Quite a few people I know focus heavily on data and research. They’re all about if things have been tested out and if they can be replicated in their own classroom. I have no issue with this, but there are some concepts we talk about in education that are difficult to put a number to or maybe haven’t had a viable experiment published to look at. One of these concepts is the importance of relationships. I’ve written about the book The Body Keeps Score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma by Van Der Kolk before, and it is quickly moving up my favorite books list (even though it’s taking me forever to get through it, but that’s only because I somehow think I can read several professional books at the same time and I actually can’t). The book describes the psychological effects of trauma but also goes into some basics about psychology that, in our profession, explains so many things. Honestly, it’s almost uncanny.
In regards to the importance of relationships in general, Van Der Kolk says this:
The Polyvagal Theory “clarified why knowing that we are seen and heard by the important people in our lives can make us feel calm an safe, and why being ignored or dismissed can precipitate rage reactions or mental collapse.”
“Our inner mirror neurons register (others) inner experience, and our own bodies make internal adjustments to whatever we notice…When the message we receive from another person is “You’re safe with me,” we relax. If we’re lucky in our relationships, we also feel nourished, supported, and restored as we look into the face and eyes of the other.”
“The critical issue (of social support) is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart. For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety.”
And in regards to trauma directly:
“Many traumatized people find themselves chronically out of sync with the people around them.”
If we are focusing on the importance of relationships in general, our brains are wired to do whatever we can to be a part of a group because even at a subconscious level we are trying to constantly maintain relationships. When you try to redirect that child who constantly says they don’t care, they actually do. When that teacher you work with is disengaged and doesn’t want to participate in the professional development, they actually do. The issue isn’t that the desire isn’t there, it’s that they don’t know how to make that connection or voice their feelings or their social fears are louder than their desire to make things right.
Whether we believe it’s a part of our “personality” to do so or not, our brains desire to be in sync with the people around us. And while I either haven’t gotten this far in the book or it’s not in there, I would imagine that a constant or consistent lack of being able to feel in sync with the people around us, whether it’s because of trauma or not, will lead to an attitude of “not caring” as a defense mechanism. Saying “I’m going to not care because it protects me from the disequilibrium I feel by trying to unsuccessfully have a safe relationship with you” protects ourselves and is easier than trying for the relationship in the first place.
One of my best and worst qualities is the fact that I wear my heart completely on my sleeve. In the past, it was worse than it is now because I have worked really hard to school my features when it comes to communicating with people, but let’s face it, I still stink at it. When I’m loving and caring people love this about me because they feel that connection coming through. But, when I disagree they see that as well. I’ve noticed that because of this when I disagree with something people immediately get defensive without me saying a word. For me, it is an involuntary reaction. However, I wonder how many times I have made people feel out of sync with me just from an involuntary reaction that to me just means I need more information, but for them is perceived as I believe you’re wrong?
I’ve believed for a long time that relationships are the foundation for everything we do. Apparently, our brains believe that, too. So the question is, how can we shift what we do to ensure the people (kids and adults) around us feel safe and loved in order to shift their attitude back to believing in the power of relationships as well? How do our actions and beliefs about certain people perpetuate the lack of a relationship (ie if there’s a child that you don’t care for their attitude, are you perpetuating your lack of being in sync with your own nonverbal communication)? As per usual, the answer to change begins with looking inside ourselves and beginning with us.