How does an elementary school teacher/student use sympathetic intelligence to bond?

April 4, 2024 at 8:43 PM
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How does an elementary school teacher/student use sympathetic intelligence to bond?

By Tessa Adamo UA’27 and Jim Stellar

Elementary school is one of the purest places to look at the role of sympathetic intelligence in teacher-student connection, and we want to examine that connection here. 

First, what is  sympathetic intelligence? Recently a Sympathetic Intelligence Center has emerged which uses a key 60 second video to describe the fundamental connection (or resonance as presented in the video) between people. We will discuss this issue more as this blog progresses.

To get down to a key question, what is the resonance between an elementary school teacher and her/his students? We think that depends upon two things: 1) the nonverbal communication occurring between faces and in tone of voice, body posture, or other aspects of the person that gives a certain communication between them; 2) the cognitive-emotional integration that occurs between parts of the brain in each participant that gives rise to an emotional value judgment that individuals make about the cognitive plans they are forming about the situation, e.g. the teacher likes me.

I (TA) have worked at an elementary school now for almost 6 months and I have learned more than I ever could have imagined. I am a group leader for the afterschool program so I work with kids in kindergarten through fifth grade, and each age is so different from the others. Everyday the kids teach me new things about how they think, learn and communicate. It is very interesting to watch how they handle different emotions. I have let kids run around to let anger out or just hugged a student while they cried and that alone made them feel better. Every child needs help in different ways and most of the time, they don’t know how to express these feelings. It takes time, but usually if I just let them talk through how they are feeling it helps both of us better understand what to do in the future.

In doing this work, I feel in resonance with the idea of Sympathetic Intelligence, because I feel in resonance with the students individually and collectively. This depends on me showing up and being there as a fully engaged adult. The kids can pick up on my non-verbals so it is important that my heart and my head are in the same place when I am there. Even though they are kids, they are very good at this implicit communication and sometimes we forget that as they are young and still learning many of the cognitive operations that we adults know and want to teach them. Not only can they not learn those cognitive operations without the implicit communication in place, we think they are learning implicit operations that are also important, like how to balance being kind to their peers without being over-run by them if it comes to standing up for oneself even in a modest way. None of that, of course, is in the cognitive goals and lesson plan and that is why we focus on sympathetic intelligence.

It is hard to imagine that a child could understand and know so much at such a young age. But they really do have so much intelligence, especially emotionally. I have seen many children bond with each other and with other counselors. I have noticed that the kids are closest with the counselors who talk to them like real people. I know that sounds strange, but many people, especially adults, talk down to children. The students seem to gravitate towards the counselors that they know will listen to them and treat them like a real person. Meanwhile, they make friends just like we do. They bond with people that share similar interests and that they are happy around. So it has become clear that children really do create bonds just like we do.

What I (JS) have to add to these excellent points is that many neuroscientists think that the brain develops from the back to the front. That would mean that in children, the back and middle parts of the brain would be the most mature. If this back-to-middle is where the limbic system operates and value estimates are made of what is happening to them. While they might be the most mature here, it is also known that the frontal parts of the brain continue their development into later years (perhaps even into the typical high school and college years). Of course these frontal parts of the brain have connections with and some regulation of those lower limbic processes. So, if we think (and JS does) that Sympathetic Intelligence emerges from cognitive-emotional interaction, then the elementary school child offers a fascinating place to look for this behavior due to the brain’s development.

How people in general connect or “click” with each other and what we can learn from looking at children will be the subject of our next blog.

Reflection on going to a public university, growing-up issues, and moving past graduation?

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