Social Emotional Learning Skills by Grade Level: Part III

By the time students reach middle school, the basic foundational skills for social-emotional intelligence are in place. Preteens and teenagers are now ready to face greater obstacles and challenges, especially with regard to peer relationships, stress, and self-motivation. To meet new benchmarks, students in middle and high school must learn to deal with more significant academic struggles, greater peer influences, ever-changing teenage social dynamics, and their own personal growth and development at the same time.  

 

SEL Middle School Benchmarks SEL High School Benchmarks
Students should begin to recognize circumstances and situations that cause extra or unnecessary stress; they should begin to adopt strategies to help with motivation, stress management, and task completion.  High schoolers should begin to understand how expressing one’s own emotions/feelings can have both positive and negative impacts on others. For example, as young adults, they need to know that positivity begets positivity, especially when emotions are running high.
Middle schoolers should begin to recognize the benefits of strong self-advocacy skills and how to best utilize the resources and supports that are at their disposal. For instance, if schools offer afterschool homework help, students who know that they struggle to complete assignments on their own should take initiative by signing up for the club/program and making a point to attend. High schoolers will have developed the ability to multitask by this point. However, more than multitasking, HS students should be able to shift back and forth between various tasks and under wavering conditions or circumstances. For instance, if completing a chapter review for English, a high schooler may need to answer a phone call or walk the dog to then return to the chapter questions later. Perhaps they need to maintain focus on several different homework assignments while working from a bustling coffee shop.  
Since learning to set goals in elementary school, middle schoolers should now be equipped to assess the validity of their goals so that they may make more informed, realistic, and specific goals moving forward. They should also be able to determine why they were able to reach success or not, i.e., What helped them to reach their goal? If they didn’t reach it, then why not? What prohibited them from finding success?   Students in high school should be able to capitalize on their strengths and think creatively when facing a challenge. This ability connects with problem-solving skills and ingenuity. We can’t all be great at everything, but in what way can we use our personal/individual strengths to make challenging tasks easier? This is key for college and career readiness.
By middle school, students should not only be able to recognize other people’s emotions, feelings, or perspectives, but they should be able to surmise why they feel or think that way. In this sense, they’re activating the ability to take another’s perspective that they learned in elementary school, then further expanding on that by making inferences.  High schoolers should be thinking about setting goals for the future after graduation. College is not the “end all be all.” But if college isn’t their plan, then what is? Young adults need to recognize how important it is to find a path, take steps to follow that path, and evaluate their progress, preferences, and goals as they go. If they want to take a gap year, what do they hope to accomplish during that year? If they are going to study abroad, how will they decide on a program and pay for it? What skill set do they plan to use for supplementary income while in or out of college?
Preteens not only recognize cultural differences, but they should begin to acknowledge how certain cultural differences can result in some peers being ostracized or bullied. They should then be able to begin to find ways to combat or address the bullying and/or to make others feel included and recognized.  High schoolers should be capable of showing respect for those with opposing or differing viewpoints, even if the opposing side is argumentative, dismissive, rude, etc. It is important to maintain a level of self-control even when others are not. Just because someone has a different opinion doesn’t mean they are wrong or right in their convictions.
Middle schoolers should be well-aware of group dynamics and what it takes to ensure the success of the group. This includes assigning roles, taking responsibility, sharing the workload, cooperating with others, etc. As young adults soon to be out on their own in the adult world, it is critical that high schoolers recognize how we must all be concerned about the well-being of all people; we may all be different races, but we’re all part of the human race. Therefore, we can positively contribute to our communities by advocating for human rights. 
Students in the middle school grades should be aware of negative peer pressure, what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like. They should also be able to come up with ways to combat negative peer pressure in non confrontational ways and under various circumstances. High schoolers should be able to assess their ability to actively listen and explain how active listening helps with conflict resolution. They should also be able to demonstrate leadership abilities within group contexts without dominating or overtaking the goal of the group.
Preteens should be considering their decision-making in terms of others. Before making an important decision, they should consider not only how they will benefit from their choice, but how it could impact others as well.  Young adults should be prepared to demonstrate knowledge of social norms and appropriate behaviors between and among various cultural groups. They should recognize certain expectations and norms when interacting with authority figures, children, elders, etc.

Management Strategies for Noncompliance

Strong-willed children bring character, fierce energy, and clear opinions into the classroom, which are all positive attributes that help to stimulate engagement and learning. However, when fervid determination crosses the threshold of acceptable behavior, teachers are often left in a sticky situation when deciding how to proceed with a defiant student.

Keep a level head

When given an instruction or directive, such as, “Please sit in your assigned seat,” students are generally expected to oblige or at least attempt to follow the request. You may be met with an eye-roll or exasperated retort, but 9 times out of 10, the request will be a non-issue. However, when a student is outright noncompliant, it is important that the teacher consider the potential catalyst of the defiant response. Often, this type of isolated obstinance, especially when it occurs out of nowhere, is a response to some unknown frustration or concern. The frustration may not even be related to this particular class or the directive. Because the trigger is typically unknown, teachers can assuage the emotions by considering how to de-escalate the situation before reacting. This is easier said than done, but suggestions might include:

  • Walk away to provide the student with a moment on his own to consider the request or directive; this also allows you to take a breath before asking again.
  • Provide the student with a reasonable alternative, such as sitting in his assigned seat or sitting up front away from other students.
  • Calmly rephrase the directive in a soft manner that is only audible to the individual child. Too often, non-compliance arises from a public power struggle, so a defiant student is less likely to comply when he feels as though he is performing as “the rebel” for an audience of peers.

Consider the individual personality involved

When confronted with what could be considered defiance or task-refusal, teachers should pause to consider whether the student is actively defying the command, or if there is a misunderstanding. For instance, a student who struggles with auditory processing may fail to respond immediately. On the outside, she may appear to be ignoring you, but in actuality, she is simply interpreting the request at a slower rate. Similarly, a student with ADHD may also need a few additional moments or some repetition to grasp the directive—this isn’t defiance. Students with autism may also present as noncompliant at times. Typically, this refusal is linked to a lapse in social cues and/or a need for further clarification. It is not unusual for students on the spectrum to require an explanation of why they are being asked to do something. Again, this is not meant as a defiant remark. The “why” question is quite literally asked as a means of gaining further explanation in order to meaningfully invest in the task.

 

Provide alternatives, but hold your ground

When a student has dug his heels in, another option is for the teacher to present opportunities for student choice. This doesn’t mean going back on your word. If a student is refusing to complete an assignment, provide him with the choice to complete it now or at lunch. If a student is hesitant to read aloud, give her the choice of which passage she’d prefer to read. A student who is demanding to go to the bathroom can go, but only after he’s completed the front of the worksheet. These options allow students to negotiate, but only on the teacher’s terms. In essence, you’re giving an inch without permitting the student to take a mile.

Combating School Refusal: Part II

In Part I, we discussed that school refusal involves more than stubborn non-compliance and cutting school to spend time with friends. School refusal stems from psychological stressors that, for whatever reason, are triggered by the school environment. While school refusal can be a result of many different factors from child to child, there are universally effective strategies that families can utilize.

Managing School Refusal

  • Ask your child why he or she is anxious about going to school. This conversation must come from a calm and understanding place—you cannot show frustration, anger, disappointment, or judgment when seeking to understand the underlying issues. Let children know that you support them by legitimizing their concerns, but that you need to know where their nerves are coming from in order to help. Ask whether this began with an isolated incident with a teacher or peer, or if the triggers are truly unknown.
  • Talk to the school about what is going on. School refusal becomes a bigger issue when teachers are left in the dark. When the school is aware of the underlying anxieties that a student might be dealing with, they will take extra precautions to make sure the student is handled with “kid gloves” during his or her time at school. The school can also help to manage the student’s workload if he or she is missing major assignments due to stress and anxiety about coming to school. On occasion, the school might recommend a half-day or partial schedule so that the student is receiving important instruction in small doses. The school can also work to arrange supports for parents who may be looking into an IEP or 504 plan to ensure accommodations are provided.
  • Plan for small successes and occasional setbacks when your child makes it to school. The anxieties will never dissipate overnight, so it is normal for a child to try to attend school, but then become overwhelmed and ask to go home. This is okay. As a parent, you want to make sure you’re acknowledging your child’s effort and bravery for attempting something that you know is difficult and scary. The process of re-entering school on a regular schedule isn’t going to be swift. Therefore, your best move is to celebrate the small steps and gently encourage them to move forward with their progress.
  • Consider hiring a tutor to help manage the workload that is accumulating due to your child’s frequent absences. The tutor can also, with your permission, act as a liaison between the school and home to ensure that academic goals are being met. The mounting workload can make students even more anxious because they know that, when they return to school, they’ll be confronted with a pile of work. This can make for a never-ending issue of avoiding school because of the stress of all the work from missing school in the first place. The tutor can work with your child in the comfort of your home and help to manage the assignments and tasks, while also providing 1:1 instruction for skills that are necessary for meeting grade-level objectives.

Combating School Refusal Fact vs. Fiction

Whining and groaning about going to school is bound to happen from time to time. Children will undoubtedly have a few instances when they beg to stay home from school for one reason or another. Other students may skip the parental piece altogether and skip school without adult permission. While both of these issues can be problematic, they do not fall under the more severe issue of school refusal.

Fact: Experts estimate that anywhere from 2-5% of school-age children develop this level of refusal because of deeper emotional issues at play. This non-compliant behavior can develop out of depression and/or anxiety, and sometimes a combination of both disorders.

Fiction: Some people believe that school refusal encompasses any case where a child refuses to attend school; however, it is more complicated than that. School refusal is not the same thing as truancy, where students decide to skip certain classes or ditch school altogether without their parents’ knowledge. A student who is routinely truant is avoiding school in favor of some other desired alternative. Whereas a student who is refusing to go to school is doing so out of emotional distress associated with being in school. Similarly, a child who feigns illness to avoid a math test, for instance, does not fall under the same category as a student who adamantly refuses to attend school because of unexplained dread or apprehension.

Fact: School refusal is a response to or an attempt to alleviate or avoid the trigger—school—by refusing to attend. For students with social anxiety, separation anxiety, generalized anxiety, or depressive disorders, the school environment can exacerbate symptoms and create added distress. Incidents of bullying, the desire to be the perfect student, negative peer influences, and other emotional trauma associated with the school environment can also contribute to school refusal, but it does not happen overnight. School refusal is often a last resort or “breaking point” for children who have been experiencing pent up anxiety and/or depression for an extended period of time. When other strategies and methods for managing stress have failed, their last resort is to avoid stressors altogether by staying home from school.

Fiction: Contrary to popular opinion, school refusal does not occur out of nowhere in one fell swoop. There are known behaviors or signs leading up to outright refusal that occur systematically beforehand. It is important for parents to recognize these patterns and intervene early:

  • Children may begin by intentionally oversleeping several days or weeks in a row to prolong their time at home before leaving for school.
  • They may make numerous trips to the nurse with complaints about chronic, unexplained pain or injuries that are not visible, such as headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, muscle strains, or heart palpitations. Often times these ailments, while they may seem fictional or feigned, are actual physical responses to the anxiety that the child is experiencing—they are not necessarily “faking” the symptoms.
  • Children may also continuously call or text parents from school asking to be picked up for early dismissal. Often times they will claim that they are too sick to finish out the day. While this may be true on occasion, the likelihood is that the anxiety/depression has reached a threshold where the child feels that escaping from school will be the only solution.

Unfortunately, caving to these requests for partial school days will only create further issues with school avoidance. Intervention is required to address the core triggers and help these children to cope with their feelings of anxiety and depression within the school environment.

Look for strategies for intervening and managing behaviors related to school refusal in part II!

Promoting Academic Integrity

With the recent embarrassing mess that is the college admissions scandal, also known as “Operation Varsity Blues,”  today’s youth are getting a front row seat to watch the age-old adage come to life: cheaters never win. With high profile celebrities, executives, and elite colleges and universities involved, a spotlight has now landed on the intersection of where wealth and power meet educational opportunities. Common questions and considerations naturally arise when scandals surrounding the misuse of power and money are brought to light, especially in the realm of education—which some consider to be the “great equalizer.” All in all, most people simply wonder What happened to academic integrity and the value of achievements based on merit?

 

Of course, this current admissions scandal involves academic dishonesty on a grand scale, but anyone who tries to dupe the educational system likely has the same motive—that is, the need to avoid any potential failures. But what can we do to combat this urge to succeed and prove ourselves at any cost?

 

  • Parents and teachers should stress the importance of mastery learning, as opposed to performance learning. Mastery learning puts knowledge, growth, and personal improvement on a pedestal. Conversely, performance learning is driven by grades, points, levels, and rank. Essentially, we’re looking at intrinsic motivation (mastery) vs. extrinsic motivation (performance). While there is nothing wrong with the desire to prove oneself, the focus for performance learners becomes, “How can I make sure that I look the best, score the highest, and outrank my competitors/peers?” In this type of surface-level learning, knowledge isn’t the prize; the status acquainted with being “the best” becomes the end goal. Instead, parents and educators can take the following steps:
    • To encourage mastery learning, parents should talk with children and teens about how learning can have a profound and vital impact on their future. Talk about the opportunities and doors that education can open.
    • Explain how learning another language isn’t simply about AP credits or raising one’s GPA. Another language allows you to connect with others, verbally and culturally. As a skill, bilingualism is an asset in any workplace. Speaking another language also becomes a practical skill when travelling, either for work or pleasure.
    • Discuss how certain knowledge, skills, and abilities can translate into other areas of expertise. For instance, the dexterity and nimbleness that a surgeon’s job requires could be developed or improved by learning to play a string instrument or painting/drawing. Attorneys, researchers, and corporate executives will need to write proficiently for many different purposes. Seeing how this knowledge is applicable to a future career helps students to invest in what they are learning.

 

  • Present the “why” of learning to show that there is a greater purpose for these academic lessons and methods. Why do we learn about women’s suffrage, the Holocaust, and the civil rights movement? It’s not merely to ace the history exam at the end of the semester. We may not remember the exact dates or famous landmarks involved, but the more significant take-away comes from the fact that, to know better is to do better. Without knowledge of the past, we cannot grow from our mistakes.
    • Teachers and parents can hone in on this mindset by discussing the significance of the information that we learn in school. Where would we be without the people that stood up against injustice? What would we be missing out on if people hadn’t taken risks? What advancements have helped to improve our planet, our daily endeavors, life-expectancy, etc.? To cheat on an exam about the Constitution is to rob yourself of this important knowledge regarding your guaranteed rights.
    • Even for the younger learners, it is important that students know how they will rely on these skills later on. For instance, my multiplication flashcards were the bane of my existence in elementary school, but had I known how much I’d rely on that basic skill, for everything from cooking and grocery shopping, to choosing credit card options and monthly budgeting, I’d be much more inclined to study intently before peeking at a peer’s quiz sheet.

 

  • Discuss what plagiarism really means, specifically highlighting the fact that this is someone’s intellectual property.
    • Students are probably aware of their school’s or district’s policy on plagiarism. Depending on how certain schools wish to handle it, students who plagiarize could face disciplinary action ranging from a failing grade to expulsion. However, in college, plagiarism becomes a much bigger offense. Let them know that even inadvertent plagiarism can be a huge issue for universities.
    • Parents and educators should be sure to talk to high schoolers about the serious consequences that they may face if they plagiarize any part of a college assignment. Students who plagiarize at the college level will face several consequences. They may be forced to drop the course and take it again, which essentially means paying to take it twice. Colleges may also decide to review the student’s academic record, including previous work and essays. Previous papers might be scrutinized to see if this level of academic dishonesty is a pattern. Many colleges dismiss the student all together—no money back guarantee!
    • Talk with students about how, just like movies, music, and art are protected under copyright laws, published material is protected as well. If someone plagiarizes another’s material, then happens to benefit financially from that plagiarized work, legal issues may ensue. Copyright infringement can result in damages, penalties, and even jail time.

Accountable Talk for Behavior Modification

The somewhat recent educational philosophy of accountable talk is rooted in the idea that, through discussion, students practice accountability for their learning and their contributions to others’ learning through discourse. To simplify, the word accountable means, “required or expected to justify actions or decisions; responsible.” Therefore, when students are using accountable talk in the classroom, they are maintaining responsibility for accurate, verifiable evidence, support, or reasoning, and are expanding their own thinking through rigor and collaboration.

 

Since this strategy is shown to boost engagement, communication skills, and cooperative learning, why not utilize the same philosophies to support behavioral modifications? The idea translates quite simply—if students are able to practice accountable talk regarding academic content, try applying those skills to discussions involving behavioral issues.

 

 

Accountable Talk
Standard/Expectation

For Instruction,
accountable talk requires that students:

For Behaviors,
accountable talk requires that students:

Listening

  • Practicing active/attentive listening
  • Be able to summarize what another student said
  • Be capable of building upon a peer’s thoughts by adding their own considerations
  • Turn and face the peer or adult who is speaking to them; this demonstrates respect and builds positive communication skills
  • Maintain eye contact; avoid straying, daydreaming, and eye-rolling
  • Nod when in agreement to show that they are engaged and/or are aware of the other speaker’s position and opinion

Knowledgeable

  • Be able to defend their position, opinion, stance, etc. with evidence or support
  • Make connections between prior knowledge, other content areas, or a peer’s comment to establish relevance
  • Be able to verify one’s point if challenged or questioned
  • Unpack their position with details and analysis of how they arrived at such a conclusion
  • Explain why they made the choice that they did; discuss their thought process for acting or speaking the way that they did in class
  • Be able to recap or summarize the events prior to the incident or observed behavior
  • Examine the cause and effect relationship between triggers and decisions or responses

Reflective

  • Have opportunities to consider another’s perspective
  • Be provided with wait-time, as to ensure that thoughts are processed and responses are worded precisely
  • Consider how they might approach the task, challenge, or problem differently if given another opportunity or different circumstances
  • Think carefully before speaking
  • Consider the other person’s feelings or reactions to the incident
  • Connect this experience to something they have encountered previously
  • Brainstorm and discuss how this problem, quarrel, or conflict could be ironed out in more productive ways next time
  • Take responsibility for their actions and consider solutions for moving forward or making amends

 

Again, the same principles and benefits that accompany accountable talk practices for critical thinking and rigor during instruction can prove to be just as beneficial for addressing behavior concerns. The more opportunities that students get to practice accountability, whether with regard to academic content, or their own behavioral impulses, the more responsible students will become. Through accountable talk, they must not only listen to others to develop communications skills, broaden their knowledge, and expand on the ability to reflect, but also they must gain a sense of ownership in what they say and how they say it.

American Heart Month—Teen Relationships Pt. II

In continuing our look at unhealthy teen relationships, we hope to not only educate families on the warning signs, but also equip parents with methods to intervene. It is important to recognize that an unhealthy relationship is built by manipulation, coercion, intimidation, and by chipping away at a person’s self-worth. Because the abuse can have such a stronghold, it is crucial that parents know how to get their children out when problems begin to arise with their child’s romantic partner.

 

If suspicions arise, it is probably a parent’s first instinct to either “forbid” the relationship, or criticize the boyfriend/girlfriend in an effort to get their child to open his/her eyes to the issues. Parents should stifle both of these urges. Forbidding a teen from doing anything, especially seeing a partner, has a tendency to have an adverse effect. Rather than pulling the two apart, the demand might actually drive the two closer together.

 

  1. Instead, encourage time apart or to spend more time with close friends. Help your teen plan an “all girls” or “all boys” excursion, activity, sleepover, or weekend trip. The key is to create subtle distance by reminding children of their other friends and family that may have gotten the boot when the toxic relationship began.
  2. Instead of outright bad-mouthing their partner, focus the conversation around your teen’s feelings. Ask questions like, “I see you’ve been down, anxious, depressed and short-tempered recently, do you know what might be causing this?” Or, “how do you feel when so-and-so yells at you, criticizes you, controls you, calls constantly, etc.?” Your goal is to highlight the concerning behaviors by examining the effects they have on your child, not by outwardly criticizing the partner or abuser. Use your own experiences with controlling or difficult relationships or friendships to create a space for dialogue that is free of judgment. In the simplest, non-threatening way, you want teens to recognize the negative effects that this unhealthy relationship is having on them.
  3. Monitor and limit phone use if necessary, including text messages, voicemails, email, etc. Frame the conversation as though it is in your child’s best interest to give the phone a break during certain times of day. Create family expectations that during and after dinner, phones should be used minimally, and only for important circumstances. However, parents themselves should follow suit as well—it is difficult to ask teenagers to part with their phones if the adults are not willing to follow the same expectations.
  4. Seek help from a third party. An expert with a neutral vantage point, such as a child psychologist or family therapist, may be the key. Oftentimes, teens feel that parental advice is meant to control them or persuade them to do whatever it is that the parent suggests. A neutral third party willing to listen and absorb the whole situation from multiple sides will be better equipped at getting through to your teen. He or she is trained to help mediate family strife. Therapists are also often able to shed light on an issue without casting judgment or blame, making teens more apt to listen.
  5. Expose your teen to new experiences, hobbies, or activities as a means of taking his or her mind off of the significant other. Set up a family movie marathon, visit a local museum or art studio, go indoor rock climbing, plan a spa day, try cooking a new recipe together, or go to the driving range. The list is limitless when it comes to finding new outings for the family. Whatever you decide, make sure that your teen enjoys the activity and that it doesn’t feel forced or contrived. The point is to create space between your teen and his or her significant other, while showing your teen that there are plenty more happy experiences to seek beyond this controlling relationship.

American Heart Month—Teen Relationships, Part I

February is the unofficial “month of love,” thanks primarily to Valentine’s Day. February is also American Heart Month, which is meant to promote heart health and wellness and to provide community resources for preventing heart disease. It also happens to be Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Since teens are more likely to experience love and dating before being diagnosed with heart disease, we figured we should use this opportunity to discuss healthy relationships—because knowing one’s worth and how to set healthy boundaries is an equally important facet of protecting one’s heart.

 

The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence estimates that, each year, over one million American teens experience physical violence at the hands of a romantic partner. While physical abuse is certainly the most obvious or undeniable form of violence, dating violence includes any form of threats, as well as verbal, emotional, sexual, or digital abuse (threatening texts, posts, phone calls, or blackmail). As if these abuses were not devastating enough, teens who experience dating violence are also far more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, or suffer from depression and thoughts of suicide. With such destructive consequences, it is imperative that parents know the warning signs of a potential relationship issue and how to intervene.

 

Signs of a potentially harmful teen relationship:

  • If, after entering a new relationship, your teenager suddenly pulls away from friend groups and family activities without warning, it may be an early sign of a controlling situation. Abusive partners often easily become jealous, territorial, or vengeful if a boyfriend or girlfriend is giving his or her time to others. The isolation is also another way that an abuser exerts mental control over his or her partner. Isolation and withdrawal from family and friends also allows the abuser to push the boundaries of control or violence—if no one is around to intervene or ask questions, the control can continue or progress.
  • When cellphone and/or social media use changes drastically, parents should start asking questions. Control can, and likely will, extend into digital realms eventually. Perhaps a controlling boyfriend insists that the girlfriend remove photos, posts, chats, and other personal memories from online profiles. Additionally, a cautious girlfriend or boyfriend might exhibit stress or anxiety if she or he is unable to answer a controlling boyfriend or girlfriend’s text or incoming call. If texts and phone calls become excessive, especially if they’ve gone unanswered, this could be a sign that a controlling relationship has begun.
  • Similarly, if a boyfriend or girlfriend takes a partner’s phone or insists on knowing passwords or codes, this could be the start of something dangerous. Again, these types of behaviors are all about control and power. Obsessively checking in, reading messages, intercepting phone calls, browsing history or email—all of these are signs that a teen is attempting to control his or her partner on an invasive level.
  • Excessive apologies could be another sign of an unhealthy relationship brewing. Another major aspect of mental or emotional abuse involves the use of guilt—specifically, tactics to elicit guilt. If you notice that your teen is overly sensitive to questions and criticisms and follows any minor misstep with an apology, this could be a learned behavior from a boyfriend or girlfriend who is trying to make your teen feel bad for insignificant mistakes or shortcomings.
  • Furthermore, if your teen seems to be more critical of himself, it may be because his partner is feeding him that harsh criticism. Negative self-talk often stems from hearing other negative talk or incessant put-downs.
  • A teen in an unhealthy relationship might defend or minimize the situation when questioned. If family or friends question the relationship or criticize the teen’s partner, the first instinct is to excuse or defend the other’s behavior. While family and friends are simply trying to highlight the potential issues, a confrontation or intervention could have the exact opposite effect. Oftentimes, a critical eye from a parent or friend drives the partners together even further, solidifying the relationship on a harmfully dependent level.
  • Threats to end the relationship are another token move for abusers who wish to establish control and codependency. If your teen’s boyfriend or girlfriend constantly threatens to break up with him or her, the angle is probably manipulative. The point again is a power move; the partner is toying with the other’s emotions and using the relationship as a ploy or pawn: “Do what I say or I’ll break up with you” is just another mind game used to exert control.

Creating a Positive Climate for Learning Pt. II

Whether schools are public or private, religious or non denominational, set in rural America or in bustling cities, the push for a more positive learning climate is a common thread throughout. Much like schools have their own ways of encouraging the entire student body, classroom teachers can employ different strategies to build the positivity around learning as well.

 

At the classroom level

  • Teachers can foster positivity before students enter the room with one simple tactic—stand at the door and greet students by name as they arrive. This easy, everyday practice is one that immediately sets the positive tone, not only for the classroom as a whole, but for a student’s motivation and engagement on an individual level. This is also a helpful way for teachers to gauge any academic or social-emotional struggles that a student might be experiencing. A student who slumps, walks slowly, appears emotionless or otherwise dreary might need some extra TLC that day. A student who appears to be agitated or worked up may need a moment to recover from an earlier incident before his or her learning can continue. Whatever the case, the point of greeting individual students as they enter is to demonstrate care for each and every learner. A simple, smiling “hello” lets students know that a teacher is happy to see them, excited to teach them, and open to communicating if a student needs a pep talk.
  • Encouraging growth, not instant perfection, is another way that teachers can positively reach those students who may not always get the honor roll, student of the month, highest GPA, etc. Praising and celebrating achievement in the form of growth allows students to see that, while natural intelligence is great, effort, motivation, perseverance, and grit are worthy attributes as well.
  • To track growth, teachers may want to have students create data folders or portfolios to collect and organize their work and scores. These simple folders help students recognize their own development and growth. They also motivate students to take accountability for and agency over their grades and schoolwork.
  • When students need a little extra encouragement, teachers should consider using real-life examples of successful people who once struggled. These inspirational stories of famous leaders, athletes, performers, scholars, etc., help students recognize that, with diligence and optimism, obstacles can be overcome.
  • Make it a point to recognize positive study skills, attitudes, camaraderie, behavior, and outlooks. When students are recognized for anything, the recognition reinforces that behavior, making it more likely that the student will want to repeat that behavior, practice, task, or skill. Of course, teachers should keep praise and recognition genuine—we don’t want to acknowledge when students are simply following the rules or directions; make sure that the act is praiseworthy.

 

When things are not so positive…

Consider time for a community circle or restorative justice meeting when things go off track. It takes time and effort (not to mention patience!) to establish a positive learning environment, especially where adolescents are involved. Teachers should not become discouraged after a rough day, or week, or even month—these things happen. Instead, educators might find that a restorative justice strategy is just the thing to help reroute the course. If behaviors, motivation, effort, academic integrity, or disrespect are prevalent issues during class, pump the breaks and talk about the issue directly.

    • Clear the class schedule or agenda for the day; a community circle does take up time, but it is time well spent when done properly.
    • Invite the students in as you normally do; however, ask them to sit in a circle with no other materials or distractions in their hands. You may want to have your room set up in advance, or you can ask students to add chairs to the circle as they enter.
    • Take a moment to go over the expectations of the circle: One person speaks at a time, comments are confidential and stay within the circle, participants should speak their truth, and students are allowed to pass the talking piece if they do not want to comment.
    • Review specifically what active and polite listening looks like; when a classmate speaks, students should shift to face the speaker, provide eye contact, listen attentively, and acknowledge a person’s moment to share.
    • Make sure that everyone agrees to the ground rules and that any distractions (pencils, phones, fidgets, candy, earbuds, etc.) are placed out of the circle.
    • Begin with a direct question about the issue you plan to address. An example might be, “When was the last time you felt disrespected?” As the facilitator, you should provide your own response to the question. Speak calmly and deliberately so that emotions are kept at bay, but your sentiments are still made to the group.
    • Pass the talking piece to the left or right and remind students that they do not have to speak or share unless they’d like to.
    • When the talking piece has made it back to you, the facilitator, thank the participants and ask the next question.
    • Alternate the direction in which the talking piece is passed around the circle so that everyone is able to share equally.
    • After the circle, ask students to reflect on what was said and how others felt. Ask students to reflect on their own feelings. Encourage them to think about how they as a class can use this teachable moment to make adjustments and progress forward.

 

The point of the circle is to build community and use communication as a positive tool to do so. As students get used to the process, community circles will become more proactive and meaningful.

Critical Thinking Skills as an Approach to Behaviors at Home

Especially as children become stir crazy cooped up inside during the winter months, behaviors can begin to plummet. Perhaps routines have been off, bedtimes have been extended, or one too many holiday desserts has sent someone into a tizzy. Whatever the case may be, we can always appreciate a fresh approach to dealing with misbehaviors. If time-outs, confiscated iPads, or groundings are wearing on the family, a different approach could be beneficial. With a little patience—okay, maybe a lot of patience—conversations where parents prompt children to think critically about their behaviors can change the way in which children see misbehaviors all together.

 

Critical thinking encompasses a complex set of higher order thinking skills. As opposed to memorization or fact-based knowledge, critical thinking includes relational, analytical, reflective, argumentative, or systematic thought processes. It is not so much what you know or think, but why or how you know and think that way. Because critical thinking often involves aspects of perspectives and/or decision making, these strategies can be the perfect platform for dealing with behavior management.

 

When siblings or peers argue:

  • Parents can mediate by asking questions about how an argument began. By taking a moment for reflective thinking, children begin to see how a small issue may have escalated or blown out of proportion.
  • If children are calling one another names, diffuse the situation by talking about how these are opinions; they are not based on facts. Just because someone calls you stupid certainly does not mean that you are stupid. These words hurt, of course, but ask your children why this person’s cruelness affects them; do you value this peer’s hurtful opinion?
  • Encourage siblings to take the other’s perspective for a moment. Ask why she thinks her brother acted that way towards her. Why might his friend have behaved this way? The key is not so much in finding the exact purpose, but instead taking a moment to consider where that other person could be coming from.
  • Ask about alternative responses for next time. Is there a better option for dealing with a conflict like this in the future? What is the best way to respond to your little brother next time this happens? What are we not going to do again, and why?

When “so-and-so’s parents” let them do A, B, or C:

  • A rational explanation and some critical thinking can go a long way when children are upset over things that other kids are allowed to do. Calmly explain that everyone’s family operates differently, and so-and-so might be able to stay up until 10 pm simply because their parents work late… Or perhaps so-and-so sleeps in and rushes out the door every morning…Or it is possible that so-and-so feels like a walking zombie at the school most days? Whatever the scenario, remind your child that there are reasons behind your household routines—and another family’s routine is frankly irrelevant.
  • Discuss the implications of these decisions. If a friend is allowed to see R-rated movies, but your children are not, explain how an inappropriate movie could make them scared, uncomfortable, worried, restless, sleepless, and ultimately cranky or sluggish at school. Help them connect the dots between the rules and their purposes so that they see these guidelines as meaningful, instead of arbitrary.
  • Ask your child flat-out: “Besides the fact that so-and-so is allowed, do you have a valid reason or justification for changing the rules this time?” This forces children and teens to justify or support their stance with effective reasoning.

When frustrations boil over:

  • Encourage children to take a beat to evaluate the situation—what can we do to potentially solve this problem or ease this frustration? Think about why this particular task is causing so much frustration and use that as a new point of entry.
  • If math homework is about to cause a fit, take a brain break, walk away from the math packet, and cool down. Then, approach the problem with a cool head and fresh viewpoint. Think about it in “grand scheme of things” terms—is this something that is going to keep me up all night or ruin my month? Chances are, this meltdown will be a non-issue in a matter of hours.
  • Help them break down the problem or situation and tackle the parts that they feel confident about. Remind them to apply what they know and then use those methods to chip away at the task.
  • If the task is still complicated, encourage children to write down exactly what it is that they don’t know or are missing—what would they need to solve this problem or complete this assignment?
  • Apply the skill to a simpler problem and use that momentum to approach the more complex problem. Oftentimes, in simplifying a question, we are better able to see aspects of the problem that we may have missed due to the complexity.

When problems are on the cusp or horizon:

  • Call it psychic power or paternal/maternal observations, but parents are often able to tell when an issue, conflict, or temper is about to erupt. Teach children this reflective skill by modeling how to gauge one’s feelings and emotions. This helps to avoid or circumvent conflicts or attitudes that could be problematic.
  • Discuss the concept of foresight and how such anticipation can help in our decision making. Remind children that everything they do has an impact or effect on those around them.
  • In considering these implications, children are able to pause to consider the ripple effect that any decision might have. The ability to contemplate and deliberate based on past experiences and logical reasoning allows children to make more informed choices, and thus behave in more considerate or responsible ways.