I have a secret to tell you, something that is potentially so big that in the future it will change the way we work with challenging kids. It involves a word that is exciting researchers in the field of neuroscience—oxytocin. Oxytocin (a Greek word meaning “quick birth”) is a hormone found in mammals that also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, produced in the hypothalamus and released into the blood via the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland. The hormone plays an important role in the labour and birthing process in females, acts at the mammary glands, causing milk to be let down for the infant, and causes cervical dilation/ contractions during the second and third stages of labour. The hormone is essential in the bonding process between mother and infant. Oxytocin is implicated in sexual arousal and when researchers inject mammals with synthesized versions of the hormone, it creates spontaneous erections in males and increases frequency and duration of orgasm in females.
Okay, here is where it gets really exciting, hold on. As important as the hormone is with regards to childbirth, maternal bonding and sex, it is even more important in building trust, reducing fear, bonding with others, elevating stress, and improving certain types of mental functioning and memory. Oxytocin has been found in significantly higher concentrations in those who claim to be falling in love with each other, and the hormone plays a large role in social behaviours such as empathy. Recent research suggests that deficiencies in the hormone may be a feature of the autistic brain. This amazing hormone reduces anxiety, and strong evidence suggests that it plays a role in reducing fight and flight behaviour and increasing cooperative interactions. Synthetic oxytocin administered to individuals nasally has been reported to reduce feelings of fear, it is thought through inhibiting the amygdala, also known as the reptilian brain, which is implicated in fear responses observed in all mammals, including our species. One of the current leading laypersons on oxytocin, Susan Kuchinskas, in her fine book The Chemistry of Connection cites the importance of the hormone in self-regulation, the ability of the individual to manage moment-to-moment stress. In my school counseling practice, the five to ten percent of children with the most challenging and troubling behaviours and emotional problems all show symptoms of a disturbed oxytocin response— fear, suspiciousness, high levels of anxiety, distrust, limited social skills, inability to build relationships with others, sabotaging or overdependence. So if this wonderful hormone occurs naturally in all mammals and humans, what’s the deal? Why do so many of our toughest children seem to be showing symptoms that would indicate deficits in it?
Well here’s the thing about oxytocin—we are not born with a fully developed oxytocin response, we have to learn how to access it. We learn how to access oxytocin through our closest relationships with caregivers. The right kind of loving attention that the child receives in the first three years of life is what Susan Kuchinskas says “sparks the genetic potential for a brain rich of oxytocin into realization.” Babies that feel safe, secure and comforted, have an intimate bond with their caregiver, are consistently shown love and affection, and are calmed when they are upset are more likely to build large networks of neural receptors and an internal environment rich in the hormone. Infants that develop strong, loving bonds with their mothers and strong oxytocin responses are more likely to trust, cooperate, collaborate, and be generous and empathic to others. Conversely, infants who come from an environment where the mother has significant depression or other mental illness that impacts taking care of the child, where there is instability in care provided, where there is dysfunction, abuse, or chaos in the home, or a lack of social support, is more likely not to fully develop a healthy oxytocin response. The environment described above is, unfortunately, very common in the most chronically challenged five to ten percent of students who are using a larger proportion of a school’s most intensive services.
Now you may be saying to yourself, I believe you, that it is tremendously important that my students are releasing as much oxytocin as possible while in my care, but I was not around during the first three pivotal years of life. I have to work with the after effects (good or bad) of how the caregiver raised the child, what can I do?
A great deal, if recent research is right. Bryan Post, one of America’s leading attachment and family therapists, believes that caring adults play an instrumental role in getting a child’s oxytocin train back on track. Adults who display consistent kind, caring and loving behaviour with the most difficult children provide the student with some of the nurturance, safety, trust and unconditional love they did not receive in the first three years of life. The result? Areas of the brain implicated in the oxytocin response wake up and pathways that lie relatively dormant come to life with activity. Post observed this phenomenon repeatedly with the most challenging adopted children he works with; children who have been trapped in the Child Welfare system for years, supposedly un-adoptable due to their extreme behaviours and difficulty bonding with adults, after 18 to 24 months of intensive work, are suddenly adoptable.
Post says that one of the keys to helping challenging kids with releasing oxytocin is for adults to be eliciting enough of their own. He claims that the most important thing that an adult in a challenging child’s life can do is be able to control their own fears, worries and negative attitudes towards the child. Teachers (and their students) will benefit immensely from having a deeper understanding about themselves, their triggers, motivators, etc. So it seems that making a habit of assessing your attitude towards your most challenging students by using self-reflection and eliciting the advice of a trusted, honest coach or mentor would be tremendously helpful.
Those who work with the most challenging kids in our schools need to be aware that some of the common symptoms of children with attachment, bonding and limited oxytocin response are lack of trust, suspiciousness, anxiety and hostility towards adults. These students are energy drainers and make it difficult for anyone around them for long periods, including teachers, to remain in a positive, empathic state, all necessary for oxytocin release. Teachers need to try, when working with these kids, to not get sucked into their behaviours and begin unconsciously mirroring their students. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that the child likely does not have the necessary psychological and physiological tools to be in positive relationships. Coming up with a mantra (a short saying or phrase you can say repeatedly during the day) to keep you in a calm, compassionate, empathic state is vitally important. The biggest thing to remember is that you do not want to get into power struggles or create fear in the student, as these activate fear centres of the brain and suppress bonding and attachment hormones like oxytocin. Don’t give up on attempting to bond with these children, it may be tough, but they’ll thank you in the long run.
Some simple yet profound ways to help with releasing more oxytocin that can also be a ton of fun:
- Make regular eye contact with students. Make it into a game where you attempt to meet each other’s gaze for a period of a minute (great for your love relationship as well).
- Play a game where you and your students attempt to mirror each other. This is a great exercise for the class to do with each other that creates a ton of energy and laughter along with creating deeper bonds between students.
- In pairs or a group attempt to breathe in unison (i.e. breathe in together, breathe out together). Deepak Chopra found out, through scientific inquiry, that groups who have meditated together for a period of time tend to breathe and have heartbeats in sync with each other during the meditation. Truly amazing!
- Get your students to do more acts of charity (generosity releases oxytocin).
- Play, dance, sing together.
- Smile, smile, smile.
- Have your students pair off together. Have them sit across from each other. Without talking, have them send kind thoughts to one another. This exercise works amazingly well (since the majority of language transmission is non-verbal) at increasing empathy in the classroom.
Kosfeld M., Heinrichs M., Zak P. J., Fischbacher U. & Fehr E. Trust in a Bottle. Nature, 435. 673 – 676 (2005).
Kuchinskas, S. (2009). The Chemistry of Connection: Find Trust, Intimacy, and Love. New Harbinger Publications Inc, Oakland, CA.
Moberg, K. (2003). The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love, and Healing. Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA.
Post, B. (2009). From Fear to Love: Parenting difficult adopted children. Post Institute Publishing.
Post, B. (2009). The Great Behaviour Breakdown: The ultimate tool for your parenting toolbox. Post Institute Publishing.
Winslow, J. & Insel, T. (2002) The Social Deficits of the oxytocin knock out mouse. Journal of Neuropeptides, April-June; 36(2-3): 221-9.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott Coleman (B.A., M.A.P.P.C.) is a transplanted Albertan who found himself moving to small town Saskatchewan to work as a school counsellor. After the initial shock and awe of not being able to access a Starbucks on every block, he is now loving small town life. Scott has over ten years in the counselling/mental health field. He has a passion for writing about and delivering workshops in his school division on resiliency, relationship building, student leadership, and stress management. Questions or comments, email firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s September 2010 issue.