The new 3 Rs of teaching and learning in the post-Covid classroom

With all the recent focus being on ways to ensure targeted curriculum delivery and adequate completion of the school year,  we seem to have forgotten about the social and emotional needs of our pupils. Ironically, the above statement could have been made just as confidently prior to the outbreak of Covid-19.

The fundamental premise of attachment theory and traumatology is the need for connection and safety in the development of healthy relationships and brain function. And this development is essentially sequential in nature: it begins with relationship building in a secure, connected and safe environment, leading to positive neural connections, and ultimately optimal brain functioning, ie learning.

What do we mean by connection and safety? 

Connection refers to physical touch: holding, hugging, soothing, reassuring. The simple act of touching someone has been shown to improve cognitive and emotional development. Being affectionately touched can even contribute to a stronger immune system. Hugging and soothing usually happens in the foundation phase (differently so among adolescents!), and is most often initiated by the learner.

I find it difficult to imagine a scenario where a Grade 1 pupil reaches to her teacher for a hug, for comfort and reassurance, only to be rejected as her teacher steps away in a panic and reminds her to keep her distance: no touching! I shudder at the emotional and psychological damage that this could do to an already traumatised and disconnected child: a clear message that she is indeed alone and isolated in this very uncertain world, and that adults and caregivers cannot be depended upon or trusted.

Connection also happens indirectly, using facial expressions. Faces and facial expressions are rich in information about individual identity, mood, mental state and emotional wellbeing. The forehead, eyes, nose and mouth all play an important role in signalling emotional states that can be automatically detected, such as the lowering of the brow, curling of the lip, or wrinkling of the forehead. The mouth in particular is a powerful non-verbal tool in the demonstration of empathy, a critical core value for healthy development.

In the classroom setting, children need to be physically close and connected to their primary caregiver — their teacher. They need to be able to read the facial expressions of their teacher; and in turn, the teacher needs to read the non-verbal cues of the pupils. Teachers use these sources of feedback to understand their pupils  as well as themselves, to adjust their teaching style and lesson where necessary in order to ensure optimal comprehension and absorption of information.

Together the teacher and pupil become regulated and connected through eye contact and facial signalling. Once connected, emotional safety ensues, and emotions can continue to be regulated and managed through consistent connection and relationship building. From here, positive neural connections in the prefrontal cortex begin to strengthen and targeted learning starts to take place.

Let’s imagine a post-Covid classroom. A classroom containing about 40 pupils (20 pupils at best), most of whom are emotionally dysregulated (inclined to overreact) and disconnected, all of whom have their faces covered by a mask. Their teacher, equally anxious and uncertain, is also masked. We need to ask the question: how can we expect these pupils to absorb information, to activate neural connections, to Read, ‘Rite, and do ‘Rithmetic, in an environment where relationship building and co-regulation is hampered?

And the need for safety? Is this need being met? Some may argue: Yes, Covid-19 health and safety regulations are strictly followed; there is compulsory physical distancing —  no hugging, touching, sharing, or mass gatherings; masks are worn throughout the school day; there is frequent sanitising of hands, door handles, toilets, equipment; temperature checks, screening and testing are being done on-site. However, these precautions, albeit mandatory and essential, are foreign and unsettling; they provoke anxiety and uncertainty; and the threat of the unseen virus still looms. It is within this emotionally uncontained and unsafe environment that learners’ brains may become ‘stuck’ in fear.

The brain, in a fearful and anxious state, fires in the primal part (base) of the brain — fight, flight or freeze. This means the pupil is focused on survival. He is ready to fight, to escape, or to freeze (dissociate or “daydream”) to protect himself from a real or imagined threat. The amygdala, the emotion centre, situated in the limbic (middle) part of the brain, is also “on fire” during a fearful and anxious brain state, and the child is unable to adequately control his impulses or regulate his emotions. In this state, the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain (top) used for higher order processes such as language, comprehension, and memory (ie learning) is shut down. Learning, in other words, cannot take place when a child is in a fearful or anxious state.

How do we change brain states?

In order to shift from a fearful and anxious brain state to a secure and explorative one, a brain state that is open to learning, it is vital that, first and foremost, a “felt” sense of safety and connection is established. A felt sense of safety refers to internal bodily sensations of safety. These are cultivated through breathing, regulation and connection. From there, relationships can be built and practical exercises implemented in order to regulate and “still” the mind, readying it for learning.

Teachers also need to practise emotional regulation and the management of their own brain states. A teacher in a “fired up” brain state will not be able to manage their own emotions and impulses, or make rational decisions. They will struggle to guide, mentor and educate pupils who are equally fired up and dysregulated. Co-regulation is critical in the classroom setting.

With all of this in mind, can we expect our pupils and teachers to resume teaching and learning as “normal”? With masked faces and militaristic safety monitoring, are we providing a safe and connected environment, free from fear and anxiety?

Surely we can acknowledge that successful delivery and reception of the curriculum requires calm and regulated brain states – achieved only through social and emotional connection and mentorship?

In the words of neuroscientist and traumatologist Dr Bruce Perry, “first we Regulate (calm), then we Relate (connect) and then we Reach (teach)”.

So the question we need to ask is: are educators prepared and equipped – psychologically and emotionally – to resume their posts in the post-Covid classroom?