By Deborah Farmer Kris, author of the All the Time series
“I’m so happy you are here,” I told a class of seventh graders after they had filed in on the first day. “Here’s one thing you need to know about me: I love teaching middle schoolers.”
“Really?” one student responded incredulously. “I didn’t think anyone liked teaching middle school.”
This student’s comment reminded me that even though we think we are showing care to our kids, sometimes we need to be explicit about it.
Kids are relational learners: they learn best in the context of a warm, supportive relationship. A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with psychologist Michael Reichert. What students really need to thrive, Reichert told me, is a strong connection to at least one stable, loving adult. Every child needs to be known and loved. Students at risk, in particular, need “the sense that someone has ‘got him’—that someone who knows who he is and what he’s facing and really cares.”
Students need a relational anchor, and a caring teacher can be that someone in a student’s life. According to research out of Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child, “The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.”
But here’s the thing: Sometimes students most need our warmth when it’s the hardest to give. (Think about a time when one of your students was having a tough day.)
Here are four ideas for being more intentional about helping kids feel our care all the time—even when it isn’t easy.
1. Be Mindful of the Ratio
According to relationship researcher John Gottman, the “magic ratio” of positive to negative feedback is 5:1—five positive interactions to every negative interaction. Who gets negative feedback the most? Kids who struggle with attention, focus, impulsivity, or emotional reactivity. The kids who need our support the most!
Dr. Sharon Saline, an ADHD expert, once told me that she estimates the positive-to-negative feedback ratio for ADHD children is more like 15:1. Kids often feel like adults only notice when they “mess up,” not when they try, she said, so they grow wary of feedback.
“We have to pay attention to kids trying, even if they are not succeeding,” said Saline. “We have to focus on the process more than the product. When we notice that they are actually turning in homework four-fifths of the time when it used to be two-fifths? Well, that’s progress.”
So if we know we need to correct a student, we also need to be mindful about seeking out ways to give positive feedback to that kid.
2. Practice Reflective Listening
Reflective listening is a positive interaction. We show we are listening when we use language that validates and reflects back our students’ feelings. Try:
- “You seem frustrated/worried/upset. Am I reading you right?”
- “That sounds tough.”
- “I’m sorry that happened.”
- “I think I get it. Are you saying . . . ?”
- “Tell me more about . . .”
When Ned Johnson and William Stixrud, authors of What Do You Say? How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home, interviewed teens, they asked, “Who do you feel closest to? And what is it about that person that helps you feel close?” The response: Teens feel closest to the person who listens to them without judgment.
3. Say “Thank you for . . .” and “I noticed . . .”
Everyone wants to be seen.
Harvard psychologist Susan David introduced me to the word sawubona, a Zulu greeting from her native South Africa that means I see you. We all want to be noticed and accepted for who we are.
I have two go-to sentence starters that I use with students: “Thank you for . . .” and “I noticed . . .” I find that these are simple and amazingly effective at communicating my care, particularly when done in private, such as a quick exchange at the beginning or end of class.
- “Thank you for helping your classmate pick up his spill.”
- “Thank you for being understanding when the technology didn’t work.”
- “I noticed how you included the new student on the playground.”
- “I noticed that you didn’t give up when your structure fell.”
4. Let Your Eyes Say It
Positive interactions don’t need to be verbal. Many years ago, I heard an Oprah interview with the novelist Toni Morrison. Morrison described how, when her children came into the room, she thought she was showing care by fussing over their appearance, “to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed or if their socks were up.”
But that was not what they were looking for, she said. Instead, she offered a different measure for care, “Does your face light up when your kid walks in a room?” Does your expression say, I’m so glad you are here?
I think about this when a kid walks into class late. Do my eyes scowl or do they say, I’m so glad you made it? When I’m passing a student in the hall, do I smile? When students are filing in, does my body language communicate how happy I am that we are spending this time together?
As school counselor Phyllis Fagell told me, “Your kids have a Ph.D. in you. They are watching everything you do.” They aren’t just watching how you treat them, they are also watching how you treat the classmate who is struggling or how you react when someone makes a mean joke. They are sizing up whether your classroom is a safe place to bring their full selves.
Students are relational learners (we all are, really). And I’ve found that when students know they are seen and loved, they surprise us (and themselves) in the best of ways.
Deborah Farmer Kris is a child development expert and parent educator. She serves as a columnist and consultant for PBS KIDS, and she writes for NPR’s MindShift and other national publications. Over the course of her career, Deborah has taught almost every grade K–12, served as a school administrator, directed leadership institutes, and presented to hundreds of parents and educators around the United States. Deborah and her husband live in Massachusetts with their two kids—who love to test every theory she’s ever had about child development. Mostly, she loves sharing nuggets of practical wisdom that can help kids and families thrive. Visit her at Parenthood365.com.
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