Incorporating symbols, images and items as anchors can create psychological safety and reduce stress.
We are all prewired with a need for connection and belonging. From the moment we enter any given space, our nervous systems scan the environment for the presence of threats and the existence of connection. The absence of connection often creates feelings of fear, isolation, and pain, all of which are conditions that make learning impossible. As the gatekeepers to our students’ psychological safety, teachers are in a unique position to construct environments where our children not only survive but thrive. All it takes is a bit of time and curiosity.
Schools are large living systems, constantly changing as adults follow their agendas, teach to their lesson plans, and adjust practices based on ongoing formative and summative assessments. Children spend nearly as many waking hours in their classrooms as they do in their homes. For many children, particularly those carrying in toxic stress and adversity, school can be loud, fast-paced, and dysregulating. It is not difficult to see how the developing nervous system would struggle with incoming sensory input.
One way to help students adjust to the school environment is to provide anchors, which are the people, places, experiences, and things that help us to feel grounded and stable. One way we can accomplish this is through Affect Imagery, a term introduced by Jungian psychiatrist John Weir Perry. Affect Imagery refers to the symbols, images, music, and themes that give an individual membership to something greater than themselves. Students who see familiar Imagery or hear familiar sounds feel an increased sense of belonging.
The Function of Affect Imagery
Students feel safe and connected when a trusted adult shows interest in them beyond their academic proficiency. Teachers who are intentional about getting to know the whole child are better positioned to get underneath behaviors perceived as disrespectful, avoidant, or disruptive.
An effective way to get to know students is the ‘2×10 Strategy,’ developed by Raymond Wlodkowski. With this strategy, the adult makes a meaningful connection for two minutes each day for ten consecutive days. The conversation is intended to learn about the student. This may range from the student’s personal and national identity, to family, to interests (sports, television, hobbies, school, etc.) student is interested in. In short, the teacher is asking, What anchors you?
With an understanding of the whole child, the educator can then translate that information into Affect Imagery. In one example, a 2nd-grade student was coming to school dysregulated and refused to enter the classroom. After several adults failed to calm the child, one educator calmly sat in the hallway with the child, not talking. Knowing that the child was a fan of the game Minecraft – information gathered through the 2×10 strategy and also awareness of the Minecraft t-shirt the student was wearing – the teacher began scrolling through Minecraft images on his phone. The student, noticing, began to feel steadied and connected through the images. A conversation was born, and the student was able to move from survival brain to begin his day.
In another example, a young autistic student struggled with transitions at all times of the day. He was on alert and demonstrating fear-based responses. He is a non-speaking student from Ukraine. Lunch is particularly triggering, as the cafeteria is loud, busy, and rushed. A teacher notices that this student is struggling and, rather than insisting he eat his food faster, sits beside him and, without talking, plays the Ukrainian anthem on a smartphone. The student calms down significantly. The teacher, now aware that the young boy is steadied by cultural validation, continues to share calm and share space with this student each school day.
As the relationship grows, this teacher becomes a trusted adult. She adds Affect Imagery to her classroom space and validates the student’s feelings as she walks him to her classroom. Hanging from the ceiling are many flags, including the blue and gold Ukrainian flag. Nearby, the student notices faux sunflowers, a national symbol of Ukraine. The Ukrainian anthem is playing softly. These images, symbols, and sounds quickly steady the student. He feels membership greater than himself. He feels safe, relaxed, and ready for social engagement.
Adding Affect Imagery as a Standard of Practice
Creating a culture of belonging through our physical space requires a minor shift from what we think our classrooms should look like to what our students need our classrooms to look like. As happened in the examples above, when we lean in with curiosity to learn about our students, we gain an understanding of what environment will feel safe and welcoming.
Our most vulnerable students are often entering school in survival mode and carrying in stress, a hyperactive amygdala, and big fear-based reactions. The language of the survival brain is sensation, so when we speak to that part of the brain through visual, tactile, and auditory stimuli, we are giving these children the experiences they need: perceived safety and connection.
Implementing Affect Imagery begins with a desire to learn about the people, places, things, and experiences that anchor a child. As an effective practice, ask these questions:
- What are the things I can learn about a child through informal conversations, written responses, observation, or using the ‘2×10 Strategy’?
- What are the things, people, activities, and places that are important to each child? Do they like Pokemon? Soccer? Is there a temple or a building that provides safety? Can I print photos of it?
- What is the national identity of each student?
- What are the cultural and family beliefs of each student?
- Is there music or a sound that is familiar and calming to a child’s nervous system?
Affect Imagery is a simple strategy that speaks directly to the nervous system. It can work across grades, proficiency levels, identities, and linguistic diversity. It is a culturally responsive practice that creates a steadying, calming, and safe learning environment, and it can be done with only some curiosity and a colored printer.