Mental Health

Building Students’ Resilience on the Bus

Six strategies bus drivers can use to support students’ emotional self-regulation.
October 6, 2017
A bus driver greets students outside the bus.
©Hero Images/500px

Relationships matter, and resilience research shows that one caring adult within the education system can make a huge difference to a student. I want to share how bus drivers, who are our initial and final school responders for students each day, can create attachment first thing in the morning and as students return home.

Safety on the bus matters most, and these strategies attend to this factor and don’t interfere with the physical well-being of students. But transportation personnel have a powerful opportunity to help students regulate their emotions by creating a safe environment while building relationships. Just “feeling felt” by another person builds cognitive function, and bus drivers can often see environments, patterns of behavior, and aspects of a student’s social and personal life that may be difficult to detect and understand in the classroom.

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Many of our students are walking into our classrooms with a biography that has become their biology. Chronic anxiety and early chronic adversity intimately affect brain architecture because unpredictable and ongoing stress causes the brain and body to marinate in toxic, inflammatory chemicals, which not only affects behaviors and relationships but can also affect health outcomes for an entire lifetime.

Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child and a professor at Harvard University, constantly explores the research and scientific evidence on children’s “toxic stress response” and the impact this neurobiological system has on brain development and the development of disease years and decades later. He has said, “We now understand, in a way we never did before, how early experience literally gets into the body and affects the development of the brain, the cardiovascular system, the immune system, and metabolic systems.” Normal stress is good for healthy development, but when the stress response systems are activated in the absence of supportive, calming relationships frequently and over a long period of time, this type of toxic stress disrupts neuronal health and neuronal circuits.

In the midst of toxic adversity, the brain has significant plasticity and is resilient, and this is the best news for all educators, parents, and support learning personnel. According to the Center on the Developing Child, the presence of adequate adult support can help to buffer ongoing adversity.

This past summer, my graduate student and I trained transportation personnel in northern Indiana on how to build strong relationships and help students to emotionally regulate when they stepped onto the bus each morning. We’ll continuing this training next year with a large school district in Indianapolis: Washington Township Schools serves over 11,200 students, and 175 transportation staff members will attend this training in November 2018.

Six Helpful Strategies

There are several brain-aligned strategies bus drivers can implement with all students before and after school. These strategies promote relationship and emotional regulation, creating a culture of unified support for everyone on the bus. On bus 60, for example, creating a special name or hand signal could help a child “feel felt” first thing in the morning.

1. Three buckets: At the front of the bus, the driver can keep three buckets. The first can be labeled: “What do you need today? Grab a pick-me-up!” The second: “What’s on your mind?” The third: “Celebrations!” Each day a student can reach in the first bucket for an affirmation, a book, a sudoku, a coloring book, or a cotton ball with lavender, for example. The second bucket is a place where students can leave a note or drawing with a worry, problem, or concern, to help get it out of their system—the driver can check in later with any student about a worry if that seems warranted. The celebration bucket is a wonderful way to mention daily or weekly successes: Students announce the celebrations—which can include displaying special projects or other student work—of the students on bus 60 on a Friday afternoon. Announcements can happen either when the bus arrives at school in the morning or in the afternoon after everyone has boarded but before the bus leaves the school.

2. Student mentors: One of the most effective ways to help students regulate their negative emotions is to provide leadership opportunities. Bus drivers can show older students how to act as mentors for younger students—the mentors can model how to take deep breaths (focused attention practices) and help younger students with redirecting negative emotions through a healthier channel such as drawing, coloring, or creating a new solution to any problem the younger students might have.

3. Catch me! Drivers can “catch” students doing or saying something kind. Notes of gratitude, messages of noticing, and stickers contribute to students’ feelings of purpose and connection.

4. Thumbs up, thumbs down: Each morning and afternoon, students can check in with drivers to share how they’re feeling through a quick thumbs-up, thumbs-down, or neutral show of emotion. This is a great way to check in and notice patterns while creating a connection.

5. Little breaks: The driver can play calming music, or the driver or a student can lead call-and-response songs. And Friday celebrations are a nice short break as well.

6. Bus newsletter, website, or a social media outlet: Share news with parents and educators to recognize the familial tribe of connection on the bus in this group of students and transportation leader.