Relationships – They Know What You’re Thinking
A relationship between a teacher and their student is generally accepted as being the critical factor in the successful engagement of the child in learning. Just how these relationships evolve will give teachers a clue to developing and maintaining this most important dynamic in the classroom.
How or the type of relationship reflects the environment in which the child is raised. Remember it is the environment that builds or changes the neurologic structure of the brain. If the first experiences are good then there is a flow on effect that allows future bonds to be easily made. Of course the converse is true and the severe dysfunctional kids we are focusing on will have a reduced ability to form healthy relationships.
The emergence of a relationship for a child occurs from the very first interaction with their caregiver usually their mum. Evidence that they are seeking a connection comes almost at birth evidenced by, from the very beginning mothers and others can get a baby to smile and ‘giggle’ by their attention. In fact from a very early age, if you poke your tongue out at an infant they are very likely to return the gesture. Now the tongue is a complex muscle and not easily controlled however this reflected behaviour is attributed to our mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons were first observed at the University of Parma in Italy where a team of researchers, Rizzolatti, Gallese and Fogassi were trying to map the neurological pathways of a chimp performing a motor action. The experiment was in a break but the chimp was still wired to the recording device. One of the experimenters picked up a piece fruit and the part of the chimp’s brain associated with movement lit up despite the monkey remaining still. Subsequent work has shown these mirror neurons exist in humans as well.
The crucial thing about these neurons is they send messages without any cognitive assistance; that is they convey massages without words. These are the non-verbal communications that supply the emotional content of the relationship. They help us understand the others’ emotions and they also communicate intentions. In one famous experiment the subjects were faced with a dinner table. In one sequence the subjects were exposed to a table that is ready for dinner to start. In the second condition the table looked as if it was ready to be cleaned up. Although the items were identical different parts of the brain were in use. This indicated that the subjects had anticipated what comes next.
One of the findings around these studies is that children who suffer Autism or Asperger’s have fewer mirror neurons than the average child. This may account for these children’s struggle to accurately read the feelings or intentions of others. Of course this is only a small part of this very complex disease but may go some way to explaining their difficulty in successfully integrating in a big classroom.
As far as the emotional message is concerned the exchange from one person to others is contagious. Everyone knows if one person yawns it is very likely his or her companions will join in. The same with laughter or sadness they are infectious. Emotions such as Guilt, shame disgust, pride, etc. are all communicated through this system of mirror neurons
It is important for teachers to remember the students get 93% of the emotional content of any message through your facial expression, tone of voice and posture. These messages will be automatic and unconscious because they are communicated through the mirror neurons.
Because of this the authenticity of insincere messages are very hard to fake. Paul Ekman the famous psychologist from the University of California studied facial expressions and concluded that there are 90 different facial muscles that can produce 10,000 different facial expressions. These give us information about our intentions. They fill in the gap between what we say and what we mean.
As pointed out earlier students with early childhood trauma have rarely had positive experiences in forming healthy relationships. The style of relationship formed reflects the environment it is experienced in and if they haven’t been exposed to nurturing relationships they will find accepting positive relationships difficult later in life. These students:
- Minimise or misinterpret positive stimuli
- Are hypersensitivity to negative social cues
- Find it extremely difficult to understand or read non-verbal cues
- Have a high propensity to be overwhelmed by the emotional content of any incoming stimulus.
These students are at a disadvantage, they think everyone is against them and they even suspect or misconstrue the intentions of the most positive teacher. But this is just another example of the chance we have to have a positive impact on the behaviours of these most needy kids.
We have to remember that the brain is a work in progress and they can change. However, to make that change in these most difficult/damaged students will take a great deal of effort. But they can be taught how to create relationships. This involves the teaching of social and emotional skills to change the structure of the brain and constant repetition strengthens these changes. This is part of the interventions to assist the children suffering Autism or Asperger’s.
We have to remember these children are not their traits; they are not locked into a genetic destiny. They have the ability to change and you can effect this change through your treatment of these most needy children.