What rats can teach teachers

I’ve been reading about rat brains and bahaviors and how they are changed by the sort of care they get. The research looks at rat mothers’ licking and grooming behavior and shows that rats that get lots of licking and grooming are different from rats that don’t. The ‘HPA axis’ (hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal activity) – also known as the ‘stress axis’ – shows hormonal changes that together mean that licking and grooming effects how rats’ stress responses work and how they respond to stressful situations. Licking and grooming also effects oxytocin and estrogen, including in the medial preoptic area (MPOA) of the brain associated with maternal behavior. This effects the amount of licking and grooming that rat mothers do, and then how much licking and grooming their offspring do. These changes also affect wider social behaviour through changes to oxytocin in the brain’s limbic system (or ‘social behaviour network’). See the Champagne Lab or the Meaney Lab for more on this.

While these patterns can repeat over generations, they can also be changed inside generations. When infant and adolescent rats are fostered to rats with different licking and grooming patterns, their brains change and so do their behaviours.

This ‘plasticity’ of the brain’s ‘epigenetic’ responses to environment and experience offers a positive alternative to the emphasis on early intervention. Early intervention policy has put the responsibility on mothers and insisted that ‘two is too late’ for the effects of ‘poor parenting’ to be undone. What these rats tell me is that two is not too late, that mothers of toddlers can’t possibly be held responsible for their kids’ entire futures, that different forms of care affect different children in different ways, and that, in terms of these brain effects anyway, we don’t need to get our care from our mothers. See research with human subjects here.

Of course, we have to take care translating from rats to humans. Children’s worlds are complex. Their days are filled with numerous experiences and encounters that will provoke a whole range of biochemical, affective, intuitive, social and mindful responses. These responses, the rats tell us, vary between children but also potentially vary in the same child over time. And in the movements and flows of the day, it might not always be so easy to know what might count as a stressor, and to which child.

Children relationships are also complex. They form deep connections to carers, family members, peers and teachers, including when people do not care for them well. Children’s relationships with individuals shift and change, and children can have caring, supportive relationships with some people, and uncaring and unsupportive relationships with other people. And the impact of relationships can endure long after the relationship has ended.

So far I have avoided specifying what the equivalent of rats’ licking and grooming might be for a child, and I’ve avoided the language of attachment parenting that seems to say there is one correct way of parenting. But even if we say that the human equivalent of licking and grooming might be lots of physical contact, sing-song dialogue, validation of feelings and an orientation to discovery – the point the rats are making is that this doesn’t all need to be done in infancy, and it isn’t all down to the mother.

So what are these rats telling teachers?

It seems to me that they are telling teachers to care for the children in their classrooms. They are telling teachers that if they get a report from another professional identifying what and who a child is, they should engage this knowing that children change, and that building deep relationships of care is a key to a child being able to change. They are telling teachers that when a child isn’t doing something they want them to do, it might not be because they are uncooperative, silly, disruptive or disordered – it might be because their stress axis or their social behaviour network is responding to the situation in a way that makes it really difficult for the child to be and do who and what the teacher wants. They are telling teachers that stress, sociality and learning don’t go together, that we should keep stressors – from social policing to high-stakes testing – away from children.

According to the rats, everyone involved with children and young people should have deep relationships of care at the heart of their encounters – these should be encounters of the heart.