Interview - Suzanne Zeedyk

30th November 2012 at 00:00
The psychologist talks about the importance of the early years for preventing problems in emotional development, 'love in the classroom' and her role in promoting a more scientific understanding of children's needs. Interview by Emma Seith. Photography Cate Gillon

Why are the early years so important?

You struggle in adult relationships with whatever you struggled with in childhood relationships. Psychology tells us that babies come into the world already connected, tuned into people's bodies and faces, which means a 10-minute-old baby will already be making meaning. Secondly, we now know the neuroscience. The brain develops more rapidly between conception and three than it ever will again, and that development is shaped by relationships. So the way we treat a baby shapes their brain.

Do you have a favourite piece of research?

The 1980s Cat in the Hat Study in the US. They got mothers to read The Cat in the Hat every day to their bump. Then at three days old, they hooked the baby up to an electronic nipple to monitor how fast it was sucking and played a recording of their mother reading The Cat in the Hat and a different story. The babies sucked faster to the story they had already heard. What this says is that babies are tuned into their world before they get here.

Do teachers know enough about early years development?

None of us do. But you do need to know, for example, that when you go to the loo, the baby is scared and that's why it cries. If we begin to understand that a lot of behaviour is about fear, we respond differently, and then babies' brains grow differently because we are more compassionate. This is a matter for all of us.

What policy changes would you advocate to ensure children get the love and attention they need to thrive?

Lots of young men end up in prison and we pay for them to be there. We would have paid less money if we had provided support to their parents who were living in difficult circumstances. But it's not all over by three. It's not that there is no chance of doing anything after this point, it just would have been easier and cheaper in the early years.

Are positive things beginning to happen here?

There has been this big change in the last five years. The government has come up with new money for early years. Aberdeen has received some and they are going to roll out attachment training to every one of their early years staff this year. That's 4,000 staff. Next year, they want to roll this out to those working with older children. The Scottish government is doing really well on the early years front but we have a long way to go.

What do you think of Scotland's early years provision?

Given all we know about babies' emotional needs, we need incredibly good daycare. We don't have that because a high number of staff in nurseries earn minimum wages and have no qualifications. We know how important these early years are and we are slowly requiring nursery staff to get qualifications, but nobody has said: "From next year, all nursery staff need to be on #163;20,000 a year". Does that mean I am saying we need subsidised childcare? If that is the way we get high-quality childcare, then yes.

When you tell teachers about early years development, how does that help them with a disruptive six-year-old?

If a six-month-old gets a cuddle when Daddy opens the door, a brain connection is made that says "when doors open, cuddles come". Another child's experience is that when doors open, Daddy comes in drunk and hits them. In that case, you get a connection between doors and fear. That child's brain is doing what it's meant to: it's monitoring for danger. When that child is now eight and sitting near a classroom door, they fidget all the time and you say "sit still, focus on the maths". If that child was not by the door, maybe they would not be so unsettled.

But it would be very difficult for the teacher to guess that's the problem.

Of course it is. They have got 32 kids, but if they know this, they can start to think, "Look at that - every time the door opens, he's fidgeting. That must mean something." It's about becoming curious about other people's behaviour rather than frustrated by it, and as a result we become more compassionate.

What is your biggest concern about the way we raise our children today?

We don't value playing, laughter, joy, hanging out together. Actually, that is what is most important in relationships. If you have a beloved at home, you just like being in each other's company. That's what babies like. You only learn you are delightful because somebody laughed with you and cooed at you.

You talk about 'love in the classroom'. What would your ideal classroom be like?

Children would know what is happening and when, and there would be scope for laughter, free play and empathy. If it were a nursery, we would have cuddle circles three times a day. I have nurseries doing that and they talk about an increase in empathy. We've got this idea that touch is not appropriate, because we are scared of allegations of inappropriate touch. Jimmy Savile will make it all the worse for all of us.

Personal profile

Born: Winchester, Kentucky, 1963

Education: Developmental psychology, San Diego State University; PhD, Yale

Career: 1986, worked on drug and alcohol abuse programme for US forces in Dunoon; 1993 returned to Scotland as psychology lecturer, University of Dundee; 2011 took voluntary severance and set up her own company "to translate the science on the shelves about adult-infant interactions for the public".

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