Of course there is no doubt that our students are in need of many things. As schools are being asked to do more with less, educators can begin to feel like magicians, juggling priorities and pulling tricks out of their top hats.
Yet, the surprising answer from science is that the most important thing we can give our young people is still free and in plentiful supply. It remains the gift of meaningful connection.
In a series of MRI studies, social psychologists Matthew Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberger found that our brain’s pain centers light up when we experience social rejection – even in a game. Social rejection was even minimized by study participants who took Tylenol ahead of time.
Kids who feel socially marginalized or disconnected will often “act out” their pain in ways that look destructive. However, there is good news.
The flip side of the equation is that social connection feeds our brain’s “pleasure center” and insulates us from losses.
In MRI studies, our brain’s pleasure centers light up when we contribute to others – by helping them through a painful situation, for instance, or giving them a gift. Similarly, young people who feel that they belong and someone cares about them are more likely to thrive in school.
Kids who find meaningful connection in school are also more resilient, even in the face of trauma and hardship.
Longitudinal research with kids living in hardship has found that kids who experienced a strong connection with ONE CARING adult – often a teacher – were more resilient in the face of trauma. They were able to thrive despite the odds stacked against them.
This is also true for kids experiencing mental health struggles.
A meaningful relationship with ONE caring adult helps protect kids against depression, suicidal thoughts, violence, and substance use.
Research also suggests that strong student-teacher relationships can lead to better grades, especially for traditionally under-served kids.
Studies have also found that student grades are higher in classrooms where teachers show “caring behaviors” (e.g., willingness to listen; focusing on strengths; ability to reduce anxiety).
There is no better time to begin building meaningful connection with your students than in today’s disconnected, conflict-ridden world.
Find out what matters to them and what you have in common. Ask questions and slow down to listen. Show curiosity before assuming the worst.
And remember – what students really need is already there.
Have a story to share about how restorative practices are helping you? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Want more tools for connecting with students and reducing conflict? Check out our Conflict180.com/Resources page.
Next week – in the Conflict 180 blog – a teacher tells the true story of how a sloppy joe transformed her classroom and her approach to students.