As part of our ongoing Interactions at the Heart of Healing work, I recently met with Amanda Wiliford, P.h.D. of the University of Virginia to talk about her work on improving Teacher-Child relationships. Below is a portion of our conversation. To hear more, register for her upcoming webinar, Cultivating Connections After Trauma: Relationship Equity in Your Classroom as part of our Trauma-Informed Care webinar series.
Amanda Wiliford: I think a lot of times when you talk to teachers about how they build teacher-child relationships in the classroom, teachers will say, “Well, I like all of the children in my classroom and I build strong relationships with all of them.” But if you flip it a little bit and you ask a teacher, “Think about the students in your classroom. Who is most connected to you and who might not be as connected to you?” teachers can very quickly think about kids who come to them more often…and who elicit stronger connections with their teachers. And so, the idea of thinking about the fact that relationships aren't equitable across a classroom then becomes very apparent to teachers. Think about what students might be missing if they're not strongly connected. We want to think about how you can make sure that every child gets to have the opportunity to build that connection with their teacher, even if it doesn't happen automatically.
Amanda Wiliford: We often take an observation of a behavior and want to figure out the meaning from it, so we attribute that behavior to a meaning, when we just don't know if that’s the case. I think teachers assume that when kids are playing by themselves often and they don't appear distressed.
And in fact, we do know that for kids who are feeling sad, depressed, or anxious, they might be feeling physiological distress, but you wouldn't see it behaviorally. So, it is important to check in and make an attempt.
Amanda Wiliford: I think part of it stems from understanding that when children experience trauma, that can undermine their ability to form strong connections because they are experiencing physiological stress. That can manifest itself either by being withdrawn or not being able to regulate that stress and acting out—being impulsive in the classroom in ways that can undermine the tendency of a teacher to make a connection with the student and vice-versa for the students to come to that teacher. Some forms of trauma make it less likely for a child to be able to trust an adult, so it requires the adult to make a very intentional effort to show that they are a safe and trusted adult in the classroom.
Amanda Wiliford: Be intentional about getting to know the student better in the classroom by spending time with them in a very child-directed way. A child-directed way means the child gets to lead the session and you have moved out of a teaching role. You communicate “I want to get to know you and I accept you unconditionally” in this role. We have an intervention called Banking Time, which is a set of four very simple strategies that allow a teacher to spend time with a student in a way that ensures that the interaction will be child-directed and where the teacher and the child can learn new things about one another.
We're talking about finding five or 10 minutes, a few times a week to do four things.