What is the magic elixir that some teachers appear to have with students? These are the teachers who have the ability to tease out the best in students, to seemingly, effortlessly dissolve potentially touchy situations, and to create harmonious interactions with even the most challenging students. Do they have some type of magic potion that allows their relationships to go so much more smoothly than for the rest of us? Probably not, would say professor of psychiatry at UCLA, Dan Siegel. These super teachers simply have learned “contingent communication.” Siegel would describe this as the teacher making small, consistent course corrections in their behaviour to help bring and keep their students into a calming, soothing state which Siegel calls “effect modulation.” How do we do this? By being aware of how our students interact with us and being able to offer up effective repair when things go out of sync.
Offering up effective repair is incredibly important for the success of any relationship, and potentially critical seeing that we might be in sync with others far less than we could have imagined. Researcher at Harvard University, Dr. Ed. Tronick, comments that we probably are in sync only 20 – 30 percent of the time even in our most cherished relationships. So if we are at best hitting the bull’s eye about 30 percent of the time in our interactions with others, why is it we feel so much more connected to our best friend than say our mother-in-law (that is unless your mother-in-law is your best friend)? The difference appears to be that in our most connected relationships we have the ability to be in sync, move out of sync, be aware we are out of sync, and offer up effective repair that allows us to quickly course correct, bringing us back into sync.
Relationship guru, and professor of emeritus at the University of Washington, John Gottman, says that in every relationship individuals are continuously giving out “bids” for connection—bids being “a question, a gesture, a look, a touch—any single expression that says I feel connected to you.” The difference between positive relationships and conflicted ones is that in positive ones we become better at noticing and responding to those bids for connection. Effective repair is when we respond to a bid by our students in a way that builds connections and moves us back into sync with them emotionally. So how do we become more effective bidders?
Be aware of your students’ bids for connection throughout the day. Successful relationships hinge on awareness and acknowledgement of the other individual’s bids. Effective teachers initiate small, connecting bids with their students several times a day. It could be as simple as a smile or gesture, or as pronounced as giving each student a time throughout the week to share something that they believe in deeply. One of the best ways to connect with students is to meet with them individually and find out what they like. You can make up special hand gestures, sayings, looks, etc. with each of your students. Personalizing and ritualizing bids are great ways to maintain a close connection with students while at the same time managing one of your most precious resources—your time. Attachment therapist Bryan Post uses the term “refueling” to describe planned bids with students that are organized around supporting them during difficult transition periods. People often express that the power of a bid becomes watered down when it becomes too predicated and choreographed, but the reality is there is very little research to demonstrate truth in this. In contrast, there is support that highly ritualized and predictable bids help build a sense of safety and predictability for children. This is extremely important for children who have experienced trauma or who live in chronically chaotic homes.
Seek to understand the student’s inner world. Former troubled youth, now professor at the University of Michigan, John Seita, calls this meeting the “inside kid.” Meeting the inside kid means literally trying to find out where your student is coming from emotionally, and then validating the thoughts, feelings and actions that spring from this state, rather than moving immediately into problem solving. This is incredibly important, especially when your student is in an emotionally charged state. Meeting a child on an emotional level is essential, especially with kids with whom it is more difficult to build connected relationships. These children are used to not getting their emotional needs met and feel disconnected from others and often their own internal world. They tend to come from homes where the parents are not very attuned (attunement is the reading and responding to the cues of another), “ones where parents are not very present emotionally,” comments National Institute of Behavioral Research fellow and psychologist Dianne Poole Heller. Listening empathically and validating a child’s emotional state, even if it is not a productive state, is the starting point says John Gottman. “The research is clear,” says prominent attachment therapist and author Dan Siegel, caregivers who “tune into the internal world of their children, have children who are more secure and resilient.”
Finally, the most important secret to connecting with a child is to know thyself. Psychiatrist Dan Siegel addresses that the better we as educators know our histories, our triggers, and our attachment style, the better we will be able to connect with the children we serve and also be mindful of our blind spots so that we minimize their impact. So much of being an effective teacher is being in touch with where your children are at any given time, cultivating an atmosphere where children feel receptive and open to our influence, and teaching children to become aware of their own internal world so that they can start to be “self-reflectors.” Rebecca Shahmoon-Shanok from the Institute for Infants and Children says that one of the best ways for teachers to get to know themselves is through “reflective supervision.” She defines this as the process where teachers go deeper than talking about ABCs or a child’s behaviour and instead start looking at the specific actions and attitudes about the child and their relationship. Reflective supervision helps to tweeze out what the real challenge is between a teacher and student so that potential solutions can be explored. More importantly, it tends to reveal blind spots in a teacher’s perception that might play a key role in maintaining relational conflict that without addressing attitudes and beliefs might have been, otherwise, completely ignored. Shanok says that the effect of reflective supervision is that it “nourishes supervision—the ability to see further, deeper, and more.”
Gottan, John & Declare, Joan. (2002). The Relationship Cure: A Five Step Guide for Strengthening your Marriage, Family, and Friendships. Three Rivers Press, New York, NY.
Heller, Dianne. (2010). How attachment theory affects the treatment of trauma. The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine.
Siegel, Dan. (2008). The Neurobiology of We: How relationships, the mind, and the brain interact and shape who we are. Sounds True Publishing, Boulder, Colorado.
Siegel, Dan. (2010) Strengthening your awareness: attention and intention in everyday parenting. The Savvy Source online. http://www.savvysource.com/savvyparent/sp_ea_144_12008_strengthening-your-awareness-attention-and-intention-in-everyday-parenting
Siegel, Dan. (2010). Reflective Communication: cultivating mindset through nurturing relationships. Zero to three, November 2010. http://drdansiegel.com/uploads/Reflective%20Communication.pdf
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott Coleman (B.A., M.A.P.P.C) is a transplanted Albertan who found himself moving to small-town Saskatchewan to work as a school counselor. After the initial shock and awe of not being able to access a Starbucks on every block, he now loves small-town life. Scott has over ten years in the counseling/ mental health field. He has a passion for writing about and delivering workshops in his school division on resiliency, relationship building, student leadership, and stress management.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Mar/Apr 2011 issue.