Over the last year, our staff at Little Mountain Elementary has been trained in a Trauma Sensitive/Informed framework. We are continuing that journey this year with our students and this includes a common language that helps us all learn together. We’re emphasizing mindfulness, understanding our students’ backgrounds, and a different approach to instruction. Relationships have always been the “it” factor in education. Relationships will always be at the forefront of learning. The difference is now we’re saying that relationships need to come first; before, during, and after any academic lesson. And that some students, in reality, more and more each year, won’t learn without a positive connection with their teacher. In Rita Pierson’s famous Ted Talk, Every Kid Needs a Champion, she says, “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” This is 100% true and should never be forgotten. In addition, I think we can take it one step further by saying kids won’t learn until they’re ready. Some students will come to us each day ready to learn while others can’t physically or mentally prepare themselves to take in new material because they are suffering from so many ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) that they are incapable of learning.
As a public elementary school, we are an academic institution. Our job is to teach kids the standards as put forth by the state of Minnesota. We continue to talk about differentiation and the variety of ways we need to meet the academic needs of all our students. We would argue, first and foremost, that differentiation needs to happen for the social and emotional needs of our students. It could be as simple as a smile and a hug when they walk through the door as they come in or a conversation at breakfast before they walk to class. On the other hand, it could be as complex as support from the special education classroom, scheduled sensory breaks to increase learning stamina, or several days a week with the dedicated social workers. Meeting the spectrum of current academic abilities within a classroom of 27 fourth graders is challenging. Asking teachers to ensure each student receives individual instruction and individual emotional support can be overwhelming at first. The key is to give yourself permission to slow down, stop, or redo lessons when relationships within the classroom need work.
Creating a classroom of learners is all about the relationships and every class has unique needs. Last year, one of our classroom teachers, Mrs. King, had a challenging class. Mrs. King worked as hard as she ever had in creating a positive learning environment by focusing on the relationships within the four walls of her classroom. At times, behaviors from students escalated to the point where the other students needed to be removed from the classroom, forcing instruction to take place in the cafeteria or another makeshift classroom. Mrs. King worried about her students’ academic success and their progression towards mastering the standards. She was concerned that her students weren’t keeping pace because she wasn’t getting through entire reading lessons; often times stopping instruction to repair relationships between students or staff. Mrs. King never wavered in her belief that relationships need to come before learning. When the state testing was approaching, she again worried that her students would struggle because her planned lesson did not always reach completion. But relationships won. We celebrated Mrs. King’s accomplishments at a staff meeting this fall by announcing that 80% of her students had met or exceeded the state assessment benchmarks in reading.
Our students won’t learn until they are ready. This looks different for every student and every class. The evidence is clear: we need to give ourselves permission to focus on connections and relationships, even if it means our lessons aren’t complete. Anything else is putting the cart before the horse.