autism, or twice-exceptional children – those with exceptional ability and disability. And, just as importantly, for children who do not. An official diagnosis is not required for the sensory system or the central nervous system to say, “Nope, not today.” Once the flight, fight or freeze reflex kicks in, learning and meaningful interaction with others come to a screeching halt. 

During this transition back into routine – or more of a routine than we’ve been accustomed to recently – all emotions felt by children (and adults) are valid and deserving of being seen and heard. Imagine going back into a classroom – rows of students, class after class, subject after subject… Who among us would be super-psyched to crack open that trigonometry textbook and give it our full attention by 6th period? For the record, our hands are not enthusiastically waving in the air…

That’s a big ask in “normal” times, let alone what we’ve all been through in the past 18-months. A little empathy will go a long way in securing their central nervous system and regulating the sensory-motor system at this time.

On that note, a lot is being written and spoken about on what students have missed out on and how this period of time will affect them academically and socially. While written nearly thirty years ago, this 1994 article by Dr. Stanley Greenspan and Beryl Lieff Benderly, THE EMOTIONAL BASIS OF INTELLIGENCE, does an excellent job of dissecting psychology’s longest-running controversy – nature versus nurture, the inherent limitations of standard IQ testing, and the value of emotional, relational, and sensory experiences in this equation. Greenspan and Benderly’s findings hold true yet today. Emotions and personal experiences must also be considered when accessing a child’s intelligence and determining when and if intervention is required.

Neither nature nor nurture works alone or in simple percentages to determine intelligence. Children’s unique characteristics do not necessarily limit or define their potential. Rather, their traits define the type of environment needed to promote development.

When we are attuned to the child’s needs, we meet the child where they are at – we can begin to build safe environments outside of the child. When parents, caregivers, and teachers learn to co-regulate with the child, interaction continues. The sensory-motor system needs to stay regulated for a child to move throughout different environments during the day and throughout life.

Over time, with the help of a co-regulated adult, they can begin to feel secure within themselves and begin to move outwards. This process takes time, trust, and attunement. Extra doses of patience are always helpful, too!