Four Hugs A Day

by added on 9 January 2020, Comments Off on Four Hugs A Day , posted in Blog
By Dr. Cecile Culp Mielenz, Director of Woodinville Family Preschool


Arriving in Boston for the Learning and the Brain Conference, my schedule allowed for a few hours in the morning before the conference began at noon.  I had arranged to visit the campus preschool at Boston University.  Walking on campus, I passed a group of three smiling students who were holding signs that read FREE HUGS.  I smiled at them and continued on my way to be on time for my appointment at the preschool, oblivious that soon I would discover that these students were doing more than was apparent.

At noon the conference began, and one of the first keynote speakers was Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor Emerita from Stanford University, on the topic Teaching for Deeper Learning: Implications of Science of Learning and Development.  Back to the FREE HUGS—in reviewing results of neuroscience research, Dr. Darling-Hammond noted that the physical act of hugging produces oxytocin, which supports neural development and removes anxieties and distractions.  Suddenly, I realized that the B.U. students with their signs were doing much more than just having fun on a Friday morning.  They were providing important emotional and brain support to anyone who received a hug.

From Dr. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, another speaker at the conference, I learned that between 2007 and 2015 children ages 5 to 18 experienced a 100% increase in emergency room visits for suicide attempts or ideation.  Dr. Blakemore also presented statistics that for children, teenagers, and young adults, anxiety and depression are on the rise.  Conclusion: something as simple as regular hugs can have a profound effect on our children.

What else can we do as parents that can protect our children from severe anxiety and depression? In her review of the neuroscience literature, Dr. Darling-Hammond identified key elements for the development of protective neural networks in children’s brains:

  • Social interaction; opportunities to relate to and have experiences with others that include learning.
  • Back and forth conversations between parents and children; recently it has been discovered that it is not the amount of language that is critical but the number of back and forth conversations that parents have with their children from the time the baby begins to make sounds.
  • Rich environments; providing opportunities to learn about the world using all five senses. For more, see our preschool philosophy.
  • Green space; being sure that children (and ourselves) have significant opportunities to be outside daily.
  • Physical activity; new research indicates that physical activity helps to prime children to take advantage of learning opportunities and that the ability to move helps some children to improve their focus.
  • Mental activity; children need challenges to try to figure things out and to try to solve problems; we don’t want parents to do too much or to make things too easy for children.
  • Mindfulness; children (and adults) need daily periods of calm and rest; it’s okay for children to be bored, and it’s good for adult brains to have a free moment when we don’t reach for our phones but engage in some of the other activities listed here.
  • Emotional and cultural well-being; children need our emotional support and understanding.  They need us to be a calming influence when they are frustrated.  Children deserve a sense of pride and safety in their culture; promoting acceptance of all cultures protects all children.

In a supplementary article to her presentation, Dr. Darling-Hammond notes that “Optimal brain development is shaped by warm, consistent relationships; empathetic back-and-forth communications; and modeling of productive behaviors. The brain’s capacity develops most fully when children and youth feel emotionally and physically safe; when they feel connected, supported, engaged, and challenged; and when they have rich opportunities to learn, with materials and experiences that allow them to inquire into the world around them.”

What prevents us as parents from providing our children with key elements for optimal brain development?  Dr. Darling-Hammond noted that children’s brain development is impaired by stress, anxiety, loneliness, sleep disruption, dietary deficiencies, environmental toxins, and identity threats (stigma because of race, culture, gender orientation, and the like).  Some of these negative factors are vividly present in society and are often reinforced in school; it is in the home that we need to make every effort to protect our children from these influences.  Exposure can create physical toxic stress conditions, including the increased production of cortisol and adrenaline.  However, Dr. Darling-Hammond provided reassurance that parents can reduce these undesirable effects by

  • Affirmation of the child’s value
  • Clear commitment to equal access for all children
  • Strong relationships with children and others
  • Attending to children’s social-emotional well-being
  • Cultural competence, helping children to view their culture as a source of safety and pride

Through our awareness of concrete steps that we can take to promote the development of neural pathways in our children’s brains, we are increasing the production of oxytocin and reducing the production of cortisol and adrenaline.   As the Boston University students demonstrate and Charlotte Diamond sings, give your child Four Hugs A Day.

In her emphasis on “proactive outreach to parents,” Dr. Darling-Hammond concluded that the number one implication for our practice as educators is to provide “organizational supports for attachment and relationships.”  At Woodinville Family Preschool, we aim to be that organizational support system where you and your child enjoy opportunity not only to develop a closer bond with each other but also to enjoy positive social relationships with others.  In writing about teaching and learning in her supplementary article, Dr. Darling-Hammond wrote that “This process works best when students engage in active, hands-on learning and when they can connect new knowledge to personally relevant topics and lived experiences. Effective teachers draw those connections, create engaging tasks, watch and guide children’s efforts….”  These tenets of education are reflected in our WFP philosophy.

Finally, Dr. Darling-Hammond wrote that “schools have an obligation to act affirmatively to make it clear to students that in this environment they will be safe, protected, and valued. This begins with positive cultural representations and messages of inclusiveness in the curriculum and classrooms.”  This year our preschool board has developed three goals, one of which is to continue to value diversity in our families and explore how to help members feel like this is their place.  Our staff is engaging in discussions at our monthly staff meetings as to additional ways that we can help each child feel safe, protected, and valued.  We appreciate your responses to the Family Survey, which have given us insights into your family culture and values.  Thank you for trusting and sharing with us.  We look forward to a continued partnership where we support you and your children in an environment based on the best current knowledge in brain research and child development.

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