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3 Empowerment Moments at School

When students feel understood, they will be more intrinsically motivated to take risks with learning which is essential to student lifelong success.  I have learned how coaching “myself” as a teacher can lead to internal calm, confidence, and clarity which in turn creates a connected and empowered classroom.

It is important to understand that the need for connection with fellow humans is backed heavily by scientific data. Humans not only need strong connections, but they cannot thrive without it. One example of a brain-based model used to explain significant or limited motivation and collaboration (lack of empowerment) is the SCARF model. See our Research Brief on the SCARF Model here. The SCARF model gives an excellent outline of what students need to feel connected.

As a teacher, I can witness that the social experience is often the hardest part of school for students, administrators, and teachers. We are all looking to have our fundamental needs met in a high stress environment that can decrease our sense of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. With the recent push towards streamlining education to produce better high-stakes testing results many schools loose sight of the importance of daily social interactions.

In this blog, I will share examples of the potential impact of connected empowered classrooms. Promoting activities and attitudes that support significance, autonomy, connection, and contribution could be just as effective as any assessment data or curriculum training created to encourage student success. It is as important that we develop our social and emotional curriculums with as much fidelity as we do our language arts curriculum, maybe even more so considering our brains are “hard wired” for learning language but not for learning how to feel, express, and accept ourselves.

(1) Teacher to Individual Student

One day while conducting a writing conference with Mary, a kindergartner, I decided to do a little experiment using connection since I know how powerful it is. I began to connect with her through validating and accepting her exactly where she was as a writer. We read her book closely and together noticed her focus, attention to spacing, and attempts to sound out words. I allowed her to share her journey as a writer and never provided judgment or praise for her work. (General praise really doesn’t work! It creates a need to do things for others, not from within.) Instead, I held total acceptance for her and allowed her growth mindset to flourish. At the end of our conference, she looked up and said, “You know, I remember what you said once about using lowercase letters!” as she pointed to the all caps title. Through total acceptance I was able to open the door to a previously learned skill without even lecturing or correcting her work. I love it!

(2) Students to Student

One day I picked my kindergarten students up from art class to discover that Adam had been reprimanded for trying to steal chalk from the art room. Immediately after, Adam became withdrawn and unmotivated. He reverted back to behaviors from the first weeks of school. He turtled himself into a tight ball and when spoken to he would hide under the desk, lie on seats, and be silly and uncooperative. I got curious about his behavior. At center time while others were playing house or building with blocks, he remained withdrawn. I deliberately sat at the table he was under and talked with other girls who wanted to try drawing with chalk again after today’s art lesson. I got black paper out and they began showing me how they had made a skeleton earlier. Suddenly a mousy voice came from under the table, “I just can’t do a skeleton!” Adam pops his head up to see what Michelle was drawing. He frowned and hid again. Michelle instinctively supported him with her wisdom. “Adam” she says without looking up, “when I first began to draw I never liked my drawings either. I can show you how to make the skeleton.” He then slithered up and halfway sat in a chair next to Michelle. She slid a paper over and told him to put his name on it. He grabbed the chalk and scribed his name. “First you do a line for the spine,” she began. He followed. By the end he was drawing skeletons on his own and was back to his usual fun self. Without knowing, Michelle had given Adam the social support, validation, and acceptance he needed to shift and feel empowered.

(3) Teacher to Self

Monday Mornings can be a time I become emotionally triggered in the classroom. It’s early, loud, and parents are still bringing their capable students all the way into the classroom, which takes time out of my already well planned and prepped day. Students are talkative and hyper. I notice that I feel pressure to perform; pressure to get it all done, keep it together, and meet the mark that our educational system demands of me. I feel this pressure in my chest. In this pressured state, I loose sight of the joy and excitement that the students and their parents have in my classroom as well as the ability to truly connect with them. To move away from this “disconnected state”, I have learned that I need to connect with myself first to validate why I am so stressed and pressured. I have learned that this is the way to personal empowerment. I practice accepting myself and loving the parts of me that want to always be “good” or “right”. “I want to make a difference in these student’s lives; I don’t want to mess it up.” I say to myself.” I feel the pressure. I am letting my stress take over. I can feel it. I begin to breathe into this moment and allow myself to feel this pressure and give myself some support.  I say to myself,  “Of course I want everything and everyone to be alright; I want every student to feel good and I have to keep it all together to make that happen. But I know connection is the best way to make it all right.” Connection increases my confidence as an educator.

As I pay attention to my internal reaction to the noise and perceived chaos, I allow my feelings to surface and give myself some validation, I begin to reconnect to the beauty that exists in my room. As I give myself this short self-coaching session (which is called the W.A.V.E. Process), I am able to have flexibility and openness to wherever the day may take me and my students.  I end up having a very fun, and high learning day with my kids and it didn’t look exactly the way I planned.

These examples reveal how an approach response can be initiated through connection. As students and teachers are given status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness their ability to be successful and regulated increases dramatically. I conclude this thought only for a short while as I hope to consider the application of school wide initiatives that may support approach responses school wide for all school staff and students.

Sources and Info

SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others David rock