Roberto’s fifth-grade year was life-changing. Entering the year, he was a likable, bright, energetic boy with some attention issues and a history of being the class clown. However, early in the year, his father was laid off and his parents began to have conflict. As the financial strain escalated, so did the arguments. By the holidays, social services were involved and Roberto was removed from his home.
The trauma of having his life crumble around him led to dramatic increases in problem behavior. He quickly became increasingly unsafe and behavior supports were not working. He was identified as having a combination of depression, attention deficit, and oppositional defiance. Eventually, Roberto was placed in a therapeutic class for students needing intensive emotional and behavioral support.
Three difficult years later, I met Roberto still in the therapeutic class and foster care. By this point, most would describe him as severely depressed. He spent the school day with his hoodie over his head sleeping or pretending to sleep. He refused to attempt his classwork and had begun threatening staff if they tried to prompt, console, or pressure him into attempting schoolwork. This is what brought us together. As a behavior analyst and therapeutic teacher, I worked with many students like Roberto; talented, kind young people that had experienced too much trauma, too much failure, and too much rejection.
As a white man from the suburbs, working with students like Roberto often felt overwhelming. Early on, it felt impossible to understand the pain that inequality, racism, trauma, and mental illness have on young people. Additionally, as badly as I wanted to connect and help them transcend their difficult circumstances, it felt hypocritical and ignorant to hold these students to the high standards necessary to learn, heal, and transcend. However, over the years I realized that, for many students, if we don’t find a way to connect with and believe in them, who will?
One of the most difficult parts of working with students that are struggling with mental illness, income instability, and racism is balancing empathy for the challenges they face with high expectations. Questions such as, “Is it fair to expect students who lack basic essentials to have completed their research paper?” or “Should I require homework, if many of my students don’t have a place to do their homework?” are asked by the reflective educator. Finding a balance between high expectations and empathy can be especially difficult. It can be easy to blindly hold all students to the same standards, but, on the other hand, in the name of empathy, we may be inclined to “give the kid a break.” However, in the long run, these “breaks” can become learning gaps. Finding this balance requires much trial and error, plus a deep knowledge of and connection with each student.
In Belonging: How Social Connection Can Heal, Empower and Educate Kids, I shared many of the lessons I’ve learned from over 20 years of working with students like Roberto. One of the most powerful lessons these students taught me was that the transformative educators capable of shining a light through the darkness are able to balance warmth and high expectations. This teaching style has been described by researchers as the optimal style for teaching marginalized students. In James Vasquez’s research, he found these “warm demanders” emphasized the student-teacher relationship as the foundation for learning.
While these teachers value relationships, they aren’t pushovers—far from it. In the book Culturally Responsive Teaching, Professor Geneva Gay warns us that the warm demanding teaching style “…is a very different conception of caring than the often-cited notion of gentle nurturing and altruistic concern, which can lead to benign neglect under the guise of letting students of color make their own way and move at their own pace.”
These memorable teachers build their relationships around an unrelenting belief in their students. From there, the warm demanding teachers’ daily actions reinforce this belief with a commitment to help each student meet those expectations. As Lisa Delpit explained in her book, after years of observing high-quality teachers of African American students, “Warm demanders expect a great deal of their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them to reach their potential in a disciplined and structured environment.”
The warm demanding teaching style aligns with what researchers at Princeton and Harvard found to be the decisive factors that shape relationships. When we meet someone new, our brain immediately asks two questions:
- Is this person nice?
- Does this person know what they are talking about?
Our answers to these questions are made quickly and tend to stick, shaping the relationship for the long term.
While both warmth and competence are important, however, they are not equally so. Our ability to communicate warmth and competence shapes how our students perceive us. Warmth has a greater impact on our assessments of others. The image below highlights the emotional responses that typically ensue from our initial impressions of warmth and competence. If someone is perceived as low in both trust and competence, they will likely elicit the emotional response of contempt. In contrast, those perceived as warm and competent tend to be admired.
In my experience, there is often a natural inclination in schools to focus predominantly on competence. However, environments that lack warmth and stress competence tend to create envy in students like Roberto. Envy can be a very dangerous emotion that may cause some students to take pleasure in disrupting the learning environment.
The relationship equation can also help us understand why some students can be so challenging, and, despite our best efforts, get under our skin. The years of rejection, loss, and failure students like Roberto experience can create a tough exterior designed to keep further hurt away. Unfortunately, it also tends to push away help. When this happens, our attempts to show warmth and empathy seem to be met with animosity and rejection. If we are not careful, this tough exterior can also make it easy to feel contempt or pity for students like Roberto. Insulting and threatening others certainly doesn’t communicate warmth. Additionally, a track record of poor academic performance, problem behavior, mental illness, and disability didn’t communicate his potential.
This is why the warm demanding teaching style requires we invest in becoming community builders, capable of seeing and developing what lies buried inside each student.
To learn more about the warm demanding teaching style or the relationship equation, I invite you to visit my website or check out my new book, Belonging: How Social Connection Can Heal, Empower and Educate Kids.