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Well-being: Focus from the start

Relationships in school matter. The quality of teacher-student relationships has been repeatedly proven to have a strong impact on overall academic, social, and emotional outcomes (Košir & Tement, 2014, Hattie, 2009). We know that students with strong relationships at school develop resilience to help them withstand stressors and develop a sense of well-being.

Re-engaging learners (and the school community) as school begins this fall provides an opportunity for creating a learning environment that fosters well-being – for both students and adults. What if we re-purpose time and energy to focus on well-being? What if we actively establish structures, implement strategies and plan time to develop trusting relationships and a sense of safety for everyone who enters our schools?

In the past several years, more children have been affected by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Whether it is remote learning during the pandemic, gun or domestic violence, neglect, or a variety of other traumas, 60+% of adults have experienced one ACE. These experiences leave people with a sense of having no control. Relationships comprised of trust and safety can have a significant impact by helping build predictability, consistency and opportunities for the person to take control – of their relationships and learning.

A culture of learning is comprised of multiple elements, the first of which is trust. Trust starts by building relationships. This trust contributes to feelings of safety and well-being. Both trust and safety have three common characteristics, which learners of all ages require.

  1. Safety – Both physical and emotional safety are required for trust to form. Feeling safe from harm (perceived or real, physical or emotional) allows learners to focus on learning. A little thing like taking risks academically and failing without punishment can go a long way to promote safety and trust.
  2. Predictability – Strategies, processes and routines help alleviate worry and stress about the unknown. These predictable and supportive activities help learners prepare for what’s coming and begin to take ownership of their learning and behavior. They act as a safety net, so learning is the focus.
  3. Consistency – When the situations and environment are equitable, fair and consistent, learners can predict, plan, control, and own what happens in the learning environment. It is so much easier to meet expectations (social, academic or behavioral) when they are shared, discussed and maintained.

    Trust builds when learners believe you have their interests at heart and they’re provided opportunities to take risks, fail and get feedback that they can use to improve and grow.

    Some strategies we can provide both educators and learners relate to self-regulation. First, learning to be self-aware – recognizing and naming the feelings that attempt to upset our well-being. Learning to navigate our emotions requires strategies we can use successfully and a safe place to use them. These strategies can be as simple as pausing, naming and acknowledging an emotion to breathing exercises or laughter. Emotions matter. Once we pause to name the emotion, we can move on from it a bit easier. It may mean both adults and children need a larger emotional vocabulary, which isn’t a bad thing.

    There are so many ways to promote well-being in schools.

    • Advance the vocabulary of emotions – Not only can you support students in getting more specific with their feelings but their vocabulary increases, too. (Feelings Wheel 2011 Feelings Wheel (1) (uoregon.edu))
    • Define “trust” and “safe” – Figure out what these words mean to your educators and learners (and community).
    • Create safe spaces – A place or time to talk might allow someone to process a difficult situation or emotion.
    • Practice gratitude – Set aside paper and pen so everyone can list what they are grateful for – privately or publicly
    • Practice mindfulness – Stretch, breathe or meditate for a minute. Benefits? Builds attention spans, resilience and self-regulation.

    What if your school spent time – a lot or a little doing one or more from the list above? How might a state of well-being, or trust and safety, change in your school?

    “… by using a more expansive language vocabulary, help name our emotions. We know this from neuroscience — language does not just communicate emotion, it shapes … how we respond to emotion.

    What we know from the data is that the ability to accurately name an emotion helps us move through it, helps us heal, [and] helps us replicate it for the positive emotions."

    ~Brene Brown


    Brackett and Cipriano, 2020

    Brené Brown explains the misconception around feelings of guilt and shame - ABC News

    Educator Well-Being 2.0 - ASCD

    Feelings Wheel PDF (5 Examples + Guide) | OptimistMinds

    The Right Mindset for Responding to Student Trauma - ASCD