“Ticking to the same Tock”: Entrainment – why children need need well-regulated adults close-by [Spoiler alert – please jump to the section on Mirror Neurons if you want to read what’s new]



  1. The act of entraining; specifically, the catching up and conveying away by live steam of minute drops of water from a boiler or of particles of sugar from an evaporating-pan or other vessel from which steam is exhausted.
  2. Any of several processes in which a solid or liquid is put into motion by a fluid.
  3. The alignment of an organism’s circadian rhythm to that of an external rhythm in its environment

The Century Dictionary.

Back in 1972, when I was a student studying Psychology (& Biological Sciences) at the University of Leicester, Dr Jim Reason and others introduced me to the concept of ‘entrainment’. It turns out that this phenomenon can be found the world over, as much governed by the rotation of the earth, the daily cycle of the moon and of course the interaction of the living things themselves on planet earth. And not just living things…

It turned out (explained the now Professor Emeritus, The University of Manchester) that this phenomenon was first spotted in Switzerland in Cuckoo clock shops, where all the clocks kept time with each other, but once separated into a multitude of households, each clock went its own way, and their owners needed to adjust their timepieces in ways they never needed to be before they were sold. In short, the miniscule vibrations of each clock nearby kept them all in rhythm. Who knew? Well, I guess the birds and the bees could have let mankind know, but that’s another story.

I’ve certainly written about this before, and frankly (as Prof Reason’s family know as I now have the privilege of educating his grandchildren) entrainment has informed my leadership in school ever since I became a teacher. Fundamentally, schools do best if they create ‘flow’, that sense of purpose, belonging and engagement which permits children to release themselves into their education knowing that they are ‘caught, conveyed in a livestream together, aligned to the natural rhythm of the environment around’.

I received this email today from a parent of a new secondary school child who joined us this term, having been missing education since July. My DH Inclusion had reached out for feedback after 3 weeks, “The weight of the world carried every day is as good as gone. N is willing and able to get up and go in each morning. N brings home little to no angst or anxiety each afternoon. N is a well-regulated, well-supported Autistic child who is in an enriching and accepting school.” There is a whole lot more, yet with 5% of our staff and 1000 children across 3 sites with coronavirus and 2 former staff funerals this week, I guess most would wonder why I write about this just now.

So let’s be clear: my wordpress account alone stretches back a decade, and I don’t think I’ve changed message over that period of time. What I have really enjoyed is that science and specifically human cognitive research keeps catching up with the work that people like me have led for decades, which sits almost in oppositional defiance to what our Department for/of Education and their regulator poodle Ofsted sets out on their oft-restated mission to ‘improve schools’.

Do you know any leader who would choose, whilst a country is in the middle of a pandemic AND the worst period of austerity and family challenge this century, to focus on school attendance statistics? https://schoolsweek.co.uk/dfe-absence-policy-attendance-consultation. Let’s be clear, I am not condoning absence from education, but there really is rather more going on just now than ‘skipping school’.

In short, I have lead my school aligned to a clear set of values and with an even clearer construct of no blame throughout this century. Previous research has confirmed in my mind that in most circumstances teacher/student groups need to be less than 1:20 and that we need to aim always to build individuals the intrinsic motivation to succeed. “Intrinsic motivation is made up of three components: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy is having a choice in what you do, and being self-driven. Mastery is wanting to get more skilled and be recognised for competency. Purpose is understanding why you’re doing the work, it is often centred around helping other people.”

Given the selfish gene we see portrayed every day in parliament just now, why on earth would we focus children on ‘helping other people’? Here’s why, and it is all to do with the breaking news of the discovery of Mirror Neurons.

OK, Mirror Neurons turned up in the science literature in the 1990s, when Italian scientists discovered by accident that macaque monkeys brain patterns matched their hand movements normally recorded simply by watching humans reaching for food. I quote from BrainFacts:

“During the ensuing two decades, this serendipitous discovery of mirror neurons—a special class of brain cells that fire not only when an individual performs an action, but also when the individual observes someone else make the same movement—has radically altered the way we think about our brains and ourselves, particularly our social selves.”

Now here is the crux of the matter, now the science has moved on a lot. Far too little attention has been given to those other organs of the body connected to our cerebral cortex which have almost as many neurons, the heart and the stomach for example. I quote the same BrainFacts:

Before the discovery of mirror neurons, scientists generally believed that our brains use logical thought processes to interpret and predict other people’s actions. Now, however, many have come to believe that we understand others not by thinking, but by feeling. For mirror neurons appear to let us “simulate” not just other people’s actions, but the intentions and emotions behind those actions. When you see someone smile, for example, your mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, creating a sensation in your own mind of the feeling associated with smiling. You don’t have to think about what the other person intends by smiling. You experience the meaning immediately and effortlessly.

And here in lies the rub. We need teachers to be relaxed, on message and in synch, because if they are working in harmony, then the chances their combined ‘charisma and example’ will be overcome by an individual dysregulated child or adult will be small. Schools can rather too easily be upset by a ‘bull in their china shop’, but the power of ‘Teachers ticking to the same Tock’ cannot be over-amplified. Indeed, as anyone knows if they have attended a huge amphitheatre gathering, the expectation of the crowd is everything, and seldom disappoints!

If you want to read more on this, I highly recommend https://www.wellwithinreach.co.uk/blog/2022/1/19/be-what-you-want-to-see-the-hidden-mirror-explained

“What we know is that the electromagnetic energy field of a human body is extraordinary.
It projects a great distance away from our body, 24/7, without any conscious awareness on our part.
We basically possess a mighty forcefield that the vast majority of us just aren’t ta
pping into.”

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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