"Affective Resonance" and Connection to School

©2010 Chuck Saufler M.Ed.

What is the "affective resonance"of your school? We hear about school climate and school culture but affective resonance? Human neurology is set up to respond to the emotional atmosphere of the social environment, its "affective resonance." Have you ever noticed that when you are in an emotionally neutral state and you enter a roomful of people who are cheerful and laughing, your own affect changes and you become more upbeat? That is the effect of affective resonance. This responsiveness is initially developed in the first year of life through attuned reciprocal relationships developed with adult caretakers. That is, we learn emotional attunement and reciprocity from thousands of give and take, face-to-face interactions with those around us. This creates the neural patterning for future relational skills that enable us to sense if an environment or person is attuned to our needs, helps develop empathy and teaches us to sense when we may be behaving out of bounds. When we feel attunement and trust we stay in that relationship and respond reciprocally. When we sense non-attunement our brain is triggered to a state of alertness where we "scan the environment" for danger cues. The brain chemistry of this reaction depresses our abilities to process and remember any information unrelated to the issue of safety until the brain is satisfied that the danger is past. The greater the perceived threat, the more intense is the brain’s stress response. The more the brain has to focus on getting back to safety, the less capacity there is for learning and remembering academic material.

What does this have to do with school climate? Everything! School climate is the affective resonance of your school. It is how an individual feels walking in the door of your school. Each individual has their own experience of a school’s climate. Is this school a safe place for me? Am I treated with respect and acceptance here? Will I be treated fairly? Do I have close relationships here? These are big issues for each student and are key factors in developing feelings of connection to school. Each student’s emotional experience at school each day produces for them an emotional response to walking in the door of school, a personal response to the affective resonance that they perceive. It will either increase or decrease their feelings of connection to school. The Wingspread Declaration demonstrates that connection to school is crucial for a safe school environment and it is positive relationships that build this connection.

There is a large body of evidence in the brain research showing that attention and learning are driven and guided by emotion. These concepts apply not only to academics but also to students learning and changing behavior. RTI has raised awareness for schools of the necessity to be including tier one interventions that address academic learning as well as the social and emotional development of all students, sometimes referred to as "relational literacy." Adopting a restorative approach will strongly support teaching and practicing the skills of relational literacy. A fundamental principle of the restorative approach is that relationships are central to learning and development. In a restorative school, all adults model this principle through the use of a restorative approach in all their interactions with students and each other. The restorative approach focuses on how we do relationships, address problems, manage discipline and resolve conflict. Through genuine curiosity, empathy and caring, it is a positive approach to helping students learn and improve relational skills, all the while improving their connection with us and to school.

"What we have found from our research is that kids who felt connected to school . . . smoked less, drank alcohol less, had a later age of sexual debut and attempted suicide less. On top of this, from the educational literature, they do better across every academic measure we have. As our research expanded, [we learned that] this is not just an association - kids who smoke less also felt more connected to school. It is a causal relationship. There is something in that bond, in that connection to school that changes the life trajectory - at least the health and academic behavior. It is very powerful - second only to parents in power. In some contexts it's more powerful than parents."

Robert Blum, professor and chair,
Department of Population and Family Health Sciences,
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

It’s also important to note that school culture ("the way we do things here") is often influenced by the larger culture of the community and country. When we examine the models for attitudes and behaviors that are shaping the attitudes and behaviors of our students we don’t have to look far to identify cognitive constructs of our American culture that, if allowed to become part of our school culture, can be problematic and can seriously and negatively affect the climate. Some of these cognitive constructs include:


The pervasiveness of these messages in all forms of media is distressing. The latest media usage data from the Kaiser Family Foundation says that eight to eighteen year olds are engaged with media over seven hours a day. Over ten hours a day if you count multi-tasking on different platforms like doing homework on a computer while watching TV or listening to music. That’s a lot of exposure to ideas, that when repeated over time through several different mediums, impact the attitudes and behaviors our students bring to school in very negative ways.

These cultural attitudes and behaviors will dominate our school culture unless we consistently model the behaviors and attitudes we want from our students, proactively, on a daily basis. This includes teaching students to think critically about their attitudes and beliefs, and to examine the origins and validity of these ideas. A restorative approach supports this work, builds understanding, trust and respect, and improves student connection to peers, adults and school. It is up to us to intentionally create a positive school climate and culture every day, in order to foster an "affective resonance" that is safe, welcoming and relational, and that promotes academic achievement, personal growth and connection to school.


© 2010 Chuck Saufler, M.Ed., Safe Schools for All, www.safeschoolsforall.com

Chuck Saufler currently works as a trainer/consultant for Safe Schools for All and the Restorative Practices Collaborative of Maine.

He can be reached at csaufler@safeschoolsforall.com