Creating connections with kids

Excerpt from chapter 10, “All Are Welcome Here: The Need for Community,” Creating Emotionally Safe Schools by Dr. Jane Bluestein (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 2001.) This material was taken from the final manuscript for this book and may be slightly different from the actual publication. The numbers correspond to footnotes in the manuscript and are included on this page, along with a reference to a complete bibliography for this book.

I would probably do anything for a teacher I liked.
—Student, Gang member 354

I haven’t met a child incapable of thinking and participating to some degree, if we let him know we value what he can contribute.
William Glasser 355

Creating a respectful, caring, and intentionally inviting learning environment is the surest way to encourage student achievement.
—William Purkey and David Aspy 356

When a truly caring and supportive community is available to a child, whether in the form of a family, neighborhood, peer acceptance, or even one caring adult, the positive outcomes can be substantial. A 1997 survey of 12,000 students from seventh to twelfth grade set out to identify factors that might affect young people’s resistance to eight different risk areas (including violence, use of alcohol or drugs, sexual activity and suicide). The study found two significant protective factors: “connectedness to family (feeling close to and cared about by parents and other family members)” and “connectedness to school (feeling close to people at school, feeling fairly treated by teachers and feeling a part of the school).” 357

teacher comforting student, reassurance, being present, attention, kids in crisisThe power of community can be seen in a number of areas. For example, special education supervisor Mary Finley reports that “a caring and supportive relationship with at least one person” is a “key protective factor” which helps to inoculate kids against adversity and build resiliency. 358 Studies show that a sense of community also boosts academic motivation, enjoyment of school and trust and respect for teachers. Additionally, it also promotes socially acceptable attitudes and behaviors and can even increase the amount of time kids spend reading! 359 The value of community can also be seen in character education and the development of positive values. 360 In fact, a sense of community can actually replace many of the structured prevention programs, claims author Eric Schaps, inspiring students to fit in and succeed: “Peer group dynamics tend to work in support of, rather than contrary to, the school’s goals and values.” 361 This sense of community is also related to increased engagement in school activities, lower rates of student burnout, class cutting and thoughts of dropping out, and a higher likelihood of feeling bad when unprepared for class. 362 Further, research indicates that a “positive school climate where nurturance, inclusiveness and community feeling are evident” is common among schools with low levels of violent behavior. 363

A sense of connection is important for learning and academic growth. Parent educator Ginny Luther found that, as a preschool teacher, her first job with any class was building safety and a sense of “team” in her classrooms. Luther found that students could be more successful academically once the relationships, trust and cohesion were in place to support learning: “No matter what the deadlines are for academic progress, none will be made if the kids don’t have a sense of belonging, acceptance or safety in their classroom.”

Others would agree. Jane Nelsen associates each of Dreikurs’ “mistaken goals” of children’s behaviors— including attention, power, revenge, and assumed inadequacy— to kids’ perception of their ability to connect with others. 364 There is widespread acceptance of the positive relationship between school culture and student achievement. 365 Carl Rogers and Jerome Frieberg describe transforming a group of individuals into a “community of learners,” leading to an excitement “almost beyond belief,” and triggering curiosity, inquiry and personally meaningful exploration. 366 And William Glasser remarks that the preparation to live successfully demands involvement, not only with a curriculum that inspires thinking and problem solving, but also with the teachers who present this curriculum: Students cannot make better and more responsible choices, he claims, “unless they are strongly and emotionally involved with those who can.” 367

Parents and child, graduation, home-school relationshipsClaire Thornton asks teachers to be responsive, and offer the emotional security children need to concentrate on learning. She notes that “teachers cannot take away the pain, struggles and trauma of their students,” but that by creating a secure environment, they can “ease negative life experiences.” 368 Indeed, schools in which close bonds between teachers and students develop can be a “second chance” for many children, according to Nathaniel Branden. Schools, he says, can offer kids “an opportunity to acquire a better sense of self and a better vision of life than was offered in their home. A teacher who projects confidence in a child’s competence and goodness can be a powerful antidote to a family in which such confidence is lacking and in which, perhaps, the opposite perspective is conveyed.” 369

First day of elementary schoolThere is certainly a great deal of evidence to support these ideas. Over and over, I’ve heard stories of how one teacher—sometimes even one comment at just the right moment— made a life-changing difference for a child, often in the absence of just about any other support or protective factor in the child’s life. Beth Lefevre still considers her third grade teacher to have been her “salvation.” At a time when Beth’s parents “were drinking a lot,” she writes, “I couldn’t wait to get to school and I was the last to leave.” Her connection with this teacher created the one place where she felt safe: “I never felt so incredibly loved, exactly the way I was.”

New Zealand educator, Faye Hauwai, moved frequently and felt that her “peer bonding issues” contributed to a sense of inadequacy and self-doubt at that time. However, she claims, “I was an achiever at school and therefore I felt secure in the system and the way it rewarded me. Teachers made me feel confident about what I had to offer. . .” And dozens of adults who grew up with parents who were drug dependent, physically or sexually abusive, mentally ill, or emotionally unavailable, shared their recollections of that one special teacher who offered emotional sanctuary and encouragement. 370

Note: Click here for the complete bibliography for this book, which will include details for that authors referenced below.

354 Quoted in Arthur and Erickson, 48.
355 Glasser, 97.
356 Purkey and Aspy, 45.
357 Eric Schaps, “The Child Development Project: In Search of Synergy,” Principal, Vol. 79, No. 1 (Sept. 1999): 22; also Eric Nagourney, “Vital Signs: Behavior: Stopping School Trouble Before it Starts” (Nov. 14, 2000). Available: The New York Times website, [Internet, WWW], Address: http:// partners.nytimes.com/2000/11/14/science/14SCHO.html. Note: Schaps reports that the protective factors applied to all eight risky behaviors except pregnancy. 
358 Mary Finley, “Cultivating Resilience: An Overview for Rural Educators and Parents,” ERIC Digest, (1994). Available: ERIC website, US Department of Education, [Internet, WWW], Address: http://www.ed.gove/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed372904.html; also Margery Stein, “For Every Child, a Full-Time Friend,” Parade Magazine (May 28, 2000): 16; also Bonnie Bernard, “Turning it Around for All Youth: From Risk to Resilience,” ERIC/CUE Digest, No. 126, (1997). Available: ERIC website, US Department of Education, [Internet, WWW], Address: http://www.ed.gove/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed412309.html
359 Ibid; also Rogers and Frieberg, 254.
360 Philip Cohen, “The Content of Their Character: Educators Find New Ways to Tackle Values and Morality,” Curriculum Update, (Spring 1995). Available: Association for Curriculum and Supervision Development website, [Internet, WWW], Address: http://www.ascd.org/pubs/cu/spring95.html
361 Schaps, 22-24.
362 Mark A. Royal and Robert J. Rossi. “Schools as Communities,” ERIC Digest, No. 111, (1997). Available: ERIC website, US Department of Education, [Internet, WWW], Address: http://www.ed.gove/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed405641.html; also Spence Rogers and Lisa Renard. “Relationship-Driven Teaching,” Educational Leadership, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Sept. 1999): 35; also Ron Roberge, “Project P.O.D.S.: Providing Opportunities for Developing Student Success,” ERIC Digest, (1995). Available: ERIC website, US Department of Education, [Internet, WWW], Address: http://www.ed.gove/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed401499.html, which listed first among it’s main objectives in lowering the 30-35% national and provincial dropout averages (based on the number of students starting 10th grade who did not finish high school), “developing among at-risk students a sense of belonging, identification and membership within the school community.”
363 Dean Walker, “School Violence Prevention,” ERIC Digest, No. 94, (March 1995). Available: ERIC website, US Department of Education, [Internet, WWW], Address: http://www.ed.gove/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed379786.html; also K. Dwyer, D. Osher and C. Wagner. “Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools.” Washington, DC: US Department of Education, 1998.
364 Jane Nelsen, Positive Discipline (New York: Ballentine Books, 1987), 46, 64.
365 Cindy C. Kratzer, “Roscoe Elementary School: Cultivating a Caring Community in an Urban Elementary School,” Journal of Education for Students Placed At Risk (JESPAR). Available: Center for Social Organizations of Schools, Johns Hopkins University website, [Internet, WWW], Address: http://www.csos.joh.edu/jespar/tableofcontents/2.4kratzer.htm; also James Sweeney, “School Climate: The Key to Excellence,” NASSP Bulletin 76 (547), Nov. 1992: 69-73.
366 Rogers and Frieberg, 153.
367 William Glasser, Schools Without Failure (New York: Perrenial Library, 1975), 19.
368 Thornton.
369 Branden, 202.
370 Bluestein, Mentors, Masters and Mrs. MacGregor, numerous stories, as well as a number of survey responses.

Excerpt from, Creating Emotionally Safe Schools by Dr. Jane Bluestein, © 2001, Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL.

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