HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Secure Attachment: A New Cornerstone for Learning

by Elana Katz Issue: The Whole Student

The author offers a tool from the field of therapy to help schools grasp the relation between students’ emotional needs and their success as learners.

The field of neuroscience has offered the important finding that emotion is the on-off switch for learning. In practical terms, this means that the emotional brain has control precedence, so when faced with a choice to reflect/analyze/study, or the perception of psychological or physical distress, the brain will respond to the distress or danger cue every time. That very wiring in the brain could be a key to survival. This is the same wiring that rushes a child out of the way if, while thinking about their school work, a bicycle—or a car—is racing toward her. We want that wiring. At the same time, it means that if there is emotional distress, the brain is preoccupied, and it will be very hard to engage the thoughtful and analytical skills that the child needs for learning.

Given how much stress exists in today’s world, this could read like an excuse for many kids to get a pass on their assignments. It is in fact intended as an opportunity to highlight an important resource to help children focus on their work. There is a “secret weapon” to calm the emotional right brain and engage the thinking left brain, known as secure attachment. Each child needs at least one relationship that functions as a safe haven and a secure base in order to optimize his or her capacity to learn. Secure attachment means that in distress we can turn to a trusted other, signal our need, and receive an attuned, caring response. Whereas we used to relegate attachment needs to the mother-infant dyad, we now understand this to be a basic, lifelong need, one that we experience from cradle to grave.

Any number of children going through school will have multiple relationships that reflect this kind of security: loving parents or stepparents, grandparents and extended family, and positive relationships with multiple teachers and coaches, not to mention a number of good friends. For other students their lives, both at home and at school, are much more challenging, and they long for, but do not have this experience. Emotional distress at home or difficulty with peers makes it harder to focus in the classroom, they may well get into trouble (behavioral or academic) at school, and if an academic or behavioral focus prevails, a negative report to the home or principal may become a source of scolding or punishment, rather than an exploration of the distress.

If this occurs, the child’s problems are compounded. They either retreat from the negative report/experience at school and the reprimand at home, or they come back swinging in some fashion, all the while their sense of selves and their own capacities are ever more in question. This self-doubt leaving them more preoccupied and less responsive, less able to learn, yielding more negative feedback or reprimands, and the cycle continues and often escalates.

So what is this “secure attachment” about and what can an educator do to help? Most importantly, a first response to a child whose work is incomplete or inaccurate, or who has caused some disruption, would be one that is curious, supportive, and offers room for the child to tell her or his story of what is going on. How can the relevant adults team up to find out how they can support this child, and find out what may be interfering with his learning?

A strength-based, humanistic approach to human behavior presumes that children want to do well, to finish their homework, and that they (like adults) may hit impasses, that they get stuck, rather than viewing them as characterologically flawed in some way. A teacher can be a safe haven who can engage the child and also help broker an effective conversation with a parent so that everyone can work together to get the learning on track, or back on track, as soon as possible. A child who feels that the adults do not want to blame or shame, but would rather understand and support, will remember and internalize those helpful voices for years to come, and increase his or her sense of self-worth in the process.

Even at the most extreme end of the spectrum, I often hear very moving stories from adults who reflect back on a profoundly problematic childhood and remember one adult who was there, who believed in them, and the impact that presence had over time. Decades before teachers served as mandatory reporters, and long before abuse was recognized as being of concern, a patient of mine had an elementary school teacher who would help her with her ponytail each morning so that her hair could look like the other girls. While (sadly) she was never asked why no one at home could help her with her grooming, that small, unspoken act of kindness was something that she held on to and remembered more than twenty-five years later as part of what pulled her through a very troubled, and at times dangerous, family situation.

A yoga teacher once told me that when two children get into a fight on the playground and one is bullying the other, the one who has been picked on needs a hug, and the bully needs an even bigger hug. Seeing children as “troubled” vs. “trouble” and finding ways to generate a safe and concerned presence for them is an enormous gift that allows them to open up, to experience the world as safe and caring, and once they are reassured, helps them turn on that switch and focus on all they need to learn.♦

Elana Katz LCSW is on the senior faculty of the Ackerman Institute for the Family, and serves as board secretary of the New York Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy. She can be reached at elanakatz@gmail.com.

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The Whole Student

One way that day schools stand out is the attention they can provide to each and every student, as expressed in the classic line from Proverbs, “Educate the youth according to his or her path.” Authors here offer numerous ways for schools to address the multi-faceted student to ensure that s/he is nurtured academically, spiritually, creatively and socially. 

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