Conflict180.com
Source: Conflict180.com

In my last post - What Do Students Really Need - I shared the surprising brain science behind human connection.

For instance, we now know that students who feel that they belong in their school, are included by their peers, and have connection with even one caring adult, are more likely to succeed and thrive.

This week I share three specific ways educators can increase this sense of inclusion, belonging, and connection in their settings.

We call these strategies Breaking Good.

1. Break Bread Together

Breaking Bread by Conflict 180
Source: Breaking Bread by Conflict 180

The last thing we may want to do is share a meal with a child (or adult!) with whom we are struggling. Our natural reaction in these cases is to avoid them as much as possible.

In addition, breakfast and lunch are precious times for educators to prep, have some down-time, and do self-care.

However, sharing a "no pressure" meal can turn around a challenging relationship. Sitting down with kids at lunch or inviting them into your space for a quick bite allows you get to know each other in a new light.

One teacher, after one of our workshops, chose a specific child with whom she was having a hard time, and started having a casual lunch with him weekly. A month later, she was already reaping the benefits of their meals through greater connection and less struggles during class.

A weekly meal can also be a way to re-connect a small group of kids who are having a rough patch with each other. Another teacher in a Conflict 180 school started having a weekly lunch with a group of five girls who were friends, but often had small skirmishes in school. One week, when the teacher could not make it, the girls asked if they could still have lunch together, maybe with another adult, as the Friday meals were really helping them build peace with each other.

Of course, it is important to be mindful and fair about who is being invited, so this does not become another way to leave out the same marginalized kids. Another teacher, after a class circle that let him know his kids needed to get to know each other better as people, created a rotating schedule to have lunch with four of his kids every Friday. This way, he wound up having a casual lunch with everyone in his class about twice a semester.

Whether you'd like to improve a relationship with a student or a colleague, food is the universal language of care and connection.

Give it a try and have fun with it!

2. Break Ice Together

Breaking Ice by Conflict180.com
Source: Breaking Ice by Conflict180.com

We all know that Ice-breaking activities are helpful in the beginning of the school year to help build a classroom community.

However, ice-breakers can be a life-saver well beyond the first week of school.

Activities that let kids and adults get to know each other promote social bonding and team-building throughout the year. This can be particularly useful as things start to get tough and class morale breaks down.

Some teachers use a short ice-breaker once a week (usually on Fridays) to keep the wheels of connection in their class lubricated.

Others break out the ice-breakers as an intervention for tough times.

For instance, one teacher told me that she finds January to be a difficult time for her kids and she uses ice-breakers liberally after they return from break.

It's important to remember that not all ice-breakers are created equal. Try to choose activities that help vulnerable kids feel safe and free from teasing, especially in a class where relational aggression is present.

Here are a three suggestions from Cult of Pedagogy:

Icebreakers That Rock

As with all other team-building activities, have fun and choose something you actually want to do with them! After all, part of the goal is connection with YOU.

3. Break Formation Together

Break Formation by Conflict180.com
Source: Break Formation by Conflict180.com

For building classroom community and a sense of cohesion, the formation that works best is a circle or U shape - where people can see each other's faces.

Many classrooms around the country are experimenting with using circles to learn academics, from Spanish to Social Studies to Writing, as described in the book "Circle Forward" by Carolyn Boyes-Watson and Kay Pranis.

Of course, circles are not ideal for every learning activity.

Studies have shown that, for doing independent work, students seated in rows stay on task better and work more diligently.

For classroom discussions and cooperative learning activities, students benefit from sitting in circles (or semi-circles).

Students seated in circles and semi-circles for cooperative learning activities have been found to:

  • interact more with each other
  • ask more questions
  • develop a greater sense of community
  • learn more
  • report more satisfaction with the discussions

Circles also allow students to see each other's faces during vulnerable or sensitive discussions (e.g., about gender, race, identity), creating more openness and less friction.

In many classrooms, learning in a circle even once a week has made a big difference in increasing engagement, reducing classroom struggles, and improving student connection.

Let us know how it goes!

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Have a story to share about how restorative practices are helping you? Write to me at elaine@conflict180.com

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Want more tools for connecting with students and reducing conflict? Check out our Conflict180.com/Resources page.

Next week a teacher tells the true story of how a sloppy joe transformed her classroom and her approach to students.

About the Author

Elaine Shpungin Ph.D.

Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D., is the director of the University of Illinois Psychological Services Center.

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