Applying Attachment Theory in Schools

An Interview with Lou Cozolino

Ryan Howes

Many of us had that special teacher, the one who went beyond the standard protocol and treated us like more than a student. Mine was Miss Corrigan, my second-grade teacher, who fed my will to achieve through her gentle encouragement and warm smile. I wanted to do well, but when my will waned, I still wanted to do well for her. As I struggled through elementary penmanship and basic multiplication, I knew I didn’t want to let her down. Was this the essential fuel for whatever academic achievement I’ve attained in life?

Pepperdine professor-psychotherapist Lou Cozolino, author of The Neuroscience of Human Relationships and The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, would say yes. He believes that the key to improving our schools is learning how to incorporate an understanding of attachment theory and social neuroscience into our educational system. Throughout his career, he’s devoted himself to bridging the world of academic research with the realm of practical applications.

Recently, he’s turned his attention to the educational system with his book The Social Neuroscience of Education and the forthcoming Attachment-Based Teaching. In a world in which test scores rule and curricula are king, he proposes the radical idea that relationships are actually the key to improved academic performance. In this conversation, he shared his thoughts about the role of social neuroscience in both the classroom and the consultation room.

* * *

Ryan Howes: You’re someone who’s interested in applying the ideas that come out of attachment theory and neuroscience to arenas outside of psychotherapy, especially our troubled educational system. What are you discovering?

Cozolino: Currently, there’s a cottage industry of “brain-based learning,” most of which is just a waste of time because it’s all about narrow principles of cognitive psychology--- like “How can teachers best structure classroom content?” and “What are the best techniques for helping students remember things?”---that don’t look at the interpersonal learning environment of the classroom. As a result, most of the research about education isn’t very useful because it leaves some of the most important variables. We need to do more to apply what we know about interpersonal neuroscience and the impact of attachment on learning if we’re going to make the systematic changes in our educational system that we need.

RH: So what’s wrong systemically?

Cozolino: Historically, most people learned in a tribal context from others they were related to about things that were important and had survival value. The current education system has abandoned that model and hasn’t been working well, especially for students labeled uneducable. These students are the ones the system gives up on. In New York City, where I grew up, it usually meant black kids, and in Los Angeles, it’s often Mexican kids. There’s a feeling these kids are so socially disadvantaged that they just don’t have what it takes to learn.

The starting point in my research was to find teachers, or anyone, who could take these kids and get through to them. I began by finding a group of a dozen teachers who somehow had developed a track record of taking kids that everyone else had given up on and turning them around. I was interested in finding out about their methods and exactly how they created a learning environment in their classrooms. It slowly dawned on me that there was a common element in all these cases: they’d all found a way to reestablish the social--emotional context of the tribe.

By that I mean they’d discovered how to establish an environment for connection, belongingness, and a group identity. After all, the social brain evolved in tribes, and what these gifted teachers were doing was leveraging the kids’ basic social instincts to stimulate neuroplastic processes in students who otherwise weren’t able to learn in the traditional educational system. I was especially interested in the connection between the attachment circuitry in the brain and activating the neuroplasticity necessary for learning, especially with kids who were otherwise turned off to learning.

RH: What might a tribal classroom look like?

Cozolino: A tribal classroom simulates an environment of collaboration, mutual support, and secure attachment, which turns the brains back on. What I observed in those classrooms was that they were full of students who ranged from the gifted to the autistic, and the kids at one end of the skill spectrum were able to learn from those at the other end. What was important was that the gifted kids needed to feel sufficiently challenged and the lower-functioning students needed to feel connected enough so that they were part of the group as well. It’s important for everyone to feel as if they contribute and belong. That doesn’t fit today’s assembly-line educational approach.

For example, in the traditional classroom, students sit in rows and face the teacher, who represents the repository of wisdom that everyone has to drink in. Alternatively, tribes sit in circles, and each person brings something to the table. In tribal learning, education isn’t a separate process: it’s part of life. The goal is to make the classroom more like everyday life and teach the information in the context of activity. When you can restructure the assembly-line classroom into a natural, family-like environment, you’re likelier to stimulate the brain in ways that enhance learning.

This blog is excerpted from “The Tribal Classroom.” Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Attachment Theory | Aging

Tags: ACA | emotion | kids | learning | neuroplasticity | neuroscience | plasticity | psychology | psychotherapist | psychotherapy | science | secure attachment | SPECT | TED | therapist

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