I spend a lot of time in classrooms working with troubled kids — so I also spend time thinking about what’s missing in our schools.
Louis Cozolino’s Attachment-Based Teaching: Creating a Tribal Classroom hits the nail on the head: What’s missing is a sense of connection, attachment, or belonging. Having completed my masters thesis on attachment and emotional regulation, I can say that I have never read such a compelling argument for paying attention to how kids feel — and how it, in turn, affects learning.
According to Cozolino, who holds degrees in philosophy, theology, and clinical psychology, that sense of connection is exactly what the brain needs to learn. Through compelling research as well as practical exercises designed to address a variety of learning symptoms such as burnout, performance anxiety, and boredom, Cozolino encourages us to consider the link between how we feel in the classroom and what we learn there.
While there are plenty of books in this subgenre, Attachment-Based Teaching stands out. Unlike, say, The Invisible Classroom: Relationships, Neuroscience & Mindfulness in School, by Kirke Olsen, which addresses the social-relational dynamics of learning, or Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck, which explores how our mindset (Dweck says there are two: growth and fixed) affects learning, Cozolino’s book puts a name to the type of environment that fosters learning. He emphasizes how imperative it is to foster secure attachment.
Cozolino begins with a comprehensive review of attachment, empathy, mindfulness, and neural plasticity — all of which learning relies on. He reminds us that “the primitive social instincts are primarily driven by biochemical reactions that are triggered in situations of parenting, mating and group formation.”
He goes on to offer strategies meant to “activate small group dynamics, promote primitive social instincts, and secure attachment within larger organizations.” Suggestions such as keeping the classroom as small as possible, promoting democratic discussion of class expectations, and encouraging meaningful and emotional participation by parents demonstrate that Cozolino’s concepts have direct application.
The book centers in part on “the building brain.” Cozolino uses neuroscience research to show how neural excitation and activation determine sensitive periods of rapid growth when specific skills and abilities develop. Here again, he provides exercises to help determine attachment style and to help facilitate secure attachment in the classroom.
Next, Cozolino moves into factors that, as he puts it, “turn brains off to learning.” He argues — through clear and concise neurological data — that there is a critical relationship between learning and brain arousal.
“At mild levels of arousal, the amygdala enhances learning by stimulating the release of low levels of adrenalin and cortisol,” Cozolino writes. But, he warns, when anxiety or fear cause too much of those hormones to be released, high levels of the chemicals can instead inhibit learning. To that end he writes about how humor can modulate anxiety, and gives tips on “learning to chill.”
Cozolino then moves on to the subject of unreachable students, positing that if teachers create a “safe holding environment,” use radical acceptance, and remove shame, these students will become more reachable.
Because the book is aimed at teachers, it also discusses the importance of protecting students from our conscious and unconscious biases, and shows just how an environment of empathy, curiosity, novelty, and storytelling provide the neurochemical backdrop of learning. And it gets into the issue of teacher burnout — something that many educators experience and that of course negatively affects the classroom environment.
In the last section, Cozolino discusses how teachers have used what he calls the “Paleolithic social diet” of physical safety, emotional security, and “motivational components of our tribal past,” to extend learning into the community. He gives anecdotes from inspirational teachers who have put his ideas into practice.
What’s especially helpful is that Cozolino approaches attachment both from an emotional perspective — tackling challenging concepts such as attunement, emotional regulation, and emotional contagion — and from a neurological perspective — showing how biological brain responses regulate our behaviors and how we learn. His writing is not just comprehensive and clear, but also directly applicable.
For teachers of any kind, this is a powerful book.
Attachment-Based Teaching: Creating a Tribal Classroom
W. W. Norton & Company, October 2014
Paperback, 288 pages