Investing in a short moment of connection before placing expectations or demands on students can significantly increase the likelihood of cooperation and smooth-sailing. Learn several techniques to build connection “in the moment” and create greater ease and flow in your classroom interactions.
Intentional Teach Project
How To Invest In Connection To Build Classroom Community
In Episode 09 How To Invest In Connection To Build Classroom Community of the Intentional Teach Project, I shared opportunities to build connection and “bank it” — opportunities when we’re just investing in, pouring into our students and not really asking much in return. Emotions are generally pretty level — it’s just about building that trust and relationship, creating that learning partnership.
If you missed that episode, check it out. But then there are times when we need to build connection in the moment because it’s needed in that moment to get that cooperation. These are the times when emotions are heightened, when we’re asking our students to tackle non-preferred tasks, when it’s not so easy to get that cooperation.
These moments require us to invest in connection in the same moment that we are asking them for something.
So How Can We Connect In The Moment?
Naming What’s True
One of the tried-and-true strategies for addressing any tough situations is simply recognizing and validating the experience. I don’t recall who originally coined this phrase – I’ve read a lot of parenting and behavior-related books over the years – but the thing is, “we name it to tame it.” The idea is, when someone is feeling something and they don’t know how to express it (or they don’t feel comfortable expressing it – verbally), the feeling can come out in “not so great” ways – like “bad” behavior. But that “bad” behavior is trying to communicate something to us, so if we can help our kids communicate that… perhaps we can avoid the “bad behavior” because the feeling-behind-it has been identified and validated. So basically, we want to give words to the experience.
This might look like, “Ugh, it is a Monday morning, and I know I really want to catch up with what my friends did all weekend. Anyone else want to just go get some coffee, maybe a muffin, and ditch this lesson?”
Of course, you aren’t going to really do that — but we are recognizing that maybe our students don’t want to be sitting here in class just yet either. That doesn’t mean anything changes. We aren’t fixing the problem – or the challenge. We’re just naming it.
But naming it is a powerful tool because it creates this feeling of “being seen.” There is something so powerful in this sense that we are seen, that our experience is understood. That someone else can give words to what we are feeling inside. That small moment, it creates connection. And it allows for more ease as we transition into what’s next.
So, you know, you say, “Anyone else want to ditch this lesson?” And maybe you get a few laughs or eye rolls – whatever – and you move right into what you had to do next. “Maybe next week, right? Let’s get moving and dive into this warm-up!”
Two quick minutes of connecting, and you’re filling that connection bank even while you’re drawing from it.
Two Things Can Be True
Another strategy for generating connection in the moment is to focus on the idea that two things can be true. Kids especially, but even adults fall into this trap, of thinking in black-and-white. We can do this or that. We can feel this way or that way. But the reality is, two things can be true at once.
As a parent, I can love my kids deeply and wholly, and I can be super “sick of them” and desperately need a break or time away. Those two things can be true.
In our classrooms, this can look like… “It can be really scary sharing our ideas… and it can also feel good to have our ideas heard.” Or “This assignment is really challenging — I’m really asking you to think! It might feel challenging… and you can do challenging things.”
In my home, we talk a lot about, “Some things can be a little scary… but scary can also be a little exciting.” This has helped my kids take on challenges like trying a new activity or sport, introducing themselves to a new friend, or even trying out an amusement park ride! By giving voice to the idea that — yes, they feel scared… but they can also be feeling something else at the same time — we’re giving them space to recognize the other “parts” of the situation (or even of them).
Kind of building off of this idea, we can emphasize the different parts of our students. “I see you haven’t gotten started on your assignment yet. There must be a part of you that really doesn’t want to do this work! And that part must be really loud right now — just screaming NO NO NO WORK! But I also know there’s a part of you that’s been trying really hard in class, and that part of you wants to succeed here — I know it, you know it. What do we need to do to help you find that part?”
Recognizing that two things can be true and that there are parts of us is a powerful connection-builder because it shows kids that we can see the complexity in them. We see the good kid underneath the uncooperative behavior. And we help them see that! We are helping them build a toolbox of skills that they can access — so that the next time they see a challenging task, they can realize that a part of them doesn’t want to do this but also another part of them is able to take on this challenge.
If we want to see our kids’ behave in different ways, we need to see them – and they need to see themselves — differently. So if they’re giving up when academic tasks get hard (regularly, as a habit), we need to help them shift away for this identity or role of “giving up when it’s hard” or “not being good at this task” — and instead, help them rewrite their story. Not by simply denying the identity/role they currently have but helping them see… two things can be true or that there are parts of them. One part of them gives up when things are hard — but there can be another part of them that doesn’t do that. That can take on a challenge. We need to see this in them, and we need to encourage them to see this.
It’s a way to build connection — seeing and validating their experience — but also expanding their understanding of the story being written. Building connection but also making space for cooperation.
Choice is about asking for students’ input — so in this case, before I throw out ideas to help them get started or overcome the challenge, I’m asking them… what do you need here? Of course, some students won’t know what they need. You might get, “I don’t know!” If this happens, there are a few options — you can provide a tool to help them identify what they need, or you can ask them, “Would you like help figuring it out? Can I share some ideas?”
In my home, we have a little chart – I think it was from Big Life Journal – that provides options to answer that, “What do I need?” question. Options are things like, a hug or a snack or alone time. My young kids love referring to it, and it gives me a concrete tool to refer them to when they’re getting stuck in a big feeling.
In the classroom, maybe you create a board with options for support in various situations — calm corner time, ask a friend for help, move my seat to be alone, etc.
I love tools like this because we are empowering our students to figure out how to solve their own problems while also feeding into their need for freedom, independence, and choice.
We can use choice in other ways, of course. We can give students (or the class) options — should we do this work on the whiteboards or in our notebooks? Would you like to have our bathroom break before this activity or after? Would you like to write your answer in a paragraph or draw a model?
Anytime we can feed into our students’ need for autonomy, we are more likely to achieve cooperation.
Humor is another strategy we can employ in the moment to create connection and increase cooperation. As humans, we only really laugh when we feel safe – and we laugh with people we feel connected to. There is this phenomenon — people tend to laugh when other people are laughing. In fact, we’re 30 times more likely to laugh in a group.
Laughter is a way to build connection because it is a signal of connection. Anytime we can bring humor – and laughter – into the classroom, we can build our connection and create a sense of community.
The only caution I want to offer here — I am not really talking here about sarcasm. Depending upon the age you teach, it might be appropriate — but it also runs the risk of alienating students, especially those who may not “get” the sarcasm — English Language Learners, those with processing disorders, or students with autism.
And of course, we don’t ever want to direct the sarcasm at our students or generate laughter at their expense. Even if your students might seem to be laughing at it or may indicate they “get it,” sometimes those responses are actually self-protective tools. We may laugh at ourselves with the group because it is easier than being vulnerable and admitting our feelings are hurt by the sarcastic remark or the poking-fun. Of course, you know your students and can make your own judgments, but I just want to mention that as a word of caution – something to consider.
That said, incorporating humor and laughter can be an excellent tool to diffuse tensions, release frustration, and create an environment where your students are ready to cooperate.
The last strategy I have to share with you today can be both a short-term and a long-term connection banking tool. And that is finding similarities. Long-term, finding the things we have in common with our students can be a powerful way to build connection. As social organisms, we have something called “in-group bias” — we are more likely to accept information/help/whatever from people we view as “like us” or “in our group.”
In a classroom, this might look like — a student having a strong relationship with a teacher based on a shared interest in comic books or sports or crafting. But we can also utilize this similarity in the moment — by recognizing a shared emotion or experience. “Ahh, it’s Friday afternoon! Who is ready to go home? Ugh, I feel it, too. But I also know we have to get through this math lesson, and I know we can do it together.” “It’s so hot today — I know I wish our school had air conditioning. It’s making it really hard for me to concentrate — anyone else feeling like that?” It’s a super simple moment of connection, but again, anytime we can build connection — we improve the odds of cooperation.
Filling Our Students Connection Banks
Yes, we can – to some extent – achieve compliance through control-based techniques — punishments, grades, emotional manipulation, etc. But that’s not our aim — I know that’s not who I want to be as a teacher.
I want to partner with my students — to build our classroom community and to support my students’ academic growth. And partnership relies on cooperation to achieve its ends. With that in mind, I would argue, we need to build connection to achieve that.
That means regularly filling our students “connection banks” – so that we can draw from them as needed. But also, we can incorporate small moments of connection before drawing from that bank as another strategy to achieve cooperation in our classrooms.
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