The start of the 2021–22 school year has been rough. Students across the world are experiencing “broken belongings”—a detachment from others—as the pandemic created conditions of relative isolation and a significant amount of chronic unpredictability within communities and home environments during the past 20 months.
We can observe this detachment in student behaviors, which are signals of a nervous system dysregulated by often toxic levels of stress. Our schools are being challenged to return to some type of normalcy even as we move through the third academic year of a global pandemic. The social loss our students are carrying is palpable.
Two mornings and afternoons a week, I am co-teaching in seventh-grade classrooms in a large middle school, and as I walk down Hallway B, I feel the tension in the air. As a staff, we are wondering how to reclaim feelings of safety and connection so that sustainable learning can occur. The nervous system is social, and has plasticity, but we require safety and a sense of belonging to access the frontal regions of the brain that hold our abilities to problem-solve, pay attention, emotionally regulate, and thoughtfully respond, which we all need to feel competent, autonomous, and motivated.
The destructive TikTok challenges that have gone viral in many of our secondary schools, accompanied by defiance and destruction of school property, are behaviors that demonstrate how distorted belonging feels better to students than the isolation of the recent past—these highly irrational challenges are often driven by the developmental need for attachment to others.
We need to harness students’ energy and attachment to each other, and follow the nature of the child. Our seventh-grade team has been meeting to cultivate ways we can begin to rebuild trust and connection through our procedures with the increase of predictability, safety, and relational conditions. We are and will be continuing to integrate these practices at the beginning and end of classes and during transitions.
Focusing Students’ Feelings of Attachment Productively
Board games: We are setting up board game days twice a month in our advisory classes in our middle schools, and two times a week in the elementary schools, integrating these times within our procedures and setting up station rotations where students move from Battleship to Guess Who, Operation, Connect Four, and many other games focusing on cooperation, collaboration attention and fun. The goal here is to have students rotate to different games and different partners to relearn how to be with one another without technology.
We will not be using our Chromebooks or phones as we set up group norms—through discussions with the students—to establish expectations and predictability:
- What does cooperation look like?
- How do we disagree?
- What are the best ways to move from station to station?
- The focus is not on winning but on collaboration and inclusion. What will this look like?
Creative expression: When we draw, journal, and create with free-style art mediums, we can express beliefs, feelings and sensations of pain, hurt, disappointment and loss, creating images of these emotions and conditions. This kind of expression can help students share their unique identities through language, beliefs, and cultural celebrations, which schools often misunderstand because they come from social and cultural norms and values of a community different from the social and cultural norms and values of the school.
Focused Attention Practices
Focused attention practices require connection with others as they help prepare our nervous systems for a state of calm alertness. We integrate these practices throughout our procedures, providing practices that deepen collaboration and empathy.
Dedicate This One: In this focused attention practice, students create an image or write a few words that they want to share about someone they appreciate. As they think of this person, they breathe deeply for one minute, sharing their love and hopes through images or words of gratitude and comfort. They then have the option of sharing their dedication with a partner.
Sharing Worries and Celebrations: Students write down or draw a worry, problem, or even a celebration they want to share. Folding up the paper, they hand it off to a partner. Partners then respond to one another with an image or words. Before implementing this practice, we need to discuss agreements and trust within our classroom, and doing this activity should always be a choice.
Coregulating With Your Partner: Have a student choose a partner. Without talking, one student should find a rhythm in their breathing, body percussion, or drumming on the desk, and see if their partner can match the pattern. Then they can change it up as the other person takes the lead.
Mirror Me: In this coregulatory practice, one partner creates a pattern of body movements—such as a jumping jack followed by squatting or arm movements—that the other person will mirror back. It’s fun for students to speed up and slow down these movements to see how closely their partner can follow. Students in each pair take turns leading.
Dual Drawing and Journaling: In this coregulatory practice, partners share a sheet of paper for one to two minutes. When the time starts, one partner draws a line or shape and then passes it to the other person so they can add a line or a shape; they continue to do this for the set time period without talking to one another. When the time is up, they can talk about what they drew together, giving it a title and any description that feels appropriate to both of them.
In a variation on this, students can use the same pattern with dual journaling or storytelling. For the set time period, students pass a sheet of paper back and forth, contributing a sentence or two at a time to create a story together. The teacher can provide prompts about places, objects, or other themes so that students can connect their stories to what they’re learning or to each other. They may write about their similarities, differences, interests, or passions.
Compassion for others draws upon brain networks for empathy, and when these networks are activated, we develop the nervous system states that cultivate kindness—and kindness is the most therapeutic practice for transformational change.