If your children or grandchildren are anything like mine, they were looking forward to starting school after the long, hot summer, equipped with their new books and school supplies. No doubt, you, too, are hoping that their enthusiasm about learning will last. All too often, not far into the school year, children complain about too much homework, teachers not being fair, boring classes, bullying on the playground, and the list goes on. What, if anything, can we do to help our children look forward to school and keep their natural bias to learn and grow?
In a nutshell, the answer is to cultivate secure teacher-student attachment. Let me illustrate with a true story. A girl in the third grade who was getting ready for school one morning, remarked to her mother, “I don’t want to get slapped again by my teacher.” Her mother, startled by this comment, asked her what she meant by being slapped. “I didn’t actually get slapped,” she replied, “but the nasty face my teacher makes is worse because she uses it all morning.” This student did only the minimum that was required of her. She did not seek to be close to her teacher or to take counsel with her. Nor did she see her teacher as a role model that she would like to emulate. To put it simply, the girl was not attached to her teacher. As a result, she also lost her enthusiasm for learning.
On the other hand, when a student is attached to her teacher, she wants to be close. She loves her teacher and wants to be like her. She is motivated to do her best to learn and succeed.
If you can picture the well-known image of the mother goose followed by a neat, orderly row of goslings, you get a glimpse of the attachment dynamic in nature. Mother goose is the compass point for her goslings, and she need not worry that they will go astray. This unseen force is what needs to be harnessed between parents and children as well as teachers and students, so that children will maintain their orientation towards the adults responsible for them. The child might not know where you are leading him, but he will follow with trust. This is the true source of a teacher’s authority and ability to teach and influence. This can make the difference in whether or not a child will look forward to coming to school. To the child, school must feel like a safe, secure place where he is cared for. He knows he will find comfort and consolation from his teacher or from other caring members of the school staff. Of course, every child needs to feel this at home, too.
Until this need is met, the child’s brain is not free to learn. This is the number one priority on the brain’s agenda! Learning is a luxury! A 5-year-old complained to his parents that he doesn’t want to go to kindergarten anymore, because “no one is in charge.” Upon investigation, the parents learned that there was a bully among the children, and their son took the side of the bully in order to avoid being pushed around by him because the teacher was not solving the problem. “No one is in charge” was the child’s way of saying, “No one is protecting me from getting hurt. Being in school is too alarming for me!” As a result, this child became aggressive and uncooperative. Although research shows that while children who are in daycare or preschool before the age of 5 show improvements in cognitive performance, the results are the opposite for emotional health and intelligence. Researchers have found that levels of stress hormones are high in young children whose emotional needs are not taken care of, and this can lead to aggressive behavior, noncompliance, anxiety and depression, even years later in life. In this environment, there is no room for creative thought and interest.
Whether a child is in daycare, elementary or hi-school, his attachment needs should be taken care of as a first priority. What does an attachment-based environment look like? The teacher greets and welcomes her students with warmth and a smile. Throughout the day, she finds ways to let each student know she cares about him/her. She focuses on her students’ good intentions and personal development instead of on behavior and performance. She knows how to support a child’s interests, curiosity and natural desire to learn, instead of motivating through competition and prizes. She helps her students feel safe and protects them from being shamed, hurt or bullied. She believes in her students and sees the goodness in them. She welcomes the parents of her students into the learning process.
Our goal should be to create learning environments that are attachment-based, in which teachers give their students the sense of home, safety and security they need to be able to focus on learning and thinking creatively. Shoshana Hayman is a Faculty Member of the Neufeld Institute, Director of Life Center, www.lifecenter.org.il and lecturer at the Lander Institute Jerusalem Academic College.