Keeping kids from burning the building down!

I will never forget that day!  It was a first period freshman class and my first experience with teaching at a small private school.  There was a lot of material to cover and, unlike a normal day when I would greet each student as they entered the room, I jumped into the lesson.  Within five minutes someone asked, “What’s that smell?”  I turned around from the whiteboard, and to my surprise, two young men were using a lighter to burn scrap paper as their mini-pyro experiment sent a thin line of smoke wafting through the rows of desks.

Lighter confiscated, chastisement given, crisis averted.   But the question of “Why?” lingered in my mind long after the smoke was gone.  As I searched for causes, beyond the obvious testosterone-fueled experimentation, I recognized that there was something missing from my normal routine that morning – I did not start with connection.  What this meant, in the case of these two young men, was an energetic greeting accompanied by a high five or shoulder bump.  Without connection, these guys weren’t warmed to embrace learning, so they created some heat of their own.

The latest brain research confirms student’s strong developmental need for connection and relationship.  However, it goes further than the old maxim “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  Students need the kind of relationships that help define who they are, what they can become, and how and why they are important to other people.  Researcher Jun Li describes these as “Hope-Bonding” relationships that are characterized by an unbreakable social bond.

What are the implications for teachers, youth workers, or youth pastors?

First: Make connection priority over program goals.

I get it! We are relating to students for a purpose.  We might even be getting paid to help them learn and grow in specific, measurable ways.  And what about expectations, both of others and our own, that fuel the pursuit of what it means to be effective as a youth worker?  We must remember that students are wired for connection, for relationships first.  It’s not only about forming relationships with students, but the right kind of relationships.  Hope-bonding relationships create a kind of gritty-optimism that helps students engage with you and engage with learning in ways that surpass a general belief that “I have potential and things will work out okay.”  Gritty optimism

Second: Leverage the power of connection

The power of an unbreakable social bond opens space for a different kind of hope.  More than wishful thinking, research shows that students who are truly connected in hope-bonding relationships with adults are more likely to develop agency – a will to overcome challenges, and pathways – the recognition that there are potentially many ways to achievement and success.  Using a sports analogy, hope-bonding relationships help students develop both a defensive and an offensive strategy for life.  Agency is about hardiness (defense), which is strength of character to gut it out when the going gets tough.  Pathways are about resilience (offense), which entails the ability find the resources needed to successfully navigate life’s challenges.

Third: Reward for right effort rather than right answers

As it turns out, there is a big difference between saying, “You’re right, great job!” and “You worked it out, Great effort!  Affirming effort draws students into the adventure of learning with you instead of the treadmill of performing as a solo artist, or, as the research says, from performance goal orientation to learning or mastery goal orientation.  The reality is that when students are caught up in the rewarding experience of working hard and exhibiting their best effort, this is when the greatest learning occurs.


So I leave you with two questions today. 

How do you prioritize connection over programs with your students?


What would it look like if every student you work with had a hope-bonding relationship?