Teaching Tolerance in Secondary Classrooms

Much of what goes on in our world makes its way into our classrooms in some form or another. In this sense, many view classrooms or schools in general as microcosms—mini representations of society. Ask any teacher, and tolerance is likely not part of their curriculum. However, much like with a productive and stable society, tolerance plays an essential role in creating a welcoming and productive classroom environment. Fostering a positive environment is no easy task, especially when our world is in the midst of such grave negativity. Tolerance in the classroom takes time, patience, practice, and reflection.

 

Remind students that everyone they meet knows something they don’t. Whether rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, foreign, or not—every single person has lived a different life, experiencing their own realities and garnering life lessons along the way. Instead of viewing someone’s vastly different experiences as weird or wrong, students should be reminded of the value that varying experiences, perspectives, and lifestyles offer.

 

Change the language of the classroom when it comes to discussing differences. To avoid “othering” certain groups, encourage neutral or positive ways to address differences. Instead of allowing students to use weird, odd, strange, unusual, etc. to describe people, groups, or customs, a positive classroom environment should be one where words like unique, unfamiliar, uncommon, fascinating, diverse, various, or distinctive are used.

 

Approach confrontation with logical questions. Since students bring differing experiences and opinions into the classroom, occasional clashes are to be expected. When this occurs, teachers can use these opportunities as teachable moments by addressing the issue with open, honest, logical conversations. Guided or rhetorical questions also allow students to reflect on their own perspectives and how they react to others. For instance, a teacher might ask, “In what way does his/her different opinion or belief threaten yours?” “Is there a reason that their differences affect you?” “How can we focus more specifically on ourselves and less on how others behave, speak, learn, etc.?” “What do you think you know about certain people? What if you took a moment to consider where these beliefs/opinions come from?” “Saying that someone’s choices are wrong do not necessarily make yours right.” “This argument could simply be de-escalated by considering it a difference of opinions.” All of these talking points prompt students to reflect on their own belief systems while maintaining an open mind towards others.

 

Learn how to recognize your own implicit bias. This is often a difficult practice for teachers—we aim to be impartial, objective, open-minded educators that provide equal opportunities to all of our students. Therefore, recognizing, questioning, and shedding light on our own innate judgments goes against what we are working towards in the classroom. It also summons feelings of discomfort by forcing us to identify our own stereotypes and belief systems. As difficult and uncomfortable as this may be, we must address our own biases before we can ask students to do the same. To foster tolerance, there must first be a foundation of understanding—what better way than to begin with our own reflections?

Create opportunities for students to learn about one another on deeper, more meaningful levels. Free writes, warm up topics, discussion starters, and icebreakers are all optimal opportunities to help build a solid, positive rapport in the classroom. Ask students to respond to questions such as:

 

  • What is one way that your family likes to celebrate an important accomplishment?
  • What types of traditions are unique to your family/community?
  • Do you have any rituals, superstitions, good luck charms, etc.?
  • Where do most family gatherings happen?
  • What important memory from your childhood makes you smile?
  • What does your typical Saturday look like?
  • What do you like to do on a snow day?

Teaching Tolerance in Elementary Classrooms

As educators, we know that there are many, many things that are beyond our control. In fact, some days it seems like outside variables are constantly working against our goals for our students. With home lives, belief systems, opinions, and habits already formed, our young learners enter our classrooms with some knowledge and prejudices that they may not even know that they have acquired. Simply put, what occurs at home or outside of the happy school bubble may not align with the tolerance that we hope to instill in our students. Below are a few activities to reinforce tolerance in the elementary classroom and reintroduce positive mindsets around what it means to be different.

 

Ask students to pick their favorite color and draw a picture using just that single color. The following day, ask students to draw the same picture using as many colors as they can. On the third day, place drawings side by side and ask students to reflect on their art. Prompt discussion by asking questions like:

  • Which drawings depict or show more variety?
  • Which drawings are more interesting or lively?
  • Which drawings reflect real life more accurately?
  • Which drawings attract the eye or incur more fascination?

 

As students discuss, introduce them to the idea that art imitates life. By this you mean that, just as our drawings are more vibrant and interesting when they are full of different colors and variations, our world becomes more beautiful when we appreciate the differences around and between us.

 

Encourage students to explore literature that includes a main character with drastically different life experiences from their own. As students explore texts offering new perspectives on the world, utilize a Venn diagram for a compare and contrast activity. Students will put themselves and the novel’s main character into the Venn diagram, which will reveal how similar they might be, despite their differences. In looking closely at the character’s struggles, worries, fears, and overall experiences alongside their own, students begin to empathize with a character that they originally saw as “other” or “different.”

 

Design challenging, collaborative learning experiences that essentially force students to lean on each other and cooperate in order to achieve success. One example might be a spelling, times tables, or other skills relay race, in which each member of the team must successfully participate to move the entire team forward. Quizlet Live allows teachers to create review games using a collaborative online platform. The site groups students randomly and asks individual questions to various members of each team. Progress is projected on the Smartboard in real-time and creates an intense form of comradery as teams digitally “race” to the finish. Activities like relays or digital relays build community among even the most reluctant students and teach tolerance along the way.

 

Highlight famous people and historical figures that experienced adversity, unique obstacles, and unconventional upbringings to show students that self-love and self-acceptance are key forms of tolerance as well. Elementary schoolers will be surprised to learn that some of the world’s most celebrated artists, athletes, leaders, and thinkers came from what we would consider to be strange or unusual backgrounds. By highlighting their successes, children begin to view differences as assets, as opposed to deficits.

It is never too young to learn that loving others has to begin with ourselves first. Once we accept our own distinctiveness and individualities, we begin to seek differences in others to achieve personal growth.

Kindness Matters Now More Than Ever


Schools can be seen as microcosms of society—often what we see in our schools mimics or represents what our society and communities are facing as a whole. With school leaders and students gaining a national platform to voice their opinions surrounding school violence, the yearning for kindness and peace among today’s youth has never been stronger. The success of March for Our Lives seems to have lit a fire in everyone, but our work has truly just begun.

Merriam-Webster defines kindness as, “the quality or state of being gentle and considerate.” One way that students can have a direct effect on the safety and security of their own schools is to spread kindness throughout the halls. This is much easier said than done, especially since hormones, egos, and problems at home end up permeating the school environment. However, schools today are putting a serious emphasis how students can take an active role in building a kind environment.

“Throw kindness like confetti” is a popular bulletin board message seen in many classrooms; however, the concept behind the go-to phrase is the real focus. The movement encourages students and teachers to write anonymous messages of praise, encouragement, or recognition to specific students on sticky notes. The goal is that each student finds an anonymous, personalized note that recognizes an important aspect of that student’s life. Notes should refer to a specific achievement, struggle, friendship, accomplishment, growth, difficulty, etc. The key is that children and teens are recognized for how they handle the highs and lows—that they are commended for positive actions large and small, even when they do not think that anyone is noticing their struggles or achievements. Whether you litter the classroom, hallway, or entire school with kind messages, the sentiment remains: it costs nothing to show kindness to others.

Lunch groups or the #wedinetogether movement is a student-created, student-centered action plan designed to ensure that no one has to be “that kid” eating alone in the cafeteria. The project seeks to reach out to children and teens that may feel alone, neglected, or cast aside by their peers. Simply put, an unofficial committee of students approaches peers sitting alone in the cafeteria and invites them to eat at their table. Instead of the outgoing or “popular” kids distinguishing themselves or furthering the divide between peer groups, students use the opportunity to reach out to peers that may need a little more coaxing or a subtle confidence boost to feel comfortable. Again, the idea behind the lunch bunch is to combat the “us versus them” mentality that plagues our schools. Students learn that reaching out to others in need is not only the right thing to do, but it can also land them with a new friend. The once lonely students gain a sense of belonging and appreciation, and no longer are made to feel that they are unseen or undeserving of friendship. A long term goal of the lunch group is to unify schools. It also shows students that putting others down or ignoring certain peers is not the way to lift ourselves up—we gain nothing by putting someone else down.

How to Solve Problems with Peers: High Schoolers

Conflict resolution is an important skill that adolescents develop over time. As we adults know, it can take years to learn how to react calmly to a disagreement. For the most part, by high school, students have begun to achieve a sense of independence and maturity. However, conflicts, as we all know, are a part of life. Despite the connotation, conflicts do not have to be negative—in fact, conflicts can lead to a much more productive and understanding relationship among peers once the issue has been solved.  

How can we ensure that conflicts among high school students can produce the types of benefits we would like to see? Several strategies can help to ease tensions and foster a greater understanding during tumultuous times.

Remind students that a difference of opinion is just that—a difference. Having a conflicting opinion does not in and of itself equate to an argument. Emotions often only help to stir the pot; so teens and young adults can benefit from remaining calm during these conversations or disagreements. Taking a rational or logical approach to the disagreement, as opposed to an emotional one, will allow students to focus on the problem at hand.

Often times, a small conflict can diverge in several different directions. With each participant eager to make a point and be heard, it is no wonder that many of the small classroom scuffles can swirl into larger, full-blown arguments. Too often, the original conflict balloons into something unrecognizable, to the point that neither party remembers how exactly the disagreement began. With this in mind, encourage high schoolers to keep the conversation or mediation focused on one central issue—other issues may be discussed separately at another time to avoid escalating the situation. Keep all comments related to that central problem.

Active listening is another practice that can help teenagers mediate a situation on their own. With practice, students will learn to listen to a peer without interruption. Let each student know that he/she will have a chance to speak without interruption as well. Remind listeners to maintain eye contact, hold a neutral posture (i.e., no crossed arms), and nod to demonstrate that the other person has been heard or understood. Remind high schoolers to avoid the urge to look away, roll their eyes, sigh in disagreement, or any other gesture that displays aggression, defiance, or rudeness.

Provide students with the option to put their feelings in writing. This also ensures that a message can be thoughtfully prepared without the worry of an emotional delivery. This is also a positive cooldown practice for conflicts that have quickly become more volatile. Remind students to maintain a conversational volume and tone when speaking with a peer. A conflict resolution will not benefit from snarky sarcasm, feisty or angry tones, or yelling. A louder voice turns the listener off and only escalates the emotions involved in the conversation. High schoolers should speak slowly and calmly, being sure to put their thoughts and emotions in clear, concise terms. These open conversations can help each peer feel heard without playing a “blame game.”  

How to Solve Problems with Peers: Middle Schoolers

Conflict resolution is a skill that students of all ages require on a regular basis. Because of the emotional fragility that we often see in the middle school age group, conflicts can arise even more frequently among peers. While this is cause for some concern, the upside is that teachers and parents can employ many different strategies to help prevent, mediate, and solve conflicts among preteens.

Teachers can help to prevent or assuage conflicts by working to create a positive classroom environment. This type of classroom not only lends itself to academic success and productivity, but also helps to promote a climate in which all voices are heard, respected, and appreciated. Teachers should promote this positive environment from the very beginning of the school year by setting clear expectations for all students. The classroom needs to be a place where students feel supported by each other. In terms of conversation tips, middle schoolers should practice positive conversation habits as part of their regular routine in the classroom. This includes active listening by making eye contact, tracking the speaker, allowing one person to speak at a time, and remaining on topic when talking.

To avoid explosive conversations, teachers and parents can prompt students to handle peer conflicts assertively, instead of aggressively. This means that students can openly voice their side of the issue, while maintaining a firm but neutral tone. Being assertive does not mean that students are allowed to be accusatory—they should voice their opinions while remaining calm, and then be open to hearing the other side of the conflict. To initiate these types of productive mediations, students can benefit from using sentence frames that express honest feelings and qualms without allowing emotions to lead the way. Try incorporating dialogue that follows the prompts below:

“What I’m hearing you say is _____________________________, but I also feel __________________.”

“When I said ____________________________, what I really meant was ______________________.”

“I reacted to what you said because it made me feel _______________________________.”

Students can also benefit from perspective-taking practices in which adults prompt preteens to look at the argument or conflict from a different angle. Parents should ask questions like, “How do you think your classmate felt when this incident happened?” Or, “What do you think made him/her react like that?” “Could you see why he/she became upset?” By looking beyond themselves, middle schoolers can begin to see how their words or actions may have had an impact on someone else. Perspective-taking practices allow young people to empathize with peers and show compassion, even when students are in the midst of experiencing a difference of opinion.   

An additional tip for helping middle schoolers during a conflict is to remind them to avoid placing blame on their peers. Often times, even if the other peer was responsible for starting the conflict, blaming or pointing fingers is like adding fuel to the fire. Blaming puts the other student on the defensive, which creates more of an issue than a solution. Remind middle schoolers that it is okay, even expected, that disagreements will occur, but that the important thing is to keep these conversations solution-based. This means that the focus of the conversation should remain solely on resolving the issue.  

 

How to Broaden the Social Circle: High School

One major aspect of schooling that helps to promote a teen’s development is the socialization that school provides. In no other realm would adolescents have hours of interaction with diverse groups of peers and adults on a daily basis. Learning alongside peers also benefits the development of teens’ social skills—not only do teens learn appropriate interactions at school, but they also learn other vital skills such as compromise, collaboration, perspective-taking, empathy, etc. So, recognizing that social skills are critical to education, how can we encourage building and maintaining strong social circles at the high school level?

Encourage acceptance. This may sound simple, but building acceptance and understanding among peers, especially teenagers, can be a tricky undertaking. Have open discussions about the importance of diversity, individuality, and differences among friends. The more accepting high schoolers are, the more open they will be to befriending someone new. Not only are these conversations important for families to have with their teens, but rather they also help to teach young adults the value of acceptance and compromise—two vital qualities for college and career readiness.   

Remind your high schooler that popularity should not come at the price of making genuine friends. Again, easier said than done. However, hard lessons about friendship often revolve around the supposed need to be “in the right crowd.” The adolescent years are difficult in terms of willingness to stray from the group. However, teenagers can only benefit from making connections with others. The idea of “the more, the merrier” certainly applies here. Being friends with others does nothing to take away from core friendships. Remind your teen that it is normal to have different or varying social circles. He or she should feel comfortable having family friends, neighborhood friends, sports friends, and more. Furthermore, remind your teen that to have a good friend, one must be a good friend.

Branch out when selecting or joining new extracurricular activities. Encouraging your teenager to try new things will not only broaden his or her horizon, rather it can also broaden his or her number of friendship groups. Your adolescent may want to try developing a new skill or hobby. Perhaps he or she could participate in a new art class, dance class, swim club, or tennis camp. These opportunities allow your teen to interact with and get to know new peers—peers he or she may not get to meet otherwise.

Discuss your own memories of friendships with your teen. Talk about how some of your friendships have stood the test of time, while others may have dissipated. Explain that it is normal and somewhat likely that some friendships will be fleeting. Depending on circumstances, friends come and go; some are relationships of convenience, not true compatibility. While discussing your own experiences with friends, model what it looks like to be a truly genuine friend. Puberty, confidence, self-consciousness—all of these transitional moments can make it difficult for teens to foster strong, authentic friendships. The more your teen understands what it looks like to be a good friend, the easier he or she will be able to meet new peers and maintain strong friendships. Ask him what he looks for in a “good friend.” Explain how he can take these positive traits and apply them to himself to ensure that he is treating his peers the way that he would like to be treated. Talk about the importance of honesty and loyalty. Make sure that your teen knows how to keep someone’s trust, be a good listener, and offer support when his friend needs him.

Avoid putting too much emphasis on the term “best friend.” Often times, teens can become caught up in the terminology. It may be because of a competitive desire to be “the best friend,” or because of the “cliquish” atmosphere that occurs during the teenage years. But, either way, a friend is a friend. Remind your teen that, just like she has other friends, her own friends have other friend groups as well. This does not mean that she should feel threatened or left out.

How to Broaden the Social Circle: Elementary

One major aspect of schooling that helps to promote a child’s development is the socialization that school provides. In no other realm would children have hours of interaction with diverse groups of peers and adults on a daily basis. Learning alongside peers also benefits the development of children’s social skills—not only do children learn appropriate interactions at school, but they also learn other vital skills such as compromise, collaboration, perspective-taking, empathy, etc. So, recognizing that social skills are critical to education, how can we encourage building and maintaining strong social circles at the elementary level?

Encourage participation in various peer groups. Provide your child with the opportunity to mingle with different groups of peers for various activities. Explain to your child that it is okay, even helpful, to have different peer groups or friend circles. The idea of “the more, the merrier” certainly applies here. Being friends with others does nothing to take away from primary friendships. Ensure that your child knows that it is okay to have school friends, soccer friends, family friends, neighborhood friends, and more.

Branch out when signing up or joining new extracurricular activities. Encouraging your child to try new things will not only broaden their horizons, rather it can also broaden their friendships. Try a new art class, children’s cooking class, swim club, or summer camp. These opportunities allow your child to interact with and get to know new peers—peers he or she may not get to meet otherwise.

Discuss what friendship means. The more your child understands about being a good friend, the easier he or she will be able to meet new peers and maintain strong friendships. Ask him what he likes in a “good friend.” Explain how he can take these positive traits and apply them to himself to ensure that he is treating his peers the way that he would like to be treated. Talk about the importance of honesty and support—a good friend is someone who keeps his word and helps his friends when they need a hand.

Help to open your child’s eyes to see potential friends. A good way to help build children’s peer groups is to help them see their peers as potential or possible friends in the making. Have conversations like, “What do you and Kate have in common?” “Do you ever sit together in the cafeteria, or play together at recess?” If your child expresses interest, try to foster a friendship by arranging a playdate. Talk with other parents about opportunities to get kids together in small groups. Offer to take a group to a museum, movie, or sporting event.

Avoid putting too much emphasis on the term “best friend.” Often times, children can become caught up in the terminology. It may be because of a competitive desire to be “the best friend,” but either way, a friend is a friend. Remind your child that, just like she has other friends, her own friends have other friend groups as well. This does not mean that she should feel threatened or left out.

Cultivating Friendships During the Summer Break

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Much like how we adults can relate to those cherished days at the start of summer, your child is undoubtedly thrilled about the beginning of summer vacation. What’s not to love about the freedom, festivities, and full-on summer fun that the end of the school year brings? With the school-day routines shifting to a more relaxed summer schedule, it is important to consider a few different challenges that may arise once school has ended.

One of the biggest challenges when transitioning from the school schedule to the summer schedule is the fact that children may not have anticipated the hiatus from their friends. Sure, they know that summer means no more school. However, what they may have neglected to consider is the fact that no school means no time with school friends.

One of the greatest things about school, for parents and children alike, is the social factor. While children are busy learning in class, they are also subconsciously developing friendships, interests, and social skills. Socializing with peers on a regular basis, all day long, is sometimes taken for granted—children don’t realize how much time they spend around peers while in school. Your child might write in a friend’s yearbook to, “Have a great summer” all the while not realizing that they may not see these friends for a solid amount of time. That said, it is important to consider how your child can keep in touch with friends when school lets out.

Of course, camps, days at the pool, and parties over the summer allow children time to see their friends, but what about those friends that may not be included in the parent rolodex of playdates? If your child has friends from school that he or she is worried about not seeing over the summer, there are ways to help them keep in touch.

Send mail—actual mail. In the time of snapchat, twitter, and texting, it is likely that children have not been mailing letters on a regular basis. All the more reason to break out the stationery! Letter-writing is not only a great way to maintain communication, but it acts as an incognito writing practice, as well! If away on vacation or at sleepaway camp, help your child write and mail postcards to friends.

Host a sleepover or backyard campout. Sleepovers are some of the best parts of summer. Help your child continue to preserve friendships made at school by helping to cultivate the friendship outside of school. Set up a tent in the backyard or roll out some sleeping bags on the patio.

Present your child with opportunities for their friends to get together. The younger children are, the more difficult it is for them to arrange time to hang out with friends on their own. That said, parents are key when arranging social gatherings over the summer. Do a little research about family-friendly summer activities in your area. Then invite your child’s friends and their families. Perhaps it’s a concert in the park, a trip to the zoo, or even just an afternoon movie on a rainy day—no matter the activity, your child will be thrilled to get to see their school friends outside of school.

Encourage your child to make new friends, in addition to the current friends. As adults, we know that with each new experience comes an opportunity to meet new people. This is true for children, too. As difficult as it may be, especially for shy kiddos, provide your child with opportunities to interact with new children in their age group. Perhaps this involves taking a class, joining a summer sports team, or attending a new day-camp. The more opportunities your child has to explore and meet new peers, the better. And remember, making new friends does not take anything away from friendships that already exist. Teach your child the common adage, “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, the other gold.”