Effectively Meeting Student Need in 2023

Principals everywhere are naming the magnitude of student need as the #1 issue they face.

I’ve never had more conversations about restorative discipline, students struggling with self-harm and suicide, and behavior management before in my entire career.

The suffering is everywhere!

While we know the issues are about mental health, social-emotional learning, and well-being, we don’t always know how to effectively curb the tide.

In my leadership practice, I’m always asking, “What matters most?”

Or, “How can we get further up the river, ahead of these issues, proactively?”

In response to these concerns, I want to share my learnings from a 3-year, intensive study of attachment theory with the Neufeld Institute. The Neufeld Institute is an international charity devoted to evidence-based, developmental science. Their missions is to make sense of children for those responsible for them: parents, teachers, and helping professionals.

The main idea is the evidence-based belief that children are meant to be raised in the context of relationship to those who are responsible for them.

Caveat, throughout this post I’m going to use the word ‘child’ to mean any student ages 0-18 years old. While there are nuances that change at every major developmental stage, for our purposes, we’ll stick with the broadest applications.

Here are 5 actions to equip your teachers: remind, equip, create, name, and give expression.

Remind your team Teachers serve as the Primary Attachment for Students at School

The teacher, of any age student, is responsible for the child. Their brains aren’t fully developed, so they need guidance and care. This begins in the context of relationship. It is all about soliciting the child’s attachment instincts.

The teacher, most often, will serve as the child’s primary attachment at school.

So, when I hear in one high school, the number of students reporting they have one adult to call on at their campus is 17%, down from 74% in the K-8 space, I can tell you where to start: meaningful teacher-student relationships. Every teacher reaching out and responsible for every student.

Teachers have this power, agency, and responsibility. And, it’s not difficult.

Equip Your Team with Basic Attachment Tools

The tools begin with eye contact and a greeting. Collecting the students’ eyes is an essential attachment mechanism. I realize cell phones, hoodies, and cliques stand in the way. But, teachers can begin by greeting students on the playground, in the hall, at the door, or at the beginning of class. Ensure teachers are using a student’s name, learning a personal interest, and forging individual connections. This connection will be the mechanism by which the initial attachment instincts are elicited from the child.

Dr. Brad Johnson says, “Greeting Kids at the Door Is the Most Important Moment of the Educational Process!” I agree.

“Greeting Kids at the Door Is the Most Important Moment of the Educational Process!”

Dr. Brad Johnson

Create Opportunities for Tears and Play as Mechanisms of Adapting to Change

Sometimes strong emotions of change trap us in a loop. The tears (or feelings) of futility are the exit to the emotions of change.

Have you ever had a really good cry, even one you don’t understand, and suddenly you feel freer and more capable of meeting the world? That’s your adaptive mechanism.

Tears can come only when we’re invited to rest (or safety). That rest happens when we don’t have to be ‘in charge’ or ‘defended’ against what is too much to bear.

Play is also part of this adaptation.

Don’t dismiss taking time to connect, being lighthearted, and even providing time to engage in activities for nothing other than imagination and frivolity. This is the outlet for the emotions too much to bear.

I recognize your curricular load is high and there’s SO MUCH to do! However, what if these opportunities create more effective and efficient learning?!

So, lean into the emotional realities of students. Indeed, it’s the avenue to effective teaching and learning.

Let’s explore this potential based on one emotional state requiring expression.

Name ‘Foul Frustration’ and Give Expression

Emotion seeks Expression.

Foul frustration is simply frustration that does not have expression.

If a child is full of foul frustration around all that they cannot control, it can manifest as aggression, tantrums, or self-harming behaviors

Lisa Weiner, blogging for the Neufeld Institute, describes “What to do with Frustration.” She names emotional playgrounds as the antidote to foul frustration.

‘Emotional playgrounds’ defuse foul frustration.

Photo by CARTER SAUNDERS on Unsplash

What are they?

“They are, in essence, emotional “outhouses”: designated places where discharges of emotion, which are sometimes unsavory and unappealing, can happen. The outhouse comparison is especially apt because we all know what type of mess awaits us when we don’t make regular trips to the outhouse . . .

When we are thinking about the expression of frustration there are three broad categories of activities where it can ‘come out to play’: destructive activities, constructive activities and melancholy-inducing activities.

This is where it could be a design challenge for your team! How can we create opportunities within our school community, extra-curriculars, or instructional design for emotional playgrounds?

These activities could be anything from a ‘This Sucks!’ comment box, graffiti walls, a restorative circle, or a self-reflective journal about a difficult school experience.

It might look like weight rooms, wrestling, esports teams, band, recording studios, or garden. It also could be clay studios, football practices, debate club, and blank canvases.

The more the activity can be free from required outcomes, and simply for self-expression, the better.

How can schools give space, time, and permission for students to express the breadth of emotion in safe and honouring ways?

Remind, Equip, Create, Name, and Give Expression.

These are all actions you can take today on an individual or school-wide level to support student wellness. These aren’t frivolous extras, they are mechanisms of healthy adaptation to so much we cannot control.

For the sake of the children,


PS Explore 1:1 coaching as a culture-building strategy that will ripple out through your community for years