Fellow occupational therapist Greg Santucci talks about the concept of felt safety, and that's ideally the goal for the first month of school. Rather than participation, teachers need support to be able to develop strong relationships with the children they spend all day with.
If we focus on participation rather than relationship, one of the things that tends to happen is that we utilize compliance tactics. Compliance tactics may work short-term, but at what cost? A tug of war rather than a partnership.
Focus on safety and relationship, and the rest will come.
If felt safety is our goal, how do we know we have achieved it? Depending on the person, there are a number of ways that we show mutual safety in an adult-child relationship.
1. Be on the lookout for a child seeking out an adult for help. This may be an obvious verbal request, or a more subtle physical sign such as pulling you towards something. Asking for help shows trust and can further secure a relationship.
2. Proximity or physical closeness is another way that felt safety is signaled between two people.
Teachers - think of circle time, when all the children gather around. Often, they are all close to one another and wrapped around your legs. Reframe this closeness as signaling safety. Other children may move around the room freely, but come close when they are becoming dysregulated. Seeking proximity when needed is another sign of felt safety.
3. Another sign of felt safety is sharing a triumph or win. Kids running up to you to show off a drawing or math problem that they've aced? They might also want you to watch them on the playground as they perform a skill. These are signs of a comfortable relationship.
4. When children and adults authentically share interests, we know a relationship has formed. Engaging in conversation and even participating in these activities shows that you really want to get to know a person. Similarly, by sharing the information with an adult, the child is showing you that they want you to know them.
5. One last sign of felt safety, and it's my favourite: smiles and laughs. Any time we see a big smile light up a child's face, we know that they are feeling safe.
Now that we know what felt safety looks like, how can we be sure to help our kids get there? Greg Santucci asks us to move from a 'do what I say' mindset to a 'what do you need to succeed' mindset.
All behaviour makes sense. Approach behaviour with curiosity rather than control.
Once we notice the difficulty, we can move in to collaborate with kids. Listen carefully for children who are advocating for the things that they need.
The connection and relationships that you have been forming will guide you through the ups and downs of what is surely to be a successful year. If relationship is the marker, know that you've already met your goal.