Building Connectedness in Your Classroom By Maggie Dent

The best-kept secret to exceptional education is relationship. It doesn’t matter what age of students you teach, without building a relationship either individually or collectively, the journey with that class will simply be less than it could be.

When you are meeting a new class for the first time, both you and the students are hoping that this new relationship will be positive and mutually beneficial. First impressions and authenticity count when it comes to building connectedness.

If you could imagine that your classroom is an island amongst other islands surrounded by sea, you may be able to grasp how important it is within the whole context of a busy school to create a safe harbour for students. Classroom safety and enhancement is a key element of good teaching.

First impressions are powerful and many students decide in the first 10 minutes what to expect from your classroom. They are making decisions based on how they perceive you dress, walk, speak and engage with them individually.

The shy students are hoping you don’t notice them and the outgoing extroverts want to be noticed as soon as possible. Each student’s unconscious mind is absorbing invisible messages from their five senses at a very rapid rate. You need to ensure you have lots of signs that this place is safe and interesting. In my classrooms, I liked to have a small vase of fresh flowers, bright cheery motivational posters, and a saying of the week that was uplifting and inspirational.

As a presenter (which is really what you are) you must behave in complete alignment with who you really are. Inauthenticity is quickly detected by students and will certainly hinder their ability to trust you and respect you.

Building rapport is a key skill of good teaching and many do this without being aware they do it. Smiling, healthy eye contact, warm welcoming stance and a healthy dose of enthusiasm can be sensed by students very quickly. To be perfectly honest both you and your students are hoping that this new relationship will be positive and mutually beneficial. Your opening address to them needs to be carefully planned and well executed if you are to open a door to building connectedness.


My suggestion is to be clear on your intention as their teacher — I always made a commitment to support everyone to achieve, to learn to grow and to enjoy sharing time together. I made it clear that everyone has different gifts and talents, and that the classroom was going to be a safe place to explore, to take learning risks and to work on improving any areas of weakness that emerged. I always mentioned that any grade they received from me was never a reflection of my relationship to them, or any indication of their character or humanity; it was simply a mark indicating how they had performed at their given assessment.

I also made it clear that once inside my classroom I would not accept put downs, or inappropriate behaviour that caused pain or suffering to anyone or anyone’s belongings. Finally, I made a commitment to treat them with respect and would aim to never shout, shame or embarrass any student.

My next step would be to have them work in pairs of their own choice, and write what guidelines they wanted in our classroom, which would help us manage any inappropriate behaviour. Then a class discussion would follow and these guidelines would become formalised and a copy sent home to parents, as well as a copy posted on the wall.

These guidelines seldom changed over the 18 years I worked in the classroom. Students want the same as teachers — a safe place to learn, where they are treated with fairness, respect, compassion and great enthusiasm for learning about themselves, life and knowledge that will help them realise their full potential.

No wonder students value fairness so highly in their rating of exceptional educators. In his research into social cognitive neuroscience, Dr Matthew Lieberman has discovered via neural mapping that the same part of the brain lights up when we are treated fairly as when we eat chocolate.

He also found the opposite is true: that when a person is socially excluded it can feel like a physical pain — this is a primitive response as being excluded from the tribe would mean death in primitive times. This validates again the importance of relationships, culture and environments within our schools.


Kindness is the capacity of an individual to act from a place of genuine concern for oneself and others and includes the qualities of empathy, compassion, generosity and consideration with the intention of making a positive difference in our world. Being kind is a choice made from the belief that every action influences others and it honours our deepest, invisible motivation to have value and worthiness in our lives.

Being fair and kind are essential for building healthy, happy relationships from childhood to adulthood.


The effects of being treated fairly and with kindness have been shown in studies in neuroscience to make a significant difference in the way the brain integrates, and subsequently how individuals feel and behave. When we are treated with kindness, it allows our nervous system to relax and the pleasant sensations of endorphins, often serotonin and sometimes oxytocin, to flood our body. It makes us feel safe, valued and connected. Stress and distress have significant effects on how children and adults interact with the world.

When we are kind, we don’t take advantage of our power or of other people’s vulnerabilities. Instead, we seek to comfort, encourage and strengthen those around us. The strong sense of belonging that comes with being treated with kindness, is tangible and powerful. It removes the distance between individuals from “them” and “us” to “we”. Treating others as we would like to be treated is an ancient way of building character and human understanding.

Daniel Goleman wrote of the power of “emotional contagion”. By this, he meant that collectively we are influenced by how others feel and behave. The modern world has somehow grown a culture of individualism, insensitivity, selfishness and even cruelty. As social beings a primary need of all humans is human intimacy and connection and I believe so much of the social ills of our world — increasing violence, bullying, alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness and suicide — come from a place of disturbing alienation and separateness. If we can build a strong culture of caring based on kindness and fairness our children may find the world a different place when they become adults. This culture needs to start in our homes and then flow into our schools so that every child can be influenced and shaped by it.

Dr William Glasser has been writing about basic human needs in our families and schools for over 30 years. Essentially he argues that without first having our five basic needs met, we will struggle to flourish and realise our full potential. The code of kindness embraces and meets all the following five needs. Simple.

1. Survival

2. Love and belonging

3. Power or recognition

4. Freedom

5. Fun

Our world has become less civilized in many ways. Teachers are complaining about children with poor manners, selfish and self-centred behaviour, poor social skills and an inability to play well. This makes it very hard to teach groups of children because so much time is wasted on behaviour management rather than actual learning.

It is parents’ responsibility to teach these basics in the home. Children learn most of what they know by modelling on the significant adults in their world. This is why the future of our communities lies in how today’s children are being treated — to build compassion and a caring world we must start with how we care for our precious children in the first years of life. Then if we were to continue this through primary and secondary schools — not only would students learn better and achieve more — surely we would have less violence, crime and broken relationships. I believe educators need to have visions that support the highest expression possible for humanity.


Just because we talk does not mean we communicate! So much of our communication is subtle, non-verbal and built on cues and nuances. Too much talking overloads many boys and they “freeze up” and can’t work out what is required.

As teachers, we might find the notion of “Suggestopedia” useful.

Essentially being asked to do things or having something “suggested” can avoid the possible threat that comes from being told or demanded.

For example, we can ask: “Do you want to work in a group or by yourself?” instead of saying “Get into groups”. We can say to noisy students: “You don’t have to speak now”. We can tell the class we are going to have a brain break soon, let them choose which order they want to do questions in, ask if a due date suits them for a particular assessment.

The opposite to fairness or kindness is shaming and that is destructive on so many levels. Examples of shaming include:

  • Deliberately ignoring a child
  • Being sarcastic
  • Walking away as though a child does not exist
  • Rolling one’s eyes
  • Glaring at a child with disgust
  • Shouting, yelling and swearing at a child

Examples of shaming language (used often with boys especially) include:

  • You ought to be ashamed of yourself.
  • You naughty boy!
  • You are acting like a selfish brat.
  • You’re hopeless.
  • You’re not even trying.

Shaming language helps students to create mindsets that inhibit learning and creates a reluctance to attend school, let alone participate. It creates social exclusion instead of connectedness and safety and this means the primitive centre of the brain will have to remain in flight-fight mode.

Remember again the words of Daniel Goleman: “happy, calm students learn best”.

It takes time to build trust and connectedness, and the benefits are enormous. Truly charismatic adults who support children and adolescents have been able to develop that strong connection based on respect and trust.

In adolescence it is maybe even more important to create this connection due to the confusion and emotional chaos and uncertainty of the hormonally driven stage of change. It is also often much more difficult to build and our best high school teachers who can do this with ease literally save lives and shape human destiny.

Research has shown that unless children have had many positive pleasurable experiences, the pleasure-seeking part of the brain does not develop neurons that later help adolescents and adults to anticipate pleasure in life. With the rapidly increasing number of people and children struggling with depression this is a valuable mental health and wellbeing initiative that can take place in our schools.

Relationship brings belonging, and belonging allows our primitive brain to relax and open our higher brain where our best thinking and behavior comes from. This simple secret makes sense on so many levels.

Maggie Dent is an author, educator, and parenting and resilience specialist with a particular interest in the early years and adolescence. This article is an extract from her new ebook (released June 2013), Dare to Be An Exceptional Teacher, now available to download from her website at Maggie presented on this topic at the 2013 Positive Schools conferences.

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