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!

Welcome Back! Welcome Home! Welcome to August!

Happy August, Austin ISD Social and Emotional Learning fans! We are so excited for the potential and promise of a shiny new school year. Effective teaching and learning is rooted in building positive classroom relationships, so let’s hit the relationship-building ground running!


Sounds Great! Where Do We Start?

Teachers have been creating visuals, structures and systems in their classrooms that facilitate relationship-building since teaching was invented. Here are some tried-and-true ideas to consider for your learning space:


Of course, these are just a few ways to craft a relationship-based learning environment. Another idea is to consider incorporating the Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)‘s Three Signature SEL Practices:

signature practices

Check out this resource for more details and examples!

Okay, I’m Ready! Let’s Get To Work!

Creating a relationship-based classroom is one of the key ways we welcome our students back to their learning environment home. What relationship-building ideas are you inspired to try this year?  Let us know in the comments, and keep us posted on social media by tagging @austinisdsel and using the hashtag #WelcomeHomeAISD!


A-MAY-Zing! Time to Celebrate!

GUESS WHAT?! You made it. We’re in the home stretch of the school year!


You and your students, and/or your own children, and/or your colleagues, friends, neighbors, we all made it through another year of teaching and learning, and social and emotional development! This calls for a celebration!

Why It’s Important to Celebrate

The very act of celebrating large or small accomplishments and milestones is advantageous to the continuing evolution of the human species. According to Austin’s own Two Guys on Your Head,

…[As] a species, humans can imagine long-term goals, but it’s very hard to wrap our heads around how to achieve them without setting short-term goals that will help us get to where we want to be. Therefore, acknowledging the accomplishment of each small step along the way, helps to propel us on.

And, we humans do love to celebrate! So, now you’re probably wondering how we celebrate our students and ourselves in a way that honors what we did this year, and builds excitement for all of our accomplishments yet to come?


The End of the School Year: It’s Kind of a Big Deal!

According to this excellent EduTopia post, it’s critical for educational communities to “celebrate learning, celebrate the moments you’ve had, and savor the time you have left together” in the classroom. The post has a lovely list of great end-of-the-year ideas, like a symbolic class toast (with bottles of water of course!), or a red-carpet style awards ceremony. The community-building and closure that occurs as a result of intentional celebration pave the way for future learning and growth.

Another way to cement relationships and forge emotional connections to the year’s learning is to collaboratively create a class play list of Power Songs! Zaretta Hammond writes this in her Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain blog:

Collectivist cultures understand that music is one of the most powerful neurobiological tools we have to change our mood, mindset, and behavior. It is used as a mental trigger, a social binder, and a cognitive memorizer. Science shows that music can help alleviate depression and help a person feel more hopeful and in control of their life.

This idea could also kick off a tradition of creating a class power song play list at the beginning of the year, using it all year long, and then playing the songs at the end of the year during a culminating celebration! Just a thought!


What About Families Celebrating the End of the School Year?

The transition from school time to summer time is significant for families as well as classrooms! Simple, fun activities and intentional moments to mark the end of the year can help build and reinforce family relationships and forge connections between home and school.  Here are some celebratory ideas from the PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) Today site, and here are some especially for older students from Chicago Now!

Remember to Celebrate Yourself Too!

May is a beautiful time to check in with your own self-care practices, and consider doing some intentional self-compassion and SELebration. Make a list of gratitudes! Find a time for a pedicure or a massage! Read some self-care ideas and affirmations from other teachers in our district here and here! And make sure you remember how valued you are, and how far your work reaches! We are super grateful for all you do. Thank you for being our partner in creating safe, inclusive environments for our students. Happy May!


Ready, MINDSET, Go!

April already?! How did that even happen! And now we’re in the legendary testing season of school: thousands of #2 pencils sharpened, hundreds of test booklets sorted and stacked, jillions of bubbles bubbled, millions of teachers and students feeling anxious. Like it or not, if you’re part of a public school community these days, testing season is a THING, and we’re all feeling it.

Growth Mindset – What is it?

Looming standardized testing is the perfect time to get mindful about our own mindset and how it can affect our attitudes about growth and improvement, both for ourselves and our students. Carol Dweck’s influential research defines a growth mindset as “the understanding that abilities and intelligence can be developed.” This definition is in contrast to the idea of a fixed mindset, which is the belief that abilities and intelligence are established early on in life and either present or not – essentially, that a person is either good at something or not.  Here is a helpful chart from an article by Carissa Romero to summarize the difference between the ideas of “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset:”


With this helpful chart comes a helpful caveat: everyone is on a journey with mindset! The chart can imply that a fixed mindset is “bad” while a growth mindset is “good,” and that an individual might have either a fixed or growth mindset about everything. Not true! Mindset is a spectrum within individual people and changes between various aspects of our lives. The goal is to learn to pay attention to our mindset, and help teach and model mindset awareness to students and young people. In this article, Carole Dweck revisits her original research, encouraging educators and parents to engage with this mindset journey.

Okay great! I’m on the journey. How Do I Do It?

There are many, many books and web-based resources on ways to foster growth mindset for ourselves and students (like this one! And this one! And this one too!), but one of the most concrete ways to start exploring our mindsets is becoming aware of the language we use. Dweck offers this graphic to help us start thinking about how our language can affect student mindset:


We educators care about our students and strive to provide positive feedback and encouragement. Growth mindset research suggests that using specific, student-centered feedback, instead of the traditional, general “good job!” can truly bolster student self-efficacy and learning. One way to start the practice giving this kind of feedback is to think of this equation:

Process Centered Feedback

For example, if a student has made a mistake on a math problem, a teacher might say, “I notice that you showed your work on this problem, even though the answer was not correct…that means we can go back and see where the problem got problematic! What’s another way we could solve this one?” Another example: A student gets a high grade on a writing assignment. Instead of “good job,” the teacher might say: “I notice that you worked really hard on your writing, and you got a high score!  How do you feel about your work?”

Building Self-Efficacy

The ideal result of using process-centered feedback is to foster growth mindset in our students, so that they are able to trust their own capacity to learn and grow.  This makes them less reliant on the external judgement of others, increasing their intrinsic motivation and emotional resilience in the face of setbacks. This is a process and a journey for all of us! What is one step you’re willing to try to bring more growth mindset into your life? Let us know in the comments, and use the #AISDGrowthMindset hashtag on social media in April to let us know how you’re growing!

As a final source of inspiration, we give you Janelle Monae and the Sesame Street gang singing about The Power of Yet!

Mindful Month: March

March Madness Mindfulness?

We’ve all heard about it. We’ve heard the chimes, smelled the diffused essential oils, scrolled past smug social media posts, stumbled upon a scene of silent cross-legged serenity.  Maybe we’ve even sat ourselves down and tried hard to clear out our brain, quash our thoughts, and focus on our breath, determined to sit momentarily on an island of quiet in an ocean of stimulation. But the thoughts are still there, the mind wanders, the world is loud and fast and stressful, and we’re going – what even is this whole mindfulness thing anyway?


What Mindfulness Is…

Great question! Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “…paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” No essential oils or crossed legs in sight. In fact, the idea of “clearing the mind” is not even a requirement to practice mindfulness – brains are not wired to be emptied!  Instead, mindfulness is the practice of observing our minds and our thoughts, often using our breath to anchor ourselves in what is happening right now, in this present moment.

Mindfulness becomes something that can happen standing in line at the grocery store, sitting in traffic, parenting through a toddler tantrum, or teaching a math class.  It’s a tool in our Social and Emotional Learning toolbox; a resource for adults and young people to reach for that bolsters self-efficacy, reduces stress, increases empathy, boosts student learning and employee productivity, and can even help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Indeed, recent brain research shows that even simple mindfulness practices can physically, positively affect crucial structures in our brain.


Sign us up!

Sounds good, right? Want to incorporate mindfulness practices into your lives and classrooms? We have myriad resources…

Paying Attention to Paying Attention

Are you ready to try out some mindfulness practices, and see how they affect your life in and out of school? Share your plans and ideas in the comments, and let us know how it’s going by using the hashtag #MindfulAISD!

Build Brains by Building Relationships This February!

Newsflash: Learning happens in the brain! And, brains need other brains to learn! Human brains do, at least, along with many other species, like fruit flies, elephants, and dolphins. In fact, every single person you’ll meet this February has a human brain that is seeking to learn and connect.



Practices Foster Connection and Learning

As Zaretta Hammond says, “relationships are the on-ramp to learning;” and, more and more research backs this up. For instance, oxytocin is a chemical in the brain that is associated with positive social relationships and feelings of trust and connectedness. Studies show that systems and practices that foster relationship-building within the classroom community increase oxytocin levels for all involved. Why is this important? Well, it’s because increased positive connections in educational environments result in deeper, more authentic learning.


Relationship-building practices that increase oxytocin aren’t just for the classroom, either. Adults who experience positive social connection among colleagues are better able to hear and act on constructive feedback, generally perform better in the workplace, and experience a host of beneficial physiological effects. We know this intuitively, and with new developments in the ability to study the living brain, scientists are able to produce more and more research to confirm how true it is.



Relationship Building Resources

Our February theme of relationship-building invites educational communities to establish and grow practices that foster trust, connection and learning.  How do we do it? Together, of course! Check out these resources for some great ideas:




How are you building relationships?

February traditionally is all about Valentine hearts; let’s raise the bar and launch a year-round campaign to increase heart-full, authentic, and connected learning communities in education. From a literal and physical perspective, February is American Heart Health Month – the one beating in your chest right now! Taking care of your heart means moving more, stressing less, and practicing intentional self-care and self-compassion.  One way to do all of those healthy heart things is to cultivate positive, supportive relationships professionally and personally. February is also Black History Month; instead of just one month, let’s commit to creating welcoming, culturally-responsive educational environments where all students are truly seen, heard and respected all year long. What are you doing out there in the world to build positive relationships, boost oxytocin and be culturally responsive? Let us know in the comments! Or, tweet @austinisdsel using #AISDgot♥!

Austin ISD Circles Up!


This image represents a harm-focused, reactive approach popularized by the Criminal Justice System. Austin ISD is taking a proactive, education-focused whole child, whole adult, whole community approach to Restorative Practices. #RPAustinISD

Austin ISD is planning for a Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices (RP) approach in its schools. The district recognizes  the need to address systemic inequities and improve campus climates and cultural proficiency. The faculty, staff and administrators in the Akins vertical team, for example, have received basic training in Culturally Responsive RP to begin their restorative journey. Other schools around the district are exploring community-building circles in classrooms and with faculty and staff to deepen connectedness and build campus culture.  So what exactly are Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices, and how do they fit into our district’s push to increase student voice, close achievement gaps, and address disciplinary action inequities?


In Austin ISD, Culturally Responsive RP are rooted in these Core Assumptions for the whole child and whole adult:


The core self may not be reflected in how people behave, but beneath the masks we adopt is a deeper, healthier self.


What we do to others, we are also doing to ourselves although we may not always be aware that this happening.


All people want to love and be loved and all people want to be connected.


All gifts are indispensable to the well-being of the whole.


There are rich reservoirs of talent and wisdom within our communities waiting to be accessed.


There is a connection between the mind, body, and spirit in all that we do.


We need practices which help us connect to our core self so we can live in alignment with our values and build healthy relationships in families and communities.

Adapted from: “Heart of Hope Resource Guide” Suffolk University, Center for Restorative Justice Carolyn Boyes-Watson and Kay Pranis 2009


Because the very nature of Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices is doing it with, rather than to, an individual or community, schools exploring RP are introducing it authentically in ways that best serve that campus. Community circles are generally done with a centerpiece, to focus thoughts and words, and a passed-around talking piece, to hold space for equity of voice. However, circles can look lots of different ways!  Here are some pictures of how Restorative Practices look around our district right now.


Ms. Polk facilitates a circle with 7th graders in her classroom at Martin Middle School.


Secondary and elementary staff from the Discipline Alternative Learning Placement campuses debrief a professional development activity in community circles.


Staff from the Akins Vertical Team model a community circle during an RP training (for the whole vertical team!)


Ms. DeLaTorre at Walnut Creek Elementary facilitates a circle with her 5th graders.

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Though these pictures are from all around our district, every one of them shows people talking to each other in circles. The circle is the hallmark of Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices, which is rooted in the ancient indigenous tradition of forming circles to communicate effectively in community. Austin ISD is exploring a whole school, whole child, whole adult Culturally Responsive Approach to Restorative Practices. Although circles are the most visible piece of the process, restorative practices is #MoreThanCircles. Restorative practices provides a framework that helps us create a school culture and climate that is safe, welcoming and inclusive. The AISD Social and Emotional Learning team supports Culturally Responsive RP community-building circles. We are excited about the deep Restorative Practice work beginning in Austin ISD, and look forward to seeing it serve the social and emotional needs of all our students and staff! We are #AISDProud that we are continuously working on #AISDEquity!

Check out this Restorative Practices Twitter chat from December 2016 to experience part of the larger, real conversation that is helping to move our Culturally Responsive RP journey forward. For more information about Austin ISD Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices, contact Angela Ward (, who collaborated on this blog post!