Science

Science: How Relationships Drive Learning

Our work at FuelEd is based on the principle that relationships drive learning. This first in a series of foundational articles outlining the scientific basis for FuelEd's program, how relationships drives learning, and why this knowledge matters to educators.

We talk about the importance of relationships in education a lot—but what does this even mean? What does it look like to build relationships in schools? Why does it even matter? We wrote this blog to help every person working in schools understands that relationships are not just “warm and fuzzy stuff” — they literally change the brain. And, that a focus on strong relationships isn’t another thing to add to an educator’s plate...it is the plate.

Humans are social creatures

For most of human history, humans have lived and learned in small communities, where relationships were our "natural habitat." Strong relationships offered the group: better protection, access to resources like food and water, and better opportunities for mating and caretaking. Strong relationships offered the individual: security, support, and belonging, all critical for survival.

Strong relationships are especially critical for the survival and development of children and youth. Unlike other mammals, many of which are born ready to fend for themselves and survive without support, humans begin life with an intense dependency on adults to meet their every need. We humans are born significantly "underdeveloped" compared to most other mammals, with 70% of our brain development taking place after birth.

We learn through relationships

This matrix of bonding, attachment, and interdependency became the ecological niche that shaped the human brain into a social organ with uniquely social instincts, such as the ability to...

  • Anticipate someone’s thoughts based on what you know about them
  • Predict someone's actions based on minute emotional expressions
  • Convey complex information to diverse groups of people
  • Pick up on threat by someone's body language

Over time, the skills that helped us do well in relationship became interwoven with the neuroanatomy and biochemistry of learning. Relationships helped us survive, and so we became wired to connect.

Our first learning happens through our first relationships

Because so much of our brain is unformed at birth, not only do we depend on our caregivers to tend to our every need, but the quality of their care will shape the formation of our brains and the people we become.

One prime example of this is the way our earliest relationships build the brain’s ability to self-regulate. Born without this capacity, humans utilize caregivers as an “external brain” while our own brains are “under construction.” The neural networks of a child’s brain are built through thousands upon thousands of interactions where an infant or child gets upset, a caregiver steps in to help them regulate and the child returns to a baseline of calm.

Each time our caregivers walk alongside us as we move from dysregulation to regulation, they help us form what will eventually become a well-worn path that we can tread — independent of their guidance or support. If our parents are able to help us effectively regulate our emotions, we develop our own abilities to do it ourselves later in life.

Not only do our earliest relationships form a template for our brain, they also teach us what to expect from the world and other subsequent relationships:

  • When children experience their caregivers as a secure base from which to explore and return to whenever they feel afraid, they come to believe the world is safe.
  • When children experience repeated interactions where adults understand and tend to their needs and feelings, they learn that relationships are dependable and trustworthy.
  • When children are treated consistently with sensitivity, love, and care, they learn, "I am valuable and worthy." As our very first relationship, the caregiver relationship forms the foundation of our relationship with ourselves.

Conversely, when a child doesn’t have a secure relationship early in life, a very different picture emerges:

  • A child that never experiences someone attuning to and soothing their emotions, will struggle to self-regulate.
  • Instead of an expectation of safety, the child receives the message that the world is unpredictable and dangerous.
  • The child may learn that relationships are negative, unsafe, and untrustworthy and naturally come to expect this from all future relationships.
  • Lastly, without a secure early relationship (also known as a "secure attachment"), the child may learn to believe, "I am inherently defective, unworthy of love and belonging."

An insecure relationship with an early caregiver can create an environment where the very relationship meant to serve as a buffer to stress and threat — becomes the source of stress and threat. This insecure relationship may then trigger an excessive and persistent bodily stress response. Like revving a car engine for days or weeks at a time, persistent stress has a wear-and-tear effect that not only impacts brain development and learning but can have long-term mental and physical repercussions.

It also shapes day-to-day behavior. Children who have experienced trauma are known to be more reactive—they feel terror when faced with normal stressors. Fear and self-protection become an automated and habitual way of responding to the world.

Why does this matter to educators?

Not only does our first learning happen through our first relationships, our first relationships sets up our ability to learn.

While a student with a secure attachment history will come to class ready to learn, explore, connect with peers, seek contact with the teacher when in need, and persevere through difficult tasks, a student with an insecure attachment history will enter class with a shorter attention span, greater anxiety and aggression, poorer performance on cognitive tasks, and an unwillingness to explore the environment or seek out the teacher or peers for help.

It’s obvious that these two students are inequitably equipped to thrive in the classroom environment.

Our hope is that by sharing the science of relationships with educators we can help them to avoid the trap of either personalizing a student’s behavior — "what's wrong with me?" — or blaming a student — "whats wrong with you!?" Instead, hey will be able to see the challenging behavior of students, or colleagues, as a clue to that person’s relationship history and more likely to consider with compassionate curiosity, “what happened to you?”

When educators are able to see through this new lens, they will begin to perceive their own roles differently. One way or another, because learning happens through relationships, teachers are attachment figures. Our work at FuelEd is to ensure that as many teachers as possible become secure attachment figures.

To learn more about how to become a secure attachment figure check out Part Two in our Foundational Blog Series.

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About the author

Megan Marcus

Partner & Founder - San Diego CA

Megan holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley and Master’s degrees in Psychology from Pepperdine University. While at Pepperdine, Megan studied under Dr. Louis Cozolino and served as the lead researcher for his book, The Social Neuroscience of Education. Megan then completed a Master’s degree in Education, Policy, and Management from Harvard University, where she explored how to translate the elements of a therapists’ professional training to an educational setting. Her research with Dr. Cozolino and studies at Harvard combined to form the core beliefs that became the bedrock of FuelEd. Since 2012, Megan has passionately served the educational community as FuelEd’s Founder.

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