Happy Teachers Make Happy Students


Personally Connecting To Students

The brain is social, and the way classroom educators interact with students makes a difference in their receptivity to paying attention and remaining open to learning. When administrators and teachers personally connect and bond with students, care and show interest in them by providing them with support and praise, then teachers and administrators in effect “squirt” serotonin into their students’ brains. This chemical neurotransmitter greatly influences an overall sense of well-being, helping to regulate moods, temper anxiety, and relieve depression. Therefore, serotonin opens students’ minds to new ideas and creates desires to get to know their teachers better and to support what their teachers require.

When students feel good about themselves, endorphins are released in their brains, which has pain-relieving properties and helps students to relax and feel better. If, however, teachers or administrators get angry, verbally berate, or reject students in their interactions at school, this “social pain” proves just as harmful as physical pain, according to human-performance researcher Dr. David Rock. This hostility can cause students to be unmotivated, disruptive in the classroom, tuned out, and prone to mistakes or indifference.

Also, when students perceive to be treated unfairly in their classroom by teachers, their brains will releasing cortisol, a hormone necessary in normal amounts for proper metabolic function, but which in elevated levels has adverse effects on students’ health, mood, body composition, and performance. Too much cortisol can cause a brain shutdown and closes students off to new ideas and their willingness to learn.

The Brain Is Social: Impact On Student Behavior And Learning

The brain is a social organ and needs interactions and collaboration with teachers and others to grow, learn, and survive. Rock says that some neuroscientists see the human brain as having a social network, responsible for all students, teachers, parents, and leaders interacting with their social world, similar to other networks they have for movement, seeing, thinking, and memory.

The social brain network allows one to understand and connect with others and to understand and control oneself, one’s emotions, and one’s behavior. The types of interactions between teachers and students, parents, and children make a difference to the brain. The social interactions or collaborations can be felt in the brain as social fairness or social unfairness, influencing student behavior, motivation, performance, and learning.

happy students
Research shows that the brain finds fairness intrinsically important. In functional MRIs brain imaging results, neuroscientists find that when people judge a scenario to be fair, reward centers of the brain light up, just as when they see a loved one or taste good food. Fair treatment may contribute to students feeling positive and feeling good about themselves, having a positive impact on self-esteem. A feeling of social unfairness, on the other hand, generates significant amygdala arousal — the brain’s “fear circuitry” lights up when we experience disgust. According to Rock, one study found that fairness to an individual was more important to the brain than money.

Social fairness can also help teachers, parents, and leaders to personally connect and bond with students, helping to meet their need to relate and connect with others. Students, teachers, and parents have basic social needs. If these needs are unmet, it can introduce feelings of threat and cause conflict between people. The basic social needs that affect behavior in a classroom or at home are a need to feel socially connected and bonded with parents, teachers, and friends; a sense of fairness, status, and feeling safe; a feeling of certainty, autonomy, and control, for example, the ability to have a choice and make decisions.

These needs are either met or are not met through social interactions in the classroom, at work, at home, and in society. If these are unmet, it can lead to a sense of threat that can quickly dissolve into conflicts in classrooms. Met, they can lead to classroom effectiveness and improved work performance.

This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s print edition.

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