Tip #4
Relationships: Creating a Class of Connection

Last week, we discussed that while many of your students have experienced great struggle and difficulty, many have also shown incredible resilience and growth. What does this mean for your classroom, and how does it come into your day-to-day interactions with your students? There is no simple answer nor a specific formula that is a one-size-fits-all for every student. But what is clear is that all children need to feel cared for and supported.

Research tells us that relationship building is a significant piece of creating a trauma-sensitive classroom. In other words, one of the most important tools in your survival guide remains YOU - building up the heart of teacher means focusing on relationships and you are central to making this happen.

Relationship building might seem easy when it comes to your students who easily connect. For those who listen quickly and rarely disrupt, it is not hard to build rapport. However, for the students who have been affected by trauma, it’s not always as easy to connect with them. Yet, this connection remains all the more crucial.

Why is it more challenging to build relationships with these students? To be frank, these students may do things to disappoint you, anger you, or they might not show any interest in wanting to connect with you or other students. It is much harder to build a connection with a student who is doing everything to push you away.

Psychologist Carl Rogers was the first to talk about the idea of unconditional positive regard; the concept that a person should be accepted and supported regardless of what they might do or say. This notion can be useful for building-relationship with your students, particularly those who come with a history of trauma. Being consistent in unconditional warmth and acceptance day-after-day regardless of negative behavior builds trust with a student who might not have that consistency in other places.

This is not easy. Let’s think for a minute about the students who show no interest in building a relationship with you. They use all kinds of strategies to avoid having to build a relationship; not speaking, being disruptive, being disrespectful. Most of you have witnessed students finding even more elaborate ways to push away those around them.

Now, imagine that these young people who are pushing you away have never had a secure attachment with an adult. They may be reacting this way, because they have been rejected by the ones closest to them in the past. It makes more sense now why, at their core, some students are scared to trust anyone and will do whatever it takes to protect themselves. This is where a teacher has an immense challenge but also an incredible opportunity. Teachers can use consistent empathy, genuineness, and warmth to build secure relationships with their students. If positive day-to-day interactions are prioritized every single day, a classroom culture that is sensitive to trauma and builds resilience is created.

Teachers have the ability to be a part of the healing process for students affected by trauma. Unconditional positive regard takes practice; it takes patience not just with your students but with yourself. You are human. We are all at times triggered by certain behaviors of a student. As we discussed in Tip 1, using mindfulness, you can self-regulate and achieve a balanced brain by purposefully paying attention to the trigger, your emotions, and how to move toward acceptance and openness. Practicing self-regulation and showing continued support to your students even in the face of extreme negative behaviors will increase trust and connection which in turn cultivates the foundation for student growth and resilience.

This does not mean that your students can do whatever they want or that classroom expectations do not exist. Rather, you operate from a place of unlimited and unconditional positive regard at your base and any consequences are delivered with that in mind. Your care and support shines through in your classroom expectations and procedures. This unconditional positive regard is at the heart of every effective teacher.

Story from the Field

I have taught high school English for fifteen years. Eight years ago I knew my life and teaching practices needed significant improvement, and I began consciously cultivating nonjudgement and acceptance through the practice of mindfulness in my personal life as well as in my classroom. I have had countless experiences where I have been able to “reach” students through the practice of mindfulness, and I would like to share one of the most recent ones.

Most of my students are open to the daily mindfulness practices at the beginning of every class (breathing practices, meditation, gratitude, positive occurrences, etc.), but there are always a few naysayers. A few weeks into last school year, as I was grading mindfulness journals, I came across several vulgar entries from one student. The entries also expressed how ridiculous and pointless this student thought the mindfulness practices were and told me I should just stop doing them.

After class I asked him to stay and talk with me for a few minutes. I let him know I would like to start over with a fresh slate, and I was not going to judge him. I asked him if he could try to meet me halfway, but he would not speak to me. I called his mom and had a powerful discussion with her. She expressed feelings of helplessness in regards to her child’s behavior. She confided in me that in junior high he was ruthlessly bullied and had become increasingly withdrawn and volatile. I promised her I would work closely with she and her son to help him see his worth.

I continued to greet him every day with a smile, ask him how his day was, encourage him, find common ground, and treat him with love, acceptance and kindness. He was unresponsive, but I refused to give up.

On the first day of second semester I had conferences with each student to let them how much I cared for them and appreciated them, as well as to give them a chance to give me feedback. I talked with this student and told him how thankful I was for him, and I knew what an amazing person he was. Although he did not say much at the time, his smiles became more frequent and he increasingly expressed gratitude and positivity in his journal. His grades improved drastically. He was turning in his homework. He eventually became comfortable having conversations with me. By the end of the semester he expressed how much he was going to miss my class next year. The last day of school he hugged me and told me he loved me and that I had changed his life through my non-judgment of who he was and the continual kindness and compassion that I showed him. He said he did not feel sad all the time anymore, that he felt accepted. I let him know how much I would miss him and what a beautiful impact he had made on my life as well.

Buffy Sanchez M.A.Ed.
English High School Teacher
Williams Field High School

Take Action

Reflect on student behaviors that have caused you to feel disappointed, angry, or frustrated in the past. Think back on one of these triggering experiences. What emotions did you feel when you were triggered? What physical responses (i.e. racing heart, quickened breathing, tightening throat, etc.) did you have? How did you respond to the student? Now, make a proactive response plan that determines ahead of time how you want to respond to these triggers, allowing you to move away from reactive responses toward ones that are mindful.