After receiving my degree in Child Psychology, I thought I had all the information I would ever need to control and shape the behavior of children, (certainly including my own future children).
Yes, I was actually naive enough to believe this.
What I didn't realize then, while immersed in my behavioral focused studies of children 15 years ago, is that the factors that drive a child's intrinsic motivation and outward behaviors are much more complex than just stimulus and response.
Having many years of practice as a child therapist and raising three children of my own, I now know, without a doubt, that the way we shape a child's behaviors is much more complex than a set of behavioral standards or measurements. While this may sound obvious, many of the ways we continue to lead our children both at home and in our schools would suggest otherwise.
Behavioral charts, sticker systems, threats, and bribes are all examples of reinforcers designed to control or modify a child's behavior. We continue to use these tools both at home and in schools, despite the fact we continue to learn they aren't the best way to foster the cooperative and pro-social behaviors we seek from them.
So what is this magical missing link that has the power to dramatically shift a child's behaviors across environments, blowing behavior charts and punitive punishments out of the water?
A body of research is emerging, informing us that when we stop focusing all our energy on a child's behaviors and start with developing a strong connection, magic ensues. In a sweeping national longitudinal study funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services it was found, in a nationally representative sample of 90,000 children, that adolescents who reported feeling connected to a parent or adult in school had less emotional distress, fewer suicidal thoughts, lesser use of alcohol and tabacco, less violent behavior, and lower sexual activity.
There is also substantial research on the importance of strong teacher-student relationships on both social and academic outcomes in the elementary years, as well as the impact of strong parent-child relationships and a positive correlation of close connections to fewer behavior problems, greater social competence, and increased school engagement to name a few.
What exactly makes strong connections the secret sauce for both parents and educators? Let's boil it down to the basics.
Kids are humans
Children are not objects to be managed, controlled, and herded. When we fail to see their humanity each and every day, only viewing them in terms of how we can facilitate our desired adult outcomes, we miss the opportunities to engage and connect on a deeper level. We miss the chance to discover their uniqueness and observe the enormous benefits that flow as a result.
We do better when we feel better
Somewhere along the line adults got the idea that in order to 'motivate' a child to do better, we had to first make them feel worse. The truth of the matter is, none of us do better when we feel worse. Right? When our boss or significant other sees the best in us and reflects that back consistently, we are internally motivated to do our best work.
In the instances when we do need a correction or reprimand at work, are we more likely to internalize feedback from a leader whom we feel a positive rapport with or one that only engages when it comes to pointing out our weaknesses? The same goes for children. When they have a positive and warm connection with an adult, they will be more responsive to guidance and re-direction offered.
Connection creates motivation
When someone takes the time to see and know us on a deeper level, we immediately feel a greater sense of self-worth. When others see the good in us and reflect that back, we are much more likely to recognize these things in ourselves. Studies show that students who perceive their relationship with their teacher to be positive, warm and close are motivated toward greater engagement in school as well as higher academic performance.
Connection meets a basic need
We know that for infants, the quality of their attachment to their caregiver means everything, and in order for them to develop and thrive to full potential, a secure and nurturing connection to a caregiver is vital. We also know that when adults have healthy and connected relationships they show lower rates of anxiety and depression, have higher self-esteem, and actually live longer lives.
Connection is just as powerful for the childhood that falls in between, and actually arguably even more. When a child's primary need for connection is met, it frees up cognitive and emotional resources which can then be allocated toward daily pursuits such as focusing on schoolwork and developing friendships.
Connection builds resiliance
Many children are facing stressors at home, school, or in other social environments. These may be large scale things such as a parents divorce or typical daily upsets, such as having a disagreement with a friend. When a child is walking into the classroom or basketball practice, they bring their whole selves.
When a supportive caregiver is able to tune into what's going on with a child, they are then able to intervene effectivley. When a child feels supported, they can enact better problem solving skills, overcome challenges, and be successful in their respective environments.
Connection invites respect
When we connect and engage with a child in a respectful and supportive manner, we are modeling the positive behaviors we desire to see from them. When we build up a child instead of tearing them down we give them a template which they can carry forth to put into use with those around them. When we treat our children with respect and dignity we are inviting them to treat us with that same respect, thus opening them up to our support and influence during the times they are struggling and need correction.
Connection is backed by neuroscience
There is very real, and amazing brain research from Dr. Daniel Siegal which lays out the basis for connecting with a child before correcting. In a nutshell, in order to successfully “correct" or discipline a child, we first need to meet them where they are emotionally.
When adults attempt to discipline or support a struggling child we often jump to an intervention based on logic and reasoning. However, whatever is being said will likely not be integrated into the child's long-term memory if the adult doesn't take the time to connect with the emotional (right) hemisphere first.
When adults who are raising or leading children place an emphasis on a strong relational foundation, it opens up the possibility for magic. Strong adult connections are proven to foster respect, kindness, resilience, motivation and achievement in a child, not only in the short term but also in the long term due to the fact that these attributes can be internalized.
As prominent author and Psychiatrist Dr. Ned Hallowell puts it: “By far, the most powerful force in life for development, joy, confidence, health, is the force of connection. Get as richly, positively connected to a child as you can and the rest will take care of itself."