Jessica Sinarski on the power of attachment in school.

Relationships are inextricably linked to learning. As the old saying goes, “Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” The brain networks required for learning are biologically connected to networks dedicated to relationships and the stress response system. Let’s unpack what attachment is, what gets in the way, and how educators can nurture relationships with the students who need it most.

Attachment is about connection. It is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space. Attachment matters in the school setting because it affects the ability to learn. Research in the field of developmental neuroscience has highlighted the importance of a child’s emotional bond with their primary caregivers not just for future relationships, but for building connections to the higher regions of the brain. While the role of teacher is distinct from the role of a parent or primary caregiver, science has some compelling lessons for educators. In fact, as researcher Dr. Louis Cozolino points out, “A student’s ability to learn is deeply impacted by the quality of his or her attachment to teachers and peers.”

Human behaviour is dependent upon which part of the brain is in charge: the cortex, known as the “Upstairs Brain,” or the more reactive, emotion-driven lower structures of the “Downstairs Brain”. Brains are built from the bottom up, and that “construction” is an intensely relational experience. A child’s Downstairs Brain needs lots of help from safe adults to build the neural networks responsible for the regulated and relational behaviour we hope to see in the classroom and beyond.

What gets in the way of building safe and secure relationships with students?
Most teachers and support staff cite difficult behaviour as a barrier to relationship-building. Surprisingly, “bad behaviour” has a lot to do with internal and external reactions to past experiences. Instead of flowing smoothly from the distress and dysregulation of an unmet need to the settled and soothed feeling of having that need met, many neurodivergent children—and all trauma survivors—have spent some time in The Mistrust Cycle.

One of the side effects of The Mistrust Cycle is that kids often don’t know what they need nor how to get it. It’s easy to see how this cycle can continue in the school setting as well. Students living in a chronic state of distress, dysregulation, and disconnection do not have a sturdy staircase to the Upstairs Brain that lets them think about things differently or learn from mistakes. Even asking for help is an Upstairs Brain function. Some students may automatically push away the very connection they so desperately need.

Start by thinking of a student who seems to trigger your brain’s defence mode. Perhaps they have physically attacked you in the past or they constantly seem grumpy. Maybe you have tried and tried but feel like you get nothing back. It’s a brain thing! When faced with another brain in protection mode, your brain naturally goes there too.

Little moments of connection add up to big changes in attachment. Showing up in these brain-building ways is powerful, but it does take some Upstairs Brain intentionality on the part of the adult.

Jessica Sinarski

Jessica Sinarski is the founder of the resource and training platform BraveBrains.

Instagram: @JessicaSinarski

YouTube: @jessica.sinarski



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