When You Can’t Relate to Your Students’ Experiences

Saras book

When the children in your class are facing adversity in ways you’ve never experienced – or possibly can’t even imagine – how are you supposed to relate to them? Considering how important the relationship between teacher and student is to academic and future success, you’ll want to know what these children need from you and how to provide it. So I invited Sara Langworthy, author of Bridging the Relationship Gap, psychology professor Ross Thompson, and educator Heidi Veal to Studentcentricity to talk about bridging the relationship gap with children facing adversity.

The conversation, which you can listen to here, was enormously insightful and informative. I was furiously taking notes but I simply wasn’t able to keep up with all of the wonderful thoughts these panelists offered. Among the key words were stability, consistency, and predictability. This is what these children most need. Sara also suggested that, once we’ve established trust with them, we be “constantly curious” about our students in order to maintain a relationship.

Afterward, she added:

When working with children facing adversity, it’s important to change our thinking from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” Being curious about children’s lives, and opening yourself to learning from them and their experiences can strengthen your relationships with them. It’s important to be caring and consistent with young children facing adversity by acknowledging their experiences, and working every day to be a source of stability they can learn to trust.

Heidi had a great deal to say after our discussion:

The social-emotional growth of early childhood students should be a top priority for every early childhood educator. On my campus, we believe that social-emotional learning trumps academic learning any day of the week for our early childhood students. This goes double for a child facing adversity! Self regulation skills are not something that a child naturally develops without intentional shaping and guidance from the influential adults in their lives, and gone are the days when schools are responsible for only teaching academic subjects. Early childhood educators have a unique responsibility to teach the vital skills associated with self regulation.

In the specific context of children facing adversity, social emotional learning is their lifeline of hope for a healthy emotional future. A child coming from an at-risk setting cannot only be seen as at-risk for academic failure. They are at-risk for difficulties far beyond not “passing the test”. These are students who can display erratic and unsafe behavior, tantrum for seemingly no reason, display extreme self regulation deficits, hurt the very people trying to help them, lack empathy, and withdraw from the world. Any or all of these behaviors are possible for a child facing adversity. I’m reminded of the truth that a hurting child, and in need of love, will often ask for it in the most unloving of ways.

What are teachers of our youngest and most vulnerable students to do when working with students facing adversity? I would like to suggest a few critical ideas for building the educator’s tool box.

The educator must first cultivate a relationship with a child facing adversity. The teacher has to learn the student’s likes and dislikes, their triggers, their needs, and their nuances. The teacher does this by spending time with the child, giving them one-on-one attention, and noticing changes in their lives.

Next, the educator should directly teach a wide variety of social emotional skills. I strongly believe one of the most powerful things a teacher can do is to equip an at-risk child with social-emotional skills in the face of the stress and struggles of their lives. This could look like role playing, using social stories, group lessons, playing purposeful games, using puppets, and other social-emotional learning experiences. Consider implementing a curriculum such as Second Steps because it serves as a comprehensive and solid Tier 1 resource for social emotional learning in the classroom setting.

Thirdly, I suggest tapping into the team of responsive adults that surrounds the at-risk student. Bring together those who can collaborate to find solutions to the unique problems that a child facing adversity can face. Together, the team has access to resources, pulls on experiences, and can support the both the child and the classroom teacher.

Last of all, as educators, we must cultivate a growth mindset. This looks like continuing to learn about the needs of traumatized or at-risk students. Read articles, attend conferences, participate in (free) webinars via edweb.net or earlychildhoodwebinars.com (ECE Webinars has a free webinar coming up on December 16, 2015 specifically about SEL and facilitating resilience and inclusive culture), connect with experts, listen to podcasts, and learn from any opportunity that comes your way. A book I would highly suggest reading is The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog by Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz. This insightful book chronicles real stories of children raised in the most traumatizing situations imaginable and how they transformed despite their dire circumstances. Dr. Ruby Payne’s renowned book A Framework for Understanding Poverty is, in my opinion, an essential read for any educator working with student’s specifically dealing with the adverse effects of poverty in their lives.

Children facing adversity come to us having experienced things no grown adult should have to endure, and our obligation is to love them, reach them, and tech them. We bridge relationships by responding to their needs instead of reacting, teaching them replacement behaviors and skills instead of punishing, and meeting their needs from a heart of compassion instead of making assumptions. Their current reality may be dire, but their future is not yet determined. Who will join me in my commitment to love, reach, and teach?

Ross’ final thought was:

Often the students who are identified in the classroom as having behavior problems are showing the effects of chronic stress in their lives that they bring with them into the classroom. Rather than responding in a disciplinary manner, teachers who have learned about the effects of stress on children’s brain development can respond more constructively: helping the child feel secure in a classroom that is predictable and child-centered, enabling the child to develop the self-regulatory skills that can help [him or her] to focus on learning and get along with others, and providing a safe, affirming environment.

You can learn more about this important topic in Sara’s book, or you can visit her website, www.drlangworthy.com, and her YouTube channel, where she talks more about the science of early childhood development: www.youtube.com/developmentalenthusiastchannel.


Social emotional health and development are first and foremost what we as early childhood educators are aware of and work on constantly. I applaud any light that is shed on this topic because no matter how many times parents and many teachers are told this, their minds turn to academics. And academics are easy if social/emotional development and caring relationships are present. If they aren’t then forget the rest.

It seems that even when educators realize the value of social/emotional development and are determined to focus on it, parents panic at the idea because they’re afraid their children will fall behind academically! What can we do to help parents realize what really matters?

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