By Christine Peace, Behavior Coach
Consider a time when you were among others but felt like you didn’t belong; what could have made that experience different for you? What could have made you feel a better sense of community? By building communities around our students, we help them to feel as if they belong (because they do). However, if we don’t cultivate our own communities, how can we expect our students do the same?
Social wellness is a key aspect to creating community and developing trauma-informed classrooms. Specifically, the social dimension of wellness is grounded in connection. Now, initially, you might consider your social connections exclusively as your friends and family. But, what about the passengers on your morning commute, or that old high school friend you haven’t seen in 10 years and just ran into at the mall? Although these may seem like distant relationships (or barely even relationships, at all), they still are connections! That is because the connections we have with others vary depending on how much time we spend with them, and what that time is spent doing. Thus, the opportunities to develop and cultivate connections are all around you, almost constantly.
However, when you’re around others to whom you don’t feel well connected, do you find yourself avoiding them? Do you feel too drained to engage in yet another conversation, even if only a quick chat? In the halls of your office or school, do you avoid taking a moment to say good morning or greet your colleagues? If you would say yes to any of these questions, do you know why?
Let me assure you that, if you feel this way, you are not alone. Developing and maintain connections with those in our communities with whom we don’t spend too much time can be difficult. Despite this, making healthy connections is pivotal to our wellness. In particular, science is growing in its understanding of how connection, or lack thereof, impacts our health and well-being. For example, research has found that lack of social connections is related to risks such as obesity, smoking, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and antisocial behavior (Seppala, 2017). Individuals lacking connections may feel isolated, withdrawn, and socially unwell, overall. In contrast, social wellness looks like enjoying being with others and getting along. It includes skills of maintaining healthy relationships. Further, it involves letting people care for you, and caring for others. Ultimately, social wellness looks like having and contributing to a community.
So, if you are feeling a lack of community, what can you do? When I started feeling socially disconnected from my colleagues, I knew it was on me to make a change. I set out to make an intentional shift in how I engaged with the others around me. Specifically, I decided to stop by and say hello, not just when I felt I had free time but intentionally, at least once a day. The internal shift was tremendous. Immediately I felt myself becoming closer to others in my workplace.
However, small steps like this aren’t always enough. Often, we need connection to a community outside our place of work. For some people this comes from a church or other religious organization. For others it may be from sports or going to the gym. In fact, there are significant resources available online, like Meetup.com, designed specifically for helping people to safely meet and form groups with others who share like-minded interests (e.g., hiking, tabletop gaming, dancing, book clubs, etc.). By forming connections and finding communities of our own, we are taking steps that can better equip us for aiding our students in developing their own sense of community, as well.
In the classroom, community can be fostered through a variety of activities. For instance, you can start the day off by having a group check in with your students. This allows for them to share how they are feeling and what they are thinking with one another, helping to build connections at the onset of the day. Another option is to incorporate students in decision making, such as giving options for an activity and allowing them to vote. This allows for them to express their opinions and desires, while learning how to effectively compromise and come to agreement with their peers. Further, both of these examples are in line with trauma-informed classroom principles of safety, collaboration, empowerment, and peer support.
In preparing to implement new approaches, it may be beneficial to invite current students into the discussion of how to build the classroom community. Through the collaborative effort, you will be strengthening your connection with them, modelling social wellness, and fostering the development of their bonds with one another. In these ways, you may play a key role in helping them to discover what it takes for them feel like they belong.
Seppala, E. (2017, June 28). Connectedness & Health: The science of social connection. The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Retrieved May 4, 2022, from http://ccare.stanford.edu/uncategorized/connectedness-health-the-science-of-social-connection-infographic/