Creating a strong attachment or connection with your students is no easy task in this day and age. We live in a world in which parents’ and students’ lives are filled with stress, speed, distractions, jobs, homework, bills, TV, ipods, gameboys, computers, cell phones, lists, and calendars. The stress that takes place at home and in the world comes into the classroom each day. Our world seems to speed up every year and go faster and faster. The negative by-product of the speed and complexity of our world is that our connection to ourselves and to our students suffer. It is difficult to connect deeply when we are doing five things at once and thinking 10 thoughts within a few seconds. Something has got to change within ourselves and our lives or more problems will keep manifesting in our children. I believe that one of the main causes of many of the problems that our children are facing is the lack of connection that our children have with their parents and teachers.
Along with a backpack filled with books, ipods, cell phones, gameboys,and sometimes computers, students carry backpacks into teachers’ classrooms that are filled with emotional and psychological issues that it make it difficult for a child to attend to learning. Let's face it, it is a challenging and confusing world to children and adolescents. With access to so much information and technology, their hearts and minds are exposed to things that are troubling and stressful for them. Yes, this is the state of the world right now. Teachers do have a lot of power to counteract and balance off the stress and distractions of the world. They can develop your their students’ social and emotional intelligences. Students’ social and emotional intelligences are their protection against intense and confusing emotions and against the stress of divorce, peer pressure, teasing, bullying, drugs, violence, and terrorism. It is like an immunization shot.
Attachment is a primary issue for humans throughout their lives. We can't get away from it. We begin the attachment process in utero and it intensifies at the moment of birth. Babies develop and learn through interacting and physically connecting with their mothers. It is a synergistic interaction between baby and mother that develops a baby's brain and sets a blueprint for how a baby connects to other significant relationships throughout her life. Attachment is a driving force in babies. Whether a mother responds in appropriate ways to stimulate and nurture a baby's brain to develop and “wire” itself to its fullest potential is dependent on mother's own attachment history.
Humans were meant to learn through attachment and connection with other humans. What was begun with our mothers in infancy continues on when we reach school. In order for a student to learn and grow to her fullest potential intellectually, emotionally, socially, and psychologically in a classroom, she must attach strongly to her teacher. Will she learn if this attachment doesn't occur? Of course, kids learn in spite of their teachers all the time. The amount and depth of learning won't be the same if a strong and secure attachment doesn't take place.
Connection between teacher and student is the foundation of all learning in a classroom. In terms of social and emotional learning, attachment and connection is the essence of how we learn these skills. The most powerful social and emotional learning doesn't take in place in formal lessons that come from a book or worksheet, but in the flow and action of our classroom. Students are constantly watching their teachers and how they respond and deal with their own strong emotions and with conflicts that arise in a classroom. How does a teacher identify, express, and manage her emotions? How does she deal with frustration or anger and how does she resolve conflicts? A teacher’s actions and words can be either a strong or weak model of social and emotional intelligence.
The game of teaching or the game of life for that matter is never about perfection. Teachers have so much pressure on them to be perfect and never make a mistake. The key is to develop the ability to self reflect which is the essential skill of self awareness. If a teacher can learn to watch herself and to self reflect about her words and actions in the classroom, then she can learn from her mistakes and develop her social and emotional intelligence.
Even though students’ and teachers’ lives are more stressful and confusing, there are ways to deepen your connection and attach strongly to your students even with all the negative forces in our society. The number one ingredient of creating a close connection with your students is safety. First of all, students want to know that you care deeply about them and that you will protect them. A child must feel that the teacher will create and maintain a classroom where all kids are respected and valued and that the classroom is a haven from criticism and teasing. I always was firm in letting my students know that I will never, ever tolerate any sense of criticism and teasing between students and I do everything in my power to protect each child from this treatment. With a close and secure connection with a teacher, a student is going to feel safe and being able to learn. Safety is also the key issue with our brains and learning. In order for a student to be able to access higher cortical areas of the brain where intellectual learning takes place, she must feel safe and secure with the teacher and classroom. If a student is scared in the classroom or with the other students or disconnected from the teacher, her brain will be in the protective and guarded mode and will spend more time in the emotional regions of the brain and in the brain stem where are survival instincts are located. With children who are scared or emotionally disconnected from the teacher, the flight or fight mode of brain and body function is frequently the mode of functioning.
The second main ingredient to creating connection to your students is to be available to talk and to be with them. It is so important to be a good listener. To listen to your students without judging them or giving advice is a powerful thing. Just listen with an empathetic heart. That is such a gift. Giving a student the space to just be and to share what he feels and thinks without judgments or suggestions getting in the way. The action of creating and holding a space for a student or the whole class is also very powerful and supportive. Often teachers feel that they have to say something insightful or do something magical in order to be helpful and supportive for a student. A teacher’s presence is valuable gift of itself. Feeling loved and cared about is part of the remedy. Finding the time to talk and listen to a student is not an easy thing with the busy and hectic schedule of teachers. Teachers can take a few minutes before or after a lesson or before or after lunch or at the end of the day. You can model this type of communication in every interaction that you have in front of class while teaching a lesson. Some of my fondest memories of school were when a teacher paid special attention to me or took a few minutes to talk to me. The time spent talking to a student will pay hugh dividends in terms of building a close and trusting relationship and ultimately will help a student to focus and learn.
Another main ingredient of creating connection is to honor the emotion that comes up in your students’ lives. Emotion is the cord that can connect you with your students. When a student feels angry, sad, scared, or hurt, we often try to get rid of the feeling or mask it with our words of support. Those times that a student is feeling the strongest emotions are best times to teach the student how to feel their emotion and use it positively in their lives. Yes, those times of anger or fear or deep sadness are gifts and tremendous opportunities. Emotions are wonderful and are the true motivators of all of our actions. They are a powerful force and energy in all our lives. They give life its beauty and aliveness and are the catalyst for all creativity, learning, and human connection. They also give us useful information that can be extremely valuable in making wise and informed decisions. We need to use the thinking parts of our brain along with the emotional parts to function effectively in our lives. Once students learn how to feel and express and harness the power of their emotions, they have a powerful skill that can greatly enrich their lives and lead them to them to success in whatever way they desire.
It is very important that students know that all feelings are OK. Students need to know that they can be themselves and that they are OK no matter what they are feeling. If students know that if they come to school angry, sad, hurt, scared that they are OK and accepted and that they can bring these emotions into a classroom, then they feel safe and secure. It is difficult for students to leave their hearts and feelings at the door and just bring in their intellects. Deep and profound learning only takes place when we teach to the whole student.
Emotions are only a problem when we deny, suppress, or mask them because we don't learn from the information, and the energy of the emotions can stuck in the body. Emotions are a lot like a flowing river which needs to move and meander. If you block the flow of the river in any way, problems arise and the water can back up and get stagnant or overflow and cause destruction. Many of us never learned when we were young children how to use emotion in a positive way in our lives. A student will have great difficulty learning if they have a lot feeling going on inside them. The emotional parts of the brain always demand our attention more than our intellectual parts. This is how our brains are wired. If you want to help your students to get to the higher cortical and thinking areas of the brains, you must first help them to attend to their emotions.
It is so important to hold a space or be a container for your students so they can feel their emotions and let the energy of the emotions move through their bodies and eventually let go of it. The most important focus in dealing with a student’s emotion is to have an attitude that the emotion is valuable and not to try to make the emotion go away or fix it. When a teacher is like a container and can hold a safe and accepting space for students, they learn to embrace and feel their emotions and learn to use them to help their lives. Remember that emotion is the cord that connects us as human beings. Honoring a students’ emotions creates a powerful bond between you and your students. They feel seen, supported, and valued. That is basically what all students crave on some level. Whether it is joy or love or sadness or fear, emotion can touch your hearts and bring you closer to your students.
In those moments when you can hold a space for your students to experience their emotions, powerful lessons are being learned. Your students are learning to identify and feel their emotions and express them. Most importantly, yours students are learning how to be not be afraid of their emotions and how to stay present with strong emotions. That is a profound lesson. So many addictions from drugs to alcohol to overeating are just ways we learned to cope with strong feelings when we were too scared to feel them when we were young and no one was around to support us. In short, you are teaching your students to effectively manage their emotions and not to run from them. You are also teaching your students to self soothe themselves just by being present with them.
Here is the challenge for teachers. In order for teachers to be fully present for students’ emotions and hold a space for them, teachers must be present to their own emotions and be willing to feel them. Often we want to try to distract or fix a student’s emotion because it makes us uncomfortable to feel that emotion in ourselves. Be gentle with yourself and wade slowly into the water of emotion. Take baby steps in honoring and feeling your own emotions. As much as it can be challenging and scary to feel our emotions, we won't die from feeling our emotions, and we can gain a tremendous amount of inner peace and wisdom by facing and feeling them.
The more that you have an intention to just be with your students and try to understand them and their emotions without changing or fixing them, a warm and heartfelt connection will be created. From this type of connection, there is great potential to guide your students through the steps of problem solving in order to address the problem or situation that was the catalyst for the emotions.
Here are some ideas to keep in mind when creating and maintaining a deep connection with your students. First, be aware of your students’ emotions. When a student is feeling a strong emotion, see it as an opportunity for connection and for teaching. Second, mirror your student’s emotion back to them by using the words “I see, I notice, I hear, you feel, you want, it sounds like, etc.” without any intention of getting rid of the emotion. Next, validate your student’s emotion by using words like “I understand, it makes sense, you are making sense”. Fourth, empathize with the emotion in anyway that you can. Finally, once you have guided your student in identifying, feeling, and expressing her emotion and made a connection with her, you are ready to problem solve. Help your student to brainstorm ideas on how she can solve her problem and support her in picking one of the ideas to try.
Students’ emotions are a very powerful force present in every classroom whether teachers focus on them or they don’t. The more that teachers can model and teach their students how to identify, express, and manage their emotions, the more they will be able to connect deeply with their students and to create a classroom that develops each student’s social and emotional intelligence and supports high academic achievement.