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Unlocking the Power of Relationship Building: A Journey of Empathy, SEL, and Transformation

In today’s education landscape, the recognition of mental health and emotional wellness has paved the way for the vital practice of social-emotional learning (SEL). As educators, we find ourselves navigating uncharted territory, learning SEL ourselves AND learning to teach SEL as we go.

What does best practice look like when approaching this work of the heart? I hope to contribute to the ongoing discussion about how to best commune and heal together. This post offers a story to gain deeper understanding of effective relationship building skills and how empathy and SEL practices play apart in that. Let us continue to learn from one another. 

In the beginning…

I must admit, when I first began my teaching journey, I held the naïve belief that building relationships would be easy and that I would get along with every student. I love kids! What could go wrong? The reality of teaching hit me hard in my first year, especially with one student in particular who frequently caused harm to others, myself, and the physical learning environment. 

Initially, my approach to the harm and outbursts of verbal or physically violent behavior was strict, frustrated, and demanding. I was focusing on maintaining “control” as an authority figure rather than understanding the student. Let’s say, for the sake of the story, the student’s name is AJ.

After another incident in the classroom, small or large, I felt overwhelmed with the amount going on, as a first year teacher, the sensory overload is intense, I would send AJ to the principals office. I would call down to the office and ask for support in addressing the behavioral issue. The “support” at this school was for Admin to send AJ back to me after 20 minutes with a candy in his hand. He would be allowed to reenter the classroom without any conversation, update, note, or communication. And I continued teaching the lesson…

A climate of tension and unease clouded the classroom, as classmates expressed frustration towards AJ and overall, the lack of accountability AJ had for his actions. As the harmful behavior continued, I began trying to exercise my power by locking the classroom door and not allowing him to enter the classroom until I had time to have a conversation with him. Allowing the harm to go unaddressed felt like I was okaying the behavior and harm caused.

Right away in my career, as advised by colleagues with years of experience and undergrad schooling, I lived the ineffectiveness of teaching practices in line with the, “no nonsense, zero tolerance, punishment” traditional mindset. This approach is outdated and causes a HUGE impediment to building relationships. I see that there is absolutely no place for this kind of thinking in education, as it causes more disconnection, harm, and separation. We must shift into a mindset of healing, care, and relationship building, which is what I started trying with AJ after the new year.

A Relationship Transformed

I decided to try something new with AJ. My perspective changed as I began tuning out what I was being told to do, and focused in on what I felt was right. I wanted to come into the classroom without any stigma against AJ, or preconceived judgements about him. I wanted to learn more about his strengths and what he cared about.

I began checking in with AJ each morning to see how his morning was and to offer encouragement and reassurance that today was a new day to make better choices. I would intentionally touch base with him throughout the day to see how he was feeling and at dismissal I would tell them something I noticed that he did well on that day. I learned about his hobbies, interests, favorite songs, best dance moves, and the newest pair of kicks that he was eyeing. I also learned a lot about his home life and the struggles of not being able to see his dad and being far away from his siblings.

I began expressing to AJ that I cared about him, wanted him to do well and make good decisions for himself and our learning community. I explained what a learning community was to him and how his behavior impacted the other students in our environment. I was now working from a place of trying to understand AJ, instead of assuming he was a “bad” kid.

When behavior flared up, as it did, AJ would still be sent out of the classroom for a moment so that the classroom could regulate, and when AJ would reenter, we got into what we called a “Class Huddle”. This was a circle space that we had norms assigned to and posted. In the circle we would pass around a talking piece and everyone would have an opportunity to address the harm that was caused, how it impacted the community, and addressed solutions to resolving the harm.

I was practicing restorative practices before I knew I was practicing restorative practices. We communally established what was safe behavior and what everyone needed moving forward. Natural apologies would come out as the voices of the impacted students surfaced. The natural consequence to causing harm? Taking accountability. AJ had to straight up face the harm he had caused and be held by the class in full accountability.

As a result, AJ started to take responsibility for how their behavior affected others and began to speak up for what he needed to be successful. After having seen and felt what that perspective change did to our relationship and the overall classroom climate and learning experience, I knew I was headed in the right direction. As a class, we started practicing “Class Huddles” or restorative circles to repair any harm that was done. This open and safe dialogue allowed students to express and heal hurt feelings in a safe, community-based, way.

It wasn’t until I reflected on my approach and decided to change my perspective, that the relationship I had with AJ, began to transform. By taking the time to self regulate and check my own assumptions and beliefs, I could access genuine interactions with AJ without my emotions running the show. Moving me ego aside allowed for us to foster a sense of connection, trust, care, and partnership. This one relationship growing stronger and more authentic shifted the entire classroom experience for the rest of the year.

Through It All: Continuous, Honest, & Loving Self-Reflection

Ultimately, that school year showed me that I desperately needed more education. The following year, I sought out my Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on Community Engagement. I wouldn’t have been able to make that decision for myself if it wasn’t for the time I gave myself to reflect honestly about the year I just had. I wanted to cultivate a teaching practice that felt good in my soul, I wanted to learn more about how to serve ALL kids better, I wanted to prioritize our humanity.

Through my work with both age groups (and in between), I’ve learned the importance and prioritization of relationships and safety in the environment. Further, teaching SEL well requires a larger degree of trust and adult modeling, so everyone in the learning environment can feel emotionally, psychologically, physically, and socially safe.

This safety comes from the relational community, climate, and culture of the classroom. When conflict arises, as it naturally will, we must know how to model to students what navigating conflict looks like, sounds like, and feels like. Conflict is there to show us something. Yet, it requires coming from a place of trying to understand, instead of assuming. Thereby allowing clarity to enter any situation. In the end, by highlighting relationships and ensuring safety, culturally responsive pedagogy aligns with our intrinsic desire to belong and interact with love. 

What has continued to serve me well through this journey is continuous, critical, loving, and honest self-reflection. As any teacher knows, to teach something truly well – it is necessary to fully understand, practice, and live out the content. To teach social and emotional wellness, one must be striving to be well themselves. The importance of taking care of myself has been parallel to my instinctual curriculum design and teaching of SEL. I am committed to being a lifelong learner and healing facilitator of knowledge, skills, and practices. Teaching SEL has taught me a lot about myself. 

My journey in teaching SEL has taught me the immense value of empathy, relationships, and continuous self-reflection. By recognizing and acting on the increasing need for mental health and emotional wellness in education, we can shape a positive and transformative learning environment for ourselves and young people.

In unity, love, healing, and freedom, 

Dahlia Quintanilla

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