5 little things that are really big

One of my former principals used to provide her staff with a one-pager of little things that were really big—small actions that too often go underacknowledged or undervalued yet make an enormous positive impact on student learning, especially for students who experience toxic stress, trauma, and/or educational disparity. As we approach the middle of an extraordinary school year, I’m inspired by my former principal.

Now is the perfect time to validate the little things you are doing that empower learners and learning, even in digital or hybrid settings. It is my hope that putting these small things in writing can give you some optimism and relief as you prepare for winter break, and even as you start looking ahead to January.

Thing 1: Say hello and goodbye

Can you remember a time when you were in a room full of people (a Zoom counts!) who you didn’t know very well? If you’re an extrovert, maybe you felt bold enough to greet others and get some small talk going so you could feel connected to the group. If you’re not, you might have remained quiet and uncomfortable the entire time because no one took a moment to welcome you.

The seemingly simple act of saying hello each time learners enter a space—whether it’s physical or virtual—is huge. Saying goodbye is equally important. Regularly using a greeting and farewell establishes a routine and models positive human connection, both of which are extremely important for students, especially those who experience toxic stress or trauma. Greetings and farewells are small yet critical social, emotional, and community-building actions that make larger or more complex and collaborative learning actions, such as partner work, class discussions, or peer feedback, successful.

Each time we use greeting and farewell routines, we invest in a positive culture of learning, which pays enormous dividends. For more community-building ideas while teaching online, see “10 ways to create a community of learning in a virtual setting.”

Thing 2: Remember names

I don’t know about you, but I am far more likely to engage in learning when an instructor knows and uses my name. I feel respected because the instructor took the time to learn my name and pronounce it correctly. I also know that I can’t hide! When the instructor knows my name, even in a virtual setting, I can be called on, which nudges me to stay engaged and contribute to the learning team. The same is true for our students, especially those who may feel invisible or insignificant. Just as greetings and farewells contribute to a culture of learning, using names does, too.

I must admit that I struggle with learning how to pronounce names correctly. To make sure I show my students that I am committed to using correct pronunciation, I regularly ask for patience and help. I have also had students use tools, such as screen casting or Flipgrid, to record videos introducing themselves to me, which can include how to correctly pronounce their name. Videos are great because I can watch and listen as many times as I need.

Another good way to practice student names while also maintaining routines of active learning is through the use of randomizers. The popsicle stick technique or a digital randomizer, such as Flippity, work great. In what other ways can you learn and use students’ names to build a safe, respectful, collaborative learning environment?

Thing 3: Take brain breaks

Whether you’re in the classroom or teaching online, it can be really tempting to blast through content, particularly when stressed or tired. I’m guilty of it all the time. I have to remind myself how brains work best, especially brains that have experienced toxic stress or trauma. Taking brain breaks, which CASEL describes as “brief and relevant experiences that engage [learners] emotionally throughout content delivery, to better ensure that concepts transfer to long-term memory,” is another way to show our students that we see and respect them as full humans, not machines. When you make time for rest, and even a bit of playfulness, you’re letting students know you see their stress or fatigue and want to help them through it. Admitting that you benefit from a break, too, can even make you more relatable.

Brain breaks can also contribute to boosting energy and motivation, which are essential ingredients for empowered learners and learning. For example, my youngest child is in the third grade, and she is currently experiencing school at home through Zoom sessions. Throughout the day, I can see or hear her in the living room doing silly things, such as 10 jumping jacks, five frog hops, or 13 skipping circles, because her teacher gives the class short, specific, physical, and well-placed brain break cues. My daughter readily returns to the Zoom session and next portion of the learning because she knows and trusts her teacher’s brain break routine. She is motivated to persist and stay focused through the learning pieces because a silly brain break will come up again soon. After watching my daughter and her teacher, I am inspired to use brain break strategies more often.

Thing 4: Try engagement agreements

Engagement can be a challenge during COVID-19 teaching. Sometimes we have to think outside the box to get students to engage. We know it is really helpful when they’re on camera in a virtual setting, but we must also remember that being on camera is just one of many ways to show participation.

Instead of insisting that your students remain on camera, try writing a group engagement agreement with them. That will help you all understand the realities you’re all experiencing, like sharing one Wi-Fi connection with four siblings or simply not having time for a shower until long after class. Consider including guidelines around using cameras, chat, and mute, and even when a class session needs to be attended live and when watching a recording later is okay.

Thing 5: Get help from learners

Does it ever feel like you’re supposed to know all the answers and do all the heavy lifting? All the time, I’m guessing. Remember: It is impossible to know it all and do it all, especially in 2020.

You not knowing all the answers and not doing all the heavy lifting can be an opportunity for activating learners and learning. Put students to work with co-leading or co-planning tasks to build a collaborative culture of learning and empower learners. Students helping contributes to their sense of value and belonging, which can also repair the effects of toxic stress, trauma, and educational disparity. They can help choose or lead activities related to all of the topics mentioned in this post. Here are some other ways they can pitch in:

It is very much okay—in fact, it is optimal—to put students to work as regular active agents of learning.

The bottom line

At the center of larger learning processes and structures, such as the formative assessment cycle and balanced assessment, is the empowered, collaborative learning team. All the small things you do on a daily basis are essential; larger learning processes are not possible without these minute daily actions. Furthermore, these small actions that nurture safe, respectful, collaborative environments can build social and emotional skills as well as mend neural pathways affected by toxic stress and trauma.

Please take a moment to celebrate all the little things you do that are a really, really big deal. Here are some discussion questions to get you thinking.


  • What are other examples of little things you do that are really big?
  • What’s a small yet powerful tool, strategy, or technique that you can suggest to others for building safe, respectful learning environments?
  • If any of the tools or ideas listed above were new to you, what’s one you might like to try?


  • How do you model greetings and farewells with staff and students? Do you use names? Take brain breaks? Put students or staff to work as co-leaders?
  • In what other ways can you nurture a collaborative culture of learning in your building or district?
  • If any of the tools or ideas listed above were new to you, what’s one you might like to try?

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