Developing Relationships in Urban Education

Kate Gallagher
Kate Gallagher
High School Principal; MA in Urban Education, ESL Program Specialist
Teacher helping a student working on a laptop at his desk.

If you’ve never watched Rita Pierson’s TED Talk “Every Kid Needs a Champion,” you’re missing a serious case of the goose bumps. Ms. Pierson says that “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” I’d contend that kids don’t learn from people they feel don’t care about them. This article from Educational Research Newsletters & Webinars reminds us that the most important factor in a student’s achievement is having an effective teacher. Over the past few decades, more and more studies have been done proving that positive relationships between teachers and students directly impact how well students learn.  Considering the number of hours that teachers and students spend together over the course of a school year, the relationship that they build can either positively change a student’s life forever or stagnate their rate of learning, putting them in a learning hole so that they never catch up with their peers.

Trauma in Students of Urban Settings

Michigan State University’s College of Education published an article titled Trauma in the American Urban Classroom that claims “living in poor urban neighborhoods creates disproportionate risk for experiencing community, family, and individual traumas such as crime, gang activity, family violence, and victimization/incarceration, chronic illness, or the death of a family member. Beyond the anomalous traumatic event, however, the chronic distress created by poverty and instability can have a similar distressing impact on students.” Based on this research, we know that students attending schools in urban areas suffer from higher rates of trauma than students in non-urban areas. When someone suffers a traumatic event or lives in long-term traumatic circumstances, it creates physiological damage and changes the brain. This change can deeply affect students in school. One good visual of this is shown in the YouTube video Understanding Trauma: Learning Brain vs. Survival Brain. Thankfully, our brains have plasticity, meaning that they can incur and then heal from damage.

Positive Relationships with Students of Trauma

Studies have also shown that positive relationships between adults and children can reduce the risks that adverse (traumatic) experiences expose them to. To be clear: a significant relationship can reverse damage from trauma in students. So not only is the teacher the most important factor in student achievement, they also have influence on the risks of trauma in students through positive relationships. The question remains, how do you develop a positive relationship with a student of trauma or any student?

Tips for Developing Positive Relationships

Here are a few strategies to help you get started building positive relationships with students in urban settings.

  1. Safety & Security

The primary goal should always be for students to feel safe and secure. Not only physically, but emotionally. Maslow established in his Hierarchy of Needs model that students perform and reach their highest potential when they have their basic needs met. Students must feel safe to interact with adults of every demographic. When students are struggling to regulate their own emotions, teachers can help students by listening and being present with them and help them mimic their own breathing. Additionally, the calmer and quieter the learning environment, the better.

  1. Provide Structure

This supports safety and security, as well. Students feel safe when they know what they can expect and where boundaries lie. Being consistent with classroom procedures, expectations, consequences, and tone of voice is extremely important. Remembering that students have little control over the circumstances in their own lives is important, also. Children can’t choose their parents, what happens to them, or the environment in which they exist. Students living in trauma are constantly in a state of “fight or flight.” Knowing without a doubt what to expect throughout their day at school is the only way to make these students feel comfortable with adults and give them an opportunity to trust them.

  1. Make Learning Fun & Incorporate Humor

Feeling emotionally safe means that students can express their emotions without risk of being harmed or retaliated against. But it also means that they can trust the adults around them to create that space for them. Using humor and making learning fun can relieve pressure from students and show them that it is safe to relax and enjoy their time with you. It is also a great way to get students invested and involved in their learning. Remember, Ms. Pierson said, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”

  1. Don’t Take This Personally

We all have bad days. Students count on us to give them consistency in our moods and be attentive to their needs. Greeting students at the door every day with the same positive words and a smile gives students a sense of security, but it controls only half of the variables. Student responses to your actions can vary from day to day, hour to hour, and minute to minute. This is even more likely in students of trauma, because of their fear and the effects of trauma on their brains. The article “How Trauma is Changing Children’s Brains” by NEA Today tells us, “Living in a constant, fear-activated state of hyper-awareness means these children can be quick to rage…In their subconscious efforts to self-protect, they often can be perceived as defiant, disrespectful or overly aggressive.”

So, it’s not about us as adults. We’re human and we have feelings, which makes it the ultimate challenge to balance empathy and sensitivity to student needs while compartmentalizing our own. When you can show students that you care about them and like them even after a bad day, you give them security. This is the strongest foundation for a positive student relationship, which is critical for student growth and achievement.

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