Written by Linda Soffer, Facilitator. Originally published in the Fall 2019 OC Magazine.
Connection is widely recognized by psychologists, sociologists and biologists as a core human need and a fundamental drive for all social beings. Open Connections acknowledges the important role that connection plays in the development of healthy individuals of all ages.
Youth who are navigating the transition from early to middle childhood face a critical period in their development—a connection crossroads you might say—as they seek to integrate prior learning, apply current knowledge and skills in new ways, and prepare to encounter increasingly complex learning opportunities in the future. The Group Tutorial I program for youth ages 7 to 9 years is built on a foundation of connection. We recognize the unique needs and challenges our young people face at this significant developmental threshold. We seek to harness the power of connection to self, others, and the natural world to create a nurturing and safe learning environment, engage and motivate group members, and optimize each youth’s developmental potential.
A common way to think of connection is in the form of relationships. In Group Tutorial I, the relationships between and among Facilitators and group members play a key role in generating an atmosphere that promotes motivation, engagement, and purpose. These mutually reinforcing relationships respect and support individual differences while acknowledging common needs and goals. Facilitators actively seek to foster these connections with young people by providing an atmosphere of warmth, acceptance and trust, where all are welcome to bring their full selves to the circle and actively contribute. We give young people choices, invite their opinions, and consider their interests when designing our programming. Furthermore, Facilitators approach the young people as partners in learning—appropriately sharing our thoughts and feelings and promoting transparency in our communication, which furthers the development of trust and security.
While it seems obvious that healthy relationships are good for us on social, emotional and cognitive levels, there is now evidence to suggest that strong interpersonal connections can advance learning and development on a neurobiological level as well. Researchers synthesizing foundational knowledge on human development from the fields of biology, neuroscience, psychology, and the social sciences (Cantor, Osher, Berg, Steyer and Rose, 2018) describe positive developmental relationships as those which are stable and responsive, respect the autonomy and individuality of each person, and link individuals in empathetic connection with others. They found that these types of relationships actually contribute to neural integration and the creation of the strong brain architecture necessary for developing the competencies needed for more complex development and learning. In other words, connection between people leads to connections in the brain.
Certain components of our program are intentionally designed to promote these types of relationships. Ritual gatherings such as morning Check-In and end-of-day Appreciations afford every group member (youth and Facilitators) the time and attention to share their experiences and provide and receive feedback. End-of-year Word Presents encourage the authentic expression of personal recognition from one group member to another. These mindful program elements can serve to increase sensitivity and self esteem—generate understanding and support, and encourage cooperation and attunement leading to stronger relational bonds between participants.
Another way that we facilitate and utilize connection in Group Tutorial I is through the design and presentation of our projects and activities. Our approach necessarily acknowledges the jaggedness of learning that can be so pronounced for this age group, and the reality that there is no single “ideal” developmental pathway for everyone. We also understand that young people seem to find it easier to acquire new content knowledge in reference to prior knowledge, and benefit from opportunities to explore content at their own pace, based on their unique interests and developmental skill level. Our projects therefore tend to be theme-based or sequential, multisensory, and incorporate a variety of learning modalities, as well as a broad range of critical thinking and problem solving skills. They are designed with flexibility and self-direction in mind, affording young people multiple opportunities for individualized learning. They also tend to be integrative, pulling pieces of knowledge and skills from different areas and fitting them together to create new awareness and understanding.
These projects and activities may involve youth working individually, in pairs or small groups, or as a whole group in collaboration. They also may happen in combination with another OC programs such as the Open Program or another Group Tutorial, or even the entire campus population (such as all-campus games and exhibitions of program work) facilitating connection between programs and the broader OC community. Another way Group Tutorial I connects with the greater community is through service-learning projects, which can take the form of cooking a dish for a community potluck event, or visiting a nearby retirement home and engaging the residents in an activity. These Real Work opportunities promote clientship and show young people new avenues for responsibility, while helping them feel like valued members of their community. Recently our group has taken on the job of tending to the Susan’s Gardens section of campus. We are thrilled to have identified this fantastic opportunity for our program to contribute to the care of our beautiful campus on a consistent and ongoing basis.
Tending to Susan’s Gardens is just one of the many ways in which Group Tutorial I members connect with the natural world. Time spent outdoors is incorporated into every day of our program and takes many forms, from highly-structured activities such as an orienteering challenge, to a less-structured hike in the woods, to free-choice time when the youths’ preferences determine the activity or area of campus they explore. When free-choice time is outdoors, it can also be an opportunity to engage with youth from other programs in a more open and playful context, affording greater potential for connections to be made between youth of a broader range of ages, backgrounds, and skill sets.
Much of the content of our programming also incorporates studying, exploring, and appreciating aspects of the natural world. Nature itself is a wonderful vehicle for connection, not only with the laws of nature and traits of our immediate surroundings, but also as a means of investigating and understanding other regions of the globe which may have a completely different climate and landscape from our own. Furthermore, the simple experiences of observing the moon at night or feeling the sun shining on our faces are seized as springboards to learning about Astronomy and our connection to the broader context of the universe (which is itself, a network of connections).
Nature is an ideal catalyst for intrapersonal learning and connecting with one’s self, which is possibly the most important connection for Group Tutorial I youth to be making at this point in their developmental and educational journey. As was previously noted, the youth in our program are in an exciting time of development, crossing the threshold from early to middle childhood, and facing new academic and social challenges. They are making their first real strides toward adulthood by becoming competent, independent, self-aware, and involved in the world beyond their families. For many group members, Group Tutorial I may be their first experience of a more structured learning environment where they are given greater individual freedom and have a heightened expectation for self-regulation. Not only are youth at this age developing fundamental academic skills, they are also growing and changing on important social and emotional dimensions. These young people are beginning to develop a stronger sense of self-esteem and individuality, and start comparing themselves with their peers. Challenges can begin to emerge during this period as youth respond to the new demands placed on them by the complex situations to which they must adjust. How they learn to handle these challenges can have a high impact on future development and attitudes toward learning, with long lasting results. Therefore, it’s important to incorporate building healthy connections to self into our programming too.
The nature of a young person’s awareness and understanding of themselves at this important juncture can play a pivotal role in determining the landscape of their educational journey ahead. For this reason, self reflection, the early form of metacognition or “thinking about one’s thoughts,” is an important component of our program, and we frequently facilitate opportunities for young people to deepen their sense of connection with themselves. The recurring activities noted earlier of Morning Check-in, Appreciations and Word Presents all include an element of self reflection. Other opportunities for connecting with self are regularly included in program activities, either playing a primary role (such as when engaging in a silent meditation or completing a poll of interests), or in a more auxiliary role (such as the numerous opportunities for self-direction and personal choice we intentionally incorporate into the context of project-based decision making). All of these strategies can serve to increase a young person’s self-awareness, expertise, and ability to transfer knowledge to new situations and problems. They can also enhance motivation as individuals are more motivated to learn, and can be more effective learners when they know how to apply strategies effectively, seek help appropriately, and learn from their mistakes—all skills developed through metacognitive processes.
It is not surprising to learn that a strong connection to self has similar benefits to brain development as those of other healthy relationships. Cantor, et al, in the research cited earlier, found that engagement in metacognitive processes actively supports ongoing neural integration. They note that such strategies encourage students to reflect on their affective states, how well they are learning, and how new knowledge fits into existing knowledge (Cantor et al. 2018). These connections to self further facilitate dynamic skill development and, as discussed, are exactly what GTI youth need to develop as they establish a secure foundation for future learning.
The significance of connection to growth and learning is further illuminated through the powerful metaphor of the constructive web, which scientists across domains have adopted to help in understanding brain development. Within the web—defined as a network of interconnected elements—the strands represent pathways along which a person develops simultaneously across multiple realms. This metaphor supports thinking about learning as an active process between multiple agents, with the resulting skills and behaviors ultimately joint products of the person and the resources and relationships that comprise his or her environment. It shows how skills can vary within individuals based on goals, emotional states, and contextual supports, and suggests that an individual’s development can be optimized under conditions of highly, personalized support. Furthermore, the web metaphor enables an understanding of individual and cross-cultural developmental diversity as alternative pathways for growth, rather than as deficits (Cantor et al. 2018).
When viewed through the lens of the web metaphor, it becomes evident that connection can be understood not only as an action and a state of being, but also—as the core mechanism of brain development—quite literally the form that learning takes. According to Brene Brown, Professor of Social Work at the University of Houston, best-selling author and researcher on whole-hearted living, “Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” The Group Tutorial I program embraces this potent energy of connection, and through our mindfully designed program weaves together the threads of strong relationships to self, others and the natural world, creating a dynamic web of nurturing and support that promotes optimal learning for our young people today, next year, and for a lifetime.
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City, MN: Hazelden. ISBN 9781499333190. OCLC 884582495.
Pamela Cantor, David Osher, Juliette Berg, Lily Steyer & Todd Rose (2018) Malleability, plasticity, and individuality: How children learn and develop in context, Applied Developmental Science, DOI: 10.1080/10888691.2017.1398649