The need for affiliation is inborn and is a primary need of humans. Feeling happy, safe and valued improves your ability to be more cognitively alert. We all want our students’ brains to function at peak capacity – and so finding ways they can decrease cortisol and produce serotonin is paramount in order to create a positive environment conducive to high quality learning. “It pays to treat students as sensitive and aware human beings” (Ted Talks, Rita Pierson) as a happy brain is a brain that can grow. “Happy thoughts and positive thinking, in general, support brain growth, as well as the generation and reinforcement of new synapses, especially in your prefrontal cortex, which serves as the integration centre of all of your brainmind functions.” (‘Happy Brain, Happy Life’ Teresa Aubele, Ph.D., Susan Reynolds, 2011.
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 edition of the UKEdChat Magazine – Click here to read online
Teach with emotional intelligence
Maslow’s expanded Hierarchy of Needs ranks love and feelings of belonging-ness third in the system – and importantly – ahead of cognitive needs. Your students need to feel emotionally safe – they need to feel affiliated; accepted within your classroom in order to make progress and reach their full potential. It is our job to attend to and fulfil students’ basic physiological needs before their cognitive needs can be met. As the driving force of the emotional climate in the room, and as the adults, it will always be our responsibility to ensure we get this right. “It is the teacher’s responsibility to value each and every one of the students in their class, so that each student feels special and important” (Groundwater-Smith et al, 1998) even the students we think we don’t like. The importance of greeting students personally – all of them, making frequent eye contact, acknowledging positive behaviour and using positive language can not be underestimated.
Tell your classes you love teaching them, introduce them to visitors as your favourite class, invite colleagues in to show them off, smile and laugh with them. In ‘All you need is Love’, Andrew Curran explains “if a child is in an environment where they are understood as an individual human being” their self esteem is improved, with that their self confidence grows and as a result children engage with the learning. Emotionally engaged children release dopamine, which is the main learning neurochemical in the brain. Curran asks: “The final question that I would ask you is this – what are you taking into the classroom that is preventing you and your pupils making good emotional contact? Change that, and you will immediately have improved your pupils’ potential to learn.”
“We missed you when you weren’t here yesterday”
Valuing your students when they are present is vital, but noticing when they are not there is just as important. Let them know that, as a significant and precious part of your classroom, their absence is felt. Don’t let them bleed back into the group invincibly – tell them they were missed.
What’s in a name?
Knowing and using students’ names recognises that a student exists and is important, it suggests you care and it develops trust. “When the professor engages the student in personal conversation, recognises her by name, and seems to include her in the domain of attention, the subject matter seems more accessible. The non-verbal message goes out that the student is a part of the community of people who can do mathematics, statistics, chemistry, or whatever the subject is.” (‘So What is the Problem?: Difficulties at the Gate’, Willemsen, 1995). Use every student’s name, every lesson.
Always try to be a little kinder than is necessary: J M Barrie
Any student can be a vulnerable student. When approached by a boy, who didn’t always get it right first time, at the start of term in September, the first words he greeted me with were: “I don’t have to read out loud, do I?”. How long had he been worrying about this in the lead up to the new school year? A new term gives teachers the opportunity to see things differently; to see past the challenging behaviour and to see a vulnerable 14 year old who is genuinely scared about reading out loud. How else to respond, but with a little more kindness than is necessary?
Kindness nurtures a learning environment where students can perform at their best. Focus on language and tone of voice, remember that words have enormous power; they need to be chosen carefully and deliberately.
“Relationship reluctant children may be fearful, suspicious or antagonistic. They may be superficially charming but expert at keeping adults at emotional arms length.” (‘Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future’, Brendtro et al.,1990). We affect the students we teach; this happens instinctively and on a subconscious level: what we do and say and think makes a difference. Relationship reluctant children might need more of your time and effort, but the minute you give up on them is the minute you’ve reinforced their belief about adults: that they can’t be trusted and will give up on them.
According to the ‘Teaching Through Interactions Framework’ (Hamre & Pianta, 2007) there are four characteristics of a positive Classroom Emotional Climate: a) teacher sensitivity to student needs, b) warm, friendly, respectful, and nurturing teacher-student relationships, c) regard for students’ perspectives and encouragement of active participation, and d) the absence of abrasive disciplinary practices and cynicism. Teachers who create and maintain healthy, affiliative classroom learning environments are likely to foster positive student relationships as well as the appropriate emotions in their students to support their learning therefore minimising poor behaviour choices and promoting progress. School children are in a crucial stage of emotional and social development; their schools – and more specifically your classroom – is where they look for support and enrichment when fostering these developmental needs. We must consciously grow and cultivate affiliation in our classrooms because our students need and deserve it.
Caroline Sherwood @Caroline_Alice_ teaches English at South Molton Community College in Devon, is Pupil Premium Champion and Teaching and Learning Lead. Caroline is also an Specialist Leader in Education with the Dartmoor Teaching School Alliance and is Project Director for Women Leaders in Education in the South West.