Relationships: Yes, They Really Matter – 10 Strategies to Build Strong Relationships
The adage, kids do not care what you know until they know how much you care, never rang more true than in today's world. One in three kids come to us with three or more powerful, disruptive risks such as abuse, drugs, neglect, poverty, divorce. (Christopher Blodgett, Washington State University, 2015) According to Phil Drake of the Great Falls Tribune (Montana) newspaper in an April 15, 2016 edition, "There are now about 3,126 children in foster care within the Children and Family Services Division, making it the highest number since the state began tracking this statistic 16 years ago." Many do not have a safe person or a trusted adult on whom they can rely. The toxic stress that results from these factors affect brain development, relationships, and the ability to manage oneself. We, as educators, are not trained in how to identify or handle the trauma these students possess yet we are expected to deal with the impact in our classrooms every day. Not every student comes to us with a trauma background, but those that do define and challenge the successes in our classrooms every day. Blodgett goes on to explain, "…trauma interferes with being present with a ‘learning-ready' brain and is a major driver for the behavior problems that exhaust educators and demotivate classmates. For educators, unaddressed student trauma is a major contributor to frustration, low job satisfaction, and burnout."
Is there good news out there? Yes, we know a great deal about how to help kids move past their trauma. We know that the brain, especially in childhood, can adapt and recover. The biggest factor in helping the childhood brain respond positively? Relationships. It only takes one trusted adult to help a child overcome some of their trauma challenges. In the world of standardized testing it is important to understand that without effective relationships, the academic strategies you use to help students prepare will not be effective if you cannot connect meaningfully with your students. The next section will outline 10 strategies needed to build strong relationships and help you achieve the academic outcomes you want.
1. Greet Your Students
It sounds simple but how many times are we rushed in the morning and we hurry our students into their bell ringers or morning work by starting off with telling them what to do or hurry to get started? If we began each day with giving each student 15 seconds of our time with a "Good Morning, I'm so glad to see you this morning," or asking them a question, you will change the whole tone of your opening. Students in trauma find a barrage of directions or commands to be especially triggering. As teachers, we can reduce the tension and anxiety in the room by starting off with a simple, one or two sentence dialogue with our students. They will feel more relaxed, welcomed, and regulated as they begin their day. As adults, it is difficult to walk through the doors of our work when we are greeted with a series of directions or being yelled at for being late, for talking, or for not getting started right away. Kids are no different.
2. Do What You Say You Will Do: Follow Through
Students need to know that you follow through. All students need follow through, but those who have been exposed to trauma crave it. Follow through creates a safe environment and in turn helps students feel safe and secure. When they know that you will do what you say you are going to do, they begin to trust you and their environment. This is not a place or a person that will let them down. When a student feels safe and secure in their environment, he can let his guard down and focus on the academic task. When there is no trust in the person or the environment, the student stays in the toxic stress state which means the brain stays in a heightened state of alert or the flight, fight, or freeze mode. When in that mode for an extended time, it changes the brain make up and development. The brain diverts itself from the development operation to the stress response operation.
3. Be Consistent
Working with students as a behavior support specialist, the number one flaw that students report when I ask them why they cannot work with their classroom teacher over an issue is that they do not believe in their teacher because the rules are always changing. Consistency lets a student know that while fair does not always mean the same, it does mean that there is surety something will happen. Students need to believe that when they report a need or an issue, you will do something about it and you will give it the same importance as every other event that has been reported. A student knows when you have treated them differently than another student. They can also respect when each situation has different consequences because you have done the investigation, listened to the students, and made a decision based on those facts. They cannot, however, justify when you tolerate one student's shouting out and yet when they do it one time you are at your end of patience and consequence that infraction. Kids know the difference and you lose respect faster that way than any other.
4. Be Positive
Students want a teacher who is optimistic, encouraging, and quite frankly, happy. To them, happy means nice. To build strong relationships with students, they need to feel calm in a classroom. If a student is constantly worrying that you will lecture, nag or "yell" (raise your voice) for unpredictable reasons, they will not ever feel settled in your classroom. Unsettled kids will resist letting their guard down because it leaves them vulnerable. They have perfected the ability to put up walls in their own home to keep them safe from hurtful adults and they will fall back on that skill when pressed.
Read more to learn if you should become a teacher.
5. Smile, Laugh, and Actually Speak to Them
As educators, we are under such pressures to cover curriculum, get students ready for testing, deal with behaviors, parents, administrators, cover duties, and plan meaningful lessons. It can be easy to fall into the efficiency trap of just putting our heads down and get through the day to have enough time for everything. When we do this, we are in jeopardy of not taking the time to enjoy our work and our students. By taking the time to personalize your classroom, enjoy your students, laugh and talk with them, smile occasionally, you will gain teaching time because your students are relaxed, engaged and open to working in an environment that is fun. Once, I had dealt with a particularly difficult and aggressive situation and I was still preoccupied reflecting about it. I was walking down the hall and a student stopped me to ask if I was mad and what was wrong. When I questioned the student as to what made her ask me that, she responded that the look on my face was so poor I must be mad. The deep-in-thought-frown made this student feel like she did something wrong. If that had been a dis-regulated student, I could have affected the ability to focus in class, attempt the work, or listen to the lesson because she was thinking about why I was mad. I had no idea but it profoundly affected this student. Since then, I have been very conscience of what expression my face carries when I walk in the halls, work with a student, talk to anyone, or just listen to kids. A smile goes a long way!
6. Listen to Them
By encouraging my students to talk to me and then listening to what they are saying, my relationships and my student's efforts in class have greatly improved while my behavior instances have reduced. The toughest kids with the roughest lives, who push everyone away, seek me out to tell me the latest chaos in their world just to get it off their chest. They know that I will stop what I am doing and give them my time. I set a timer and they know I am theirs until that timer ends. Usually, it is enough but if it is not, we schedule another time during recess, lunch, or some other down time to finish our conversation. Whether it is three minutes or eight minutes, the student knows this is his time. Sounds difficult to give up that precious few minutes I know. Think of it like this. When reading groups, or Daily 5, or a math lesson or math work begins, that student that you put off earlier, will seek your attention during these blocks. It may come out as frustration, it may come out as learned helplessness, reinforcement seeking, or some other time suck that does not let you work with others or maintain a flow of the lesson. In many cases, more than just this student is off now and you find yourself frustrated because you had a great lesson to teach. Building in time to listen to kids can earn you more efficiently used time and that benefits all students.
7. Be Available
It would be so powerful if we could form special, lasting relationships with all our students but that is a lot of unnecessary pressure on ourselves. Some relationships form easier than others because we are all drawn to certain characteristics, interests, and mannerisms. We work harder for students than others and that is just human nature. It does not mean that we do not try with all our students, after all, we know how important they are for our students, particularly those affected by trauma. If we show integrity in our interactions with students, if we communicate positively, if we initiate fix-its when necessary, and if we work at modeling appropriate social behaviors, we will establish an environment that is safe enough for all students. If a student needs a check in with me every morning, or after every recess, or at the end of every day and I am available for that every time, then I have created an environment that is healthy enough and safe enough for her. I do not have to have an enduring relationship nor do I have to feel pressure to fix everything, I have just provided predictability and consistency by being available that will allow her to thrive in my room.
8. Be Honest
When I need to know something from students and I have done the background work of providing a safe and healthy enough environment for my students, this is my most powerful tool. I do not have to dance around a subject, if I need to know something, I usually just ask kids and then I follow up with why I am asking. Kids respond very positively to this technique because they know where the motivation behind the question comes from. As a behavior support specialist, I have had to investigate fights, violent incidences, and when I start talking to kids, I am straightforward. Remembering that kids like to feel heard, I let them tell their story, empathize with their reactions, and above all I do not judge what they are reporting. I usually get the whole story when I use that method. Now there are plenty of times when the student is clearly in the wrong and when I objectively describe the situation back to them, I often get kids own what their part was in the event. Modeling that empathy toward the other student and with them as needed, goes a long way with earning my students' trust. By being honest and describing my thinking and my decision-making processes, I help my students feel secure enough that even when they mess up, I have their back. I made my decision based on facts, which I explained to them, I investigated thoroughly and explained my thinking and they know exactly where I am coming from. This gives students, especially those affected by trauma, a feeling of justice, consistency, and the offer of second chances.
9. Involve Your Students in the Day to Day Operations in Your Classrooms
There are two kinds of students in your classrooms. The first are very relational and love your attention. Hopefully, you have tried enough strategies above that they are seeking positive attention from you. The second kind of students are kids who are job kids. Their trauma may prevent them from lowering those walls that allow them to be physically nurtured with a hug, an arm around the shoulder, a touch on the arm, etc. Instead they will positively respond to a task. If you have an attention seeking student that may shout out, wander around the room, need to move, etc. try giving him a job. I have had students take a note to the office or another teacher. You may not have anything you need from the office. That is okay. We call these WGC (wild goose chase) notes in our building. We simply take a note write WGC in capital letters and fold it in half. We then ask the student to deliver the note to another colleague in the building. When he delivers the note, the teacher reads it and writes her name on the note with a check next to her name. She says to the student, "I am sorry, I do not have that. Try Mr. Smith." The student then goes to Mr. Smith. This repeats through 3-4 teachers. If you are the last teacher, you simply tell the student, "Oh, I have that. Let your teacher know that I will bring it to her room at recess." This accomplishes a couple of things for the student. First, he gets out of class and walks. Second, he has positive interactions with our adults that helps regulate him again. Third, he feels important being trusted to do a job for his teacher. Another job that helps these types of students regulate involve any heavy work that helps an adult in the building. I have specific stacks of books in my room that are used for students who need work. I might move over to the stack, exclaim how heavy it is and ask for volunteers to help me. I choose that student and have him move the stack of books to a couple locations around my room. If a student struggles in transitions in the hall, I have a crate with heavy things in it that we may need and I have him lead my line and always carry the crate. Sorting papers, filing, prepping materials may also be other choices for jobs. Repeated behaviors over time soothe an unregulated brain so the act of cutting, sorting, filing can fill those needs.
10. Hold Them Accountable
Sometimes once we know a student's story, we tend to expect less from them academically. This is not intentional but how many times have you seen a student put his head down on his desk and you let him be because you know he is frustrated and if you go push right now, he will most likely respond by showing aggression. Or you have a student you know rarely has a regulated night so you do not expect her to participate at all if she does not disturb others. Finally, maybe you have a student that, quite frankly, can scare you with how big the behaviors can be, so when the behavior starts the response is to get him out of class as fast as possible. We are not doing any of these students any favors with these reactions. In all our good intentions to give these kids a break or protect their dignity, we send them the message, they are not important enough to fight for their success. When a student is acting out they are simply trying to manage the intensity of his situation. If we remove them, we send the message that the behavior is too big for us as well. This hurts our chances at trying to form positive relationships, trust and creating an environment that is safe and healthy enough for our kids. So how do we hold these kids accountable? Kristen Souers gave such a clear description in her book, Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-sensitive Classroom. She talks about if it is predictable, it is preventable. If a student will shut down in math each time he is asked to work on an assignment, that is predictable. Some ideas that may help your student stay engaged includes a plan to provide a consistent structure. If the student understands what each block looks like, then he knows what time math will start and when he can expect an assignment. If you go over this plan with him and explain honestly what you see happening in math, get his feedback and ideas and create a plan that you can follow through on, he will respond more productively during math. Maybe you work out that you will stop by his desk first when you move around the room and then you will work with a small group and let him know you will stop back by his desk to see how he is doing. By giving him some predictability, you will lessen the anxiety that leads to some of these distracting behaviors. Involve your whole class by providing support in peer mentoring or teaming. With a supportive community of learners on board, the student does not have to rely on the teacher as much for support. Give you student a job so he is involved in the math lesson. He could erase the board, write the numbers for you in the problems, pass out the worksheets, Chromebooks, manipulatives etc. When these students feel involved in the lesson, they feel less like something is happening to accountability is an important piece of helping a student feel like she can be like everyone else in class and because you held her accountable with supports, she sees that you feel that way also.
In a time when so many kids live in chaos and uncertainty, when some move through as many as six families in a year, when their brains stay in a heightened state of stress and they are always in the flight, fight or freeze mode, relationships are few and far between for these students. The most important gift you can give your students to get the most out of them in your classroom is that of a relationship with you. Kristin Souers said it best in her book, Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom (2016),
Relationships require an investment of time, energy, and spirit and the payoff isn't for you alone; remember, it's not about you but about the students you serve. However, the benefits tend to multiply in the context of strong, true relationships - helping us all.