Tag Archives: student wellbeing

“Connection – The Foundation of Learning”

louise gilbert

One of the reasons that I feel so passionate about education is because I know deep in my heart that teachers have the most important job in the world.

“It is not simply about educating minds.”

It is more than that. Education is about developing human beings and creating a better planet.


What we do in the classroom not only impacts the children we teach but a teacher’s work ultimately influences the world. These students of ours grow up to become future citizens and leaders. What we do today in our classrooms touches the planet in ways that, quite possibly we might not even realize yet. A teacher’s work is about creating a better world. And it all begins with the connected relationships that we create in the classroom.


Once upon a time, before you became a teacher, you were once a student.

Cast your mind back to when you were at school. Take a moment to remember one teacher who made an impact on you in powerful, positive ways. Remember when you were in his or her classroom you were attentive, you were engaged in the learning and interestingly enough, your academic results were favorable?


Now what was it that made this teacher so great? How did he or she impact your life? And how is it that you still remember his/her name all these years later…




When you think back to that one great teacher who impacted your life, it is certain that you had a great relationship with him or her. You felt connected, you felt seen and valued as a person and there was a mutual respect between the two of you.


Great teachers understand that there is one critical foundation to effective teaching and learning that comes before anything else – connection with students. Skilled teachers create positive relationships of respect and trust. From a place of connected relationship, students learn effectively, feel valued and will be far more readily engaged and focused in class.


A significant body of research shows that positive relationships between teachers and their students are paramount to effective learning.


Studies show that, “Academic achievement and student behavior are influenced by the quality of the teacher and student relationship.”[i] The more the teacher connects and communicates effectively with his or her students, the more likely they will be able to help students learn optimally and accomplish quickly.


One particular study out of The University of Nebraska concludes,

“Teachers must never overlook the importance of cultivating student-teacher relationships in their classrooms. Student-teacher relationships are built through purposeful and continual effort, primarily on the part of the teacher. It is in the relationship between teacher and student where learning takes root and begins to grow; and the degree to which a teacher invests in those interactions not only affects learning outcomes and student behavior in the classroom, but also potentially impacts each student’s future achievements and success.”[ii]


One reason why positive relationships improve student learning is due to what happens in the brain when a student feels good. Positive relationship boosts a student’s sense of well-being.


The brain releases dopamine when an experience is pleasurable, such as a positive interaction with a teacher who is liked and respected. Dopamine is one of the brains most important neurotransmitters and turns on all the learning centers in the brain! And researchers have now discovered that how quickly and permanently one learns, is directly related to how much dopamine we have available in our brains.[iii]


Research aside, it’s common sense isn’t it? If the relationships with your students are positive, then your students are more likely to listen, less likely to disrupt, more likely to be engaged and open to the learning because of the strong foundation of human connectedness that you’ve built between you. The relationship is like a bridge. You are on one side with the learning outcomes you wish to share with your student. On the other side of the bridge is your student. Without the relationship, there is no bridge to cross together or to meet in the middle. Instead there is just a wide, cavernous gap.


Building this bridge is a daily focus. It takes skill and attention. There are many ways to go about it and in my work I get to see countless teachers out there making a difference, building these bridges with their students and creating positive, flourishing and respectful relationships as the foundation of learning.


As educators, it’s important to remember how significant our work in the world is. We are in the business of human development – nurturing lives, developing hearts and minds, making a difference in the world that impacts the future of humanity. And the foundation of it all begins in the classroom – with our striving to create connected relationships with our students.


[i] Jones, V. & Jones, L. (1981) “Responsible Classroom Discipline.” Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc. Page 95

[ii] Knoell C.M. (2012) “The role of the student-teacher relationship in the lives of fifth graders: a mixed methods analysis.” PhD Thesis, University of Nebraska. Page 86

[iii] Pleger B, Ruff CC, Blankenburg F, Klöppel S, Driver J, et al. (2009) Influence of Dopaminergically Mediated Reward on Somatosensory Decision-Making. PLoS Biol 7(7): e1000164. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000164


Join Louise Gilbert to learn more at her TTA workshop, “Transformational Teaching Tactics – A 5 Step System for Quality Teaching with Effective Learning Outcomes” on May 26th 2015.in Melbourne

Stressed Out Students

Stress and the Brain

Stress inhibits learning – it’s a fact supported by neuroscience.

But, as a teacher, you didn’t need the research to tell you that did you?

Your classroom experience backs up the science. Here’s why and what you can do about it…




Stress and Learning

Have you ever tried to focus in a meeting, sit for a test or concentrate on reading a book when you are feeling upset, angry or stressed out? Did you notice what happened?


Naturally, you would have found it extremely difficult to focus or concentrate on the task at hand while you were feeling stressed out. It’s a fact. Research demonstrates that stress inhibits concentration and is detrimental to learning.


In response to fear, stress or a perceived threat in the environment, the brain releases two hormones – cortisol and adrenaline. This activates the blood vessels and the heart for lifesaving ‘flight or fight’ action.


If a human being is in ‘danger’, there is no need for learning or thoughtfulness. All that is needed is to get the heck out of there! To stop and think could endanger your life and therefore, Mother Nature has designed our physiology to respond appropriately, instinctively – all the brain’s energy is diverted into self-protection and survival mode.


This was a great evolutionary advantage when our ancestors needed to escape a lion or fight a rival tribe! However, in our modern classrooms, these stress hormones, are getting in the way of effective learning. Cortisol and adrenaline actually turn off the parts of the b

rain that allow us to focus attention, understand ideas, commit information to memory and reason critically. Stressed out students are not learning effectively. It’s as simple as that.



evaluate stress

Now, our students are not fighting lions nor protecting their clans but nevertheless, they are experiencing modern day stress. The following statistics, from Youthbeyondblue[i], paint quite a shocking picture of the inner world of our young people here in Australia and give us an idea of the numbers of students whose learning is impaired by stress:


  • One in four young Australians currently has a mental health condition
  • Suicide is the biggest killer of young Australians and accounts for the deaths of more young people than car accidents
  • One in sixteen young Australians is currently experiencing depression.
  • One in six young Australians is currently experiencing an anxiety
  • The top three issues that young people are most concerned about are coping with stress, school or study problems.
  • A quarter of young Australians say they are unhappy with their lives. In 2013, almost one in four young people (24.3%) said they were sad, very sad or not happy when asked to report how happy they were with their life as a whole.

These are sobering statistics that is for sure!


It seems pretty clear that given the effects of stress on the brain’s ability to learn, it is foolish to attempt to teach anything at all until we have addressed the emotional well being and mental health of our students.




Reduce stress

The good news is that once recognized, stress can be dealt with and transformed. Extensive studies show that the optimal mental state for learning is relaxed alertness. This means that our students need to feel safe, calm and balanced emotionally in order to learn effectively.


Sadly, there are some students in your classroom whose learning is compromised by stress, worry or anxiety.


Children are not born with practical coping skills. Some students will be better at coping than others. For those not coping well, it is an essential part of our job as educators to help our students deal with the stressors in their lives. Developing the mind is important, learning is important and yet it won’t happen if we ignore the emotional well being of our students. We have a moral and ethical obligation to help young people cope with stress, anxiety and to develop their emotional well being, to give them practical strategies to support their learning and their journey through life.


Here are some ideas:


light-bulb-with-brain-and-blots-inside-creativity-symbol-Download-Royalty-free-Vector-File-EPS-71558Simple relaxation exercises with abdominal breathing or heart breathing techniques can work wonders for students. Breath work is relaxing and helps to balance the autonomic nervous system, bringing a student out of ‘flight or fight’ mode and back into a state of calm and balance within the nervous system. Chemicals like dopamine are also released within the body and this helps to activate the brain for optimal learning.

light-bulb-with-brain-and-blots-inside-creativity-symbol-Download-Royalty-free-Vector-File-EPS-71558Breathing techniques can also teach students the skill of staying in the present moment. Sometimes anxiety is caused when the mind wanders off into future possibilities and worrying about things that have not even happened yet. Deep breathing can help a student to come back to the present moment and just manage the next small step, rather than feeling lost in the overwhelm of a bigger picture.

light-bulb-with-brain-and-blots-inside-creativity-symbol-Download-Royalty-free-Vector-File-EPS-71558If a student is in overwhelm, teach them how to break things down. For example, teach them how to break a large task down into smaller, more attainable tasks. Although this might seem simple to us as adults, it doesn’t necessarily come naturally to a young person.

light-bulb-with-brain-and-blots-inside-creativity-symbol-Download-Royalty-free-Vector-File-EPS-71558If a student reaches out to you and wishes to talk, one of the best gifts you can give them is to simply be present with them and provide a listening ear. Just being able to talk to an adult who cares can alleviate a lot of the stress a young person might be feeling. Studies show that students at risk who are supported by one adult outside the family unit are less likely to harm themselves.

light-bulb-with-brain-and-blots-inside-creativity-symbol-Download-Royalty-free-Vector-File-EPS-71558Teach young people about the importance of what they put into their bodies and how it can affect their mental health. There is a considerable amount of research being shared now about gut health and psychology – particularly in relation to ADHD, autism, aspergers and other issues affecting many of our students. Questions about healthful, regular eating are not only relevant but important in the classroom. Filling up with junk like sugar and fast foods means that the body and mind are not going to perform efficiently.

light-bulb-with-brain-and-blots-inside-creativity-symbol-Download-Royalty-free-Vector-File-EPS-71558For anxious students, particularly those in Year 11 and 12, check on the amounts of caffeine being consumed. Caffeine can heighten feelings of agitation and anxiety. And it’s also important to make sure the body is sufficiently hydrated – are they drinking enough water? Water intake will affect brain function and given that the body is 75% water, it’s actually a very important factor to consider.

light-bulb-with-brain-and-blots-inside-creativity-symbol-Download-Royalty-free-Vector-File-EPS-71558Exercise can be a wonderful way for students to deal with stress. There is nothing better than blowing off steam by running, playing footy or a good session with a punching bag!

light-bulb-with-brain-and-blots-inside-creativity-symbol-Download-Royalty-free-Vector-File-EPS-71558Teach students how to articulate feelings and speak up for themselves. For example, “I feel angry when you yell at me” or simply, “Please stop yelling.” Compassionate communication is important to avoid a tendency to ‘stuff things down’ inside the body – which can result in blow-ups.

light-bulb-with-brain-and-blots-inside-creativity-symbol-Download-Royalty-free-Vector-File-EPS-71558Negative self-talk can be a factor that affects young people. Help your students to become aware of how they speak to themselves in their minds. Are they kind to themselves? Are they patient and considerate of themselves as they would be to a friend? Or are they hard on themselves and self-critical? Once a person is aware of their own self-talk and how it is affecting them, it can be transformed into more positive ways of thinking. The field of Positive Psychology has wonderful tools for this.

light-bulb-with-brain-and-blots-inside-creativity-symbol-Download-Royalty-free-Vector-File-EPS-71558Taking a break from stressful situations can also help. Engaging in activities like listening to music, talking to a friend, doing something creative like drawing or writing, or even spending time with a pet can reduce stress. These kinds of activities will also produce dopamine, important for well-being and learning.

light-bulb-with-brain-and-blots-inside-creativity-symbol-Download-Royalty-free-Vector-File-EPS-71558Making connections with friends and building a network of supportive friends who can help the student cope or just be there as a listening ear in times of trouble.


Join Louise Gilbert to learn more at her TTA workshop, “Transformational Teaching Tactics – A 5 Step System for Quality Teaching with Effective Learning Outcomes” on March 20th 2015.

 louise gilbert


[1] http://www.youthbeyondblue.com/footer/stats-and-facts