Brené Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” Arming our schools with connection can change the isolating “survival of the fittest” culture of schools into the more community-oriented environments like we see in early childhood classrooms.
“Good Morning, friends!” I greet my kindergarten class in community circle. “How are you today?”
We spend the next twenty minutes sharing our feelings, thoughts, and needs. We listen to each other. We ask questions. We offer support and make plans. Everyone gets a turn to share.
Adam sits silently close to my side. His heavy winter coat still covering most of his small body.
It’s his turn and his friends know, with Adam, “morning connection” is a delicate process.
He reaches out from under his armored coat and the little girl next to him slides him the talking stick. He has the floor. You could hear a pin drop.
Adam had only recently begun joining us on the carpet. It was late April. Most of his kindergarten year he had spent “turtling” under a table covered in his coat and bookbag. Everything seemed to trigger Adam. He hit, he screamed, he ran away a few times. He was a survivor and didn’t trust anyone.
Adam came to kindergarten behaving this way. A glimpse into his life story and anyone can see he was in survival mode. I had just learned about ACES and Developmental Assets. I understood why Adam would need to hide under a table now and then. I didn’t know where the fear came from. I didn’t have to know to understand that something had happened to him.
I knew that one safe, nurturing, and stable adult could be the difference between the lasting effects of ACES- (poor health, coping with drugs and alcohol, dropping out, violence, and even DEATH) and resiliency for Adam.
Adam had many diagnosis, medication rodeos (what I began calling the trial and error prescribing method I saw many kids go through), poor nutrition, high stress and anxiety, and many sleepless nights throughout the year.
I tried to never treat him as sick or dysfunctional. I knew that he needed to feel OK and that most of his challenges were trauma related. Although mental health was a factor for Adam, his lack of connection and community were the biggest barriers. I got to know a few of his favorite things. I learned all about them and through play we began to have a limited but trusting relationship.
Adam first joined the rest of the class on the playground. It was fall and the leaf pile was bigger than him. He loved to rake the leaves but he couldn’t stand it when kids jumped in the pile before it was the perfect jumping size. (Only he knew the perfect size.)
Spending every day at recess, patiently modeling, coaching, supporting, and connecting with my brilliant kids, we learned how to allow Adam to share his passion with us. At first he didn’t say much. He would make a line in the sand and kids just knew to line up. He would put a hand out to stay “stop” if it wasn’t time yet. If someone jumped before the right time, he and about five of his champions would remind them of the “rules”.
Other kids sometimes needed support too, as sharing a leaf pile is a pretty new endeavor for 5-year olds. I used Empowerment Coaching communication that I learned from being trained in Empowerment Education, to meet the children right where they were and validate their emotions letting them each feel seen, heard, and valued.
Together we saw and celebrated Adams value. He didn’t have to be like us to be part of our group. He began to be my helper. He carried the lunch count down each morning and certain toys in from the playground each day. Every now and then he would eat breakfast or lunch with us. He loved the new found attention of his peers.
There were still days he turtled under the table. His friends would check on him, bring him his favorite book or toys, and sometimes he would even let me crawl under there with him.
Back to our community circle in April: Adam has the talking stick and he has peeked his head out from under his hood. The room is silent. He has our full respect, attention, and, to him, some control.
“Today, I am going to build a fort and we can play puppies in it,” he squeaks.
His class visibly lights up. They love the idea.
I ask, “How does that plan make you feel, Adam?”
“HAPPY!” he smiles and dutifully passes me the talking stick.
I fight back happy tears but there is no use. The kids see right through me.
I vulnerably share, “These are happy tears. I am feeling very proud and thankful. (I touch my heart so they know where I am feeling it.) I love hearing from each of you everyday. (I hug Adam a little closer.) Being with you is the best job in the world!” (And I meant it.)
We go to centers where we build a fort and play puppies for every second of the tiny play window public school kids are allowed. Adam is engaged, leading, smiling, and making friends.
We transition to the mandated all grade level reading groups (an “ugh”…comes across the crowd.) We do it anyways because we are in the system but our personal empowerment goes with us so at least we know why we might want to learn to read.
Adam joins my table. His legs dangle from the tiny chair. His head is barely peeking over the table as he grabs the little book about cars (a favorite subject of his), and we all begin to look at the pictures together. He belongs, and because he belongs, he wants to contribute and participate. Truthfully though, he is not ready to read. He is just getting reintegrated with his body and learning about socializing. He needs time to figure out the world without the pressure of direct instruction. He will be passed on to 1st grade either way because of his IEP (Individualized Education Plan). I focus on meeting his needs and make learning as fun and accessible as possible. He reads the pictures and we all know that’s ok. His assessment portfolio says he “is a red.” I never show him.
By the end of the year, Adam had many friends. He loved to play with legos, make art, and build. He was very seldom a behavior problem or totally avoidant like he was in the beginning of the year. He sat with his friends at lunch and even at times became a teacher in his own way.
His sweet, yet unsupported mother feels that she is failing him. She has many ACEs, too. She shows up when she can. I treat her with compassion, partnership, and respect. She tries harder and we get her older son’s teacher to allow him to to come to my classroom and read to my kids once a week. This is Adam’s favorite time and he always picks a book or ten! Adam and his brother become leaders during this time.
Adam’s mom and I stay in touch over the next year.
The next October, she calls me and blurts in one breath, “Adam is in lots of trouble in first grade at his new school. He won’t come out from in his locker. He won’t learn. They want to send him away. He has been suspended.”
I offer to support. I wanted Dr. Meg Hanshaw from i.b.mee. to coach and train the principal and for Adam to smile and lead leaf piles again. I call the teacher. I email her. I call the school. I never get a response.
Most classrooms have an Adam in them. Most teachers know a dozen students who are angry, avoidant, and potentially violent. I am devastated to say I don’t know what happened to Adam. His new school refused my support and his mom’s phone number eventually went dead. Sadly, this is often the case when students move schools.
I fear that Adam, in the right environment, could end up being violent, like Nikolas Cruz and other school shooters. Sadly, people who hurt, tend to hurt people or themselves.
It is NOT the students and teachers fault for isolating Nikolas. It is the top-down system that doesn’t prioritize community and whole person well-being. Although we now know the signs of budding violent offenders, we often don’t know what to do to really help. Often it is too little, too late.
Students and advocates, like Emma Gonzalez, are standing up and speaking out to “call B.S.” on the status quo response to school shootings.
I agree with many of the battle cries that fill the headlines.
- Yes, sensible gun control laws and education.
- Yes, more resources, focus and support for mental health.
- Yes, arm teachers with pay, purpose, and resources. (NOT GUNS!)
- Yes, look at exposure to violence and violent media.
However, all of these changes happen outside of the schools themselves. We must begin to make schools safer for all students by treating them like the inclusive communities they are. Guns laws and screenings don’t love people, people love people. Daily experiences of joy, connection, and belonging have the power to prevent peer on peer violence including school shootings.
The Institute for Violence Prevention and Applied Criminology found that, “Signs of psychic trouble include being excessively introverted and lacking strong social attachments- someone who would not respond when others greeted him. Violent offenders are also often pessimistic about their future and have low self-esteem; many have been harassed, bullied or rejected by classmates; suspended from school; or pressured by teachers.” Adam was excessively introverted and initially rejected by his peers. I believe we can look at early childhood development to guide some of the philosophical shifts needed in our schools.
Early Childhood Education (ECE) best practices focus on two main areas: safe and supportive environments and high quality relationships. The ECE community understands the importance of providing social and emotional interactions and learning daily with peers, families, and the school as a whole. We play together and celebrate our uniqueness. If someone, like Adam, doesn’t fit in, we get creative. The attention and time spent on building a supportive classroom community is prioritized in most early learning atmospheres.
All too often in Kindergarten-12th grade, social and emotional experimentation, connection, and play take a back seat to cognitive and physical development. Even when schools support whole person learning, teachers still have to overcome the hurdles of high stakes testing, pacing guides, accountability laws, poor funding, and a culture of fear and failure to innovate. In addition, prescribed character education programs and Positive Behavior Intervention and Support or PBIS programs are being implemented in ways that prioritize eliminating behavior problems and isolating students, rather than building the individual and community.
What if the system of education allowed teachers and administrators time to build 1) safe and supportive learning environments 2) high quality relationships as the foundation of every learning experience?
We must begin to put acceptance and connection before the need to “succeed” (conform) in schools. The outcome-oriented system is pressuring administrators and teachers to focus on passing tests rather than developing and supporting each individual. We are creating human doings who lack connection and community. Struggling students are falling through the cracks and SCREAMING for help. I propose that Connection (yes with a capital C) is a more powerful form of protection than arming teachers with books or guns.
Our schools have become unsafe and I ask us to consider: WHY schools? Why is it that Nikolas and others choose to come to school to express their pain? I can’t help but wonder, is school where their pain is reinforced? …where they are disrespected and disempowered by disconnected peers and more importantly by the whole educational system?
Just like Adam, kids who are suffering are often untrusting of others and hide their pain or act out in ways that recreate the separation they believe they deserve. Many educators are not trained or given the support or tools they need to identify and work through the effects of trauma with themselves or their students. Again, it is not their fault. (And yes, teachers have trauma, too. We are human after all.)
The effects of trauma can present as bullying, behavior problems, unhealthy attachment, avoidance, chronic illness, giving up or dropout, violence and in other obvious and not-so-obvious ways. What usually happens when a child demonstrates these behaviors in a class full of learners? Zero Tolerance– isolate them! The kids who are suffering and crying for help are sent home, isolated, and shamed. They are medicated, labeled, expelled, and even turned over to law enforcement.
When schools become more of a institution of control then an institution of community, we risk intensifying the pain of disconnection- the seed for all school violence.
This is a call for students, parents, educators and advocates to continue to speak out for the need for Connection for Protection to allows all invested in our school systems to put relationships and healthy environments at the forefront of the shifting educational paradigm.
We can’t allow the conversation to be purely about the sick, disturbed, and the armed. We are all people who need love and belonging. In my experience, young people are naturally empathetic and with time and patience we can find and celebrate the gifts in each student, but we must first stop unintentionally judging or ignoring them.
Teachers and students are in the survival of the fittest educational system. It will take many courageous leaders to speak out and demand policy change to allow the time and attention needed to build community culture back into our schools.
Abraham Maslow suggests that there is a hierarchy of Basic Human Needs that must be met for individuals to self-actualize and be motivated. These needs include basic physical needs, safety and security, love and belonging, autonomy, self-respect, contribution and purpose. These needs are only met in positive social situations. We must actively create the relationships and environments for this interactions to occur.
The Center for Injury Research and Prevention in Philadelphia suggests comprehensive strategies to not only avoid school shootings, but to also address depression, anxiety, violence, and suicide in young people. There suggestions include:
- Students feel safe to talk to each other and to staff.
- There is mutual trust and respect among students and school staff.
- There is ongoing dialogue and relationships with family and community members that interact with the school.
- There is adequate support training and resources for school staff.
As we fight for appropriate gun laws and teacher support let us also stand for Connection as the means of protecting our students at school and in the world. Let’s prioritize the everyday moments that make us each feel seen, heard, and valued and put young people’s need to belong before all other rules or expectations.
This is how Adam went from a scared and aggressive turtle to a proud puppy.
Corrie Hill Price is the Director of Evolve Early Learning Preschool in Asheville North Carolina, USA. She was the first educator to learn the Empowerment Education coaching and teaching system. She helped research the system in public schools with Dr. Hanshaw for 4 years. Her preschool is setting a new standard for social-emotional learning, well-being, learning through play, and life skills for preschoolers.