The majority of students in this country are not learning to their potential. They face mental health issues and serious concerns about their safety. Many have trouble regulating their emotions, connecting with others and managing the effects of bullies, early trauma, ongoing abuse, everyday stress, parental pressures, social pressures . . . the list is, unfortunately, long. Attending to academics is fruitless when students feel traumatized or scared and, as a result, disengage or turn to bullying, drugs, violence, or even suicide. That’s the bad news.
Now here’s the good news: These crises are solvable, and this post summarizes some proven strategies and provides free resources to start tackling these issues now.
As an educator you see firsthand how you can make a difference in your students’ lives. You employ instinctive strategies every day without even realizing the beneficial impact of your kind words, your smile, or a pat on the back. Connecting with your students on a personal level empowers them to learn because they feel safe in your presence. That feeling of safety is the groundwork needed for their academic—and life—success.
Our brain builds itself and responds to ordinary signals from a bottom-up approach—survival first, species advancement second. With survival as our primary objective, we are wired to be on the alert for threats and, when threatened, to respond accordingly. But when we feel safe, our brains seek information to advance our species. When students feel safe, they are far more likely to access the upper areas of their brains—specifically the prefrontal cortex—and both retain and utilize knowledge.
Teachers don’t deliver information and expect it to soak in from the top down. No, like clever gardeners, we nourish the ground for absorption and growth. In the classroom, this nourishment happens while you are doing what you do best: connecting with students in a way that makes them feel valued and appreciated. The power of connection cannot be understated. We are social creatures born to connect with each other. This is why the social pathways and structures in our brains take up massive amounts of real estate. That real estate connects to our flight, fight, and freeze areas as readily as it does to our executive functions. The atmosphere you create in your classroom and the connections you foster with your students dictate which avenue the neural energy will choose: survival or advancement.
When we don’t connect, we face severe consequences; students turn to maladaptive ways of functioning: they drop out, self-harm, or worse, they act out in severely destructive ways (most school shooters have felt profound social rejection and they often suffered from a lack of social skills, spiraling further into social disconnection). So the question becomes, What can you do? How are you going to teach students who are afraid, undervalued, lost, bullied, intolerant, angry, or on the verge of serious acting out? What are your skills? And how can they best be used to help your students build their life skills?
We’d like to pay it forward by offering you a free e-copy of our book (co-authored with Amy Smith) Reach Before You Teach: Ignite Passion and Purpose in Your Classroom. This book contains over 50 strategies to help you connect with your students, especially with those who need connection the most.
Chapter 3, for example, walks readers through the steps to soften the emotional barriers to progress (defenses). When students become defensive, learning is inhibited for them. One strategy for reengaging defensive students is to mirror the emotions you observe. The student might be unaware of his feelings and therefore might need help bringing them to consciousness instead of acting out on them. Mirroring validates, shows empathy, and empowers students to resolve the situation. Try making an observation such as, “Max, it sounds like it really hurts when people are neglectful of your needs.” This begins a solutions-driven discussion rather than an argument.
Empathy is an integral party of our social lives and often lacking in children who show bullying tendencies (or worse). Demonstrating empathy is a strategy that builds relationships and also supports the growth of empathy in your students. We can model and prompt empathy by asking questions such as, “Max, how would you feel if someone did that to you?” Helping students develop awareness that emotions are actually happening is the first step towards them developing a language to express their own emotions (see Chapter 8).
Mindfulness can increase executive functions such as impulse control and decrease distractibility. In Chapter 8 you will find mindfulness and meditation exercises. Your students can learn about meditation and mindfulness on a deeper level by visiting www.YourSelfSeries.com. By reading articles on mindfulness and experiencing mindfulness exercises in the classroom, students will have a deeper understanding of its benefits.
In addition to exploring the strategies in the book, please take advantage of the free online resource at www.YourSelfSeries.com, which provides mental and physical health content so you can teach these important topics using an approach that builds social and emotional skills. The Your Self Series approach has students develop their own set of guidelines, sit in a circle, and take turns teaching the content to each other. This approach is detailed on the website.
With these resources, we hope you will feel empowered to create a safe space, teach skills for emotion regulation, and authentically connect with one another—and, thus, open your students’ potentials for learning. Perhaps, with our connections to each other, we, as a nation, can put an end to these crises and help students to achieve not just their academic goals but their life goals as well.
Free mental and physical health content: www.YourSelfSeries.com
Need more direction? Contact us directly at [email protected]
Paula Prentis and Chris Parrott