The Social Side of Education
“Many children are just a bad fit for the institutional education we have,” said Cozolino. “Does that mean they aren’t intelligent? No, it just means their way of learning did not work with a one-size-fits-all institution.”
In his book, Cozolino explores the connection between the brain and human relationships and the implications on student learning. In particular, he emphasizes its importance for students from dysfunctional home environments and dangerous communities, as well as for those who learn in seemingly unconventional ways.
“If children are being abused or neglected at home, their level of stress is generally going to be higher,” Cozolino said. “Not only will they not have the support they need at home to facilitate learning, but the stress and insecurity about their relationships at home actually handicaps their brains’ ability to learn.”
When students’ stress levels are low, the neural systems dedicated to learning enable them to pay attention, learn, and remember. These systems shut down when students are experiencing high levels of stress. A child’s ability to connect positively with a parent in their early years (secure attachment) also plays a critical role.
“Learning and stress are intimately connected,” Cozolino said. “When children are able to form secure attachments to parents and teachers, it enhances enthusiasm for learning, positive memory, and deregulates the stress that can impair learning.”
Cozolino explained that in the brain of a child with insecure attachments, feelings of shame can develop due to the child’s perception that they lack value or the ability to be loved. He said that the shame that comes from abuse or neglect has a lifetime effect on how the children view their ability to learn, their aspirations, or their belief in their ability to succeed.
“For students already dealing with feelings of shame, a school test is inevitably a negative experience because they won’t do perfectly and will feel more ashamed at their perceived shortcomings,” said Cozolino. “For a secure student, a test can be a challenge or an opportunity to prove themselves or make their teacher happy.”
So how are teachers supposed to manage students facing varying levels of stress? Cozolino recommends a move from training teachers in the principles of classroom management, which generally focuses on discipline, to instead focusing on developing skills in classroom leadership.
“There needs to be a shift from information dissemination and control to creating a synergistic, interactive environment where the students are a team, or tribe, working towards a common goal,” Cozolino said. “What makes students successful is their ability to know how to work and love, and teachers are not taught to focus on that aspect of education.”
By having this mindset, Cozolino believes that teachers would have stronger relationships with their students, which would in turn allow them to more easily recognize and address issues such as depression, anxiety, or drug abuse. He said that training in recognizing the signs of mental-health issues is valuable for educators, but without a connection to the student, the teacher may not be able to help direct the student to the proper resources.
But is this too much to ask? Teacher burnout is already a topic of concern.
“There’s too much expectation combined with not enough support. It’s almost like institutional bullying,” Cozolino said. “Like students, when teachers feel thwarted, isolated, or bullied, they become ashamed, demoralized, and hopeless.”
Cozolino said feeling unappreciated is a key cause for teacher burnout and that many teachers may feel they need to repress these feelings. He stresses that negative emotions are not something to be avoided as unexpressed emotions may manifest as physical symptoms or unconsciously in attitudes towards students and colleagues.
“If teachers are getting bullied by the system and students are getting bullied by other students, then you have a room full of traumatized people that are pretending to learn,” Cozolino said. “The people that are more likely to avoid burnout are those who are able to stay flexible with changes, are realistic about administration expectations, and are able to gather positive social support.”
To avoid the sense of defeat that institutional systems can impose on teachers, Cozolino recommends developing a sub-system, a tribe, which allows for basic social needs to be met. Ideally, this would be accomplished with the support of the principal but it should at least be attempted in the classroom.
If Cozolino had his way, he would create a school system with a fluid structure that allowed students to gravitate towards the teachers that inspired them.
“I would want a lot of spirited, crazy teachers who would want to experiment with all types of things,” Cozolino said. “It’s an incredible shame that the teachers that are most idealistic are at the highest risk for burnout because with their forward thinking, they could really capture the imaginations of the students.”
In the book’s introduction, Cozolino states that he sees teaching as a social, interpersonal attachment-based endeavor that is incompatible with the current public education system. He wanted to use fields such as social neuroscience and social psychology to better understand why successful teachers are successful and what that implies about how students learn.
“My main goal was to explore the humanity of the teacher and the quality of the student-teacher relationship as the scientific center of teaching,” Cozolino said. “The science behind the art of teaching may be challenging, but the reward is a deeper understanding of classroom and learning dynamics that influence educators’ methods and emotions.”
Learn more about Cozolino’s published work by visiting bit.ly/Cozolino.
Top Four Emotional Competencies for Teachers
Self-awareness is important for anyone in a helping profession who deals intensely with emotions and relationships on a daily basis. In order for teachers to form secure attachments with their students, it’s critical they be aware of their own attachment patterns. The degree to which educators are emotionally clear is the degree to which they can be present for and attuned to their students’ needs.
Empathy is simply being with the students in their emotions, and demonstrating understanding. It helps students develop self-awareness (“What am I feeling?”), self-management (“How can I manage these feelings?”), and responsible decision-making (“What do I do with these feelings?”).
Emotional expression & realness
Emotional expression is identifying and conveying one’s own emotions, as well as perceiving those of others. When teachers demonstrate healthy emotional expression, they can serve as positive emotional role models to their students. Teachers should aim to “be real” about whatever they’re experiencing, and be upfront about what they don’t know. This transparency can create a classroom environment where students are free to make mistakes, share ideas, and grow in the face of challenges.
Sometimes teachers must act in ways that make them unpopular. Those lacking the inner strength and understanding of their own personal value, separate from external sources, can inadvertently seek out approval in ways that do not serve their students.