Earlier this month, we gathered a diverse panel of experts skilled in working with youth and families experiencing homelessness to discuss trauma and its impact on a child’s brain, behaviors and ability to learn. We asked our tutors to submit questions to help frame the conversation. While we tried to target all the questions and concepts raised by our amazing volunteers, not every question was answered. I am hoping I can add some clarity to the following question:

What suggestions do you have regarding setting expectations for our students? I want to motivate them to do as much as they can without setting the bar “too high” and losing them.

This is such a wonderful question. As we engage further in discussion regarding trauma and a child’s ability to learn when under stress, we know from our panelists and from research that it may have profound impact on a child’s physical and mental health as well as their ability to successfully decipher and retain information. The experience of being homeless at any age is traumatic. Our students feel the weight of that everyday yet the expectations to go to school, get good grades and do your best are still there. Now what?

An excerpt from an article I recently read online talked about the expectation factor while working with youth experiencing homelessness. Address Unknown, written by Mary Ellen Flannery, references Kim Snell, a school administrator in Rutherford, Tennessee who oversees the work of a homeless liaison.

Homeless children are like everybody else…We have gifted homeless children, very talented homeless children. We have homeless children with great dreams and expectations for their lives, and they will achieve them. We don’t need to feel sorry for them. We just need to assist them in the ways that we can. We don’t need to have the same expectations for everybody, but have expectations based on the very best that each child can achieve.

Here are five steps that you can use to help set expectations with your students:

1. Learn a bit about your student. As tutors it can be difficult to understand when and how to challenge a student a bit more when we see them for one hour a week. I like to believe that we have to engage in a little fact finding as soon as we sit down with a student so we can make some good judgements going forward. It is always best to read a little about the child you are working with or are going to be working with by reading the Communication Log in the child’s tutoring folder. Often times I have found this information key to learning a little bit about the student before we get started. I am not just looking at challenge areas either; I am looking for his or her academic strengths as well.

2. Engage in some light-hearted conversation. No one wants to sit down next to his or her tutor and get right to work after a long day at school. Ask about his or her day. The way he or she responds can give you another clue on how much to challenge this student. Observe the child’s physical demeanor associated with that response. If it was a rough day, chances are he or she will communicate that to you somehow- either physically or verbally. If all indications point to a bad day, then it might not be the day to push too hard – but we can still set expectations for the student sitting next to us.

3. Adjust your expectations. I know so often that tutors want to get straight to the homework because we are afraid he or she won’t finish and that we have somehow failed. That is important. But if the child sitting next to you can’t focus, looks stressed out, won’t listen, won’t communicate or is telling you that today is just not their day, then it may be time to adjust that expectation a bit. You can be firm as long as that firmness comes with kindness.

I have told kids I understand today was rough so let’s take five or ten minutes to talk about something you love to do, draw or even do a tool-kit game as long as we are in full agreement that we are going to work on getting our homework done after those five to ten minutes are over. I always ask, do we have a deal? I even set the timer on my phone so he or she has the auditory reminder. Why is this important? Well, I have to keep to that agreement and hold that child to it so he or she understands that you are someone that is keeping your word. This is a great way to begin to build trust with the student.

4. Creatively challenge your student. Once trust has been established, then academic challenges can take place. Children love challenges, especially if you can make them game-like. I worked with a student one evening who wasn’t keen on reading. I asked him to pick out the book that he wanted to read and we came up with a game together. After he read one page of his book, he could draw me a quick picture of what took place in what he read. The smile he had on his face at the end of the night was priceless. He found something he didn’t love to do and paired it with something he liked to do. I continued praising him for his efforts throughout our time together as well. Praise goes a long way.

5. Be flexible. We have to try out different approaches. What works for one child might not work for another. That’s OK. Repeat after me – that is OK! We all have to accept that idea and continue to build our “tutoring toolkit” with ideas and activities that are tested.

Do you have a tried and true creative strategy that you use to successfully engage with students? Share those with us in the comments below so we can continue to inspire other tutors!