Relationships Before Test Scores: These Creative Solutions Help Build Connections Between Students and Teachers — And That Leads to Learning

American schools are often so focused on preparing children for careers that for many students, education feels like little more than a long series of tasks to perform. In other words, an unappealing job.

But that just isn’t how children learn.

“For many children, academic learning is not a primary, natural, or valued task,” writes Dr. James P. Comer, professor of child psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center. “It is the positive relationships and sense of belonging that a good school culture provides that give these children the comfort, confidence, competence, and motivation to learn.”

Across the country, many teachers and school administrators — and in some states, elected officials — are working to increase the sense of connection between teachers and children, especially with children who bring the effects of their personal struggles with them to the classroom. Teachers and school officials can’t change the circumstances in which many of their students live — including poverty, abuse, and neglect. But they can change the way they respond to those students.

That’s the basis of the movement toward trauma-informed education, which takes into account the effects that trauma and toxic stress can have on kids. A good example is Ohio Avenue Elementary School, in one of Columbus’s poorest neighborhoods. The Atlantic wrote about the school in 2018:

Every adult in the building has received training on how children respond to trauma. They’ve come to understand how trauma can make kids emotionally volatile and prone to misinterpret accidental bumps or offhand remarks as hostile. They’ve learned how to de-escalate conflict, and to interpret misbehavior not as a personal attack or an act of defiance. And they’re perennially looking for new ways to help the kids manage their overwhelming feelings and control their impulses.

As the article asks: “What if the most effective way to help kids learn self-control is for adults to stop being so controlling?” The school has received high marks for progress in Ohio’s annual school report cards.

In Kalamazoo, Mich., expulsions dropped to zero during the 2017-18 school year as the district adopted what it calls “restorative practices.” Instead of simply punishing unacceptable behavior, the schools offer conflict resolution meetings. As an administrator explained, “There has to be a restorative conversation. There has to be a way to help that young person feel like they are accepted, valued, and loved.”

The trauma-informed education movement began in Massachusetts in the 1990s, according to the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative. Progress has been slow but steady. In July 2019, Pennsylvania became the twelfth state to encourage or mandate trauma-informed training for teachers and others working in schools. Ohio’s legislature has not taken up the issue, but the state’s Department of Education offers some resources for schools that are interested.

Some schools and districts, meanwhile, are coming (back) around to the importance of recess — for all kids, not just those experiencing trauma or stress. In Texas and Oklahoma, several districts now give students an hour of recess — in addition to lunch and phys. ed. — every day. They’re following a model developed by Texas Christian University’s LiiNK (Let’s Inspire Innovation n’ Kids) Project. In an article in Dallas-based D Magazine, teachers raved about the differences the change has made in their students: “This year was, hands-down, the easiest year I’ve had with behavior.” “They’re able to get all that energy out. Coming in, they’ll just be sitting on the carpet zoned in and engaged for 45 minutes.” One estimated that she’s now spending 75 percent less time dealing with classroom disruptions.

Teachers and school officials can’t change the circumstances in which many of their students live — including poverty, abuse, and neglect. But they can change the way they respond to those students.Click To Tweet

Research suggests that the urge to move is deeply embedded in our genes. In a 2013 report, the American Academy of Pediatrics asserted that “recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.”

Of course, statewide and district-wide policy changes take a lot of time and effort. Many teachers and administrators are finding creative ways to connect with students that they can implement with little or no outside support. These efforts vary widely in tone and complexity, but they share a common goal: a more holistic approach to education.

A high school in Atlanta held a mock funeral, at which students dropped anonymous notes with details about their lives into a coffin, “bits of pain the mourners hoped to bury. … The goal was to force students to confront their rawest emotions, even if painful. In coming weeks, teachers would be asked to talk with students about forgiveness, about the people they can count on, about helping others.”

A New Jersey high school’s “Lights On” program keeps the building open Fridays until 11 p.m. — and three nights a week in the summer — to give students an alternative to the streets. They can play basketball, pool, or video games, socialize, or use a recording studio. The program runs on donations from the community.

An elementary school principal in Texas uses Facebook Live to read bedtime stories to students at home. She even dresses in pajamas.

Teachers around the country are adopting an idea shared widely on social media: a “check-in board,” on which students can communicate how they’re feeling that day. As one teacher explained, “It’s easy to misinterpret behavior and its cause. But I’m grateful (especially as the day goes on) to have a little context for why we might be making the choices we are.” Another added, “My fifth graders have become more open to meeting with me to talk through things.”

Mindful Music Moments works with orchestras and opera companies “to bring daily mindfulness and classical music to schools and community places, generally delivered during announcements.” A student at a participating Cleveland-area school described it like this: “All the stuff that was stuck in my head, it goes away. I was in a warm place where I could just sit there and listen to music.”

Children are more ready to learn when they experience sufficient joy and care in their lives. Joy reduces anxiety and increases attention, among many other benefits that directly impact the classroom experience. Distinct from happiness, which is triggered externally, authentic joy is the brain’s reward for engaging in relationships that offer safety, support, and fun. In children, joy also comes from the experience of co-regulation, the processes through which adults help them understand and manage their emotions.

As Fred Rogers once put it, “Love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships; love, or the lack of it.”


If you know of other examples like these, please share them with us on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.


Explore how you and other educational professionals can continue to support social-emotional wellness in school settings with our featured Trauma-Informed School Environments Training and Consultation.

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