What can you do when you can’t connect with your children? How to connect with your students?
Today’s story has been graciously written by Cassandra Troughton, a teacher’s assistant working in a special education classroom in Canada. We have heard from our community time and time again that sometimes it is hard to connect with our students. Cassandra and I had a discussion about this, and this article outlines her research and experience. Hopefully, there’s a nugget here that you can use to connect with your students on a deeper level, ultimately so they feel seen and heard in order to build their emotional wellbeing.
Hello everyone! Cassandra here! But my students know me better by Miss T.
I am an educational assistant from Edmonton, Alberta, who has been working in the classroom for the last seven years supporting students’ learning and health and wellness goals. At my previous elementary school, I saw an incredible need for mental wellness supports for my students and spent five years implementing and improving a “Mindfulness Club” that the whole school had access to.
Health and wellness are a big part of my life. It is a huge passion of mine, and I continue to learn and grow in this area each day. Mindfulness was a part of my daily practice that helped me heal. I brought it to my school to aid my students in their own healing journeys and saw amazing results!
This year, my goal has been to bring mindfulness and compassion to my new school filled with junior high (middle school) students! Eek! These kiddos posed a real challenge for me. They have been growing up in a COVID world, secluded from their peers and other adults around them. They’re unsure how and maybe a little unwilling to connect. They seem cold at times, like the world has already been harsh towards them.
After two months, though, and a whole lot of patience, I have learned these kids are still just kids after all. They need warmth and connection. They need guidance and support too.
I know I will learn a ton from these kiddos this year. Maybe even more than they will learn from me! I welcome challenges! Bring on the growth! I am excited to see all that I will learn this year, and I look forward to passing on my lessons to you!
Connection is why we’re here;
it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.
The urge we all have to feel a part of something. We are biologically wired for connection. It’s a need for human survival, a part of who we are.
But if that’s the case, then why is it sometimes SO hard to connect with some of our kiddos?
AND what do we do if we can’t connect?
In a sometimes tough and traumatic world, our hearts get bruised, and connections can be cut or damaged. We see this often in our kids—and even adults!—who’ve been through painful and stress-inducing experiences. When it comes to trauma, and when kids get let down time and time again, they begin to put up their walls. Their trust in the world is broken, and they withdraw.
As an educator, I’ve seen this time and time again. I’ve met students who’ve been through some real horrible stuff. Trauma shows differently in different people. I’ve seen students express their feelings through shutdowns, panic attacks, tantrums, and even by acting out. Like an iceberg, they have much more going on below the surface than we can visibly see.
In the school system, teachers can get stuck in the mindset of this behaviour as “attention seeking,” which is normally stated negatively. I’ve heard this a lot. I hear it still to this day!
Dr. Jody Carrington is an amazing child psychologist from a small town in Alberta, Canada, who works with the rough and toughest, most vulnerable of children. She has offered a reframe to “attention seeking”: what those kids are really doing is CONNECTION SEEKING!
They are in NEED of connection. Even though it may not seem like it. Even if they don’t seem to want you anywhere around. They are deprived of it, and their subconscious is screaming at you to fill the void.
I get it—it can be hard. And I know it’s not easy and the days are long. But let me tell you—it’s worth it. It’s worth all the patience and strength you have to muster just to focus on one student, one little human being. Let alone, a whole classroom of them. Imagine how worth it that would be!
I’ve had kiddos in my class who’ve tried to shut me out, ignored me, screamed at me. I had a student once who broke down and shouted at me that he wished I was fired.
But guess what? That kid… those kids… are my favourite because when you finally earn their trust, it’s the most rewarding feeling in the universe.
Rarely can a response make something better.
What makes something better is connection.
-Dr. Jody Carrington
Five Proven Ways to Connect with your Children on a Deeper Level
Here are a few tips I learned along the way that may help you connect with your kiddos:
#1: Have PATIENCE!
These children need your patience. And they need people like you and I to believe in them, not to give up when things get tough. Don’t get discouraged. Treat every day as a new day and a new opportunity. And remember, these things take time. Kids who are the toughest to connect with have been hiding behind their walls for quite some time. You can’t just break them down instantaneously. It takes time to build a door, and when they are ready, they will open it for you.
#2: Make EYE CONTACT AND SAY THEIR NAME!
This point is extremely important! When you make eye contact with children and say their name, it makes them feel important. Everyday, at the start of class, I would have a greeting ritual. Kids would line up before entering my classroom, and I would go down to their eye level, make eye contact, and greet each one by name. They would choose their greeting: a handshake, hug, or high-five. My disconnected kids would sometimes opt out of the physical part of the greeting (I would never force them), but over time, they would begin to look me in my eyes and initiate high-fives! I knew I was building trust.
#3: MODEL IT!
Children learn more from what they observe than from what they are told to do. Your role modeling is extremely influential! Show your kiddos what it’s like to be calm, patient, and kind. Show them what real connection looks like! Because remember, they have either been deprived of connection or only know what disconnecting looks like. They need to see real connection in order to be themselves. Oh! And apologize if needed! This is the key to REconnecting! Adults are human too. We make mistakes, as well, and it’s important not to hide that from them. Our walled-up kiddos are more likely to open up to you when you exhibit human qualities like showing you can be wrong sometimes—and that it’s okay to be wrong.
#4: Be VULNERABLE!
Showing our weaknesses is not a weakness! Be open and honest with your students. Share your personal experiences. One of the biggest things I learned recently is to not be afraid to show emotion in front of my students. That takes true strength. And it opens the doors for our kiddos to be vulnerable back. Yes, vulnerability is hard, but take some strength from Brené Brown when she says,
Vulnerability is not winning or losing;
it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.
#5: Practice SELF-CARE!
Lastly, and arguably most importantly, remember to take care of yourself first! Remember, you can’t pour from an empty cup. In order to serve these kids and make the effort to connect, it takes loads of energy. This is why it is so important to create a self-care ritual. Find what works for you. Create a morning or bedtime routine. Meditate. Practice Yoga. Journal. Go for a walk. Read. Paint. Listen to music. Take a relaxing bath. Sit in nature. The possibilities are endless. Whatever it is, just make the time for you!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cassandra Troughton (a.k.a. Miss T) is an educational assistant from Canada. She has worked with Edmonton Public Schools for over seven years, primarily in the special needs adaptability program (Gr. 1-6) and as the Health and Wellness lead at her school in Edmonton, Alberta. Her passions include health, wellness, and the practice of mindfulness! She loves passing on her knowledge of mindfulness to her students and fellow educators. You can find her at https://mindfulmisst.com/.
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