Aristotle had it right when he said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” Children are not small adults: They process things and interact with the world differently than grown-ups. What is a big deal in the eyes of a child doesn’t always resonate the same way with us as teachers. However, if something matters to a child, it matters. It’s important for teachers to weave in opportunities for children to share things that are important to them so they can feel safe, connected, and available to learn and process new information.
Creating Space to Share What Matters
After a bomb threat was called in to a school where I used to teach, I knew that my students would need to process their feelings. When we returned to school the next day, we focused our morning meeting on the threat. I knew that this event would need to be processed; it was a scary and unnerving end of the day. When kids were given the chance to talk about an event that was on their minds, they were able to process what happened and move past it.
Morning meeting questions are a great way to provide space for children to share and connect with each other. Even a simple question like “How would you rate your morning?” can give children a chance to share the good and bad events of their day. In middle school, where we don’t have morning meetings, I still start my class by gauging how my students are doing. A question like “What is your most challenging class today and why?” gives me good information on areas where my students may need more support. Questions like “What’s something good that happened to you this week?” can provide additional insight into how children are feeling both in and out of school. Starting class with an opportunity for children to share things that are directly related to them creates a safe space where they know they matter.
Another way to help kids feel safe and available to learn is by normalizing their feelings. When a child is upset by something, you can help them address their feeling by saying, “It sounds like you felt really scared, and I can understand why. But you are safe.” Helping children name their emotions and being nonreactive toward them is a great way to help kids feel safe.
When a student is bothered by a comment or a situation, acknowledging their feelings and letting them know it is OK to have those feelings is helpful to get them to move on. For instance, when a child is accused by another student of something they “didn’t do,” it can be helpful to say, “I can sense you are feeling frustrated because you feel misunderstood, but you aren’t in trouble. We just want to get a better understanding of what happened.” This validates and normalizes their feelings and helps them share their voice about a situation that is impacting them.
Routines Are Key
Our students who live in high-stress environments often thrive and are reassured by routines and clear expectations. When students enter the classroom, they should know what to do as soon as they arrive. Building a consistent routine helps students relax and build independence. When students know what to expect, they can get right to work without having to rely on a teacher to tell them what to do.
When my students returned to school the day after the bomb threat, they knew I would be there to greet them and how we would start our day. They might not have known the details of what happened the day prior, but they knew they were in a safe, predictable place once they crossed the threshold of our classroom.
Show Up Consistently
Just as students benefit from knowing what to expect when they enter the room, they also benefit from knowing whom to expect. That’s why it’s crucial for teachers to be consistent in their expectations of students and how they handle issues as they arise. When students know you will treat them fairly and keep your cool, they are much more likely to feel safe in your presence. When they don’t know which version of you is showing up, that keeps them in a state of stress.
We all have bad days, but as adults, it’s our job to notice and to work a bit harder to ensure that we aren’t taking out our bad days on the wrong people. Sometimes when I’m having a bad day, I’ll ask my students if any of them are also having a bad day, and we discuss whose day is worse. While it’s true that misery loves company, it’s equally true that voicing our misery can make it seem a lot less miserable.
When we are consistent in who we are, children know they can trust us and relax, which in turn makes learning possible. Children who feel loved and cared for are able to take academic risks, process information better, and voice their opinions. Trust is built with consistency, and that is the foundation of meaningful learning.