Our earliest relationships and experiences are more important than we sometimes acknowledge. They build up the brain structures that influence the experience of relationships throughout our lives. The theory that explains this is the Attachment theory. In this article you will learn the basic principle behind the theory and how you can use this knowledge to understand the pupils better. So, how can teachers use safe relationships and heal?
The Attachment Theory
When we are 12 to 18 months old, the experiences we have with our primary caregivers are encoded in the neural circuits of our brain. This happens completely outside our consciousness. The patterns we have learned, the way we develop attachment to others, become our “rules”. These are basically templates for how we deal with other people. They have a lifelong effect on how we form relationships with other people.
In cases where these early experiences were traumatic, harmful or simply not good enough, we may develop insecure attachment patterns that limit our relationships. If to rephrase this, once we learn a way of experiencing things, it becomes difficult to learn by new experiences and information. We’re stuck and we don’t see how it could be any other way. As a result, we have difficulties learning, adapting or growing.
Fortunately, neuroscience gives us a way to deal with children in the classroom who have behavioral and/or learning problems due to insecure attachment. Although it may be difficult, we can all create new patterns of neural firing from new experiences. Each of us can combine old, even maladaptive patterns with new, more adaptable patterns of neural firing. But how can we do that in the classroom? Just be hard-wired.
What Can You Do?
Our bodies are programmed to respond to warmth, gentle touches and soft vocalization. In this way, you can invite your students to the safe place between you and them – into the safe relationship. In the course “Prevention of Early School Leaving” we train how to do this.
When the pupils feel safe in a relationship, they stay within their window of tolerance and their cortex stays functional. For the pupils to learn and stay focused in the classroom it is very important that they feel safe first. In the opposite case, if they feel threat or danger, the sympathetic nerve system arouses the amygdala to prepare for fight or flight. They can experience this as an emotional hijacking; their rational self is temporarily nowhere to be found. Another possibility if they perceive a life threat is that the parasympathetic nerve system calms everything down to the point of shut down. They go numb and freeze.
The pupils will be in their window of tolerance when they have an emotional reachable adult in the relationship who is able to be kind and have the strength to regulate themselves and in that way open towards children. Then even the traumatised child could learn and participate in the group.
Author: Ksenja Kos is a psychotherapist with many years of working experience in the fields of psychological counselling, trainings and psychoeducational work with children, adolescents, their families and teachers. In the Primera Group courses she is one of the trainers for the course Preventing Early School Leaving.