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

Attachment: More Than a Parenting Style

Posted on Fri, Mar 01, 2013 @ 09:39 AM

RadioMDsmHave you ever heard someone say that they don't agree with attachment?  Well, in all likelihood, what they really mean is that they don’t like the popular parenting styles that go by the label attachment parentingAttachment and attachment parenting are not interchangeable terms. Attachment parenting is simply one way that parenting gurus have tried to apply the scientific understanding of attachment theory. To say one disagrees with attachment is somewhat like saying one disagrees with the theory of relativity.

Unfortunately, Time’s famously provocative magazine cover that came out almost a year ago didn’t go very far in clearing up this kind of misunderstanding. The media debates that followed called on all the popular parenting experts, from attachment-parenting guru Mayim Bialik—who actually has a neuroscience degreeto Pamela Druckerman, an American freelance journalist living in France, who wrote about what she admired in the French parenting approach. Even the Tiger Mom was dragged into the debate, although her book was actually a personal memoir rather than a parenting book. 

Of course, the point was to get everyone into debate mode, because that’s what often sells—so the media frenzy focused on the differences between the approaches rather than the similarities.  And there were similarities to be seen if you understand what attachment is. Unfortunately, as brain researchers tell us, the way our brain works in debate mode is that we typically decide what arguments to buy into—not by weighing the issues, although we like to think that’s what we do—but by jumping to emotional conclusions about what we like or don’t like, and we do it pretty much at first sight without thinking much about grey areas. 

This is essentially what happened in the attachment parenting debate that played out in the media after Time’s story was published. And it did play out mostly in the media—real mothers are too busy to obsess very much about what other mothers may be doing. 

Unfortunately, during this debate the opportunity to actually inform parents about what children DO need was completely missed, disappearing down that huge chasm that exists between research and popular opinion. It’s not just that opponents of attachment parenting that misunderstand attachment research. Even its supporters don’t always understand. And the media is no less in the dark.

As just one example, you might have seen the term “attached parents” in some books and articles.

This term is scientifically meaningless. It reflects a basic misunderstanding of attachment bonds. By definition an attachment bond is one in which you’re seeking security and comfort, and of course, parents aren’t looking to their kids for security and comfort, so you wouldn’t say a parent is “attached.”  The other side of that is that all children—even abused children—become attached to their caretakers. They will have a dysfunctional attachment style because they aren’t receiving the security and comfort they desperately need, but they are still “attached.” 

Of all the other attachment relationships we grow up to have throughout our lives, our parents are especially important because we need them to provide security and help us regulate distress during a crucial period of brain development: the first two years of life. The process of parent-infant bonding teaches us to make certain assumptions about our social world, including how we should expect others to respond to us in the future. So it’s laying the foundation for our future emotional and mental health. Sometimes what we’re learning is very tragic—and of course we’ll see the results down the road. And research is finding that it’s not only mental health that suffers when there’s dysfunctional attachment, but also physical health.

On the other hand, when parents do engage—when they attune to a child’s needs and respond with comfort and security, the attachment is “secure,” and we have the foundation we need for emotional regulation and general well being.  

Is attachment parenting the only way to work toward secure attachment? Not at all. It can take you there, but so can many other approaches. In fact, Attachment parenting is just as scientifically meaningless as the term “attached parent.” It implies that there is a specific set of parenting practices underlying secure attachment. This isn’t the case. There is attachment research . . . and then there are a lot of different people’s ideas about how to apply what we’ve learned from that research.

When researchers John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth first developed attachment theory in the 50s and 60s, they weren’t trying to define limits for how long babies can be allowed to cry or how old they should be when they’re weaned. Instead, they focused on the core idea that our emotional and social development depends heavily on responsive relationships with caregivers during early life. For more than half a century, almost every field related to the development of the mind for has continued their research—and in the last 20 years neuroscientists have been out in the forefront with new tools that allow us to confirm that in all the essentials, Bowlby was right.

The very different term, attachment parenting, was coined by parenting gurus. It initially outlined an approach by pediatrician William Sears in The Baby Book, a popular parenting manual written in 1992, but more recently it has been applied to the slightly different approach popularized by Bialik. Her book, Beyond the Sling does not refer to Sears at all, focusing instead on Bowlby’s research. Of course, Bowlby himself didn’t actually coin the phrase “attachment parenting.”  And he certainly didn’t set down a prescribed list of parenting practices.

To be fair, neither does Bialik, when it really comes down to it. She is pretty straightforward in admitting that many of her recommendations go beyond “good-enough” parenting and may not be for everyone. But the core of her philosophy does square with Bowlby’s attachment theory because it’s all about being attuned and responsive to the needs of children. That said, so is the philosophy behind Druckerman’s “French” parenting. And even the Tiger mom, by the end of her book, came around to realizing her confrontational approach wasn’t working.  Clearly any parenting philosophy that advocates empathy—and a sensitive emotionally responsive approach is going to be in the right ballpark.

This is good news for parents. The takeaway point is, if last year’s cover of Time didn’t resonate with you, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. You don’t have to be a proponent of attachment parenting to apply attachment research to your own parenting style. The important thing is to stimulate the right kind of growth in your child's brain through attuned, responsive interactions, thereby laying the foundation for empathy, self-regulation, and the social and emotional intelligence that will support his or her mental health far into the future.


Attachment: Battleground in the Parenting Wars?
It may be the latest buzzword in parenting circles, but the concepts underlying “attachment parenting” aren’t clearly understood by most people—including many of those who practice it. Exactly what is attachment, and what does it have to do with parenting?

Tags: attachment, attachment relationships, attachment parenting