As educators return to school in the coming weeks, they will be tasked not only with addressing learning recovery, but also with supporting students as they heal from the trauma of the past year and a half, which ranges from social isolation for some to losing loved ones to COVID-19 for others. Dr. Pamela Cantor, the founder and senior science advisor at Turnaround for Children, joined Newsela founder and chief academic officer Dan Cogan-Drew to discuss how educators can cultivate the student engagement needed to rise to the coming year’s challenges.
Prioritize connection and belonging
Dr. Cantor explained that although the school system has not historically accounted for learning’s biological foundations, educators cannot afford to ignore them. Chemicals and hormones including oxytocin are essential in building the neural connections that enable complex learning. Educators have a role to play here by taking actions that invoke students’ neurological reward pathways: Building a safe, welcoming environment, providing meaningful learning experiences, and fostering positive relationships. Cantor added that administrators can add much-needed support when it comes to building a welcoming school environment. Creating a sense of safety and belonging — and the engagement that comes with it — means integrated supports in all aspects of students’ lives. As she put it, “to balance academics with other opportunities to know who children are, and to build and nurture their interests and their passions, this kind of support will tip the balance toward an environment … where there are many sources of emotional and academic support.”
Harness Student Agency in Curriculum and Instruction
Students bring so much to their classrooms: life experiences, cultures, and prior knowledge that can enrich the learning environment beyond measure. This also means that each will experience curriculum and instruction differently, and what engages one student will not engage all. That, Cantor explained, is why students need “personalized, rigorous instructional experiences” to fall in love with the curriculum and discover their own capabilities.
In practice, that means a challenging curriculum that incorporates student choice and empowers them to use their agency as learners. “If educators teach only to the discrete math skill,” she said, “some children will learn it. But if they teach to the whole child, they can support students to understand it, become curious to learn more, and be able to apply it to other problems.”
This means providing materials that celebrate learners’ identities and contextualize the lesson content within other parts of their lives. One participant shared how she offers students 10 books to choose from in her reading units. The texts are selected to offer a variety of themes at different reading levels, and she teaches students to consider both their interests and the text’s difficulty level when they choose a book. Together, these variables can promote engagement by letting everyone discover texts that inspire and challenge them -- no matter who they are and what experiences and talents they bring to the classroom.
Student Engagement Means Healing Trauma
When students feel safety and belonging, they are more open to the relationships that accelerate learning. But oxytocin, the hormone that ensures this can happen, has another function: It offsets the effects of cortisol, the brain’s main stress hormone. The pandemic has created extraordinary stress for all students, and it turns out that the same relationships that enable learning are also critical in giving students the chemical building blocks their brains need to recover from trauma. With this in mind, administrators and educators can seize this moment to ensure that all learners leave the classroom more resilient and engaged than ever.
Watch the recorded webinar here.
This webinar is the first of a series on designing learning environments for successful whole-child instruction. Stay tuned for upcoming sessions discussing the evolving role of the teacher, and frameworks for assessing whole-child instruction.