As teachers, we understand that learning doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Students arrive in our classrooms with problems, challenges, and trauma we may know nothing about. For children with a difficult or unstable home life, walking into class and focusing on academics is extremely challenging.
Asking children to learn math, write paragraphs, and follow the rules without addressing their internal state is not effective.
For students to learn in your classroom, it must be a place where they can feel comfortable and safe. It’s also important for students to have positive relationships with you and with their peers. When children feel a sense of safety and connection, they can relax enough to learn and thrive.
The Science of Safety and Connection
These concepts are practiced in classrooms every day. Although I intuitively understood the importance of safety and positive relationships, I didn’t know the science behind this thinking until I learned about Conscious Discipline.
Conscious Discipline is a trauma-informed self-regulation program that combines classroom management, social-emotional learning, and school climate. It was created by Dr. Becky Bailey, an educator, author, and expert in childhood education and developmental psychology.
The program is based on a framework called the Brain State Model. The Brain State Model recognizes three brain-body states that drive behavior in both children and adults.
We are in the survival state when we feel triggered by a real or perceived threat. In this state, the only skills we can access are fight, flight, or surrender. Children in the survival state may shut down or become physically aggressive.
The survival state asks the question, “Am I safe?”
The emotional state is our response to upset. We are in this state when the world isn’t going our way. Children in the emotional state may be verbally aggressive.
We can’t access higher level skills in this state, and we struggle to see from another’s point of view.
The emotional state asks the question, “Am I loved?”
According to Conscious Discipline, the executive state is “the optimal state of problem-solving and learning.” Here, we can access high level skills, solve problems, and achieve goals.
The executive state asks the question, “What can I learn from this?”
The Big Idea
Conscious Discipline’s Brain State Model essentially says that children can’t learn when they are in the survival state or the emotional state.
To access skills like attention, organization, memory, impulse control, and task initiation, children must be in their executive state. Only from the executive state can children (and adults) reach their full potential.
So, how can we help them get there?
The survival state is only soothed by safety. The emotional state is only soothed by connection (which inspires cooperation).
This means that we can provide the world’s best instruction, give our student’s the ultimate academic resources, and still see mediocre results.
Before we can teach our students effectively, we must create classrooms built on a foundation of safety and connection.
Creating Safety and Connection
For teachers, time is a limited commodity. It can seem like there’s simply not enough time to foster safety and connection. You have standards, a curriculum, state testing, and so much more.
But the truth is that you don’t have time not to foster safety and connection. Without this essential foundation, everything else you do will be ineffective.
And the good news is that building safety and connection doesn’t have to be incredibly time-consuming.
Here are several simple ways to provide your students with the safety and connection that they need to learn, some from my own experiences and others inspired by Conscious Discipline.
Strategies to Create Safety
- Use consistent rules and routines. For children, structure feels safe. Make sure your students know what to expect.
- Conscious Discipline advocates for visual routines. They use the M.A.P. process: Model, Add Pictures, and Practice.
- Be assertive. Make your expectations clear, without leaving them open to interpretation. Instead of asking, “Are you ready to go to lunch?” (and then getting upset when some students view this request as optional) say, “It’s time to go to lunch. Line up at the door.”
- Use the language of safety. Remind students that you are there to keep them safe. Explain that rules are intended to “keep everyone safe, including you.”
- Learn to manage your own emotions. When you feel overwhelmed or upset in the classroom, take a few deep breaths. Calm yourself before addressing the students. This way, you can choose your response instead of reacting impulsively.
- Ensure that students in your classroom don’t feel judged. They should know that you are there to help them be successful. They should feel comfortable asking questions, tackling challenging assignments, and making mistakes.
- Try a classroom Safe Place and/or Conscious Discipline’s Safekeeper Ritual.
Strategies to Create Connection
- Address your students by name, and learn their names as quickly as possible. A smile, eye contact, and stating a student’s name goes a long way.
- Greet your students individually at the door each day. Bid them goodbye at the door too.
- Conscious Discipline says that there are four key ingredients to connection: eye contact, touch, presence, and playfulness. One way to combine these four ingredients is through I Love You Rituals, brief interactions that build self-esteem and encourage cooperation.
- Listen to your students and learn about them. Ask how their soccer game went over the weekend, what inspired their latest art project, if they’ve gotten to see the sequel to their favorite movie yet, etc.
- Encourage your students, even for small successes. Notice their effort, their improvement, and their kindness or helpfulness.
- Respond to your students with empathy. Remember not to take their behaviors personally.
- Give students jobs that allow them to be of service to others. School Family Jobs encourage students to make meaningful contributions to their classroom, which helps them feel valued.
- Create opportunities for collaboration between students, and teach them to treat each other with kindness and respect.
- Provide your students with choices. When possible, give them input on activities, assignments, rules, etc.
- Laugh with your students. Laughter is a great way to build bonds and put your students at ease.
Some of these strategies probably come second nature to you, and you may be using many of them already.
Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying too many new strategies at once. Choose one or two from each list, and gradually implement them into your classroom. If you master those and see promising results, come back and try a few more.
Creating positive relationships and a classroom that feels safe can help all students succeed. It helps level the playing field for students who have experienced trauma (half of all children in the United States—or approximately 35 million).
It does the same for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, students burdened with stressful home lives, and so on.
When you see students not learning and not improving, or when you see students exhibiting the same behaviors over and over again, ask yourself: Have I given them safety and connection? All students need to feel safe and loved, but some may need a little extra.
Before you overhaul your teaching methods, try something a lot simpler and a lot more powerful: safety and connection.