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This Is Your Brain on Personal Connection

By Gary J. Abud, Posted On 

Guest Blog by Gary Abud

Executives and managers across industries typically agree that their people are the most important ‘capital’ in the organization. This also goes for school leaders. As a principal, it was ostensible to me that the staff, students, and families are the asset to the school, but not merely for their talent or work ethic. Rather, it is the relational currency and social capital that individuals contribute to a team is what really matters to an organization.

And there are numerous threats to the very fabric that weaves people together in organizations. That’s why it’s crucial for leaders to be aware of the importance of personal connection, recognize what threatens it, and be tactical in cultivating it. This supports the conditions in which teams can thrive.

Why Personal Connection Matters

As humans, we are ‘hard-wired’ for connection with one another. Dr. Henry Cloud compares our strong desire to develop relationships to how a cell phone constantly seeks connection in order to function. Even the top-of-the-line phone is rendered almost useless with no connection to a network.

Relationships are our human cell phone signals. And like a phone after it first powers up, people begin to seek connection as soon as they enter the world. And they never stop, unless some internal or external factor disrupts or limits that connectivity — something like trauma.

What Threatens Connectivity

Traumatic events such as war or natural disasters have been known to seriously impact one’s physical or mental well being. What’s more is trauma can also cause physical pain, even when a traumatic event is non-physical in nature. This is especially true for children, since they often lack the social and emotional skills to deal with the impact of trauma.

In recent years, the CDC has worked to expand the traditional understanding of trauma to include more social and emotional events such as poverty, divorce and food insecurity. These non-traditional traumas, as I have learned, have more than just an emotional impact on children; they change the brain, affecting memory, cognition, and learning capacity.

When kids are exposed to these Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) like abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction earlier in life, there is a larger risk for negative impacts on learning, health, and well being in later years. After all, those same children who endured trauma as kids grow up to become adults who have experienced trauma, and the influences of trauma can be lasting.

As a school leader, I could see the influence of trauma in student behavior and learning – but the effect was also apparent in adults as well. That is because trauma disrupts personal connection, either it compromises one’s relationship with oneself or a connection with others. The impact of trauma can be seen beyond school in workplace productivity, team morale, or the social health of your organization.

Where Trauma-Informed Tactics Help

While much of this might seem like classic HR leadership 101, ACEs and non-physical trauma require more than the traditional “my door is always open” offer when something bad happens. Organizations must be proactive instead, employing trauma-informed practices.

During a time when many students have experienced some form of trauma, even a single nurturing personal connection can work to reverse the negative aspects of trauma for a child. That’s why forming strong connections with students between educators and the classroom environment, is crucial. Thus, the role of any leader should be to foster a sense of belonging among the members of his or her team.

As a principal, I learned that in order for students to be receptive to new learning, there needs to be a supportive ecosystem around social and emotional development in schools founded on authentic, trusting connections. This produces positive changes in the brain, decreases the body’s stress response, and creates a climate of relaxed alertness in the brain — all of which leading to better learning.

What I found was that students who have strong rapport with adults in school perform better, because relationships are central to learning and development. Connections with others create a sense of doing school with, rather than doing school to, kids. This yields relational literacy among students, too, and it all begins with adults who develop understanding and empathy for the students in the context of trauma. In the workplace, this byproduct of connection between leaders and their direct reports underpins the productivity of the team.

Understanding and empathy are a great first step after recognizing maladaptive behaviors as signs of trauma, not malice. But developing connections with others requires interaction, common shared experience, and honest vulnerability. Based on my experience as a school leader, here are five simple tactics for building connection, catching the signs of trauma, and maintaining relationships in your team:

  • Daily Check-Ins & Check-Outs – each leader/manager “drafts” a handful of direct reports, identified as at-risk from a trauma, and briefly checks in/out daily with them
  • One and Done – in the first 30 days of a new year or on boarding cycle, demonstrate a single act of empathy each day for a different person (e.g., hear concerns, put yourself in their shoes)
  • Two by Ten – Identify 1-2 individuals who most need a connection, and for 10 consecutive days invest 2 minutes daily to talk with them about anything other than work
  • Three in Thirty – Ask enough questions to discover three things about every individual on your team during a 30 day period – bonus if you can do this at the start of a new year
  • Team Building Activities – Carve out the time and space to do create conditions that foster connection using team building activities, like these simple ones from Wrike

Gary G. Abud, Jr. is an educational consultant, presenter, and writer with the Saga Educators near Detroit, Michigan. His work focuses on helping kids succeed in school by offering coaching and workshops to schools and organizations, educators, students and their families. Previously, Gary has served students in K-12 schools as a STEM teacher, curriculum specialist, and principal. In 2014, he was selected as Michigan Teacher of the Year.


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