Why Social Relationships Matter in the Classroom

Posted on Mon, Apr 29, 2013 @ 04:06 PM


Dr. Louis Cozolino is a respected leader in the relatively new field of neuropsychotherapy and a psychology professor at Pepperdine University. The author of several books on social neuroscience—the study of how human brains are hardwired to connect with one another—Cozolino argues in his latest work that we can overhaul our approach to education using new understandings from this field.

Most would say that the American public education system could certainly use overhauling; few would disagree that it's broken.

Among popular ideas for fixing it is that of bringing the findings of neuroscience into the classroom. This approach may be referred to as "brain-based learning," but it often involves focusing on individual concepts taken out of context and applied piecemeal. It isn't that these research findings aren't helpful, but as Cozolino points out, "renaming teaching as 'brain-based education' while keeping the present model in place is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." The challenge lies in identifying the most pressing problems of this model and where to begin in addressing them.

Three challenges that stand out to Cozolino are each related to the fact that the current educational model is based on the production industry. "This model has proven itself over the last 150 years and works exceptionally well for making automobiles, washing machines, and chicken nuggets," he says. But to make these products well, you need to use raw materials that are all the same, tools for stamping them that are all the same, and a clear vision for the end product. Our challenges are that our raw materials are children who vary widely in their makeup; their teachers—the tools used to form them—vary just as widely in their skills and approaches; and to cap it all off, we don't have a clear vision of our final product.

"Education is supposed to prepare young people for the future," Cozolino writes. "But what future?"

The mistake is not in the raw materials, the machinery, or even necessarily our assumptions about what skills children will need to succeed. Rather, Cozolino suggests, our primary problem is in mistaking human beings for industrial products. "When a teacher begins to think of his or her classroom as an assembly line, it's time to make chicken nuggets," he says. "If we are going to move forward, we will have to admit that a one-size-fits-all model of education is doomed to fail the majority of students and teachers.”

So how do we equip children with the education and skills they will need—not only to make their best contribution to society—but also for lifelong success, whatever success might mean to them?

"What has been missed thus far in essentially all books on brain-based education," Cozolino proposes, "is the recognition that the human brain is a social organ of adaptation." In other words, the brain is equipped to adapt as necessary to navigate its environment, especially through linking to and learning from other brains "in the context of emotionally significant relationships."

A single human brain doesn't operate in a vacuum. The release of important chemicals in the brain is controlled by social interactions, and the quality of these interactions determines how well we learn.  As Cozolino puts it, "our ability to learn is regulated by how we are treated by our teachers, at home and in the classroom."

Successful teachers stimulate students’ minds and brains to learn by creating an environment that is enriched with novelty, supported by positive expectations, and characterized by safety and acceptance so that anxiety is reduced. "Anxiety is the enemy of curiosity, exploration, and new learning," Cozolino writes. A mild sense of arousal is good for learning, but in higher states chemicals are released in the brain that shut down its ability to create new connections between neurons—that is, to learn.

Unfortunately, the industrial model of education promotes anxiety and fails to cultivate what Cozolino refers to as the human "natural habitat," which calls for a context of supportive, nurturing relationships where secure attachment bonds are cultivated. In such an environment, other brain-based research concepts have a chance to succeed. But they might as well be deck chairs on the Titanic without this foundation.

If the thought of attempting to cultivate this type of classroom seems daunting to teachers, Cozolino suggests it will be well worth the journey: "As human beings, we need to connect with our students as much as they need to connect with us." Those who come out on the other side, he says, will have a new vision of what it means to be a teacher, a new sense of passion and compassion, and "the empowerment that comes with engaging in and surviving a worthy challenge."



Tags: child development, social neuroscience, attachment relationships, mind and brain

The Best Man Wore a Tie

Posted on Mon, Apr 15, 2013 @ 06:09 PM

This week's post is from one of my frequent guest bloggers, Dr. Ruth Nemzoff. A friend and mentor from Brandeis University, Dr. Nemzoff offers valuable insight into some of the most challenging of family relationships. 

I once read that a dog was the best man at a wedding. I thought I was reading a spoof, but the story was real. I understand that your best friend may indeed be an animal, and you may want to honor that relationship by making the mutt the best man. However, man’s best friend can be a family’s worst enemy. Your in-laws, whether the parents, the siblings, or the extended family, may object to your choice because of allergies, fear, or the dog's behavioral problems. In fact, while animals give comfort to some, they give the sneezes, terror and trauma to others.

During interviews for my books about relationships between parents, adult children and in-laws, I heard the following complaints:

“I am allergic to the dog, but my brother-in-law insists on bringing the animal to the ceremony.” 

“I am terrified of animals and my adult children want to bring this beast to the wedding. They say I just have to learn to overcome my fear, but I think they are unsympathetic considering I was bitten as a child.”

“My fiancé’s sister’s dog jumps on the children, eats from the table, and barks—no way is he coming to the wedding.”

A great deal of sensitivity is needed if families are to recognize both the love and deep connection some members have with their pets, and the very real problems other members have.

Allergies are real. I did not believe it myself until I saw a young boy gasping for breath after entering a home with a cat. When we enter into a relationship with another person—whether it be a spouse, a partner or a friend—we can no longer assume that only we are worthy of consideration and love. The benefits of our connection come with the obligation to understand the needs of others. Allergic reactions are unpleasant for all. If you do have a family member who is allergic, ask them if their reactions are controllable with medicine and if they would be willing to take it so that you can bring your pet along. However, if their reaction cannot be tempered by medicine, or they are reluctant to take it, health trumps animal affection. Leave your animal at home.

When a family member fears animals, much sensitivity is required. Instead of disregarding their concern as trivial, acknowledge that they have a real terror of the animal. Ask them how you might work with them to help them overcome their fear. Some people are so scared that they are unwilling to approach the idea of loving your pet. But others may express an interest in coming to terms with their fear.

I, for example, was terrified of dogs. My best friend bred Briards—huge sheepdogs—and I was too scared to even walk into her house. I liked my friend so much that I was willing to tackle my fear to spend time with her. She, however, showed great consideration by always greeting me through the closed door, letting the dogs out of the house before I entered, then calming them down and letting them smell me while she held them by their collars. Instead of ridiculing me and reassuring me about how loving her dogs were, she helped me grow accustomed to them. I never grew to love them, but I did learn to tolerate them and to achieve my main goal, which was to enjoy my friend. I tried not to belittle her interest in animals, though I think she was perhaps more successful in understanding my fear than I was in understanding her passion. In families, acknowledging the full range of human emotion and reactions goes a long way toward enabling future connections.

In another instance, I realized my fear of animals was crippling me. I was afraid to walk in the woods. So I asked a neighbor to help me. She obliged by holding her dogs while I patted them on the back, then letting them sit quietly next to me. After several days, I found I could control my panic and could even understand the joy of having a dog look up at me, smiling.

As for the discipline of the animal, if your dog jumps on visitors, grabs food off of plates, barks incessantly, or interrupts dinnertime, you need to examine what you’re doing. In this instance, the discipline of animals is similar to the discipline of children. Would you allow your child to run all over the house, yelling and stealing food while you’re trying to have a nice visit with family? Though you may treat your dog as if it is your child, there is a need to rethink your frame of mind when your animal is more badly behaved than a two-year-old child.

The animal lovers feel their charges are part of the family. Those who don’t like them consider their owners rude and inconsiderate when they bring their much-loved companion to weddings or family events without even asking, while those who treasure their pet feel targeted when they’re not allowed to bring their pet to the wedding.

Just as you shouldn’t bring a baby to a wedding without asking permission, so too should you not bring your pet without inquiring. The tensions between one’s own needs and preferences and those of another are fundamental to human relationships. How we manage them creates or destroys our future interactions. There are no perfect answers, only imperfect people willing to put up with less than perfection. 

A dog can be the best man at a wedding, but I bet if he could talk, he’d tell both his lovers and his haters to be considerate of each other’s feelings.



Ruth Nemzoff,  Ed.D., Author and Speaker: Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008)
Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, September 2012)

Tags: family relationships, pets and family

Is the Emotional Economy Suffering an Empathy Crisis?

Posted on Mon, Apr 08, 2013 @ 02:28 PM

When the world is in the throes of an economic crisis, everyone sits up and takes notice. After all, financial hardship hurts, both physically and emotionally. Without money, we become financially bankrupt and unable to supply our physical needs, which impacts our emotional well-being too. So, of course, we eagerly subscribe to news sources such as the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal, because we want to know how vulnerable we are to economic collapse at any given moment.

But are we equally concerned about our vulnerability to emotional bankruptcy? Are we fully alive to the potential fallout of a global empathy crisis? What would such a crisis look like?

The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” although an important dimension seems to be missing in this simple statement. I prefer the definition given by science writer Maia Szalavitz and child psychiatrist Bruce Perry in their 2010 book, Born for Love. “The essence of empathy,” they write, “is the ability to stand in another’s shoes, to feel what it’s like there and to care about making it better if it hurts.”

Szalavitz and Perry add theirs to the voices of many others who see empathy slipping as the tone of modern culture becomes increasingly harsh. To them, the indications of this change run the gamut “from calls for the legalization of torture to the actual practices uncovered at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and ‘torture porn’ movies like the Saw series.” They also cite reality shows that present the pain and misery of others for our ghoulish entertainment. 

But what about more subtle clues? For instance, how quick are we to jump to judgments about the intentions of others, or to offer smug “eye for an eye” solutions to complex problems? It can feel deceptively good to strike back, especially when we coat our strike with a veneer of concern and call it “tough love.”

Don’t misunderstand—firm boundaries are a vital expression of love. But the “love” part of the phrase is supposed to refer to the attitude that is clear and present in their enforcement. Unfortunately, the oft-prevailing attitude might well provoke a bystander to remark, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” 

It’s interesting that the term “tough love” was coined by therapists Phyllis and David York, who developed a program in 1979 to support parents of problem teens. The intent was to help parents lay down appropriate boundaries in a context of unconditional love

Since then, the term seems to have taken on a life of its own, however, and is now used to describe boot-camp approaches that overlook the love part of the equation almost entirely. It seems that many in our society believe love can accomplish more when unfettered by “soft” emotions like empathy and compassion. 

This is far from the case. Empathy feeds relationships; and the human brain develops in the context of relationships. When they are secure and we feel safe in them, we learn and grow. When we are stressed and afraid, learning shuts down. To think that fear, competition, anger and vengeance can reliably motivate others to new, positive ways of thinking is a serious miscalculation. And it would also be a serious miscalculation to suppose that politicizing empathy could have a positive outcome.

“Empathy is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling,” Szalavitz and Perry conclude. “It makes the modern world possible and allows the economy to grow. It’s not just a liberal thing: while conservatives may have attacked President Obama for emphasizing empathy in judges, the right wing’s opposition to violent and sexual media and its charitable missions recognize and seek to protect this quality.”

Suspicion and distrust are archenemies of empathy, which is one reason it’s much easier to extend empathy toward those in our “in-groups” rather than to outsiders. But it’s the ability to extend empathy beyond these natural barriers that is likely to make the difference in resolving some of our most complex global challenges. And while it may not solve all of them alone, Szalavitz and Perry rightly point out, “few of them can be solved without it.”

Tags: empathy, relationships, tough love