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The Heart of the Matter:

The role of emotion and attachment in learning and behaviour

by Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D. Developmental and Clinical Psychologist

The scientific literature has exploded with books on emotion. Only a decade ago, we were still trying to make sense of behaviour, framing all behaviour as a function of consequences. Yet now we know that emotion moves us, deeply and instinctively, shaping our behaviour even when unaware of being stirred up. Now we know that emotion governs brain development. Now we know that emotion drives maturation. In other words, emotion is the heart of the matter. How ironic that the very element social science had taken great pains to discount and discard – in fact considered the nuisance variable – has now become the cornerstone of contemporary understandings.

We also now know that the most important task of the limbic system involves moving children to attach to those responsible for them. A well-developed attachment between children and their significant adults forms the crucial first step in empowering those adults to do their work. Well-developed attachments also activate children’s maturation processes, helped along by scores of instincts and emotions. In fact, for children to become well-attached, they must eventually “give us their hearts”. We know intuitively that it is only when a teacher has “won the hearts” of his students that their minds become open to his influence. Science is now able to substantiate that claim and turn the metaphor into a hard reality.

Unfortunately, despite what we have intuitively understood about the heart and attachment, our preoccupation with behaviour has eclipsed efforts to more fully understand and pay tribute to the workings of the heart. Rather than recognizing the impact of emotion and vulnerability on children’s ability to learn, we focus instead on consequences and behaviour.

Indeed, we must influence hearts, not behaviour to do our work well. When we have the heart of a child, we also have their loyalty and their attention, their desire to be good for us and their willingness to work for us, their eagerness to win our favour and measure up to our expectations. As Thomas Edison once said “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me, I felt that I had someone to live for, someone I must not disappoint”. What is unsaid, of course, but easily inferred, is that his mother had Edison’s heart.

But there’s the rub: the heart is also a place of great vulnerability. To care about someone is to set the stage for getting hurt if the caring is not reciprocated. To seek to matter to someone is to be wounded by signs of not mattering. To give ones heart away is to risk it being broken. To share the secrets of ones heart is to chance being misunderstood and abused. A child can bear only so much vulnerability. When attachments aren’t safe, the vulnerability is overwhelming.

New understandings of the limbic system reveal a more primitive defensive function. In other words, the limbic system has two tasks: first, to move a child to attach and, from that, to mature, and second, to help a child protect against a vulnerability that is too much to bear. Too often, the first task is sacrificed for the sake of the second, with tremendous implications for learning and behaviour. The flight from vulnerability involves a numbing out of vulnerable feelings, a tuning out of perceptions that lead to vulnerable feelings, and even a backing out of attachment. It is this flight from vulnerability that is at the heart of the matter with children who have problems learning and behaving. It is this flight from vulnerability that we are witnessing when we see children divesting of caring, protesting of boredom, no longer feeling shame and embarrassment, no longer experiencing felt fear.

When we forget about the heart, we tend to use what children care about against them, pulling the attachment rug from underneath them, exposing them to shame and ridicule, and more or less, adding insult to injury. Too often our attempts to modify their behaviour actually harden their hearts, reducing our influence and making matters much worse in the end.

It seems to me that, as educators, we would be much more effective if we assumed our task was to work with hearts and not behaviour. If we truly understood this, we would attempt to win their hearts, keep their hearts, protect their hearts and soften their hearts. When a child’s heart is in the right place and there is enough softness to be easily moved, learning and behaviour will not be a problem.

Which brings me back to the heart of the matter: children need to feel right in order to learn what they need to learn and behave how they should behave. Teaching as well as parenting is heart work.

Gordon Neufeld has a web site at: www.gordonneufeld.com

2007 Gordon Neufeld. Published in Strategies with permission.

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