Kaitaia College principal Jack Saxon spent a year preparing for a year to host Nathan Wallis, a one-time university lecturer in human development, a specialist in neuroscience with a background as a child and family therapist, primary school and early childhood teacher.
Now he is managing director of X Factor Education, and works in New Zealand and Australia, training professionals and parents in the application of neuroscience. He has three children, and a passion for foster children.
Mr Saxon knew what Mr Wallis had to offer.
"Partnering with cutting edge practitioners like Nathan allow our staff to stay up to date on the latest developments in brain development and to start considering the implications for this, both for our practice and the wider school curriculum," he said.
The college teachers were thrilled to spend an entire day of professional development with Mr Wallis, he added, before a public presentation of 'The Developing Brain' in the evening.
His major theme was that parents had the first 1000 days to build their child's brain, until the age of 11 to influence their character, "and then, during adolescence, part of your teenager's brain shuts down for renovations."
He talked about the importance of brain development in the first 1000 days of life, and what makes humans different from other species.
The last 20 or so years had seen an explosion of information about the human brain. It was estimated that in the 1990s alone, knowledge about the brain doubled what had been learned in the previous 300 years. This was literally the Age of the Brain, with new information gained on an almost daily rate.
Mr Wallis said the literature showed quite clearly that children do best when raised by the most responsive and attuned person available to them, regardless of gender or biology. So the development of empathy, self-regulation, self-control, learning dispositions, higher intellect and all the other skills that will eventually render them ready for school (and ready for a successful, healthy life) had their roots in the baby feeling safe, in partnership, loved and adored in the first 1000 days.
"In contrast to what our parents believed, it's not just about your genes, and it's not about learning alphabets, numbers or colours. It's about being in a safe, loving and interactive environment," he said.
"The more love and positive interaction you experience in your first 1000 days of life, the more developed your brain will be. This will ultimately impact all of the child's lifelong outcomes, far more than secondary school ever will."
He also discussed using cognitive training to deal with conflict and problem behaviour, suggesting three steps.
Firstly, calm the child down — they can't learn if they are not calm; their wellbeing must be attended to. Secondly, speak the child's language — if they feel they've been listened to, they will listen. Thirdly, look at the cognitive training required — the focus should be on learning the behaviour they need to use.