"My teacher can hear me thinking. She knows when I want to paint and then she lets me."
—Comments of a four-year-old girl explaining why she loves to go to school.

The Importance of Attunement

Each day, in every classroom, there are thousands of human-to-human interactions. With words, 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, pre-occupation, 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. Attunement 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 this 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.

Attunement depends upon our amazing capacity for non-verbal communication. In fact, the vast majority of our communication with others is non-verbal, and a huge percentage of what our brains perceive in communication from others is focused (even without our being aware) on non-verbal signals: eye movements, facial gestures, tone of voice, the move of a hand, or 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 non-verbal actions that accompany the words. From this process, a child can literally sense your interest, your approval, and your enthusiasm.

The children, in some ways, have the easier task. The teacher has the challenge of being attuned to twenty or more different children. Each of the children will have different strengths, vulnerabilities, sensory preferences, and style of exploration (e.g., 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 coloring, or building with blocks.

Individual Rhythms

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 (e.g., calm and satisfied), while in other states we are incapable of learning (e.g., when asleep, exhausted, sad, afraid). In order to be attuned to someone, we must interpret their non-verbal (and verbal) cues — reflections of their powerful physiological rhythms.

Furthermore, in addition to the individual rhythms of the child, each day and week, as well as the school year as a whole, 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 can learn efficiently. In the last month of school, children sense the change in pace and anticipate the upcoming transition, again being less capable of efficiently learning. There is a rhythm to the week. Mondays are different from Fridays. There is 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. The capacity to be sensitive to someone else can be taught. The teacher can help children learn to be better attuned (see strategies, below). By taking the child's innate preference to read non-verbal cues and developing their capacity to watch, listen, and learn, we will be fostering socio-emotional literacy, and helping our children become fluent in the most important of all human languages — socio-emotional.

We can teach children non-verbal language just as we help them develop verbal language skills. Simple questions and instruction 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.

Things to Remember

  • Each child is unique. The attuned teacher becomes an 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 communication (Are they verbal? Do they 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 their voice, and the intensity of their activity.
  • Anxious, shy, and timid children may prefer solitary learning activities. Social children may learn concepts best in groups. Popular children enjoy recess, where their leadership and popularity can shine. Marginalized children often dislike recess; unstructured social time makes them feel more isolated and excluded.
  • The most powerful of our non-verbal communication instruments is the face. A child's face, and yours, is a barometer expressing interest, investment, curiosity, joy, fear, anger, confusion, or doubt.
  • Be aware that due to your influential position, words, actions and expressions are magnified —both good and bad. Your criticism can feel crushing, but your approval will be motivating, energizing and powerful.



Dr. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., is an internationally recognized authority on brain development and children in crisis. Dr. Perry leads the ChildTrauma Academy, a pioneering center providing service, research and training in the area of child maltreatment (www.ChildTrauma.org). In addition he is the Medical Director for Provincial Programs in Children's Mental Health for Alberta, Canada. Dr. Perry served as consultant on many high-profile incidents involving traumatized children, including the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado; the Oklahoma City Bombing; and the Branch Davidian siege. His clinical research and practice focuses on traumatized children-examining the long-term effects of trauma in children, adolescents and adults. Dr. Perry's work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain. The author of more than 200 journal articles, book chapters, and scientific proceedings and is the recipient of a variety of professional awards.