Prerequisites for Learning

In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink discusses the idea of ‘flow’. Flow occurs when we are so engaged in a task that we feel an adrenaline-like rush while doing it. We are ‘locked in’ to the activity and we feel confident about our abilities to be successful concerning the task.

This is what we want our students to experience every time they are engaged in a task. This is what we want them to feel. This sounds like the reason we all teach. YES!! Let’s get every student to flow!…But how?

As teachers we find that there are so many factors that have to be in place before a student can begin to learn, work, and flow.  Many of us encountered this idea in Education 101; Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Students not only need food, water, and sleep, but they also need to feel safe, loved, confident, and respected (by themselves and by others). And all these things need to be in place before a student can be creative or begin to problem solve. But when our students walk into our classrooms every day, how can we help them to reach optimum flow? Here are a few ways:

1. Greet students at the door.  Every day.  No excuses. This is where your relationship with each of your students starts for the day.  Even if the student is having an ‘off’ day, you have the power to combat that by offering them a smile and talking with them.  Make sure they feel respected when you interact with them. If they are having a bad day acknowledge that fact, and reassure them that it can get better.

2. Speak to your students kindly and respectfully; even when you’re frustrated. So many teachers have adult expectations for kids: “Oh, you know what this word means!” or “You know how to behave in this situation!” But sometimes kids just don’t know.  Whether it’s developmental or a simple brain freeze, our students do not know everything. Walk them through how to deal with all types of situations.  Math problems and behavior issues.  Just do it with a sense of respect and understanding.

3. Sometimes kids walk into your classroom hungry. So, keep some snacks in your room.  Maybe some gum or a few dollars for the vending machines. Most schools do not allow eating in the classroom but it’s your decision when it comes to following the rules versus helping your students reach flow. Which is more important to you? And let them go to the water fountain.  Sometimes they are legitimately thirsty.  And if you want flow, you know how important it is that this need is met, too. (Tip: Make sure your students understand that you are happy to help them if they skipped breakfast, but you are not their food store.  Set boundaries when it comes to doling out the goods.)

4. Make your room a physically safe place to be. Rooms should always be locked.  Students and teachers alike complain about this rule.  It makes coming and going more difficult, but it is very important.  Students need to feel protected when they are in your classroom.  

5. Make your room an academically safe place to be.  Encourage mistakes. Let students know that ‘messing up’ is okay and that it is all part of the learning process.

6. If a kid needs to sleep, let him sleep.  This sounds crazy, doesn’t it??  But honestly, use your discretion.  Don’t be the teacher that the kids talk about; “Mrs. S. let’s you sleep in her class!”, but if you know a student had a tough night or is going through a tough time, allow them a few moments of sleep. Maybe you can let them catch a cat nap while you explain directions.  That way, when the student wakes up (or if you wake him up) another student can explain what the class is doing. If the kid is generally a well-behaved student and he is not disrupting your class, let him sleep. This may not be popular, but sometimes you need to let go. Now, if a kid sleeps every day then we have a problem we need to tackle.  But once or twice a year honestly won’t hurt him. Plus, when he finally does awaken from his cat nap, he is in a better position to learn, work, and flow.

7. Encourage, encourage, encourage.  Students will often say, “I don’t know how”, or “I can’t do that”.  Combat this with encouraging messages: “You can do this.  You are capable.  Try it and then compare with a friend.  You can always ask for help, but we both know you are able to figure this out on your own.  I know you can do this, now prove me right!” Students need to feel confident about their abilities and efforts, reinforce that by being positive and offering help.

After you have tried your best to make sure at least some or most of your students’ basic needs are met, you can begin to do all the things teachers have been trained to do: differentiate, discuss, discover, and work with your kids on the day’s lesson or task.  But look above.  Numbers 1-7 have little or nothing to do with academics.  These are things that need to be in place before any academic work can start and before any sense of flow can be achieved.  And these things are not difficult to do. (Some argue that students’ basic needs must be met at home, but this is not always the case.  And our jobs as teachers is to get them to flow. That may take feeding them or letting them get in a snooze every once in a while.)

So the next time you see a student trying to flow, consider their basic needs.  Maybe those needs are not being met. That’s where we have to step in. Helping students achieve flow could be as simple as allowing the student to get a drink of water or just speaking to them in a way that makes them feel respected. Either way, be aware that the needs of your students go far beyond differentiation and academic support.  Sometimes they just need the basics in order to flourish in your classroom.



One thought on “Prerequisites for Learning

  1. I agree that there needs to be a flow created for student success. I would say that numbers 1,2,5,&7 are keys to opening the door to higher levels of student achievement. great instruction can not take place unless the student is in the right state of mind. The old Buddhist saying works here: “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear”.

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