Empowerment Education

5 Strategies for Educators to Connect with Students

Connection is the key to empowerment.

The new school year has begun. Heavy book bags, textbooks, lunch boxes, school supplies, and grades are the focus. Millions of students are waking up with different levels of trepidation about school. Will my teacher be nice and fair? Will I be liked and have friends? Will I look stupid? Will I know the answer when my teacher calls on me? Will I have enough time to do my assignments? Will I make good grades?  Will I have a life anymore?

Having researched and worked in conventional education as a teacher, administrator and a Empowerment Coach for the past three decades, I found that the level of stress students, teachers and administrators constantly feel is extremely high. There is a lot of pressure for students to get good grades, do well on standardized testing, graduate, and go to college. Teachers and administrators are held accountable for students’ successes and this is unfair. The pathway for students to make it to college is somehow made to be and feel very difficult. If I had to boil it down to two underlying questions that cause the student stress they would be –  “Will I be good enough in school to be successful out in the world?” and “Can I actually be myself and be liked and belong to a group?” The stress comes from the answer being “I am not sure”.

It’s challenging for students to know if they will be successful in life outside of school because the current education system philosophy about learning doesn’t match up with the research about what it takes to flourish after school. It was created over 150 years ago to mass educate large numbers of students in the same way to do the same types of jobs. Since then, volumes of studies have been done that show what students really need to be and feel successful and belong in our world today. Teachers and administrators who know this new research struggle to implement it because it’s not what is being demanded of them from district and state mandates. If educators do not ensure their students do well, the school might not get their needed funding, or they can lose their jobs. (Funding, salaries and jobs are based on testing and school grades). What I have found is the old, one-size-fits-all conventional educational system that focuses on grades, testing, timelines, and other outcomes is pretty much the main underlying causes of student and teacher stress and is doing way more harm than good.  This generation of students have gone to school to get good grades because they’ve been given the message loud and clear that this is the pathway to success. This is just not true and our students are paying the price for it emotionally, socially, physically and mentally.

It is time for the educational system to put the values, talents and needs of each student first and be a model of self-responsibility, respect, compassion and resilience. Thousands of educational leaders, researchers, teachers and parents know this and the momentum of the education system SHIFT is beginning to happen. Thank goodness for the educators that are doing their best to move away from the conventional model and into the new model that empowers our 21st century students.

In i.b.mee.’s Empowerment Education research, we have found over 25 W.E.L.L. Principles of Success that can serve as a critical and effective new blueprint that teachers and administrators can use to help shift their classrooms and schools into healthy and empowering learning environments so today’s students are getting what they need to be successful in school, career and life. 

There is ONE foundational principle that leads all the others because it is the one the others depend on. This principle is CONNECTION and it is the key to building students’ capacities to be more confident, skillful and free to be themselves which is vital to being healthy, empowered and successful overall.

Connect, Connect, Connect

Being able to connect is easier said than done because of the lack of social-emotional skills being offered to educators and students. But when teachers learn to empower students through connection, they will find that it will rekindle each student’s natural desire to learn, grow and contribute and be able to find their own way to success without the manipulation of grades and negative behavioral management.  

What is connection?

University of Houston’s Social Work Researcher, Brene 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.” When teachers can step into the shoes of their students and see things from their perspective with empathy and compassion, a deep sense of trust and respect develops. This sets up a strong foundation so students are more confident to be themselves and make mistakes without feeling judged. (growth mindset) Judgement is the main deterrent that keeps students from having the freedom, confidence and skills to be themselves. Connection is the main foundation for learning social and emotional skills which should be a priority in the classroom. As young people learn key social-emotional skills, they have better outcomes in all areas of their lives including academics and classroom management for the teacher becomes easy.

5 Strategies to Build Connection

(1) Take time every day to learn about your students. 

Let them talk, talk, talk about who they are, what they love, what their fears are, what causes stress, and what they do when they are stressed. Help them determine how to best get their needs met when they are struggling. Be open to their suggestions. Mendler (ASCD, 2012) found that by just asking behaviorally struggling students about their hobbies, home, friends and anything but school and behavior for two minutes every day for ten days, resulted in significant positive changes in behavior and engagement. What do they love? Connect with them through working and “playing” with them. Get into their world and create projects that get them excited and learning about the things they are passionate about and relate to the real world.

(2) Reflect back to students that they are valued.  

When students are talking, model how to listen. Look at them with compassion and accept and validate what they say instead of judging them, telling them their wrong, or try to fix them or change how they feel in that moment. Get curious and try to understand their point of view. Ask them what do they think would help them. Guide them to what would work for the both of you. This can be a challenge when students are upset or not doing what you want. But treating them with respect and teaching/modeling for them new skills with patience will save time and create more inspired learners in the long run. Take the time to send the message that who they are and what they want to learn is more important than the grades they make and that you will do your best to support them in making sure they get what they need to succeed.  Never tell them with your words, energy or behaviors that they are behind. Get them oriented to why they want to learn and come to school in the first place. Connect them to why learning your subject or being in your class is important to them (and important to you).

(3) Teach and model how to get along with others.

Teachers who can model and teach conflict resolution and democratic principles in the classroom, have more connected and successful students, bottom line. When students are sharing, working, playing or collaborating together it is vital that everyone learns to move through challenges and still feel good about themselves no matter what. When you or your students get emotionally triggered by something and are upset, make sure you have different activities that they can choose from (that they decided upon ahead of time) that they can do to calm down and get refocused.

(4) Have the students help in designing classroom guidelines so they feel safe to be themselves and can be successful.

Prior to beginning of school, either select your own or use your school’s set list of 3 to 5 school values such as respect, learning, fun, safety. (Sometimes these spell out the schools mascot like “B-E-A-R-S”.) With the students, design positive guidelines for these values. An example under the value of learning, might be “Ask for help on an assignment right away if there are any concerns, or questions”,  …or under the value of respect might be the guideline, “Find your calm place when you are mad or upset and ask for support when you are ready so you respect yourself and others”, …or, under the value of fun – “If you are doing something that is not fun, put the frowny face up on your desk or give a thumbs down where the teacher can see it and we will find a win-win so you can find value in it.” As the teacher models and guides the students in how to do these things through connection, then there will be little need for negative consequences even for the most challenged students. When these guidelines are designed effectively, they should increase the students abilities to build their “4 Selves” – self-leadership, self-responsibility, self-discipline and self-worth. 

(5) Be light-hearted with your students.

Don’t take things personally or so seriously. Have fun with your students as you are holding them accountable for the values of the classroom. No need to be angry or yell. Stay calm and connected. When students continue to now follow the classroom values, a new agreement might need to be made, or schedule an “Empowerment Coaching Session” with them to determine what is going on. The goal is to inspire them to remember what they really want to experience in their classroom so it is a place they love to be.

Is it possible that every student is good enough just for being themselves and alive. Many people would think this assumption too simple. However, from our research, having the choice to know, love, trust and be themselves, is what human beings naturally want more than anything else, even if they don’t know it.  We must ensure that our students feel have the time and space to learn to be themselves and respect and love themselves no matter their grades or performance. If they do, they will naturally grow, learn and contribute to their classrooms and communities in positive ways, creating a more connected and peaceful society.

Join i.b.mee.’s professional learning and coaching community and begin practicing how to connect with students and build inspiring classrooms where all students count and flourish.

Meg Hanshaw

Meg Hanshaw

i.b.mee.