Emotionally Intelligent Teaching to Empower and Engage: Insights from Neuroscience

Professor Emeritus David R. Katz III

Since positive connection is a prerequisite to people being open to being taught, it is helpful to keep in mind that the neuroscience is clear on the fundamental orientation of human beings. We process, filter, and understand the world first through our emotions. Then we develop our understanding cognitively, ascribe meaning, and respond behaviorally. As teachers, our ability to appreciate the impact of emotions on cognition, motivation, persistence, resilience, and a sense of inclusion is essential to our practice. A corollary concept is that as teachers we have a profound effect on the emotional states of the people we engage with each day because of the ways we interact with them and the relationships we establish.

Consider this: how we treat people affects their emotional state; their emotional state impacts their brain chemistry; their brain chemistry impacts their ability to think clearly, solve problems, persist, trust, feel safe, feel confident, and be their best, most generous selves. I believe education is about empowering others, and empowering others requires an ability to cultivate affirming relationships. So for me it has always been about how I apply this knowledge. I have to wrap skill around the insights so I can actually use this in my real life with the real human beings I am trying to inspire and teach. The good news is we can develop skills, which build relationships that put people in a positive emotional state that supports their most productive contributions and generous engagement.

When we look at people’s emotional states, the primary and, from an evolutionary perspective, most primitive and least nuanced response is the stress, fear, or threat response. By any name it is well designed to maximize our ability to survive by launching an immediate response to perceived danger (response suggests reaction, not thought). Adrenaline and cortisol levels soar, heart rates climb, blood pressure rises, respiration increases, and we are poised to fight, flee, or freeze.

The chemical cousins of this stress response maximize our ability to physically react quickly by hijacking cognition that would come from activation of the prefrontal cortex. So stress inhibits cognition. The stress response literally makes it difficult for the people you are teaching to be thoughtful as opposed to reactive. It is vital that we appreciate the fact that when human beings do not feel safe, secure, included, respected, cared about, or affirmed, they are likely to be in some degree of stress. This is not a moral statement about a person. All of us, when feeling threatened and unsafe, are subject to this response and the behavioral offspring it produces.

For great teachers, this insight creates an obvious imperative: to build relationships with those we are leading that ameliorate the stress response and create feelings of connection, safety, and caring. In the face of a global pandemic, the reawakening around social justice and systemic bias, and the myriad of forms othering can take, this insight becomes even more critical. The prerequisite to creating a sense of inclusion, connection, and equity within the communities we are privileged to teach and lead is to have the emotional intelligence to nurture relationships that mitigate the stress response.

The really good news is that we do have an antidote to the damaging effects of the stress response and its chemical cousins of adrenaline and cortisol. Our secret sauce is to ignite the reward pathway in the brains of the people we are teaching. The reward pathway of the brain is connected to areas of the brain that control behavior and memory. Whenever human beings engage in behavior that dramatically improves our chances of survival, the reward pathway is ignited. The brain begins to make connections between the critical, survival-enhancing activity and the release of an entirely different set of chemical hormones that are extremely pleasurable, thus ensuring that we will repeat the behavior.

We have most likely all heard of these chemical cousins (sometimes dubbed the happy hormones) that are released when we ignite the reward pathway in our brains, and we have certainly basked in the warmth of their uplifting effect. Dopamine creates a sense of joy, excitement, and pleasure. It plays a role in motivation and is your brain’s signal that a reward is at hand, meeting a basic need (think chocolate). Serotonin stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness (think great sleep). Oxytocin promotes bonding, generosity, and establishing trust (think physical affection). It is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate stress responses and calms the nervous system. Endorphins trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to what morphine does (think exercise and laughter).

What’s most remarkable about igniting the brain’s reward pathway and flooding our systems with these happy hormones is this: it dramatically enhances our ability to think clearly, solve problems, be creative, persist in the face of challenge, and behave cooperatively, generously, and magnanimously. Our sense of efficacy, confidence, and motivation improves. In short, we are operating at far closer to our full potential and the learning centers of our brain are opened up instead of being hijacked.

So for us as real-world teachers the most critical question is, what are the activities and behaviors that ignite the brain’s reward pathway and engender the release of these stress-inhibiting, potential-opening happy hormones? We can then build them into our consistent everyday teaching practice. They cannot be once-in-a-while practices that we pull out when things aren’t going well. That will rightly be perceived by the folks we are teaching as disingenuous.

There are three major conditions which are so critical to human survival and well-being that the brain’s reward pathway is ignited to reinforce the behaviors that create these conditions. Our goal is to develop skills that help create these conditions within our learning environments.

Condition #1: Caring Relationships.

When someone is in the presence of another person whom they perceive as caring about them, respecting them, wanting to help them, and seeing them as important, that person feels safe and valued. The happy hormones are released, and they are empowered to be their best self. What if every day in our teaching practice we prioritized building trust and leading with empathy, and in each interaction (text, email, Zoom, face to face) communicating our desire to be helpful and supportive? Unbelievable as it sounds, our very presence could ameliorate the stress response and ignite the reward pathway. We could literally alter the brain chemistry of those people we teach to their great benefit.

Condition #2: Sense of Belonging.

The brain’s reward pathway is ignited when people feel a powerful sense of belonging, acceptance, and inclusion within a group. When they feelpart of a team that is safe, connected, cooperative, and interdependent. Our very survival and success evolutionarily can be traced back to our social and communal roots. We thrived physiologically, emotionally, and spiritually within the context of a caring group that was invested in our success and well-being, and in return we were invested in the success and well-being of the group. This powerful symbiotic synergy exponentially improves our chances of survival and thereby ignites the reward pathway. What if through our teaching practice we developed learning environments designed to create a sense of belonging, acceptance, and interdependence? What if the work our students did became opportunities for connection and cooperation by design?

Condition #3: Pattern Finding and Problem Solving

The third condition that triggers the ignition of the reward pathway is pattern finding and problem solving. Especially when people are in safe, caring relationships and part of supportive teams, they love to solve problems that move them and their group forward. The pattern finding behavior is so primal that it has an addictive element that can be seen when observing someone playing a video game. The key for us as educators is to deliver manageable, solvable challenges where we provide the resources, training, and emotional support while carefully aligning the challenges our students face to the groups’ and individuals’ capacity. No one wants to play a video game where there is no sense of progress or success.

My teaching, coaching, and leadership experience has reaffirmed these principles of neuroscience. The emotional state and morale of the people we teach, lead, and mentor is the single greatest factor in determining the extent to which they are able to reach their full potential individually and as team members. My goal is to help educators develop the practical skills that enable them to operationalize these principles of neuroscience and bring them into their everyday teaching.