Relating is like Riding
Do you remember that challenging student you had? The one that you thought you were doing well with and then he would sabotage all the hard-earned progress? Or the student that had endless irrational arguments with you over every prompt and direction, regardless of how simple they were? Or perhaps that student who was endlessly needy and seemed unable to approach a task without enormous support and validation, only to then seemingly deliberately ruin the task to bring you back over?
As educators and support staff, we spend a lot of time with students, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that we will encounter various healthy and unhealthy ways that they relate to us. Any educator will tell you they encounter a lot of challenging behavior in the process of teaching. These behaviors can be disruptive, energy-draining, and lead to a sense of hopelessness for the educator. In these situations, it is not uncommon for these behaviors to be labeled as ‘bad habits” or “manipulations” when in fact, these are behaviors that are well-practiced to the degree that they are neurological.
Motivating, prompting, maintaining expectations, and ultimately teaching take a wealth of interactions between a teacher and student…Avoidance, procrastination, anger, defensive posturing, and anxiety are all student behaviors described as barriers that educators have to navigate just to teach.
“The Backwards Brain Bike”
The popular video on Youtube, “The Backwards Brain Bike” by Destin who operates the website www.smartereveryday.com is a perfect visual analogy to demonstrate how these relationship behaviors are intrinsically neurological.
Research has shown just how incredible our brains are at noticing patterns and then automating behavior to be more efficient.
The act of riding a bike is the result of an experienced and practiced activity that becomes a neurologically embedded template. Relating, like riding, is also the result of an experienced and practiced neurological template but instead, it is based on the process of attachment. A key principle in developmental neurobiology is that the brain develops and more importantly, ORGANIZES as a reflection of the experience. Repeated experiences create a neurological processing template through which all new input is filtered. This template is a neurological mental map or internal working model of attachment that serves to guide behavior because it generates assumptions and expectations of others.
“Neurons that fire together, wire together” ~ Donald O. Hebb
Repeated experiences that are safe and consistently available to caregivers create secure and healthy attachment models. Insecure attachment models are the result of chaotic, interrupted or unavailable caregiving. Secure attachment models support the capacity for students to explore, regulate, and learn. Insecure attachment models result in behavior defenses- a range of anxiety and avoidance, that serve to protect the child from perceived harm. Secure, avoidant, anxious, and disorganized are all dimensions or styles of attachment that can play out through behavior in a classroom.
Relationships in education matter
The conversation about attachment in education is essential and timely because social-emotional competencies are all rooted in the attachment process. Attachment is the neurobiological process that serves to regulate physiological arousal, attention, and emotional distress all of which are foundational success skills. It is worth noting attachments are not static–they are dynamic. Attachment styles operate organically, meaning that one style will impact another style and vice-versa.
We all navigate relationships with some amount of anxiety and avoidance. With that in mind, attachment dimensions occur along a spectrum of anxiety and avoidance. Think of anxiety as a vulnerability or the willingness to be vulnerable in a relationship. Think of avoidance as the willingness to engage or connect. These two dimensions, anxiety and avoidance are the horizontal and vertical axis for the four-category model of attachments.
Attachment is essentially the foundation for learning and critical thinking.
Secure attachments allow relationships to function with low anxiety and low avoidance. Insecure attachments make up the other three quadrants.
“I’m okay, you’re okay”
A student with the internal thought of “I’m okay, you’re okay” represents a secure model. This student is self-sufficient, comfortable with relationships, wants to relate to others, can be flexible and cooperative, can recover from arousal states, and has the confidence to explore. This student needs an educator to support their learning, to be available and to support their exploration by allowing them to make mistakes.
“I’m not okay, you’re okay.”
Working clockwise around the model, a student with the preoccupied template says “I’m not okay, you’re okay.” This student needs the adult to over-function because “I can’t do it.” This student is high stress, clings to relationships, and their self-worth is dependent on others. They are very dependent and can become dissociative or extremely emotional when stressed. These students need an educator that can repeatedly be reassuring to the student. The educator needs to be the calm one, role model making mistakes, and avoid activating anxiety. The student will need very clear and effective body signals from the educator.
“I’m not okay, you’re not okay”
A student with the model “I’m not okay, you’re not okay” can be very contradictory and challenging. This is the student that is fearful of relationships yet dependent, a very disorganizing dilemma. This student is highly emotional, fears rejection and overly assumes rejection. Often times, they are irrational especially when highly aroused. Consistency and familiarity are preferred stations for this student. The educator must avoid power struggles and any hint of coercion. They should be available and responsive despite likely being rebuffed. Don’t assume rational thinking from the student. This student will need the educator to be flexible, avoid ultimatums, and be clear and direct. As difficult as it can be, allow the student to have the last word.
“I’m okay, you’re not okay”
A student with the model “I’m okay, you’re not okay” tend to view relationships as dependence. They are quick to be dismissive, tend to project their problems onto others, and are overly self-reliant. It is possible, they may come across as arrogant, superior, or have an inflated sense of self. Additionally, this student tends to be distracted by the environment and will shut down when aroused or stressed. The educator should pay close attention to defensive posturing as it means they are becoming too close, either physically or emotionally. It is important not to get caught in “conversational-quicksand” when setting limits. Instead, use one-liners that don’t demand a response, “that’s interesting” and once again, allow the student to have the last word.
Relate before you educate.
These models of attachment are rooted in attachment theory and certainly, the topic can go much deeper. However, just knowing that we all operate from an internal working model and that it is neurological rather than ‘bad behavior,’ can be supportive to an educator. Additionally, as seen in the Backwards Brain Bike video, neurological templates are plastic and younger brains can make changes faster with experiences.
That fact should encourage us all to be a positive relationship experience that supports the student’s new internal working model.
Attachment theory has been used to describe relationships and behavior from parenting to romantic partnering. Attachment theory and the model of attachment to explain children’s behavior and bonding originated with Dr. John Bowlby in the 1960s. He had been researching “maladjusted” children and noting that a common thread to all the children was early and prolonged separation from their caregiver. Since then very influential experts have brought more understanding to the theory including experts in child development, psychology, and neurobiology.
In 1998, I was working as a psychiatric social worker at Primary Children Residential Treatment Center in Utah. It was there that I learned the basic attachment principals that impact all attachments from “maladjusted” to well adjusted. Those principals were the foundations for treatment in residential care that involved deliberately creating corrective emotional experiences for those child residents who had experienced abuse, neglect, abandonment, and trauma.
The team collaboration and training with Dr. Richard Ferre, the child psychiatrist at the residential home, was the best early training for understanding and witnessing the spectrum of maladaptive behavior as well as, seeing the dramatic changes that children could make in their relationships. Dr. Ferre wrote in his unpublished treatment manual that children with interrupted attachments become “experts at controlling closeness and emotional support from caregivers through “uproar” (emotional distress) …. and they create enormous distress in the people around them … they can easily commandeer the emotional feelings in the adults around them.”
In 2012, I made the leap from clinical social to school social work. As educators in schools, we all inherit children as they come. Some come to us in relationship disrepair and using emotions to keep us at bay and some come to us self-sufficient just needing our proximity. Regardless, we all, students and educators, navigate relationships with our own history and we have the opportunity to provide a student with a new relationship experience.
If you are interested in a deeper dive, I have found Dr. Daniel Siegel’s website and writings to be helpful.
About Ericberne.com: Site Devoted To Eric Berne: Games People Play http://www.ericberne.com/about_this_site/
Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, 28(5), 759–775. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-16220.127.116.119
Ernst, F. H. (1971). The OK Corral: The Grid for Get-on-With. Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 1(4), 33–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/036215377100100409
Harris, T. A. (1969). I’m OK, you’re OK: A practical guide to transactional analysis.
Holmes, J. (1993). John Bowlby and attachment theory. London: Routledge.
How Your Attachment Style Impacts Your Relationship https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/compassion-matters/201307/how-your-attachment-style-impacts-your-relationship
Siegel, D. J. (2012). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.
Transactional Analysis in the OK Corral: Grid for What’s Happening by Franklin H. Ernst Jr., M.D.; published by Franklin “Harry” Ernst III, Address: Set Publications, P.O. Box 3009, Vallejo, California 94590.