The Power of Connection

September is here, and educators are starting to deep dive into their content – the meat (or tofu) of the academic year, if you will. We’re working on building a welcoming, relationship-based learning environment; we’ve introduced and practiced classroom expectations and agreements; maybe we’ve even devised a collaborative social contract with our students. Now it’s time to start in with the real learning, right?


Teaching All Brains

Our students show up to our classrooms immersed in experiences – some great, some not so great, and some traumatic. Our students’ brains are looking at academic content with all those experiences as well. Some days, they might be 100% ready to learn, and other days not so much.

We adults can relate. Consider the days you come to work after a bad commute, a family argument, or lost phone/keys/backpack. It can be difficult to switch gears and get focused.

Well, for those children who experience deep and consistent trauma (food insecurity, family illness, transient living situations, institutional racism), they can have a hard time feeling safe enough to connect someone in the room, let alone connect with academic content.

psychology-2146166_1920It is our job and calling as professional educators to teach everyone who walks into our learning environment. We know that learning happens most effectively when teachers and learners have authentic connection. So, how can we take steps to foster this authentic connection with each of our students, considering their diverse experiences  and fluid brain states (and ours!)? How do we meet our students where they’re at, and invite them to reach their full learner potential?


Neuroscience For The Win!

Since teaching and learning happens in human brains, it’s helpful to know a little bit about brain science. Zaretta Hammond, educational equity advocate and author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, explains it this way:

There’s real science behind this idea of caring as the on-ramp to learning. When we feel cared for, our brain is flooded with neurotransmitters and hormones like oxytocin, the same hormone that makes moms fall in love with their babies even after the pain and effort of labor. These “happy chemicals” tell our pre-frontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain, that all is safe socially, emotionally and physically. All systems are a go for learning.

What happens if you don’t feel safe or cared for? Ain’t no learning happening. The flood of stress hormones like cortisol divert blood from the pre-frontal cortex to the amygdala, an almond-shaped organ in our reptilian brain, in preparation for fight or flight. Not the time for learning. The brain is signaling us that it’s time to respond to threats, not lay back and chill.

In order to lower cortisol levels (not good for learning) and increasing oxytocin (very good for learning) in the brains of our learners, we need opportunities where we can demonstrate care. A great place to start is developing intentional practices that foster connection.  Here are some ideas!

Hammond’s Trust Generators:

trust generators

Hammond, Zaretta. Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Thousand Oaks: Corwin, 2015

This Common Sense Education post talks about the theory behind games which are specifically designed to foster connection in the classroom!

Here is an Edutopia article with a list of six concrete connection-building activities to grow a caring learning community, with a special focus on English Language Learners.

Incorporating Austin ISD’s Three Signature SEL Practices (welcoming rituals, engaging pedagogy, optimistic closures) into classroom routines creates opportunities for ongoing connection-building!

Exploring how to introduce culturally-responsive restorative practice community building circles into learning environments is a powerful way to foster authentic care in learning environments.


There are all kinds of ways to build intentional connection practices into teaching and learning relationships, and educators have often been using their own methods for years. What are some ways you will build authentic caring and connection in your classroom this year? Let us know in the comments, and tag us in social media to keep us posted at @austinisdsel!

2 thoughts on “The Power of Connection

  1. Thanks for all your great blog posts! Many teachers add a minute of quiet mindful breathing to their welcoming rituals as a way to build connection and get in ready to learn state. We are organizing a new Coalition of Schools Educating Mindfully Conference in Chicago area Feb 28-Mar 2. Come to learn more about mindfulness in schools!

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