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Classroom Management Strategies: Why building relationships isn't enough

As someone who touts the importance of building relationships both on this blog and in real life, you're probably wondering what the hell this even means... Of course, I fully endorse teachers building relationships with students! However, there is this trend happening right now where other teachers, professional development workshops, and education experts emphasize the importance of relationship, but stop short of telling us *how* we actually build relationships. Furthermore, even those teachers who do give tips on how to build relationship, don't necessarily explain how to implement these strategies in a trauma informed way.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: "Oh, you have challenges with 'classroom management?' Build relationships! Relationships are key!"

Afterwards you're left feeling more defeated because, well, how do you do that? I mean, if you knew the answer to that, you wouldn't have started looking for new classroom management strategies to begin with, right?

Each of these posts listed above give practical strategies for building meaningful relationships with students that will decrease the need for reactive strategies that we often learn are important in the name of "classroom management."

Disclaimer: I don't like the term classroom management. It's problematic because it enforces a teacher-student hierarchy, and positions students as needing to be "managed" and "controlled." We should strive for relationship management and trauma informed approaches!

So why is being the "cool teacher" or creating flexible learning spaces not enough? These are often enough to build relationships and decrease need for reactive strategies, but is this enough to support a safer learning environment? Arguably, no, because we don't know the why behind what makes students feel safer or how what we're doing makes students feel safer.

Without understanding the why and how of these strategies, we run the risk of making non-trauma informed mistakes without even knowing it. Now, of course, we are humans, and can't possibly expect to never make mistakes. However, if we don't even know we're making the mistakes, we don't give ourselves opportunity to correct it.

WHY should we be flexible and avoid reactive classroom management strategies?

  1. Flexibility in what students learn, how they learn, and even when they submit assignments, breeds autonomy and autonomous learners feel in control. When they feel as though they have some control in their space students are less likely to seek control through other behaviours.

  2. Allowing students to have autonomy also honours that they lead complicated and often challenging lives outside of school. Basic autonomy is allowing students to self-regulate as they need and trusting that they know what they need better than we do.

  3. When we let students "get away with things" we aren't being push-overs, in fact, something amazing happens. When we talk to students the way we would want to be talked to if we did something inappropriate, they hear us and they feel respected. I often hear "they'll walk all over me" - actually the only reason you're needing to be reactive now with classroom management strategies is because they're walking all over you already and your strategies aren't working to create a genuine meaningful learning space. Picking our battles and creating dialogue about student needs helps students to feel more responsible for their learning and their role in the classroom.

HOW are we unintentionally not trauma informed?

  1. When we refuse students the right to take breaks when they want/need, or we don't let them have water at their desk, we tell students we don't trust them to meet their needs or we don't trust they know the best way to meet their needs. Trusting students to know what they need and when means they can trust you when they need to ask for help to have their needs met. We can model what meeting our needs looks like, what self-regulation looks like, and that it's okay to need a break, and students will practice these tools as well.

  2. Reactive classroom management strategies (such as sending kids out of the room or to the principal's office, behavior charts/ clip charts, noting "bad" behavior in their agenda or sending notes home, or calling students out publicly) serve to create feelings of distrust and unsafety in class. Our students come to us with a host of lived experience we cannot begin to understand, including, in many cases, complex trauma, and in all cases, regular trauma. Many students already fear school, fear their peers, and fear you, for many reasons! When we call out students for not handing in work on time, showing up late, or talking out of turn, we are discrediting the many challenges students may have to meet these expectations. We aren't allowing space for our students to have challenges outside of school or acknowledging that trauma informs behavior.

  3. When we call students out publicly, we send them out, or we lose our temper, and then we don't acknowledge our mistakes, we unconsciously tell students that we aren't culpable. I've heard folks admit that they make a mistake, but they fear admitting this to the class or the individual student because there's a fear of losing face. In reality, our students respect us more when we admit we're wrong. We can own our mistakes, tell students we didn't respond how we would have liked, admit that we're human, and finally, agree to keep trying to do better. Doing this models what accountability for our actions looks likes so that students don't fear making these mistakes too!

Overall, being trauma informed doesn't mean we don't make mistakes, it merely means that we know enough to know how little we know! We come at teaching from a place of respect and inherent trust, and teach students expectations by modeling them. We offer grace, not because we're soft, but because we're informed. We focus on meeting basic needs because we understand that our students may not have the capacity or resources to meet them on their own, and we encourage autonomy because we know that trauma can make our students feel out of control in their lives, and it costs us nothing to help them find their power. So no, being the fun teacher isn't enough; being kind isn't enough; but being these things AND being trauma informed is exactly enough!

Struggling with how to find the groove in your class? Book a consultation with me, and let's talk about your specific classroom needs! I can give you strategies specific to your challenges, and support you with creating an ongoing plan to make teaching feel fun again!


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