Awakening Your Child’s Learning Spirit

Here we are at the beginning of a new school year. Where did the summer go? As the years pass time seems to go by more and more quickly. I know that many parents and children alike are both excited and wary of what experiences the new school year will bring. For Indigenous people education has always been about whole person development through activation of our learning spirit and nurturing the emergent energy that flows from this place. Historically, however, education has not always provided the optimal conditions for a child’s learning spirit to fully emerge.


Dr. Marie Battiste, one of Canada’s first Indigenous scholars, talks passionately about the learning spirit inside each of us. When a child’s learning spirit is awake and engaged their learning becomes what Dr. Gordon Neufeld, Developmental Psychologist, refers to as emergent. Emergent learning energy comes from the inside of the child and results in a venturing forth energy, curiosity and desire to learn. A child whose learning spirit is engaged is highly teachable and much of their learning will be a result of their own desires and interests. They simply want to learn. It is miraculous to witness when we see it. You will know what I an talking about if you have ever experienced the excitement of your own learning spirit coming to life. Another way of looking at this through a traditional lens would be using the metaphor of hunting. If we think back to more traditional times we can see the connection between our drive to learn and become all that we can be and the drive to gather and hunt. The energy really is coming from similar places inside. Dr. Gregory Cajete, Indigenous Scholar and Author, talks about hunting as a metaphor for learning. That aspect of us that hunts for knowledge and significance is central to succeeding in education.

So moving into the new school year my desire was to provide parents and teachers alike with some things to consider. Following are some points I invite you to reflect on and some ways you can support your child’s learning spirit so that they can experience a fun, successful and meaningful year.

We are relational people. All people are relational, however, all of Indigenous life is founded on an ethical relational way of being. We exist and thrive in relationship to nature, spirit, animal, plants and, most importantly, each other. Our children need to feel connected to those teachers responsible for them. What this means in practical terms is really simple. Each child needs to be able to look into the eyes of their teacher and recognize that the teacher “sees them deeply”. They need to see that they are invited, respected and safe. Children need to have their dignity preserved in order for their learning spirit to thrive and this exchange of knowledge occurs through the eyes of the teacher to the child.

Learning spirits need safety and nurturance. The learning spirit is very shy. It does not come out unless absolutely safe to do so. In fact, many learning environments scare a child’s learning spirit away leaving the child in a survival mode. Before any learning can take place children need to have their learning spirit invited and they need to feel held and supported by their teacher otherwise the desire to learn will disappear. For many Indigenous people, especially our parents generation, school has been an extremely wounding experience leaving families with the inter-generational affects of trauma. The western educational philosophy influencing today’s educational system can perpetuate that trauma. It is important that we are mindful of this and strive to ensure our children have a positive experience where their learning spirit is nurtured. Sometimes we have to back away from pushing for outcomes and simply work on nurturing the learning spirit until such time as the child is ready to learn.

There is a need for re-enchantment. Indigenous education was always traditionally rooted in processes of enchantment. That means that through the use of story, myth, animals, nature, and spirit the mentor or teacher would enchant the students in order to captivate their attention. Teachers were amazing storytellers. Once captivated the students would be absorbing the teachings without knowing they were being taught. They were part of the process. Fully engaged and experiencing the moment-to-moment magic. Our children need stories, experiences of places that are deeply personal to their family history, connection to the animal and plant worlds and most importantly a teacher who has the ability to enchant and captivate their learning spirit. A child whose learning spirit is engaged does not need rewards and incentives to learn.

The learning spirit needs relationship, rest and room. More than anything children need an attachment relationship with their teacher in which they can be free from the pursuit of basic attachment needs such as sameness, belonging, mattering, being liked and being understood. These things should be unconditional and our children should never have to work for them. It has become quite commonplace to use these things to get a child to behave but there is a dire cost. We get restless children in pursuit of having their own needs met, attaching to each other and experiencing problems behaving and learning. As a priority children need a relationship with their teacher in which the teacher generously provides for what is needed. From there the child can rest in the relationship and we see this lovely emergent energy. Viola! The learning spirit is free to emerge and we pay witness to the miracle of growth. Then our job is to step back and make room for the growth. Let the child try new things, make mistakes and figure things out. Growth is a messy process. This is the most natural way to nurture the learning spirit.

What can parent and teachers do to support this process?

The first thing I do at the beginning of each year is wait to see if my child likes their teacher and if the teacher likes my child. If they do then it’s going to be a great year. If not, well…you probably know how that goes. What I do to help my child form a relationship with their teacher is simple. I ensure that I meet the teacher on the first day. Sometimes I have to elbow my way in but I ensure that I do it. I allow my child to see me making eye contact with their teacher, smiling, nodding and talking. It’s important you let your child see that you like the teacher. This is the most natural way to transfer the attachment relationship you have with your child to the teacher. I then endeavor to say nice things about my child to their teacher and in turn say nice things to my child about their teacher. I don’t do this in front of the teacher or child but one on one so that neither know what I’m up to. You will be amazed at how effective this can be. Nothing fancy. Just good old-fashioned common sense. We automatically will form a connection with someone who is connected to someone we already have an attachment to.

Collecting is an important attachment ritual that gets overlooked with children. In fact, it seems to be that we are losing this in many contexts with adults too. Collecting is the basic greeting ritual. Children are not really open to being directed by adults they are not connected to and collecting helps in forming this connection. It needs to be used after any and all separations. My children need collecting many times a day but especially after school and in the mornings. Teachers who stand at their door and greet every child by name and collect their eyes, smiles and nods tend to have more effective classroom management. Things just go more smoothly. So make efforts to collect your child’s eyes…make it safe for them to give you their eyes, say something that makes them smile and then say or do something that gets them to nod at you. Now you have got a working connection and the green light to move forward. Just a side note. It’s important to collect a child if we allow the connection to be broken due to behavior or an incident. Never let it go too long as this is very detrimental to a child’s development.

Bridging is the other bookend to Collecting. Bridging is a way for making sure that nothing breaks the connection between you and your child. You can bridge behavior, separations, incidents, and accidents. You are basically saying to your child that nothing can divide you and them. Nothing can break the union. Not even physical separations. It is extremely detrimental to development when a child feels that the connection can be broken easily and frequently. In fact, there are studies that show that this is common denominator amongst adolescents in trouble with the law. Nigh time is a good example of a physical separation that needs to be bridged as is a long day at school. So, bridge the nighttime separation by saying I’ll see you in the morning, or in your dreams. You can give the child something that smells like you. You can bridge the long day at school by putting a note or picture in your child’s lunch box and you can bridge behavior by letting your child know they are still important to you no matter what and that you look forward to spending time with them later. Bridging is an important ritual that can affect your child’s learning spirit.

So, my wish is that each of our children’s learning spirits are engaged and nurtured this year and that you as a parent and/or teacher get the privilege of witnessing the miracle of growth as a result.

About dmfindlay

I am currently enrolled in the Master of Education program at SFU focussing on Contemplative Inquiry and Approaches in Education. This blog outlines my journey over the next 2 years
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