Dialing in to Students to Provide Differentiated Relationships

By Jen Willis | 0 comments

We each have our own unique view of our world. Our worldview includes our ideas and beliefs about ourselves and those around us. For a moment, think about yourself through the systems lens, which emphasizes reciprocal relationships among individuals and communities. If you imagine yourself at the center of concentric circles representing those relationships, then who is in the next closest circle to you? When you think about those individuals you trust most, what about your relationship defines their proximity to you?

More than likely, these are people who you feel truly understand you—most, if not all, of the time. They are dialed in to you. We are also dialed in to others—friends, community members, colleagues, children, and they, too, fit into a concentric circle around each of us.

Within your systems worldview, people are not equidistant from you or from one another. Every relationship we have is as unique as every interaction we participate in. The acuity of the connection you have with others is an indication of how attuned you are to them, and they to you.

In essence, by feeling connected and understood by those around you, you feel good about yourself and secure in your interpersonal relationships. This sense of self is a critical component to how you face your day and navigate each interaction that you have.

Having visualized yourself within a series of concentric circles, imagine what those circles might look like for a student whose behavior impacts his or her learning and the learning of others. Bear in mind that we are considering the perspective of a child who has difficulty building and maintaining relationships.

The child who has experienced trauma, for example, is not the only survivor of a trauma. "It often extends beyond that individual, taking a toll on important personal, family, and professional relationships."1 Who might be in that concentric circle next closest to that child that survived a trauma? Are those relationships primarily with people who are no longer attuned to them or people whose connections have been impacted by the trauma? How do you know? If you don't know, how will you find out? This information is important: understanding our students' supports can better help you create a plan for success and determine the most important point people.

As we gather information about children and their support systems, how accessible are the people who relate to them? How accessible are the children? A coping skill some trauma survivors may incorporate into their systems view is to hide behind a growing wall of distrust—severing their connections with people whose support they previously relied on most. If this is the case for your student, how does that impact your support plan? One suggestion would be to plan specific check-ins with your student and consistently meet to strengthen trust.

Why are systems important when considering how to 'dial in' and support the needs of those who benefit from differentiated relationships? Students who struggle can attain the most support from consistent relationships they can rely on. In order to determine who is in the student's inner circle of trust, talk with your community and identify the point people that can best support the student. Also, talk with the student about individuals in the school community whom they feel most connected to. When we share the responsibility to support a student in need, we are becoming attuned to them . . . we are dialed in.

Consider this example in a K-5 Elementary School.

A 5th grader, David, struggled daily at recess with peer conflict. When he returned to the classroom, he would demand that the teacher help him solve the problem immediately. In order to support this student in solving his own problems, his teacher determined, through observation and progress monitoring, that there was no danger to the student or others during recess conflicts. She then told David that she would discuss his concern during morning recess or after school, providing an opportunity to plan before the next recess.

When David tried to engage his teacher in a conversation after a conflict occurred at recess, she told him, "I am happy to discuss this concern at recess or after school."

When he sought out a different staff and asked for help, he was told, "Your teacher is happy to discuss this concern at recess or after school."

David quickly learned that he could not avoid the problem he was having at recess, and he was able to solve the problem with his teacher's support. David's teacher knew that he relied on her to help him, and that he trusted her. She also knew that his parents would support the plan—she talked with them before she implemented it. She emailed her colleagues on campus and asked them to redirect David to her if he asked for help with a problem.

Because she was attuned to David, recognizing his need for support and the power of a united message from adults, his teacher strengthened their relationship and was supported by her colleagues and the student's parents.

The definition of attunement is "providing a solid foundation for the development of positive identity and sense of self."2 This is precisely what David's teacher did when she gave him the power to solve problems independently. "Attunement validates our inner world, providing a solid foundation for the development of positive identity and sense of self."2 When someone is attuned to us, they are actively listening; they are allowing us to express ourselves and confirm that our point of view is considered and valued. When we participate in relationships where we feel attuned, we look forward to spending time with that person—we think about them when we are separated from them, and we remember the thread of the stories they have shared with us. We begin to communicate in nuances and linked memories, having inside jokes that strengthen our connection to a specific experience with that person.

We have considered the complexity and power of relationships—now let's turn to the science of connection: how we attune to others in our interpersonal interactions coupled with how we respond biochemically with mirror neurons, which learn by seeing what others do just as powerfully as if they had performed the same act.3

The intensity of the relationship strengthens as we feel increasingly attuned to others. "It turns out that the more people like each other, the more they seem to imitate each other, and this makes sense . . . this imitation and synchrony is the glue that binds us together,"4 writes Marco Iacoboni, in his recent book, Mirroring People. He also states, "Mirror neurons are integral to the requirement that we humans fit ourselves as smoothly as possible into our social context."5 The very essence of our social selves is defined here. Roy Baumeister and Brad Bushman also speak to this concept in defining the self: "the best account of the origins of selfhood is that the self comes into being at the interface between the inner biological processes of the human body and the sociocultural network to which the person belongs."6

Mirror neurons are found in parts of our brain which are responsible for empathy and our senses. When a student observes our behavior, the learner's brain creates "more and more neuropathways, or connections, that ultimately determine how he responds to what's going on in his world."7 When the student observes and interacts within healthy empathic interactions, over time, this will give the child a sense of resilience. "This resilience takes the forms of the capacity for self-regulation and engagement with others in empathic relationships."8

Within our school communities, powerful changes are taking place for the child who benefits from solid, consistent, differentiated relationships. While we are creating an interpersonal plan of action for the child within our community the child's brain is simultaneously reacting to the plan that we put in place. We are building a safety net that will continue to grow and meet the child's needs, first, within our community, and over time, beyond the walls of our school.

So while we are collaborating, problem solving, and viewing the student's behavior as communication, we are able to create a plan in our working communities to support these students. As this plan is arranged, the wiring in the student's brain will change his response to the social environment. What changes do you anticipate?

When we collaborate to support the need of the student, "one proposal we can make is that the process of attunement creates a neural state of integration that forms the foundation . . . of reflective awareness [and our brain] likely forms a 'neuroception' of safety."9

Regardless of the situation, it is critical to remain mindful that student behavior is a form of communication. Being attuned is a skill that helps us decode the behaviors of our students. By intertwining the skills of empathy and limit setting while building trusting relationships as a community, we can have a lasting healthy impact on the lives of the students we interact with on a daily basis. We are accomplishing this during a phenomenal development period of their lives. These are foundational experiences for children we are preparing to become critical thinkers and positive contributors to our society. In order for every student to be successful, we have a responsibility to provide differentiated support based on each need of each child.


  1. Glassman, S. (2013). Glassman Psychological Services, LLC. Retrieved from http://www.glassmanpsyd.com/trauma-and-relationships/
  2. Gobbel, R. (2012). Attunement for attachment. Retrieved from http://mljadoptions.com/Media.aspx?articleID=517
  3. ibid
  4. Iacoboni, M. (2008). Mirroring people: The new science of how we connect with others. New York: Macmillan.
  5. ibid
  6. Baumeister, R. F., & Bushman, B. J. (2011). Social Psychology and Human Nature. (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning, 57–96.
  7. Kolari, J. (n.d.). Parenting with brains. Retrieved from http://www.lianalowenstein.com/parentingWithBrains.pdf
  8. Siegel, D. J. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
  9. ibid

About the Author
Jen Willis is an LISW and School Counselor working with Rio Rancho Public Schools. She has worked with children and families for 19 years in public school communities, mental health programs, and residential treatment centers. She is also a Certified Instructor for CPI’s Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training program.

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