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Connection Precedes Learning and Self-regulation ~ Why Relationships are Foundational in Education and Life

Note to the reader: If you have already read my previous articles on connection and the right brain, you may wish to skip further down to the section on co-regulation.

Connection precedes learning

“Putting your students’ emotional needs first is important because without feeling safe and understood, no instructional strategy will be effective.” ~ Jasper Fox, Sr.

How often and in how many ways do we make learning far more important than connection? The school system has been designed to make learning paramount and so often at the cost of the core biological need to bond. This breaks the hearts of so many teachers I present to, leaving them in tears, angry, frustrated. They dearly want to connect with their students, but find it extremely difficult given the expectations of the institution and classroom size. They dearly want to listen to and connect to their own hearts, and do what they know is best for their students.

For teachers to connect with their students they need to be given the permission and space to connect to what is true within—their intuition, their imagination, their impulse to improvise and follow. Their joy is directly connected to the children’s joy. The more teachers genuinely enjoy teaching, the more students will likely enjoy learning. The more teachers can have the freedom to flow with what is happening in the classroom, the more they can make learning come alive.

But this is difficult when there is a 30:1 ratio of students to teachers and an overwhelming amount of learning outcomes to achieve, outcomes that in so many ways do not serve children.

There is also the immense pressures parents place on their little ones. How often is what a child learned in school far more important than how much they enjoyed themselves? How much do we emphasize future success over present moment exploration—product over process?

“Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.” ~ Finnish sayingClick To Tweet

And yet, we know that connection is foundational to human development and learning. It’s why the right brain develops first—by the age of four, in fact. The logical left brain, in charge of ABC’s and 123’s, doesn’t come online until the age of seven.

Take that in for a moment…

The right brain, amongst other things, processes our capacity for listening and empathy; it’s what allows us to connect to—feel—the emotional landscape of another. The left brain, on the other hand, helps us discern the parts of life, and how to organize, quantify and categorize those parts. For instance, while the right brain senses the emotional tone of what another person is saying, the left brain processes the spoken words. The right brain hears what’s underneath and between those words, while the left brain assesses the more tangible parts, the language itself.

The fact that the right brain develops first is evidence that connection is primary to our nature (not academics). Being with is more foundational than learning the facts of life; hence, human being, not human doing. And so, if children are to feel safe to learn, and if they are to have their natural learning instincts fostered, that foundational connection must be tended to. It must be made primary in adult-child relationships, whether in school or at home.

“If children feel safe, they can take risks, ask questions, make mistakes, learn to trust, share their feelings, and grow.” ~ Alfie Kohn

Connection precedes self-regulation

“Born with limited capacity for self-regulation, human infants are dependent on the externally mediated interactive regulation of their primary attachment figures…“ ~ Pat Ogden, Trauma and the Body

Along with being the foundation for academic learning, connection is foundational in developing the brain and nervous system, as well.

The orbitoprefontal cortex region of the brain is “especially important because of its profound effect on self-regulation.” It supports “social engagement”, which assists the child to self-regulate, and conditions a “balanced relationship between sympathetic and parasympathetic arousal.” Children do not get stuck in energetic activation, emotional arousal or vigilance/alertness (sympathetic fight or flight response), nor do they swing the other way into numbing, immobilization and general shutdown (dorsal vagal branch of the parasympathetic nervous system). They remain in what Daniel Siegel calls, “The window of tolerance”, where a “regulated autonomic nervous system exhibits continuous, gentle oscillations” between sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. This is known as homeostasis

The maturing brain of infants relies on certain behaviours to self-soothe. As this article suggests, “infants have some limited self-directed regulatory behaviors such as thumb sucking, visual avoidance and withdrawal.” However, as the same article goes on to say, “these behaviors have limited effectiveness.” This is because, for infants, the developing brain and self-regulatory capacities depend on the bonding presence of their primary caregivers. Little ones need to feel or attune to their caregiver’s regulated state. They need to feel felt. In other words, infants need their primary attachment figures for co-regulation (also known as interactive regulation). The caregiver’s calm engenders the child’s calm. The parent’s sense of well-being, expressed particularly through touch, nurtures the infant’s. The caregiver’s soothing energy and tactile gestures help develop the child’s orbitoprefontal cortex and her capacity to self-soothe.

If you simply teach a child self-regulation, as we increasingly do in schools, and without a child being naturally regulated through earlier bonding patterns with primary attachment figures, then it’s more skills than anything that they gain. And while those skills may help to a certain extent, self-regulation will feel more like effort for the child because there isn’t a foundation of a regulated system to build upon. Again, the orbitoprefontal cortex doesn’t naturally develop in the way it needs to outside a co-regulating, relational context. More so, if children are able to self-regulate through those learnt skills, the regulated state cannot easily hold or sustain itself long-term. The necessary relational foundation has not made its imprint on the child’s nervous system.

By focusing so much attention on teaching self-regulation without addressing the biological need for co-regulation, we are asking children to do things on their own that they are biologically designed to do in relationship. We are correcting and directing children without adequately connecting.

“When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not to join their chaos.” ~ L.R. Knost

Relationship is foundational
“With children, it is the joint moments of delight that build the social brain.” ~ Mariah MoserClick To Tweet

We forget sometimes that we are relational beings. We thrive in community, in relationship to animals, to nature as a whole. And we grow and develop through our relationships with others, namely our primary caregivers. Our self-esteem, our sense of place in the world, and our nervous system are dependent on those delicate bonds with others, especially in the formative years.

We can look no further than the wisdom of indigenous peoples to remind us of this. They know something we have forgotten in the West. During an infant’s first few years, the parents carry their child in a sling for much of the day, close to their beating hearts, while tending to the fields and domestic duties. And they sleep with their children as well. More so, it’s common that children are not disciplined by the parents, but by aunts and uncles; for, families understand how important it is for children to maintain a healthy “secure attachment” with their parents.

Children are at the center of the village, surrounded by parents, uncles, aunts, elders, and other villagers. And there are plenty of children for them to play with, children of all ages to learn from and grow with. Indeed, in comparison to children in the West, children in indigenous communities are rarely left alone; they are nurtured and fed by the larger communal system, including nature.

We in the West have much to learn from our Native friends. The modern world loves its self-sufficiency, its individuated lifestyles, and suffers the consequences of nuclear families bereft of an extended family to support child rearing and learning. Elder, Malidoma Some, speaks to this in his book, The Healing Wisdom of Africa: “When children are raised by a whole village, they do not grow up expecting their biological parents to provide for all their emotional needs.”

The traditional classroom is a clear symptom of a self-oriented culture. Rather than a village raising / educating a child (in hunter-gatherer societies learning comes through relationships with older children and elders, amongst others), it is a single teacher who so often spends more time with the children than the parents do—one teacher to thirty students, many with special needs, leaving teachers over-worked, feeling under-appreciated, stressed, trying to meet the requirements of the left-brain institution, while bypassing the wisdom in their hearts and their longing to connect right brain to right brain with students.

Without a relational approach to education, the gifts and purpose inherent in children are easily overlooked. Didactic teaching styles make education one-way, not two-way. In tribal societies, by contrast, it is essential to assist the growing child to discover (or remember) her immanent gifts and purpose, for the village’s livelihood depends on them. Initiation is a part of this process.

The etymology of education comes from the Latin, educere, which means to draw out. Yet amongst the many education circles I travel in, it is not practiced, let alone acknowledged. Education is more about the teacher being the keeper of knowledge (individual) than accessing the resourcefulness inherent in each child (relational).

Children are not empty vessels waiting to be filled, but rather vessels of infinite joy and wisdom waiting to be expressed.

It’s no wonder we prioritize teaching self-regulation to children and have little to no knowledge of co-regulation and its relevance in child development. I speak to thousands of teachers a year, and only a handful have ever heard of co-regulation (let alone educere). Almost all of them, however, know of self-regulation.

Again, self over us. This is not the teacher’s fault, but rather a clear statement about the West’s proclivity to individualism.

There is a danger in focusing so much on self-regulation. Dysregulation is made to be about the child, alone, and it is not honestly and fully acknowledged as being symptomatic of a larger system (school, family, community). Even if we empathetically feel their behaviour to be symptomatic of a larger systemic problem, which so many teachers do, by teaching self-regulation we subtly (or not so subtly) convey the message to children that it is about them—they are the ones with the problem; not us, we’re just fine over here.

In certain indigenous communities, if someone is acting out, the village perceives the person as acting out something on behalf of the whole. Their sickness is the voice of the village’s unresolved sickness; just as if there is sickness in our arm, a holistic doctor sees that illness as connected to the entire body, not limited to the arm. An allopathic doctor, who focuses more on symptoms, may treat the arm alone, not realizing the illness is associated with liver problems (suppressed anger), unresolved trauma and incomplete survival responses. Indeed, like the holistic doctor, the members of the village do not see any part as distinctly separate. The troubled person is thus the responsibility of the whole village.

In contrast, we in the West make the dis-ease about the child. We give them toxic medication to help them with their symptoms of anxiety, not realizing that these symptoms are so often a product of children not having had their bonding needs met. Their acting out is on behalf of the larger whole. Their trauma is the voice of unresolved family or ancestral trauma, which are symptoms of larger, ongoing societal trauma. Their pain, their “behavioural issues”, are messages we continue to ignore and fail to sufficiently take responsibility for. 

Developmental trauma forms in children when we inadequately meet their core biological need for secure attachment via neglect, abuse, toxic family climates, etc.; when we fail to create a safe and nurturing environment. This trauma often gets reinforced or worsened once in a school system where children do not feel safe or seen. But what’s particularly important, and widely misunderstood, is that developmental trauma cannot heal outside a relational context. Rather, it must heal in relationship because it was in relationship that it formed in the first place. Any somatic, trauma-informed psychotherapist will tell you that.

Again, in tribal societies, such traumas / dis-eases are taken care of by the village, often using rituals that draw upon the healing properties of nature (relationship with nature) and the ancestors (relationship with spirit), not by one person, and certainly not through anything as harmful as our pharmaceuticals.

Indeed, the power and necessity of relationships as foundational in learning and self-regulation is largely forgotten here in the West. We attempt to fill the minds of children, while missing the vast resourcefulness of their heart and soul. We correct and direct far more than connect, thus reinforcing dysregulation and a fear of learning (fear of doing things wrong). We myopically attempt to “fix” with medication and by teaching self-regulation, while missing the underlying, unmet relational needs, as well as ignoring our own trauma and the trauma embedded in the larger family and community systems.

Connection must be foundational if children are to grow up with a strong sense of self and with their instinctual desire to learn in tact; and it must be prioritized if teachers and students alike are to have fulfillment within the classroom walls, and if the education system itself is to have a chance.

About the author: Vince Gowmon presents keynotes and playshops and offers somatic Life Coaching and Counselling in person, on Skype and over the phone. For more of his writing, subscribe to his free e-newsletter. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults

Related training:
Teacher as Leader and Learner ~ Inspiring Engaged Co-Creative Learning
Keynote topics

Related reading:
Pause For Love ~ Remember Who You Are, Why You Are Here and What Matters Most
The Right Brain Develops First ~ Why Play is the Foundation for Academic Learning
Nurturing Goodness in Children and Ourselves ~ The Indigenous Nature of Soul
Re-Imagining Education ~ Awakening the Gifts and Purpose Inherent in Each Child
When Kids Long for Your Ignorance More than Your Knowledge

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