Building strong relationships with your students using the PACE model

Ilia Lindsay, Psychologist, Komodo Psychology Lead
31/5/2023

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Building strong relationships with your students using the PACE model

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As a teacher, you're always on the lookout for ways to create a safe and nurturing learning environment for your students. The PACE model created by Dan Hughes, is a powerful approach to building strong relationships with your students by focusing on four key attitudes: Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, and Empathy. The model emphasizes the importance of building strong relationships with students by approaching student interactions with these four attitudes. When teachers approach their students with these attitudes, they help to foster positive relationships, promote social and emotional skills, and support student wellbeing, both academically and personally.

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What does this look like in a classroom?

To effectively incorporate the PACE model into the classroom, teachers must be intentional and consistent in their approach. Teachers should work to create a positive learning environment that encourages playfulness, creativity, and exploration. 

Playfulness

Playfulness is all about creating a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere in the classroom. When you approach your students with a sense of playfulness, you help to calm the more primitive areas of the brain and facilitate the engagement of high-order cognitive processing. This leads to students who are more engaged in the learning process.

One way to cultivate playfulness is to inject some humour into your teaching. Tell a joke, use a funny voice, or incorporate games into your lessons. Weave exercises and activities that support creativity and encourage students to be playful and exploratory rather than restricted and rigid in their thoughts and behaviours. When you're having fun, your students will too. If you want to learn more about the importance of play check out our blog by Child Psychiatrist Dr Nicole Quiterio. 

Acceptance

Acceptance is about recognizing and embracing each student's unique qualities and strengths.  In a classroom that values acceptance, we see teachers acknowledging and celebrating the differences among students. When you approach your students with a non-judgmental attitude, you create a safe and welcoming environment where they feel free to be themselves. To engage with students from a non-judgemental space we need to be not only aware of what we say but how we say it and what our nonverbal postures, tones and facial expressions convey. The school environment also has a role to play in facilitating and communicating acceptance. Think about the visual representation and visual displays around your school - would all students feel accepted, included and seen?

To practice acceptance, try to focus on your students' positive attributes and strengths - what do they bring to the school community or your classroom? Students in this type of classroom are more likely to feel safe and comfortable being themselves and more likely to be vulnerable to offering ideas, making mistakes and the learning process. 

Curiosity

Curiosity involves being genuinely interested in your students' experiences, thoughts, and feelings. When you approach your students with a curious attitude, you show them that you care about them as individuals and that you're invested in their learning journey. 

To cultivate curiosity, try to ask open-ended questions that encourage your students to share their perspectives.  This process facilitates critical thinking and a lifelong love of learning. When being curious with students we must listen actively and show a genuine interest in what they have to say, repeat back their ideas, and check that we have understood correctly. We can also cultivate curiosity through student voice and opportunities for students to present ideas and perspectives. If you would like to know more about how to enhance student voice at your school check out our Student Voice blog here

Empathy

Empathy is about understanding and sharing your students' feelings. When you approach your students with empathy, you show them that you care about their wellbeing and you're willing to support them through challenges.

To practice empathy, try to put yourself in your student's shoes and imagine how they might be feeling - it is also acknowledging when you cannot imagine how they might feel. When you offer comfort and support, you help to create a sense of safety and trust that allows your students to learn and grow.

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What are the benefits of incorporating a PACE model into your classroom?

The PACE model is all about creating a supportive relationship and environment for students so that they remain regulated and therefore able to access high-order thinking, creativity and exploration. When students lack relationships with their teacher/s or do not feel supported by their school environment, we are more likely to see dysregulated students or students who are sensitive to dysregulation. With this comes “tunnel vision”, rigidity of thought and interruption to the laying of memory - all of which impact the process of learning and social-emotional development. 

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When teachers use the PACE model we are more likely to see the following: 

  1. Increased sense of safety and security: The PACE model emphasizes the creation of a safe and nurturing environment, where students feel accepted, understood, and valued. When students feel safe and secure, they are better able to focus on their learning and academic success.
  2. Improved wellbeing and mental health: The PACE model encourages teachers to show empathy towards their students, by acknowledging and validating their emotions. This can help students to feel more supported and less isolated, which can be protective of wellbeing and reduce mental health vulnerability. When students feel heard and understood, they are less likely to experience feelings of anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns. Students are also more likely to seek help if they begin to struggle with their wellbeing or mental health. 
  3. Enhanced social and emotional skills: When teachers approach their students with the PACE attitudes they provide consistent modeling of social and emotional skills. As such, students are more likely to develop positive relationships with their peers and teachers and to feel more comfortable expressing their emotions and thoughts. 
  4. Better academic outcomes: When students feel safe and secure in the classroom, they are more likely to engage in their learning and achieve academic success. The PACE model encourages teachers to create a positive learning environment, where students feel comfortable taking risks and exploring new ideas. This can lead to improved academic outcomes, such as improved attendance, improved grades, increased motivation, and a love of learning.

It is important to recognize that the PACE model can be particularly beneficial for students who have experienced trauma or adversity. These students may struggle to regulate their emotions and may feel unsafe or insecure in the classroom or school environment. By focusing on Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, and Empathy, teachers can create a supportive environment that helps these students feel safe, supported, and able to engage in their learning.

One of the strengths of the PACE model is that it is flexible and can be adapted to suit the needs of different students and classrooms. Teachers can incorporate the PACE model into existing teaching practices, adapting it to suit your teaching style and the needs of your students. However, it is important to remember that incorporating the PACE model into the classroom is a journey and not a destination. Teachers must be willing to reflect on their practice, make adjustments, and continue to develop their skills to effectively support their students.

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By approaching students with Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, and Empathy, you can help to create a secure base from which they can explore and learn. Overall, a classroom that values the PACE model would be a safe and nurturing environment where students feel respected, valued, and supported in their learning journey - a classroom where students flourish and thrive. 

If you're interested in learning more about how to create a safe and nurturing learning environment, check out our Psychological Safety blog.

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Interested in learning more about the best practice psychology frameworks for student wellbeing. Check out our FREE downloadable guide here.

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References:

Hughes, D. A. (2017). Attachment-focused parenting: Effective strategies to care for children. W. W. Norton & Company.

Hughes, D. A. (2018). Building the bonds of attachment: Awakening love in deeply traumatized children. Rowman & Littlefield.

Hughes, D. A. (2021). PACE

Kain, E. D., & Terrell, S. L. (2012). The neurobiology of attachment-focused therapy: Enhancing connections in children and teens. WW Norton & Company.

Siegel, D. J. (2015). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. Guilford Publications.

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2011). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child's developing mind. Bantam.