Most youth-serving professionals I know chose their career path because of a personal drive to make a positive difference in the lives of young people. Collectively, we understand that that the key to doing this is establishing meaningful connections and positive relationships.
Unfortunately, too-frequently along the way, we become absorbed by professional obligations and day-to-day demands. In completing this paperwork, attending that meeting, and filing the umpteenth report, we find ourselves transformed from human beings into human doings. Tasks take up so much of our time that personal connections with kids become a luxury we believe we cannot afford.
Don’t believe it.
Connections with kids are the essential pre-requisite for any growth and change an adult will be able to facilitate. Meaningful connections with a young person are based on trust and nurtured through consistent positive interactions. When a child perceives that the adults in his life are truly invested in his well-being and interested in his experiences, he is more willing to talk about what is going on in his life and to be open to adult feedback. Even better, kids who believe that adults are sincere in their intentions to help are also more forgiving of the inevitable flubs we make in trying to understand and relate to them.
Young people don’t care if we have all of the words exactly right or even if we sometimes give “out-there” advice that “would never work.” What they do care about is that we care about them. Their radar is usually pretty precise. Adults going through the motions of a job and asking rote questions in order to complete a checklist will be dismissed on the spot. On the other hand, adults who give of their time, listen well, take kids seriously, and generally avoid “freaking out” will be accepted—and appreciated—in the long-term.
As a School Counselor and Bullying Prevention Educator, I spend a lot of talking about, thinking about, and figuring out what it takes to establish the meaningful connections with kids that allow us to help bring an end to bullying. Here is some of what I have learned:
GIVE OF YOUR TIME
Time: it’s the elephant in the living room, so I’ll talk about it first. I am time-conscious to a fault—motivated by deadlines and energized by the challenge of getting it all done. An ever-scrolling To-Do list clicks away in my head and I am always looking for ways to be more efficient. Most of my biggest professional blunders and all of my worst parenting regrets, however, have come from not giving enough time to kids because I was rushing to get “stuff” done.
Believe me, I don’t minimize the importance of “stuff.” “Stuff” keeps employers happy and ultimately, the completion of “stuff” pays the bills. But to be honest, the “stuff” I do in a day isn’t even important enough for me to give it a proper name. And by the end of a day, I can scarcely recall all of the “stuff” I got done.
I do, on the other hand, remember the name of every young person with whom I have had the honor of working over the last nineteen years and I can tell you honestly that my best moments with each of them have occurred when I put aside my agenda and just tuned in to their needs. Likewise, as a parent, all of my laugh-til-we-cry moments with my children have occurred off-schedule. It hasn’t come easy for me, as a hard-core task-do’er, but the rewards have been overwhelming—and humbling! Lightbulb.
To my fellow Type-A task-accomplishers who automatically put up a wall whenever someone mentions “making time,” I want to acknowledge that I know where your doubts come from. I live it. The good news is that you don’t have to give up all of the task-completion that makes you good at your job and accomplished in the eyes of your employers. You just have to be open to putting those tasks on a shelf every once in a while, when a child is asking for your attention. As you and I both know, the tasks will still be there waiting for you when you come back to them. Kids, on the other hand, don’t always linger after an adult has ignored or dismissed them. We’re stuck with our tasks until they are completed but our kids grow up—and grow away—very quickly. Carpe diem.
Now, with all of that said and an urgency established, here’s some relieving news: connecting with kids is about giving time, but it is not necessarily a time-intensive commitment. Many of the most impactful ways that adults forge lasting connections with kids occur in minutes rather than in hours. That point was made clear to me by a nine-year old student who told me, in a voice that I can only describe as gleeful, that her teacher really liked her. When I asked her how she could tell, she explained:
She smiles at me every day when I walk into her room. It's so different from my teacher last year. She was always doing work and never even looked up before the second bell, except to remind us of anything we were doing wrong. I think the teacher this year really likes me!
A series of twirls and joyful shrieks later, it was plain to see how something as simple and brief as a warm acknowledgement from a teacher meant the world to that student. To quote Jerry Maguire, the teacher “had her at hello.”
Yesterday morning, I watched an inspiring story on ABC's Good Morning America, about a teacher who really "gets" the concept of making each student feel seen and heard as they enter his classroom each day. Check it out & prepare to be inspired:
IS TIME ENOUGH?
Am I suggesting that all adults need to do is greet kids at the door and their peer troubles will be solved? No, not at all. For many kids, the support and intervention they need from adults goes far beyond a five-second handshake. What I am suggesting, however, is that something as momentary and uncomplicated as a warm, daily greeting from an adult is a foundation for establishing a more meaningful connection and can go a surprisingly long way in indicating to a young person that the adult is consistent, warm, and perhaps even trustworthy enough to confide in.
WHAT HAPPENS IF I DON'T GIVE TIME?
When kids feel alienated from adults, we are in a whole lot of trouble. This statement applies to acts of youth violence across the board, many of which are beyond the scope of this post. Pertaining to the dynamics of bullying, this much is clear:
Without strong adult connections,
· Kids who bully act without the hindrance of disapproval by a grown-up that matters to them
· Kids who are victimized feel isolated from sources of support and intervention
· Kids who witness bullying have no one to turn to to report what they have seen
Meaningful connections with adults play an important role in both prevention and intervention in bullying. Kids who lack these connections benefit from neither.
For those who still worry that “there is not enough time in the day” to connect with each child, I submit that young people will get adult time one way or the other. It may be in positive ways, through our consistent, nurturing interactions or it may be through their acting out behaviors and crisis situations. The bottom line question really is: how do you want to spend your time with a young person? A pro-active investment of time in the development of a trusting relationship with a child is a whole lot easier (not to mention more time-efficient) than a reactive response to a relationship gone awry.
Signe Whitson, C-SSWS is a School Counselor, national educator on Bullying Prevention, and author of six books including For workshop inquiries and more information, please visit www.signewhitson.com.
Whitson, S. (2014). 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.