Science: How Relationships Drive Learning

Our work at FuelEd is based on the principle that relationships drive learning. This first of four foundational articles outlines the scientific basis for our philosophy, how learning through relationship works, and why this knowledge matters to educators.

Humans are social creatures. We learn through relationships.

For most of human history, we have lived and learned in small communities or tribes, with relationships as our natural habitat. In fact, relationships are often what kept us alive. Strong relationships offered tribes better protection, access to resources like food and water, and better opportunities for mating and caretaking. For the individual, the community offered security, support, and belonging, all critical for survival.

This construct of the community or tribe has been especially critical for the children and youth. Humans are born comparatively underdeveloped, with 70% of the brain development happening after birth, and are therefore highly dependent on relationships for survival and growth. Unlike other mammals, many of which are born ready to fend for themselves and survive without support, humans begin life with an intense dependency on adults to meet their every need. Historically, humans have learned through relationships in their tribe or community and survived only to the degree that those relationships were strong. The young depended on adults for survival, just as the adults would come to depend on the young for the same.

This matrix of bonding, attachment, and interdependency became the ecological niche that shaped the human brain into a social organ1 with uniquely social instincts. The ability to anticipate someone’s thoughts or predict another’s actions based on minute emotional expressions, or convey complex information to diverse groups; over time these skills became interwoven with the neuroanatomy and biochemistry of learning, and we became wired to connect. In turn, relationships became the stage for all learning and development.

Our first learning happens through our first relationships.

Because so much of our brain is unformed at birth, not only do we depend on our caregivers to tend to our every need, but the quality of their care will shape the formation of our brains and the people we become.

One prime example of this is the way our earliest relationships build the brain’s ability to self-regulate. Born without this capacity, humans utilize caregivers as an “external brain” while our own brains are “under construction.” The neural networks of a child’s brain are built through thousands upon thousands of interactions where an infant or child gets upset, a caregiver steps in to help them regulate and the child returns to a baseline of calm.

Each time our caregivers walk alongside us as we move from dysregulation to regulation, they help us form what will eventually become a well-worn path that we can tread — independent of their guidance or support. If our parents are able to help us effectively regulate our emotions, we develop our own abilities to do it ourselves later in life.

Not only do our earliest relationships form a template for our brain, but they also teach us what to expect from the world and other subsequent relationships. When children experience their caregivers as a secure base from which to explore and return to whenever they feel afraid, they come to believe the world is safe. When children experience repeated interactions where adults understand and tend to their needs and feelings, they learn that relationships are dependable and trustworthy. And when children are treated consistently with sensitivity, love, and care, it conveys that they are valuable and worthy. As our very first relationship, the caregiver relationship forms the foundation of our relationship with ourselves.

Conversely, when a child doesn’t have a secure relationship early in life, a very different picture emerges. A child that never experiences someone attuning to and soothing their emotions, will struggle with an ability to self-regulate. Instead of an expectation of safety, the child receives the message that the world is unpredictable and dangerous. The child may learn that relationships are negative, unsafe, and untrustworthy and naturally come to expect this from all future relationships. Lastly, without a secure attachment, the child may learn to believe they are inherently defective, unworthy of love and belonging.

An insecure relationship with a parent or early caregiver can create an environment where the very relationship meant to serve as a buffer to stress and threat — may become the source of stress and threat. This insecure relationship may then triggers an excessive and persistent bodily stress response. Like revving a car engine for days or weeks at a time, persistent stress has a wear-and-tear effect that not only impacts brain development and learning but can have long-term mental and physical repercussions. It also shapes day-to-day behavior. Children who have experienced trauma are known to be more reactive - they feel terror when faced with normal stressors with fear and self-protection may become an automated and habitual way of responding to the world. Not only does our first learning happen through our first relationships, but our first relationships set us up for our ability to learn.

Why does this matter to educators?

While one student with one type of relationship history may come to class ready to learn, explore, connect with peers, seek contact with the teacher when in need, and persevere through difficult tasks, another student may come to class with a shorter attention span, greater anxiety and aggression, poorer performance on cognitive tasks, and an inability to explore the environment or seek out the teacher or peers for help due to fear.

It’s obvious that these two students are inequitably equipped to thrive in the classroom environment.

Our hope is that by sharing the science of relationships with educators we can help them to avoid the trap of either personalizing a student’s behavior — "what's wrong with me?" — or blaming a student — "whats wrong with you!?" Instead, equipped with an understanding of trauma and human development, they will be able to see the challenging behavior of students, or colleagues, as a clue to that person’s relationship history - “what happened to you?”

We believe that when educators are able to see interactions through this new lens, they will begin to perceive their own roles differently. If learning happens through relationships, then teachers, like parents, can be secure attachment figures. In fact, our dream is that every person working in schools understands that relationships are not just “warm and fuzzy stuff” — they literally change the brain. A focus on relationships isn’t another thing to add to an educator’s plate, it is the plate itself.

To learn more about how an educator can use relationships to fuel learning, check out Part Two in our Foundational Articles Series.

About the author

Megan Marcus

Partner & Founder - San Diego CA

Megan holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley and Master’s degrees in Psychology from Pepperdine University. While at Pepperdine, Megan studied under Dr. Louis Cozolino and served as the lead researcher for his book, The Social Neuroscience of Education. Megan then completed a Master’s degree in Education, Policy, and Management from Harvard University, where she explored how to translate the elements of a therapists’ professional training to an educational setting. Her research with Dr. Cozolino and studies at Harvard combined to form the core beliefs that became the bedrock of FuelEd. Since 2012, Megan has passionately served the educational community as FuelEd’s Founder.

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