Behavior informs us, like a flag on the field, that something is internally amiss. Consider the student who “forgets” homework or puts the dissected frog in Amy’s lunch box. Those are your yellow flags. Now consider the student who beats up a classmate “just because” or writes a five-paragraph essay on why the school should be bombed. Those are red flags, which receive due attention, and rightfully so, but what kind of attention are they receiving and is it working?
Adverse neural wiring and early attachments create the yellow and red flags. This is why in all professional training presentations I include a brief review of the development of the self. If we can understand how the self develops and use our innate powers of empathy and connection, then we can effect change that is undoubtedly powerful because the change exists on a base level: the self.
We are all born with a neurophysiological need for connection. As children grow, they internalize their unique connections with their caregivers. These patterns of attachment have significant implications later in social, emotional, and academic performance. When children feel secure, they are able to separate and mature in a healthy way, with a good sense of self. If their experiences were harsh or improperly calibrated, they don’t develop such a strong sense of self and go on to have difficulty connecting with people.
In fact, when insecurely attached in the early years, children manifest myriad defenses that impede connection potential. For them, these defenses (erroneously) serve a purpose, but unfortunately, take a long time to soften. Otherwise, if the defenses remain, they will fester and continue on toward a path of potential destruction. This is why punishment does not work – you are only reinforcing the defenses of the individual self that “I am bad” or “I am not worthy,” which will reinforce the noxious cycle.
Most important, as an educator, after the caregiver/infant attachment is formed, the next significant attachment is with you. In fact, you have the potential to reshape those damaged early attachments and defenses. This may not be what you signed up for, but knowing that you can re-connect with your students will help you shift their behavior, not just manage it.
Connection conveys caring while developing a relationship of trust. When students feel connected, they are more likely to stay in school, develop critical social skills, and grow up to be compassionate, contributing members of society. Remember, disruptive students are not appropriately self-aware. Breaking noisome behavioral patterns begins with developing authentic connections, and ends when the self feels whole and supported.
Here are some strategies to connect with your students.
- Don’t ever shame a student. Period. This shuts down the self faster than it can text. You’ve lost them and any chance of connection.
- Allow them to have a voice and some power. You already have the control. That is evident. But by giving up a little, you can actually gain more. Allow them to set class rules, codes of conducts, etc. And make sure you are adhering to the same guidelines for all. Fairness is critical to the developing brain. When students don’t feel that a situation is fair, the brain releases cortisol.
- Make sure all the students in your school have an authentic connection with you. Many ways exist in which you can do this. Please implement one and make a plan to periodically address students outside the formality of the classroom. More than ever, students need connection now in our sea of digital disconnection.
- Send your staff to professional development conferences that focus on fostering connection, efficacious classroom climates, and mental health.
There have been over 75 school-related shootings since Sandy Hook. Clearly, many more potential flags could litter the field so we must begin to connect and support the developing self in order to reduce these drastic incidents.