Getting students engaged with academic content begins with relationships and ensuring their basic needs are met.
That’s according to Carey Arensberg, a 4th grade teacher in Alabama who leverages her social media platform to share trauma-informed teaching tips and practices with other educators.
Arensberg’s emphasis on positive student-teacher relationships aligns with a body of research. Education Week reporter Madeline Will recently wrote in a new special report on the topic of student motivation and engagement that when students have an adult they can trust in their school building, they see “increased attendance, better grades, higher test scores, a sense of belonging and connectedness at school, and belief in one’s self as a learner.”
We sat down with Arensberg earlier this month to discuss how she gets—and keeps—her students engaged during an Instagram Live.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve described your efforts keeping your classroom safe as wanting to be the sunshine in their days. How does that affect their engagement?
You just never know where kids are coming from. You never know what it was like before they came to school. You don’t know their experiences before they’re with you. So, you don’t really know if they’re coming from a storm or if they’re coming from a situation that could have potentially provided them with some damage.
I have always thought of myself as a way to bring them some sunshine. By providing safety and basic need items, they know that they can come into my classroom and just have a reprieve from that situation that they were in.
Having fun in the classroom gives them good memories. It improves their attendance because they look forward to being with you every day. When kids are valued and they feel like they’re respected, they want to perform for you. They want you to be proud of them. They’re motivated to make you happy and do things with you.
What would your advice be to teachers who are having trouble keeping or getting their students engaged in class?
I only teach 4th grade, but I’ve been mentoring kids that are now seniors in high school, so I get to hear from them about what their day-to-day classes are like and what they enjoy about their classes, and what they don’t. My biggest piece of advice is that you have to make sure that you’re having fun with the kids. Academics are important, but … those times within your school day are just as important as any lecture or any lesson that you can give because they’re making that connection with you.
I have heard from my older boys that it drives them crazy when they have to sit and listen to a lecture all day. They want to be able to talk to each other. They enjoy doing things like debates and group work. Being able to step outside of that textbook and that lecture, and really giving them the opportunity to explore the content themselves, is important.
I think that, again, having that relationship and that connection with students of all ages is going to help them to motivate themselves to enjoy the work and take a step outside of that humdrum “every day is the same thing.” Honestly, as an adult, I don’t want to do that either. I chose teaching as my profession because I knew that I wouldn’t have to sit and do the same thing every single day. And I think that kids are the exact same way.
How do you ensure that you’re fostering meaningful relationships with your students?
A sense of belonging is one of the most important things that you can offer a kid. It’s one of the universal needs. You have to have generosity, mastery, independence, and a sense of belonging.
It’s so important to just give them space to talk and give them space to be themselves. Through that, they’re going to create respect for each other also. It helps them to recognize, “I’m not the only one that goes through things like that,” or “I’m not the only one that had a rough morning.” I’ve had so many kids create connections with each other through those morning meetings, and it’s kids that wouldn’t typically become friends.
One student found out that another student’s brother had a special need that their sister also had. Through that, they felt like they had a classroom community that they could go and connect with. We set goals with each other, and those goals that we start our days with help them carry through the rest of the day.
When students walk in that door, if they think that you don’t want them there, then they are going to give you a run for your money, because they don’t want to be there, either, if they feel disrespected.
What kind of support do you either currently receive or wish that you received from your school to enhance student engagement?
I’m my school’s biggest fan. My administration is amazing. I’ve been here for 11 years. I feel so supported in all aspects of what we do. Our school is in such a low-income area, we have students that come in with severe trauma, and our principal has been so amazing with really pushing that trauma-informed education on us. She sees the value in making sure that the kids are heard and that those basic needs are met, and that they’re fed and they’re clothed.
Having that support is so important, there is nothing that can be done academically until those basic needs are met. We have to spend that time with them getting them back and pulling them back down to Earth for that part of their brain to be reactivated so that they can even receive new information. Because once that amygdala [the part of the brain that processes emotions] starts going the rest of it shuts down.
What’s inside your viral ‘Care Closet’?
Inside the Care Closet, if you can name it, we have it. It has a dinner box, and it is the most frequently used item that we have in it. Every single day, kids come in and they take dinners home with them so that they make sure that they have enough to eat at night.
It has breakfast items for the kids that come in late, too. We do serve breakfast at our school, but if they’re tardy and they miss it, then I have breakfast to provide them. We also have hair care items, because you don’t know what hair can do to a kid’s motivation in school.
I have spare uniform pieces, like socks, toothbrushes, toothpaste, ChapStick, and lotion. What’s amazing about it is that the kids will come to school. I’ve had multiple years where kids would not come to school because they felt like they weren’t ready for their day, or they were self-conscious because they didn’t have a clean uniform, or their hair wasn’t done, or things like that. They come to school now because they know that they can get it here.
They know they can ask, “Mrs. Arensberg, I forgot to brush my teeth this morning. Can I just run in and do that real quick?” Then, they’re confident throughout the rest of the day if they need to brush their hair real quick or put a clean shirt on. We have a washer and dryer that we have here, too. I wash everybody’s jackets once a week.
They just know that they can get what they need here, and so they feel valued and loved within our school building.
Do you fund the Care Closet yourself?
No—I did at first, though. I mean, we know that teachers don’t have the biggest paychecks. I started sharing the Care Closet online and sharing my Amazon Wishlist with people. We have had more generous strangers than I can even explain.
The generosity of people online that don’t even know us has been the biggest blessing to us. We have an entire food pantry that is completely stocked in our school building from people on TikTok and Instagram.
People are willing to listen to the needs of kids. Not everybody is aware that so many kids go through this. That use of social media has been amazing in the support that we’ve received from it has been incredible.
How can teachers encourage self-motivation in students?
I think it has to start young. Kids must have the tools and the skills to motivate themselves to complete tasks. Kids aren’t just innately born ready to go. I’ll often give my 4th graders a checklist because I need them to have that piece of independence, and I love to provide them with some student choice. The checklist has tasks that need to be completed by the end of the day while I’m pulling small groups or I’m working one-on-one with kids, and I don’t really care which order they complete the tasks.
By having a visual model of what needs to be done, eventually, as they get older, they’re going to know how to make a checklist for themselves, or they’re going to remember, “Okay, I know that I do better when I write things down,” or, “I do better when I can cross things off of a list.”
I incorporate motivational skills into our social-emotional meetings in the morning where they’re learning about distractions or how to get through a difficult task.
We work with binders here in 4th grade because I want them to know how to use a binder by the time they get to middle or high school. The binders are a mess in 4th grade, but they’re learning how to use tabs and dividers and how to keep their things organized in order to be able to have success in turning things in and completing tasks.
You must understand that kids don’t know things unless you teach them.
Do you incorporate real-world applications into your lessons so kids can see a connection between learning and the real world?
Yes, definitely. Obviously, all our social-emotional lessons are well-connected. It’s very easy to connect science and math lessons. We use tape on the ground with our little square floor tiles to do perimeter, and we’re designing fences with tape for perimeter. We talk about when else you’d need to build a fence, or when else you would need to know the area of a rug that you’re purchasing for your home.
For reading skills, ... we do novel study, and we do a lot of inspired-by-a-true-story type of novels. We discuss the themes, the character traits, and why things are happening. They’re able to connect those reading skills to real people that they’re reading about. They get invested in the characters and they get invested in the story. We talk about why the setting is so different between here and here, or why the characters’ motives have changed between now and then.
We did a descriptive writing activity once with fruit, because I had a friend who had a surplus of satsumas that grew on their tree, and the kids had never had one before. Students described their texture, smell, and taste, and discussed how to describe them to someone to persuade them to try satsuma over an orange. And it’s very engaging because they got to eat the satsuma too.
Is there anything else you wanted to share?
I just think that if educators are interested in creating more engagement and more motivation in their students, they have to put that relationship first. And while it is cliché, it’s cliché because it’s true.
Kids want to be with you if they love you. Kids want to be around you if you’re providing them with support. More people—more kids—have experienced trauma than anyone thinks. Any sort of trauma-informed education that you can read up on, whether it’s a book, a documentary, or an article, will help you understand the backgrounds of people who are different from you and where these kids are coming from, functions of behaviors, and why kids act a certain way, rather than just fully focusing on punishment.
We have to make sure that we are looking at the whole child and focusing on, “This is a human in front of me, not just a grade in a grade book. This is an actual person who is somebody’s child and who has their own feelings and their own values and their own gifts to give to the world.”