When the needs of the children are met, learning and thriving will abound. Our needs include the basic elements of human beings that dictate and influence behavior. Behaviors are the observable responses to specific circumstances. Needs influence behavior; behavior is the action to get needs met. Children whose needs get met usually develop healthy, social personalities. Children whose needs are routinely unmet experience negative, long-term effects. Educators can empower students by modeling and engaging with students socially, academically, emotionally, culturally and politically in the following ways:
1. Socially – Our sense of well-being depends to some extent on others. Our longing for connection is a primal human need. An educator who acknowledges students individually in a consistent and positive manner will provide an example of ways to appropriately engage with others. This can be practiced by the students with the teacher through games and other classroom activities selected by students when provided with options. Students can also participate in establishing classroom norms, including rules and consequences, and work together to build a school culture of mutual responsibility.
2. Academically – We are built with the need for stimulation of new ideas or thoughts which also includes the need to express one’s self creatively in areas like a person’s appearance, style, and arts. When a lesson plan is developed, leave room for flexibility in the way the objectives are achieved and establish goals which are challenging, yet not impossible for a student to meet. By incorporating multiple ways for students to make connections with the material they are expected to master and providing opportunities for students to learn through experiences, technology, and from each other, students can gain an increased sense of responsibility for their education and, ultimately, its impact long-term.
3. Emotionally – The need for love, praise, security, trust, and other basic emotions form who we are and the capacity to interact empathetically with others. Children learn to define, interpret and express emotions based on the people who have the most influence in their lives; parents primarily then educators. Educators have the access to children most of their day. Therefore, by default, schools bear the responsibility for educating students beyond reading and math to include social emotional learning skills. Through books that share a relatable story, allowing students to share their stories, and teaching them ways to respond to emotions in a suitable manner, students become increasingly resilient and form healthy attachments in their homes, schools and/or community.
4. Culturally – People are connected through many crossroads which form culture based on geography, history, customs, lifestyles and more. The classroom can become a foundation for learning acceptance of students from various backgrounds to exchange innovative ideas and opinions. It can also promote problem solving, creativity, and social consciousness which may encourage and stimulate working toward common goals.
5. Spiritually – Beyond our social needs are spiritual needs. The need for belonging and membership. Membership in a family and community is a spiritual experience. This is where belief systems are formed and nurtured. Values are defined and established within connections to others. Acceptance within the classroom and school can provide relationships to buffer or heal students who have experienced adversities. Students can be empowered by increasing experiences where trust, self-esteem, and hope can be nurtured and mature. Acknowledgement and cultivation of strengths facilitate respect among educators and students improving the sense of belonging.
6. Politically – Young people have to grow into their voice. They grow from communicating with cries to words and actions. Once they begin to form their beliefs and opinions and become confident in sharing their voice, they can become advocates for their peers and be leaders in their communities. Educators can empower students by observing natural strengths and leadership abilities and by developing and channeling their skills toward advocating on behalf of a larger group with the intent of meeting not only their individual needs, but collective needs as well.
Today, youth long for a sense of belonging and have a strong belief that they have a right to be heard. The role of educators, policy makers, and educational leaders is to cooperate with them along with their families and meet their basic needs. They have the solutions to problems that adults in leadership positions are trying to solve on their behalf. This generation has multiple sources in which to find and develop their voices and use them to speak up. Let’s listen.
Erica N. Wortherly is a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in working with educators and parents to improve their understanding of mental health. Through her private practice and Teaching with Mental Health in Mind, Erica advocates for shifting mindsets to create more flexible, empathetic and comfortable environments for children and the adults who care for them to thrive.