How to Use Your Teaching Relationship to Nurture Student Healing from Trauma


20 years ago I saw a greeting card I wish I’d bought. On the front it said, “Some people irritate you just by the way they hold their fork.” On the inside it said, “But other people can dump a plate of spaghetti in your lap and you don’t even mind.”

Why didn’t I buy that? I’ve been quoting it all these years because those two simple lines are so effective at describing our relationship to people we like and feel safe with and those we don’t. If you read between the lines, I think it also suggests that we often decide we don’t like someone simply because they REMIND US of someone else who may have done us wrong and happened to hold their fork that certain way!

Our people memories are powerful.

"Memory is the embodiment of emotion tied to experience,” (Taylor, 2006, p. 81) and is the reason we respond so positively or negatively to someone we’ve just met who reminds us of some beloved or disliked other on our life’s journey.  Maya Angelou captured the power of our people memories when she said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” While early frightening relationships can cause horrific damage and life-long fear; positive, safe, nurturing relationships have the power to help us heal, even as adults.

The adult student-teacher relationship can be healing.

While most of us can nod in knowing agreement with the wisdom of Maya Angelou, science can now prove that someone who makes another feel safe and good can have a powerful and healing impact on the brains of trauma-impacted learners.

As I work on a project to develop a one-on-one visit-coaching program for trauma-impacted parents recently released from prison, I want to build in, where I can, strategies that will help create a healing relationship between the interventionist and the parent learner. Based on the the biology of learning science, here are some things our interventionists will need to be able to do.

Start with a safe environment.

I covered this in a previous post, but it is important enough to repeat. Trauma-impacted learners need predictability, safety and security. If you missed how, you can check back here for some concrete strategies to build a safer learning environment.

Create a holding space.

Next, the teacher must create a psychological space where trauma-impacted learners who fear failure and overwhelm can feel safe to explore the impact of limiting attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors while considering more helpful alternatives. This safe space is one in which the educator “holds hope” and “offers a vision of who the learner is becoming and how he will feel when his new sense of self and voice emerges” (Daloz, 1999 as cited in Johnson, S. 2006, p.66). The educator's job is to keep this vision alive and offer hope for the learner who is struggling to make progress towards his goals.

This is not unlike the environment created by a loving parent who carves out a psychological space in which the child has freedom, safety and nurture for developing his separate and own sense of self. For trauma-impacted learners whose parental bond was damaged by ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences), a safe learning environment with a trustworthy and attuned teacher can be a second chance for the brain to get what it needs to grow and re-organize in more flexible and adaptive ways (Johnson, 2006).

Use reflective social interaction and affective attunement to heal and grow learners' brains.

A healing relationship between an adult learner and teacher is built through reflective social interaction and affective attunement in which the educator uses dialogue and close listening, mirrors facial expressions, makes eye contact, and uses empathic language to demonstrate that the learner is seen, heard, understood and valued. This builds trust and a secure attachment between teacher and learner, lowering the learner’s defenses and reducing her reactivity (Johnson, 2006), thereby freeing up psychological bandwidth for learning.

If you aren’t yet convinced of the impact of affective attunement and reflective social interaction from a trustworthy other on self-regulation and secure, curious exploration of the world, take a look at the Still Face experiment. In this clip, on the instruction of a researcher, a mother transitions from her normal, loving reflective social interaction and affective attunement with her pre-verbal baby to a still face, with no reflective interaction - no dialogue, mirroring, empathy or eye contact. Watch the dramatic transition in the baby's emotional self-regulation and relaxed exploration of the world to her distress and overwhelm at the mother's loss of engagement with her. In the video below, the first 25 seconds is the scientist setting the context for the experiment, so hang in there and wait and watch for the interaction between mom and baby.

Adult learners aren’t babies, but our human need for connection and to be seen, heard and valued continues into adulthood and the brain will respond with physical changes and the creation of new neural networks when those needs are met!

Secure attachment builds neuronal networks that support sophisticated thinking.

When teachers, trainers or mentors build healing relationships with adult learners through the use of reflective social interaction and affective attunement, a secure attachment of adult learner to teacher can occur. Secure attachment and psychological safety result in the release of neurotransmitters that build new neuronal networks that actually help move the adult learner’s thinking from the limbic system (where reactivity to emotions occurs) into the frontal cortex where higher level cognition - abstract and reflective thinking – occur (Johnson, 2006).

With a secure attachment in place, it is then that the teacher can provide challenge by gently questioning the learner’s unhelpful assumptions, beliefs and behaviors while inviting him to explore and consider more useful alternatives. It is this balance between safety and challenge that guides the learner through the scary work of “looking at his lenses of perception, not just through them,” (Taylor, 2006, p.79), thereby stimulating growth and reorganization in the brain (Johnson, 2006).

Learn a practice to enhance reflective social interaction and attunement skills.

One way we as teachers and trainers can develop the necessary attunement and connection skills for creating trust and secure attachments is through the practice of NVC - Nonviolent Communication. NVC assumes that there is a set of universal, human needs and resulting feelings when these needs are met or unmet. When we adopt an NVC frame, all behavior can be seen as a strategy for trying to get one’s needs met. When we view others and ourselves in this compassionate light, we can then turn our attention to using reflective listening and empathy to identify feelings and needs, followed by requests to support the meeting of those needs. To do this well requires close reflective listening, eye contact, and mirroring. From my experience doing this work with my husband over the last few years and in meeting with a group of women working on this practice, there is nothing as good for building connection as being seen, heard, and understood through an NVC guided conversation.

While there are probably many other ways to develop facility with attunement and reflective social interaction skills, NVC is one way that has worked for many folks. Check out their website for free resources, groups, research and training: Center for Nonviolent Communication



The Center for Nonviolent Communication (2015). NVC Research. Retrieved from 

Charde, L. (N.D.) The dance of NVC. Wise Heart. Retrieved from 

Charde, L. (N.D.) Feelings and needs list. Wise Heart. Retrieved from 

Charde, L. (N.D.) Distinguishing feelings from interpretations. Wise Heart. Retrieved from 

Johnson, S. (2006). The neuroscience of the mentor-learner relationship. In S. Johnson & K. Taylor (Eds.), New directions for adult and continuing education: The neuroscience of adult learning (Summer ed., Vol. 110, pp. 63-69). San Francisco: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Taylor, K. (2006). Brain function and adult learning: Implications for practice. In S. Johnson & K. Taylor (Eds.), New directions for adult and continuing education: The neuroscience of adult learning (Summer ed., Vol. 110, pp. 63-69). San Francisco: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.