Building Classroom Relationships: Putting the Amygdala To Rest…

I’ve recently had the opportunity to collaborate with some of my Senior students during their most intense teaching internships and I have a new understanding of the importance of relationship building. I’ve be able to spend time with them, watching and commenting on the goings on in their professional field site. The site is quite unique. It is a small school, and it is a tough school to become a teacher in, especially after relationships have been formed. Relationships have a fragile place in the teacher education literature. Their announced importance seems to come and go. When we are forced to employ high stakes measures to assess academic outcomes, the centrality of relationship to the teaching/learning process seems to fade. When the emperor’s new clothes of high stakes testing is revealed as it inevitably always is, the importance of relationship in a child’s grounding in school reasserts itself. We are in a time of reassertion. In this time, I have been reading more about the art of changing the brain, helped mostly by a book of the same title by James Zull. But first, a little more about the school and how relationships are central to its inhabitants.

The school is filled with children from mostly challenging backgrounds…resettled refugee families newly arrived, resettled refugee families who have been here a while, families challenged and battered by short and longer term conditions of poverty, families where dysfunction is normal, where being on guard is what gets you through the night, into the light of the next day. Even if you are six years old. The children I am most concerned with are the children whose ears are assaulted by negative comments far in excess of positive ones. Research by Hart and Risley confirm negative to positive comments running at least at the ratio of 2:1.

In the teaching world, the teachers who work in such schools do so because they have no other choice, they are on their way to someplace else, or they feel called to do so. Those who feel called, and maybe some of those other categories, share a common language about the importance of relationship. The share a belief that it is important to spend copius amounts of time building relationships with “these” kids especially. These kids can be very hard on you. They are fractious, suspicious, easily adjitated, and in some cases, dangerous. Their on-the-edge emotions are often hair triggered and it doesn’t take much to cause the explosion. Others don’t explode as easily. This latter group just keeps after you. They seem to have no fear, they have walls all around, and their best defense is a strong, often coarse offense. I saw it this morning. One particular girl. Wasn’t doing her work. Loud and obnoxious, dressing down the teacher. When the teacher kept up her quiet insistence that it was time to do her writing, she stormed out of the room and waited just outside the door. When the teacher didn’t come out after her, she came back in, tossed a few more epithets her way, and walked out again, purposefully knocking over a couple of chairs in the process, all in a primary grade setting.

In later processing, one of the gentle veterans of this place said, “That’s why I spend so much time in the early part of the year building them up. It’s funny, but just putting stars on the board next to their name seems to work. They seem to need the assurance and evidence over and over again that I like what they are doing, that I mean my praise, and that they can do things that earn it consistently and lavishly. That’s how I build them up, that’s how I establish my relationship with them, each one of them, that’s why its so hard for them now, to give that trust to another person when I move out and turn the classroom over. You’d like to think that trust transfers. But it doesn’t. It has to be earned. That building up process has to start all over again until they know you are there for them, each one of them.

This trust thing has been with me a long time. I’m old enough to remember Carl Rogers

imploring us to see our relationships with kids as helping relationships and helping us understand what time it took to establish these connections. Unconditional positive regard, active listening, being there now with our kids, all this was central to how I came to understand the vital firm underpinning of the student/teacher relationship. All this and a good deal of solid planning and firm guidance when needed.

With Zull’s help, I see the process with a whole new layer of understanding. 2007, meet 1972. Here’s what the trust component means to me now.


“These” kids, the children in this school, the ones I’m talking about with my students and their mentor teachers, grow up in environments that are unpredictable with respect to dangerous events. I’m talking about psychologically dangerous events. Events that scare them, put them on guard, force them to develop defenses that lash out before hurt can get to them. The reality of course is that by the time hurt is perceived, it is too late. The amygdala has already lept into action.

This vital part of the brain, buried deep in the midbrain, has been with us for a long, long time. We can probably credit our being here in current form to its existence and its successful functioning. The amygdala is the flight / fight / freeze early warning system of our perceptual apparatus. Its operative powers are immediate, unencumbered by more sophisticated frontal reasoning. The body perceives danger, it reacts. Instantly. Period. Muscles tense, adrenalin flows, perception narrows, cognitive processing stops, reactivity dominates, all to alert and ready the organism for combat in whatever struggle is to occur. Eons ago, it was the creeping of the saber-tooth in the night that triggered the amygdala’s functioning. Now, it is the strident voice tone of an unfamiliar person signaling potential damage or danger on the way.

School, in amygdala-speak, is a crowded place of many people. Some of these people are known on the streets and avoided. School is perceived to be a place where you need to be on guard, a place where danger lurks, a place where you have to be ready for the affront, the attack, the challenge that can come at any moment. This ever present perception of danger triggers the response of readiness and it is a stressful, hyper-aggressive, highly focused state. This is the given when most of these kids walk in the door. This is the given when something out of the ordinary occurs. This is the given, when a teacher’s voice tone signals an attack that must be protected against. This, for these children, is the natural, biological response.

The good teacher’s know that what has to happen for these children is to structure a setting where the amygdala can lapse into a restful state, almost going to sleep; a state that tells the rest of the brain’s early warning network that all is well, do not beware, be off duty, it will be okay. I think that’s what happens when the stars go on the board. I think that’s what happens when the first six weeks of school is spent in relationship building. I think that’s what happens when children get to know each other on a far deeper level that what we ordinarily think is necessary. The conditioning dulls the arousal functions of this survival center; the conditioning literally grows a neurological pathway through the reactive system that causes the fire alarm not to ring. What it looks like on the outside is the formation of relationships and “classroom community.” What it looks like on the inside is the construction of neurological pathways that lets the sleeping amygdala lie. Until someone new takes over.

When someone new takes over, someone new like my students, the environment changes immediately. It looks different, and more significantly, it feels different. It is intuited differently. New players assert themselves in new ways. The room sounds different, the comfortable routines change, and if I’m one of “these” kids, I’m not getting the comforting assurance I once had learned was there that everything will be alright. That new teacher may speak the same words as the old, familiar teacher; they may even see themselves as equally if not more secure and comforting as my old number one teacher, but words are only words and every other internal warning light is now flickering off and on in my perceptual apparatus. My fire alarms buzz loudly. I am once again on guard! It isn’t personal. You did nothing wrong to me except replace my teacher, the person I’d learned to trust would not hurt me or let anyone else in this classroom hurt me. The person whose stars on the board reassured me that I was liked and that I was capable of being recognized for doing good things. You can’t just tell me you like me. Lots of people had said that very thing and then hurt me or violated me or abandoned me. That’s why I’m now once again on full alert status. Take me through the calming process. Once again. Take me through that process with you. Teach me I’m okay in your eyes. It will take some time to put my guard down, to teach my early warning network not to be aroused in your presence. It has nothing to do with how you see yourself. It has everything to do with how I learn you learn to see me.

How does that happen? Show me. Show me you know me. Show me you see me doing good things. Show me you see it when I dare to show you I’m competent. Put a star next to my initials when I read my book. Put a star next to my initials when I ignore Sean giving me the finger, put a star next to my initials when I decide not to shove my way into line, put a star next to my name when I pick up Abdulabakar’s pencil. Speak in softer tones. Smile genuinely. Let us laugh and have fun even if it means Harry will take it too far. We all know that. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Greet me when I come into the classroom or when you see me ready to walk in the front door. Tell me you are glad I’m here. Remember Hart and Risley? It’s going to take a lot of positive comments to help me not expect the negative. That note you put inside my desk this morning? No one has ever written me a note like that. It was nice. Thank you. Are you going to stay and be my main teacher? Did we drive our old teacher away? I’m only trying to protect myself the best way I know how. You changed the game on me.

Give me a chance to figure out that it’s going to be okay.

Published by

Charles Rathbone

Retired. Emeritus. Conducts a seminar on university teaching to doctoral students in the Rubenstein School of Natural Resources once a year. Board Member Vermont Interfaith Action, volunteer and advocate Burlington Bike Project, UDL consultant VSA Vermont, photographer, married, four children, five grandchildren, and one Golden Doodle. Embracing life, all of it. "Today is tomorrow's past."

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