When we talk about putting theory into practice, there is a risk that we think of support as something we do to children. Using our knowledge of how children develop secure attachments can help us learn how to attune to them. Expressing curiosity and empathy can be more effective when we learn how to match their affect. In addition to helping children co-regulate, this way of relating can build a special trust between adult and child that may open a door to learning.
The link between trust and learning is often more visible in children and young people who have experienced maltreatment and disrupted attachments. The child who seems to assume the worst about our intentions towards them may also struggle to accept our help or advice. We often experience the young person who seems difficult to motivate or engage in learning as controlling or manipulative. The impression that these children are hard to reach and teach is probably linked to their difficulty feeling secure in relationships.
In the first year of an infant’s life, the parent’s or carer’s capacity to think about what is going on in the mind of the child allows curiosity and empathy about the child’s affect*. The carer provides the child with a kind of mirror image reflected in their parent’s or carer’s face and expression. The child manifests a mood or an emotion to a caregiver, who mirrors it in a display of understood affect. The infant who is crying and distressed sees sadness and distress in his caregiver’s face.
However, what adults usually do without even being aware of it, is mark or differentiate their display. For example, they may alternate a brief period of making a sad looking face with a soft smile, gentle voice, and rocking. This enables the child to recognise that the affect displayed by the caregiver is a representation of the child’s. This secondary representation allows a child to learn to calibrate and regulate his or her response rather than acting it out. 1,2
Many children who have been maltreated or who suffered disrupted attachments have not had enough experience with someone who can attune and connect with their affect. Yet, being able to experience a consistent, sensitive response from a parent or carer plays a vital role in helping children learn to regulate their emotions. How do we help children learn to regulate their emotions when they haven’t had these experiences early in life? How do we help them learn what it is like to have an adult who is trying to understand them and give meaning to their inner life and behaviour?
In order to reach out to these children, teachers, parents, and carers have sometimes been encouraged to try matching the affect of the child or young person. This isn’t always straightforward, and I have seen mixed results. One teacher said to me, “I try to match his affect when he is upset, but his voice goes up too high.”
Another asked, “How do I match his affect when his expression looks frozen or when he curls up in a ball?”
I have also seen teachers amazed at the results when they figure out how to do this. “When I said to him, ‘I understand you must be really upset,’ he got even more angry. But when I said in a more animated voice, ‘I get it! No wonder you are upset if you think you were going to get the wrong answer,’ he calmed right down.”
Success seems to depend on the child or young person being able to experience what it is like when an adult tries to understand him or her in a curious and empathetic way. It relies on an adult being able to notice the subtleties of a child’s expression and relate it to some underlying intention or meaning. This reflective capacity, often referred to as mentalizing, allows us to imagine the fears, desires, goals, hopes, and beliefs that underlies our own and others’ behaviours.
Someone who is mentalizing is curious, accepts that their assumptions about a child’s behaviour may be wrong but wants to try anyway, is aware of the impact of emotion, and is able to see a humorous side of things. However, mentalizing is also a fragile process. It develops naturally, for example, from the interactions between members of a family, but it can be easily switched off when a child or adult feels threatened or shamed. Similarly, when an adult becomes too rigid in interpreting a child’s intentions, when an adult lacks empathy for a child, or even when an adult has lost joy in relating to a child, it may be very difficult to recover that mentalizing stance.
What can we learn from the developmental processes, like mirroring, that can help us learn to match affect? The goal is not to present the child with a facsimile of their expression, but with a copy that is distinctive or marked. By matching the intensity and timing of a child’s affect -- for example, by matching the patterns of stress and intonation in the voice -- the adult demonstrates that understanding of the content of that emotion or mood. At the same time, the adult marks their display; for example, rather than shouting back at an angry child, the adult uses animated gestures. Sadness or disappointment can be matched by the tilt of the head or by an exaggerated sigh. Congruence but with a degree of differentiation allows the child to recognize the displayed affect as their own and not the adult’s.
One experienced practitioner explained some of these features in these examples: “So, if a child says to me, angrily, 'I am so stupid!' my verbal response to match affect would be to say in an animated tone: That's so hard for you when you think you are stupid!” I would also match the intensity and pattern in the child’s expression with my body language and facial expression. Likewise, if a child was sad and said: ‘I am so stupid,’ I would say the same words, but my non-verbals would be less animated in intensity in order to match the energy of the child's statement.”
The following steps may allow the child to get a sense of “you get me” and “you have understood me.” Although our goal is accurate mentalizing (giving the child the picture in my mind of what it is like to be them), we do not have to do this perfectly. It is important that the child experiences the process we use to correct our understanding.
I was in a meeting at a school and one of the teachers, in a light bulb moment, asked this question: “So you mean our job is to help him learn to relate to others rather than give him an education?”
If I could go back and answer that question now, I would say something like, “Actually our job is to learn to relate to him first before we can expect him to relate to us.” Yes, relationships are vital to learning. They go hand in hand. It is just that we are used to teaching kids who have learned before they get to school that the knowledge adults have about the world is valuable. For other children, we need to be intentional about helping them learn to trust by giving them opportunities to experience what it is like to have an adult who mentalizes them. That experience of being understood is a key that unlocks learning. 3,4
This is a true story. Harry (not his real name), ten years old, sits at his desk with his head down. His teacher recognises something is wrong. She knows that the question Harry has been asked may have upset him: “Write about a character in a story who feels rejected.” She gently asks Harry, “Come outside with me.”
The teacher has prepared herself for a moment like this. She says to Harry, “I can see that it is not easy for you to tell me what is wrong. I would like to do something a bit different. I am going to talk for you.”
The teacher continues as if talking for Harry: “‘If I don’t answer my teacher when she asks me what is wrong, I’ll get in trouble. But I don’t know what’s wrong, and I don’t know how to tell you.’” As the teacher speaks her voice become more animated and she moves her hands in front of her like the two sides of a closed gate. She is trying to communicate the sense of frustration, of not knowing, that she imagines Harry is struggling with.
Harry looks up and makes eye contact. Silent tears begin to spill down over his cheeks.
The teacher pauses and then begins to talk about a time when she kept getting something wrong and didn’t know how to fix it. She begins to lighten the tone of her voice and Harry smiles.
Later the teacher reflects on what happened. Was she able to match Harry’s affect? She can’t be sure, but she feels like there was a moment of recognition when Harry made eye contact with her. She thinks that Harry’s tears may have come from a sense of relief that someone could talk about him without making him feel ashamed. What is Harry learning? He is at the beginning; this is the first of many moments when his teacher can talk for him. Gradually, he will understand more about himself, he will see that the emotions that overwhelm him can be understood by his teacher and don’t overwhelm her. He can learn that it feels okay when another person helps you regulate your emotional response. The barriers and fears that cause him to back away from learning will seem less because he is learning to trust.
Relating to young people using skills like matching affect allows us to communicate a deeper kind of understanding that can signal to a child that what I have to share with you is relevant and helpful. “If you can get what is in my mind, then I might be interested in what else is in your mind. Now I am interested in what else you have to say about what might work for people in my world”. 4
Just in case you think that the reference to dogs in the title was simply to get you to read this, some experts say that mentalizing is perhaps the most human of traits, and that the animals closest to being able to mentalize humans are dogs. Dog lovers probably already knew this, but It shows what a powerful advantage dogs gain by being able to notice the subtleties in expression of their human owners. How can dogs do this? Try hanging out with humans for several millennia: mentalizing is a great way to build companionship and have someone throw a stick for you.
*Affect is often used as an umbrella term to include inner states that are relatively stable, such as an attitude toward a person and something shorter lived like a mood or an emotional response to a specific situation. It can also refer to something that child is not fully aware of and yet manifests in their expression or body language. If that doesn’t confuse you enough, try reading James Gross’ explanation in, “The future is so bright I gotta to wear shades” Emotion Review 2010: 2(3); 212-216
1. Fonagy, P. What is mentalization? Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHw2QumRPrQ
2. Fonagy P. Gergely G. Jurist E. Target M. Affect regulation, mentalization, and the development of the self. 2002.
3. Fonagy P. Alison E. The role of mentalizing and epistemic trust in the therapeutic relationships. Psychotherapy. 2014: 51 (3): 372-380.
4. Bevington D. Epistemic trust for AMBIT. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBeEOkwLToM
First published in www.saia.org.uk/blog 2019 © 2019 David Woodier, Inclusion Support Teacher.
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