Think all that side-talk happening in your classroom is interfering with learning? Maybe it is, maybe it is not. The student talking to the student next to them, and the student consumed by their social media app during your class are both seeking the same human need – social connection. One may get what they’re looking for. The other, probably not.
What happens when we feel connected to others, and what happens when we don’t all begins and ends in the brain. The solution to a challenging student might be sitting right next to them. Lean in … this will be amazing!
In our distant past, humans believed that “outside” tribe members were potential predators or thieves. But those within your clan depended on each other for survival. It hasn’t changed in thousands of years. Today, humans are social creatures that still depend on each other for survival. How this relates to the students in your classroom is our focus this month.
Here’s HOW important social connection is to your students. First, without it, the brain can generate pain. Second, it can generate losses in social, emotional, and cognitive skills. Finally, poor social connections can lead to inflammation and even cell death. Let’s look at each of those more closely:
“The pain is killing me.”
The feelings of social pain and physical pain are strongly interconnected. First of all, they show almost identical mappings in the brain … which makes these next findings fascinating, and believable.
When someone is feeling social pain (usually prompted by exclusion, rejection, teasing, etc.) they actually experience physical pain. The antidote is therefore not surprising – physical connection (a hand on the shoulder, a hug, etc.) can heal the hurt of social pain. The reverse is also true: social connection (feeling like you belong, feeling accepted, respected, etc.) can help heal physical pain (Eisenberger, 2012). In fact, the pain-reliving drug Tylenol® that acts to reduce physical pain has been shown to also reduce the hurt feelings and pain from social exclusion (Dewall, 2010). There are even preliminary studies linking low social status to heart disease and depression (Shively, Musselman, & Willard, 2009).
“I’m losing my mind.”
Social disconnection is studied by scientists in relation to feelings of exclusion, isolation, or rejection. All of these experiences increase the levels of cortisol in the brain (Stanley & Adolphs, 2013). Cortisol is your stress hormone and too much of it is very bad for your physical health as well as learning potential. In excess, it can lead to anxiety and depression.
“I can’t think.”
It’s not just our emotions and body that take a hit from a lack of social connection – it’s our brain too! There is a correlation between students who feel they lack social status and a reduction of gray matter (Gianaros, et. al., 2007). If that is not enough to capture your interest, social isolation also diminishes the neurogenesis (production of new brain cells) in the hippocampus – a brain region central to learning and memory storage (Hueston, Cryan, & Nolan, 2017). So maybe, just maybe, that side conversation is keeping the neurogenesis factory in their hippocamps up and running at full speed during adolescents – the peak development phase for new cell production.
So, what is the upside of social connection?
Social Connection is often defined as the perception of belonging, acceptance, and respect from your peers (Mikami et al., 2017). When someone feels socially connected to another, oxytocin is released (Stanley & Adolphs, 2013). This is the same chemical released when a baby is physically close to a parent or loved one. The oxytocin creates a sense of social trust amongst the people, that then impacts their feelings of safety when together.
People with adequate social relationships (both in quantity and quality) live longer than those with little or poor social relationships (Holt-Lunstad & Smith, 2010). The significance of strong social relationships is equivalent to quitting smoking in relation to mortality rates. Yes – having solid friendships will keep you alive longer. In fact, poor social connection is more detrimental to your longevity than obesity. So, if you’re going to eat a donut … at least do it with a friend!
Before you run off and schedule some quality time with a friend, keep reading so you understand how VITAL this topic is for the students in your classroom.
Benefits of Social Connection in School: When a student is experiencing social connection, portions of their medial prefrontal cortex become activated and involved in the experience (Hutcherson, Seppala, & Gross, 2014). And that part of the brain is highly involved in learning/memory formation and retrieval (Euston, Gruber, & Mcnaughton, 2012). In simple terms, students learn better when they are socially connected.
Here is how it works: When students feel socially connected to the students in their class, it creates a culture of safety where students are willing to take learning risks (ask a classmate for help, admit they are struggling, etc.) (Mikami et al., 2017). The social connection breeds respect, which creates an environment where students feel safe to ask for help without fear of being shamed. These help-seeking habits are a hallmark of high-achieving students (Ryan & Shin, 2011), especially for secondary students where this learning skill is less common (Ryan & Shim, 2012).
Students who feel socially connected to their classmates are also more intrinsically motivated, have higher levels of cognitive attention (because they aren’t consumed with worry about whether their peers like them/will tease them), and ultimately demonstrate higher levels of achievement (Mikami et al., 2017).
Starting to sound like that chit-chat isn’t such a bad thing, huh? Of course, it isn’t appropriate during your direct instruction. But next time your students take a bit longer to redirect their attention from their group back to you … maybe take a moment to smile knowing that a lot of good is coming out of their social connection.
But what if your students have friends, but they are not in the same class? Well, they are reaping the health and social benefits, too. But to gain the learning benefits, the social connection must exist with peers within the classroom (Mikami et al., 2017).
Don’t worry – social connections within the classroom don’t have to mirror life-time BFFs. These social connections can be built, and it turns out YOU play a critical role in making it happen (Farmer, Lines, & Hamm, 2011). Consider the 50-50 ratio; at least HALF of time ensure students are working together. Here is how …
3 DOs and 2 DON’Ts to Foster Social Connection
“Socialize” the facts – connect your content to people and relationships.
Tie your historical facts to the people involved and their stories. Help them see how these historical experiences impacted real people at the time.
Personify your grammar rules (have students create skits about characters: comma, semicolon, colon, apostrophe, etc. as if they were real people that embody their role grammatically.)
Teaching your students to solve equations like 3x+5=17? Tell a story of the “3 and x who were dating but things weren’t working out so x is about to break up with 3. But it’s not cool to do that in front of other people so you have to get the 5 out of the way first before the x and 3 have the talk and “divide” their things so x can be alone.”
Promote the social aspects of school – Capitalize on the many opportunities within your class and school to help students create friendships.
Build systems in your own class that promote social connection: reading buddies, student spotlight, daily social traditions (Monday: share the highlight of your weekend with a neighbor; Thankful Thursday: share one thing you are feeling grateful for this week; Friday: share one thing you are looking forward to over the weekend; etc.)
Encourage your school to embrace traditions that build social connection: assemblies, class names/colors/teams that create a unified identity for each class.
Encourage students to participate in extracurricular activities offered at your school or within the community: sports, music, drama, robotics clubs, etc.
Students work together – There are very few professions where someone works in complete isolation. Begin to prepare students for their future by allowing them and teaching them how to work together. Cooperative Learning strategies are a great place to start (Gillies, 2016). Challenge yourself every day – is this something students can work with others on or is it REALLY important that they do it independently?
DO YOU DO SOCIAL SHAMING?
Some of the social exclusion students feel is initiated by students. And, yes, there are even things good-intentioned teachers do that contribute to feelings of social exclusion and isolation. You play a role in eliminating both.
Student-led Social Shaming – Get serious about eliminating bullying (in class, on the playground, in the halls, and online) amongst your students. Keep at it until it is gone! Create a zero-tolerance policy in your classroom for any teasing, bullying, or other disrespectful behaviors. Here’s where to start.
Pay attention during transition times in class – are there students who aren’t socially connecting to others? Are there students in your class who eat lunch alone? These are red flags of a student who needs a friend.
Identify a student who you think they could connect with and give them a special project to do together to help spark a friendship. 5-10 minutes of them helping you organize supplies might be all it takes.
Teacher-led Social Shaming – Unfortunately there are a lot of “old school” outdated, behavior management “strategies” that have been passed down from one teacher generation to another that evoke social shaming. If you have adopted any of these strategies that may have been passed down to you, I beg you to please stop!
Writing students names on the board; “behavior walls” with students’ names divided into categories of good/bad students; posting grades with student names; green/yellow/red boards for student behavior is “social shaming” (Goodman, 2017).
Some might get you the immediate result you are looking for in a compliant student, but the academic and long-term impact of these strategies can be catastrophic. All of these are counterproductive to your goal of creating a learning environment built on respect, acceptance, and belonging.
Mirror-Mirror (Just for YOU)
Your social connections matter too! Your relationships with colleagues, friends, and family all impact your physical and emotional well-being.
Try this thought experiment to gauge your social health: Imagine you are moving this weekend and needed a little extra help. Who would you call? Great! Now imagine that person is out of town. Who would you call next? And what if they were not available? Who is next on your list? Are there a couple more people you’d be willing to call and ask for help? If listing more than a few people you could ask this level of help from is challenging, make it a goal to seek out and foster more friendships.
Now, is there someone who you would have called 5, 10, 20 years ago? But now they are off the list due to some unresolved riff? If so, it sounds like you know what your homework assignment is for the month. Resentment is destructive beyond your imagination – to your emotional health, relationships, physical health. Learning to forgive could be the most valuable skill for a person’s overall wellbeing. Pick up the phone. Not sure what to say? Start with that. “Hey – I’m not sure what to say right now. But I do know I want to move beyond the past and work to have a relationship again. Are you willing to try with me?”
Feeling connected to other people matters – make it a priority for you, and your students. Now, go pick up the phone and schedule a date with your partner or time with a friend.
Euston, D., Gruber, A., & Mcnaughton, B. (2012). The Role of Medial Prefrontal Cortex in Memory and Decision Making. Neuron, 76(6), 1057-1070.
Farmer, T. W., Lines, M. M., & Hamm, J. V. (2011). Revealing the invisible hand: The role of teachers in children’s peer experiences. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 32(5), 247–256.
Gianaros, P. J., Horenstein, J. A., Cohen, S., Matthews, K. A., Brown, S. M., Flory, J. D., . . . Hariri, A. R. (2007). Perigenual anterior cingulate morphology covaries with perceived social standing. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2(3), 161-173.
Gillies, R. (2016). Cooperative Learning: Review of Research and Practice. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 41(3), 39-54.
Goodman, J. F. (2017). The shame of shaming. Phi Delta Kappan, 99(2), 26-31.
Holt-Lunstad, J., & Smith, T. (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. SciVee.
Hueston, C. M., Cryan, J. F., & Nolan, Y. M. (2017). Adolescent social isolation stress unmasks the combined effects of adolescent exercise and adult inflammation on hippocampal neurogenesis and behavior. Neuroscience, 365, 226-236.
Hutcherson, C. A., Seppala, E. M., & Gross, J. J. (2014). The neural correlates of social connection. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 15(1), 1-14.
Mikami, A. Y., Ruzek, E. A., Hafen, C. A., Gregory, A., & Allen, J. P. (2017). Perceptions of Relatedness with Classroom Peers Promote Adolescents’ Behavioral Engagement and Achievement in Secondary School. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 46(11), 2341-2354.
Ryan, A. M., & Shim, S. S. (2012). Changes in help seeking from peers during early adolescence: Associations with changes in achievement and perceptions of teachers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 1122-1134.
Ryan, A. M., & Shin, H. (2011). Help-seeking tendencies during early adolescence: An examination of motivational correlates and consequences for achievement. Learning and Instruction, 21(2), 247-256.
Shively, C. A., Musselman, D. L., & Willard, S. L. (2009). Stress, depression, and coronary artery disease: Modeling comorbidity in female primates. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 33(2), 133-144.
Stanley, D. A., & Adolphs, R. (2013). Toward a Neural Basis for Social Behavior. Neuron, 80(3), 816-826.