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February 21, 2018
How Empathy and Connection Support Learning
by Teacher Nancy Sleator

“When your child feels close to you, her brain forms the neural pathways that allow her to learn, remember, and think.  Just as her body needs good food to grow, her developing mind requires someone who will respond to her with interest and support…In a nutshell, feeling closely connected helps your child build intelligence, and it helps her use the intelligence she already has.” Patty Wipfler

On my first day of graduate school, when I was learning to be a reading specialist, a very wise mentor teacher told us “To be a good teacher, try learning something new yourself, something that is hard for you, that you have to struggle with.  That way you’ll be able to remember how children feel when they are trying to learn something that they feel is hard.”

This advice has stuck with me.  Although some kinds of learning are easy for me, there are plenty of things that I have, and still do, find hard to learn. As a child, I struggled with handwriting, long division, and dodgeball, and often felt embarrassed and very discouraged. Today I struggle with tricky fingerings on my guitar,  and new tech applications on my electronic devices, just to name a few!  The good news from my childhood is that I finally nailed cursive writing.  Dodgeball, not so much.

I love thinking about learning, and how to create the conditions so that children can master challenging skills. Patty Wipfler writes about the power of connection, and how building connection with a child can help mobilize all the parts of the mind, and help the child to think.  Her book, Listen, is written for parents, but I find many of the insights from the book are helpful to me as a teacher.

I was browsing through the book, when a diagram grabbed my attention.  It was a chapter about the different parts of the brain, and how they affect a child’s mental and emotional state.  I was reading about the prefrontal cortex.  The list of words that leapt out at me was





-impulse control

-short term memory

As teachers, these are the things we think about all the time. When a child can mobilize these, wonderful learning can happen. As I read more, I learned about the limbic system, which is always scanning the environment.  The limbic system is looking for cues to answer these questions, “Am I wanted? Do I belong? Will someone here be able to think about me?” . It uses nonverbal cues to help a child assess whether or not they are safe and connected.

Like most people, I already had an intuitive sense of how a warm, caring teacher can express warmth and safety for a child with kind words, eye contact, and friendly body language. The teacher is communicating, “I’m here. I like you. I’m available.” You will see teachers everywhere sending these signals, and you certainly see it at LFS.  It was great to learn more about how these natural human forms of connection have such a powerful impact on cognitive functions. 

I think about this when I’m working with children. There are moments when children are relishing their mastery and independence, and want to try something without much support. That’s great!  But there are other times, when I show a child a new story we’re going to read, I see a worried look pass over the child’s face.  I remember how I felt as a child when I was trying to learn something hard, and I felt scared that I wouldn’t be able to do it.  When I see this discouraged expression on a child’s face, I might get close, make eye contact and say, “You don’t have to do this alone, I’m right here, and it’s my job to help you.  If you get stuck on a hard word, I’ll help you.