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Blog May 20, 2021

Context Matters

Research points to putting a focus on the environments, relationships and experiences we create for students as we reopen and recover.



This past year, the context of teaching and learning has been totally turned upside-down. And now, many are asking: How should the educational community respond as we shift from an approach of “urgent care” to a more intentional plan for long-term care and recovery?

A current fixation of policy and practice centers on accelerated academic recovery to address perceived learning loss. But, the idea of more of the same, in higher doses or concentrations, is not sitting well with many. When we turn to what we know from the science of learning and development, the approach looks very different.

Before we dive in, see if you can find the common thread in the following case examples:

  • A child is learning how to walk, and has taken his first wobbling steps to dad, grandma, and grandpa. But, he darts to mom at lightning speed on all fours for a few more weeks before revealing this new skill.
  • An elementary school student refuses to try new foods at home, but is excited and willing to try new snacks with her classmates at school.
  • A teen can’t wait to escape from a lecture-based history class but enthusiastically engages in discussions of current events in an expanded learning program.

In each case, context—meaning the environments, relationships and experiences in a person’s life—either reveals or conceals developing skills and mindsets. We see this developmental pattern played out in everyday experiences and confirmed by scientific research, such as a study that revisited the famous Marshmallow Test. In 2012, Dr. Celeste Kidd added a twist to the well-known test of children’s self-control by introducing either a reliable or unreliable adult into the experimental context. In this remix, kids’ innate abilities were not the determining factor in whether they waited for a marshmallow, it was the context that they were in. With a reliable adult, kids were able to wait four times longer than with an adult who previously had not kept their word.

This is just one of many findings that tell us there is no such thing as a developing child independent of context. Context includes, but extends beyond, the immediate environment, to encompass webs of experiences and relationships. We know that as we return to school settings, if we optimize the design of context, we can optimize the development of learning.

Three Ways To Start Optimizing the Context of Learning

The Turnaround for Children Toolbox offers free resources to support educators’ work in building supportive, relationship-rich contexts that facilitate whole-child development and thriving. Here are three ways that you can start optimizing the context of learning:

1) Start with yourself

Do you notice times when your use of skills and mindsets (such as stress management, executive functions, and relationship skills) differs depending on the context? Perhaps your impeccable planning and flexible thinking seems to disappear at a crucial moment of a job interview or the stress management you exhibit easily at the start of a day is eroded by the fifth tantrum of your toddler. Use the Adult Skills Self Assessments to reflect on how context affects you as an adult, and in turn, how you can design contexts that support and reveal student skills and mindsets.

2) Find out more about your students’ contexts

We know that there are certain things about environments, experiences and relationships that optimize learning and those that can detract from learning. When any individual is frightened, grieving, confused, or unsafe (physically or emotionally) they are not in a ready state for learning. A predictable, consistent, supportive and affirming context with a warm, responsive adult helps to co-regulate a student’s biological stress response and primes them for engaged learning.

Explore the characteristics of a co-regulating environment vs, a dysregulating environment in our science tool here. Then talk to your students about it. You might ask:

  • What makes you feel safe in school? What makes you feel like peers and adults care?
  • Are there times in the day that you feel uncomfortable or unsafe in school? Why?
  • When do you feel the most focused and engaged? What are the things that you get the most excited to come to school for?
  • How can adults and peers best support you?

Remember, the best design of a supportive school context is informed by students’ perceptions of that context.

3) Design contexts that co-regulate

Routines are an important part of creating a safe and supportive environment. Use the Co-regulating Routines Planner to plan routines that are predictable, consistent, and with opportunities for student independence and growth.

While some circles emphasize the “loss” of academic growth, we know that what we have lost extends well beyond that. We have lost connections to friends, family, teachers, and the community that normally support and sustain us. We have lost the safety of previously familiar settings, ranging from the grocery store to school classrooms. But we have also lost unnecessary ties to practices and contexts that did not adequately or holistically support us in the first place. Together, let’s use the science and the voices of our students to create new contexts for learning that ensure that all children can grow and thrive.