Emotional Development: Attunement - Reading the Rhythms of the Child

By Bruce D. Perry MD, PhD
  • Grades: Early Childhood, Infant, PreK–K, 1–2

Things to Remember:

  • Each child is unique. The attuned teacher becomes a historian, remembering and cataloguing a child's style of engagement and communication.
  • Learn individual strengths, vulnerabilities (one child may tolerate lots of stimulation while another is easily overwhelmed), and preferred style of communicating (is he verbal? Does she get quiet when upset?).
  • To develop this classroom catalogue," become an observer. Be sensitive to changes in the rhythms of a child's movement, the tone of her voice, and the intensity of her activity.
  • Anxious, shy, and timid children may prefer solitary learning activities. Social children may learn concepts best in groups. Popular children enjoy recess---their leadership and popularity shine. Marginalized children often dislike recess-unstructured social time makes them feel more isolated and excluded.
  • The most powerful of our nonverbal communication instruments is the face. A child's face, like your own, is a barometer expressing interest, investment, curiosity, joy, fear, anger, confusion, and doubt.
  • Be aware that due to your influential position, actions, expressions, and words-both good and bad - are magnified. Your criticism can feel crushing, but your approval is motivating, energizing, and powerful.

Tips for Teaching Nonverbal Communication

We can teach children nonverbal language just as we help them develop verbal language skills. Simple questions and instructions are a good start.

  • "How can you tell if someone is happy?"
  • "How can you tell if someone is sad?"
  • "How does it feel when no one listens to you?"
  • "When someone is speaking to you, you should look at them."
  • "You can understand someone if you listen to their words and watch how they behave."

'My teacher can hear me thinking. She knows when I want to paint and then she lets me. -A 4-year-old girl explaining why she loves to go to school.

Each day, in every classroom, there are thousands of human-to-human interactions. With words land smiles and open arms, teachers and children seek to communicate. And in doing so, a teacher can connect with children in ways that allow sharing, soothing, and learning. Yet there can be no communication if the instructive words are not heard, the tender touch is unfelt, and the admiring gaze is unseen. How often our best words dissolve unheard by those we wish to touch. Fear, anger, frustration, confusion, preoccupation, or boredom has made them "deaf." This was the wrong time or the wrong way to use those words. There has been a mismatch. What you wish to say, in that moment, is not very important to the listener. And you have not perceived what they are saying to you-"Not now. Don't use words. I am tired, scared, hungry, bored, angry."

This is why the core of good teaching is attunement; that is being aware of, and responsive to, another. How does this child feel? Is she interested, engaged, capable of listening to what I want to say? What is the best way to communicate an idea, fact, concept, or principle to her in this moment? What will engage, encourage, and excite her about this subject? What will be heard, perceived, felt, and learned? In short, what the teacher will communicate depends upon how receptive the child is. And how well a teacher reads a child's receptivity depends upon an understanding of how humans communicate without words.

The core of good teaching is attunement - being aware of and responsive to one another.

Nonverbal Communication

Attunement depends upon our amazing capacity for nonverbal communication. In fact, the vast majority of our communication with others is nonverbal-and a huge percentage of what our brains perceive in the communication we receive from others is focused (even without our being aware) on nonverbal signals, such as eye movements, facial gestures, tone of voice, the move of a hand, or a tip of the head. Even as one area of the brain is processing and attending to the words in an interaction, other areas are continually focusing on, and responding to, the nonverbal actions that accompany the words. Through this process, a child can literally sense your interest, your approval, and your enthusiasm.

Children, in some ways, have the easier task. The teacher has the challenge of being attuned to 20 or more different children. Each of the children will have different strengths, vulnerabilities, sensory preferences, and styles of exploration (for instance, timid vs. bold). And each child's "receptivity" shifts throughout the day. In one moment a child may be alert, attentive, and capable of tolerating the frustrations of a new challenge. Hours later, this same child is tired, hungry, fussy, and will be easily frustrated by any new challenge. This is the time to give the child something simple and familiar, something previously mastered such as building a tower with blocks.

A child's capacity to learn in any given moment is determined by internal rhythms.

Different Children-Different Capacities

A child's capacity to learn in any given moment is determined by internal rhythms. Our bodies and our minds move through predictable rhythms driven by powerful physiological processes. Sleep and wake. Hunger and satiety. The human brain's capacity to focus, listen, learn, and communicate is shaped by the symphony of dozens of patterns of rhythmic biological activity, creating, in any given moment, a person's internal state. In some of these states, we are attentive and receptive (for instance, calm and satisfied), while in other states, we are incapable of learning (when asleep, exhausted, and so on). In order to be attuned to someone, we must interpret his nonverbal (and verbal) cues, which are reflections of these powerful physiological rhythms.

Furthermore, in addition to the individual rhythms of the child, each day, week, and school year have superimposing rhythms that influence a child's "receptivity." The first few weeks of school, for example, are so novel that most children require time to adjust and become familiar with the novelty before they are able to learn efficiently. In the last month of school, children sense the change in pace and anticipate the upcoming transition, again being less capable of learning efficiently. There is also a rhythm to the week-Mondays are different from Fridays-and a rhythm to the day. A teacher is more likely to find a receptive class in the middle of the morning than in the 30 minutes before school is over. Throughout our lives, attunement helps us build and maintain our relationships. You can help children become better attuned to you and to their peers. The capacity to be sensitive to someone else can be taught. By taking the child's innate preference to read nonverbal cues and by developing her capacity to watch, listen, and learn, you will be fostering socioemotional literacy and helping our children become fluent in the most important of all human languages-our socioemotional language.

This article originally appeared in the October, 2000 issue of Early Childhood Today.

  • Subjects:
    Early Learning, Classroom Management, Communication and Language Development, Understanding Self and Others, Social and Emotional Development, Learning and Cognitive Development, New Teacher Resources, Teacher Tips and Strategies

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