In the previous Newsletter I outlined the concept that underpins all behaviour, the drive to survive and reproduce. Of these the most important for teachers is the part connected with the limbic system and they are particularly concerned with the formation of relationships; these are our ‘social behaviours’. The importance of this is directly linked to the foundational concepts. Once we began to live in groups our very survival, not to mention our opportunities to reproduce relied on our being accepted.
The contrary position to acceptance is rejection and for humans, rejection is as life threatening as being attacked by an outside force. In recent studies it has been demonstrated that the same areas of the brain are engaged when we are rejected as do when we are being attacked. A further demonstration of the power of rejection is the concept of suicide. To take one’s own life flies in the face of our premise that all behaviour is to survive; how could we deliberately kill the very thing that carries our genes?
The answer is that the psychological pain to live in the face of rejection seems to be so overwhelming the individual chooses to end that pain and achieves this by ending their life. Suicide provides a significant example of the power of drives to get us back to a state of homeostatic equilibrium.
The process of developing behaviours that support our membership into our group starts from birth; the child’s successful bonding with the mother is critical for long-term psychological health. The sensitive period is identified from six months to three years but I would argue it starts at conception and the object of attachment is clarified through the early childhood experiences.
Attachment is a well-researched topic for child development but for the sake of this work we take the position that when attachment is secure, that is the child has positively bonded with at least the primary caregiver and feels psychologically and physically safe in their care they are in equilibrium.
However, some children are not provided with such a safe environment and experience some uncertainty about the availability of the primary caregiver. There are many models that describe these less than protected connections - these include insecure or anxious attachment. Despite the physical ‘closeness’ these inadequate efforts of parenting will have a significant impact on the creation of the child’s belief systems.
Humans are herd animals and rely on other members of the community to improve their chances of survival and eventually reproduction. As with attachment this connectedness is critical for ensuing survival. So how we learn to acquire these skills happens in our childhood. When we ‘grow-up’ we will experience the intensity of feelings we experienced as a child when things go wrong, these are emotional memories. If we are abandoned we become extremely stressed and we will evoke the behaviours learned as a child.
The intensity of the connectedness an individual has with another varies. The caregiver has the closest connection and this means the caregiver can provide the highest amount of support. This also means that withdrawal of the support will expose the individual to feelings of abandonment producing a large amount of stress. This intimate, powerful attachment does not remain exclusively with the parent. Eventually the drive to reproduce will see a replacement primary partner. This significant relationship has the potential to meet the person’s drives but there is a significant risk of distress if this relationship fails.
Eventually the child will need a sense of belonging to more than their immediate family and this reaching out is the first step to a graduated association with the world. The next stage of development in relational skills is called affiliation which happens first with extended family, say siblings and cousins and on to kids at pre-school and school. The friendships develop with children having ‘best friends’ that may last for a life time but more usually last until a new ‘best friend’ arrives. The child has to learn the rules of these relationships with parents or teachers initially showing them the first steps and then these ‘rules’ are learned through play.
One of the regrettable phenomena of modern life is the intensification of organised play. Kids are taught how to do things ‘properly’ and adults adjudicate play. Kids miss the opportunity to learn the real rules of association. These are complex social interactions, behaviours we must master if we are to successfully integrate with the world. We need to not only deal with close friends but we also have to associate with others on a continuum that ends with strangers. We learn these skills by trial and error not just by parental instruction – parents only have their set of rules, these may or may not match those of the rest of their community.
The need to integrate ourselves with others on an increasing level of intimacy provides us with a good deal of feedback on our sense of ourselves. The ability of a person to move between various members of the community in a confident and comfortable manner indicates a strong sense of self-worth. People who have difficulty dealing with others will find the stress that comes from their inability to integrate in a satisfactory manner very troubling.
In contemporary education systems there has been a move away from disorganised play and a rejection of significant social content in curriculum. The growing focus on the ‘basics’ reduces the opportunity for those children who were raised in families whose behaviours led to mainstream rejection to learn to re-attach with their peers.