An important factor in any relationship is the way one person reacts to the other’s emotional needs and moods. In studies of mothers and infants, researchers often look at what is called attunement to determine how well a mother responds to her baby’s emotional state, how well she decodes and responds to the infant’s non-verbal communications.
Attunement plays a role in many situations – especially in education. This came to mind following an observation of a class of not yet three-year-old’s who were learning about different musical instruments in which there were two teachers and a visitor.
As the children were arriving, outside the classroom a child with a babysitter was protesting, refusing to enter the room or take off his coat. The lead teacher reached out to him to no avail. Once all the children had arrived that teacher returned to lead the group and the other teacher went out to be with the still upset child.
When the child outside stopped crying but still refused to join the group, the second teacher came back into the room leaving the door open so the child could see in if he wished. The role of the visitor now became clear as he identified himself to the children as the visiting instrument, asking how that could be as he had no visible instrument with him.
The children in the room were captivated as he explained that he did have his instrument with him and they took part in his conjectures about what and where that instrument could be. Revealing that his instrument was his voice, he then had the children explore where they could feel vibrations when they used their voices.
While this was unfolding, the protesting child stood up to look into the classroom although still far back from the entrance. As the visitor’s participation became more intriguing however, he came closer to the threshold of the classroom watching with rapt attention. When it was clear that he was absorbed in the classroom events, the second teacher came over and without approaching the child sat down on the floor inside the room near the door.
The child came closer to where she sat but realizing what he had done he turned and ran back to the baby sitter. The teacher made no move to reach out to him but continued to sit where she was near the entrance to the room. This seemed to reassure the child who returned to stand next to her again.
In the meantime, the children in the class were completely entranced by the visitor’s teaching, participating with him in the various things he was doing. The previously defiant child began to participate with them and soon sat down of his own accord next to the teacher.
Observing him it was clear he was now participating in the activity of the group led by the visitor. With no fuss the teacher removed his coat to enable his freer arm movement, hung the coat up near those of the other children and sat down again next to him. By the time the class ended the child had become a member of the group.
This entire observation was an experience in attunement; the visitor attuned to the children in the group and they to him, the teacher attuned to the defiant child, and that child’s attunement to the visitor to whom he had responded. When I later praised the teacher, she said one could only do that with someone else’s child – too difficult with one’s own.
That teacher clearly attuned to the feelings of mothers as well as children.