Equitable Practices in the Classroom, Part II

In part one, we discussed the importance of addressing students using equitable methods. We also looked at ways to increase participation and ensure that all students feel capable of contributing in classroom discussions and group tasks. Equity is an essential piece, not only in how we teach, but also in what we use to teach.

 

Physical classroom set-up:

There are ways in which teachers can choose to organize, decorate, and structure the classroom to promote a more equitable learning environment. From simple aspects such as desk arrangements, to posters and texts selected for the classroom library, all of these decisions can either foster or stifle equity. When arranging desks, it is important that teachers consider the learning goals of the lesson or unit and the avenues with which students can arrive at these objectives. If discourse is an essential piece of the learning goal, desks should be arranged in a “U shape” or circled up to promote small group discussions, collaborative activities, and cooperative learning practices.

 

If drafting, peer review, or teacher feedback is a critical aspect of the objective, then desks should be set up in groups of twos, threes, or fours to create work spaces that allow for pair sharing and teacher conferences. Whatever the goal may be, the key is for teachers to feel free to structure the classroom as needed, even if this means moving seating arrangements regularly. The room should account for dynamic, free-flowing learning; it does not need to be the stereotypical static formation of rows of desks facing forward.

 

Familiar faces:

An equitable classroom is also one in which students feel welcomed by familiar faces and people with similar experiences. While teachers cannot always provide that face of familiarity themselves, they can ensure that the classroom is adorned with posters, student work, displays, bulletin boards, and texts that are racially and ethnically inclusive of all students.

 

Not only do students need to see themselves represented in their learning environment, but they also need to see stories of success and perseverance. When building a classroom library, teachers should be sure to include works of art, poetry, fiction, and biographical texts that demonstrate the strength of the human spirit through obstacles and hardships. When students are able to connect to texts, not only a cultural level, but through a common life experience, they become more engaged and motivated by the important themes of overcoming challenges. These essential messages help students connect to the classroom in a way that they might otherwise feel excluded.

 

Teachers can also build equity by including artifacts from the community in the classroom. If students participate in a club sport, consider hanging the team’s memorabilia or team statistics on a bulletin board. If community members primarily speak another language, consider displaying posters or motivational messages in that language around the room. Similarly, make mention of cultural holidays or other important days that represent students’ backgrounds, families, and religious or cultural roots.

 

When possible, incorporate generational influences that students can connect to during instruction. Music, television, current events, and other pop culture references can support student engagement and build equity concurrently.

 

Value multiple perspectives:

Where discourse is involved, students have the special opportunity to voice, hear, and try on multiple perspectives—a key practice for building critical thinking skills. Exposing the learning environment to new perspectives allows student to question previous assumptions, explore unfamiliar theories or viewpoints, and build an understanding for others’ belief systems.

Teachers can help to promote this level of broad thinking and consideration with purposeful modeling, questioning, and differentiation. For instance, when having a group discussion, teachers should prompt students to consider further viewpoints by purposeful phrasing such as:

 

  • “There are a variety of ways to look at this example.”
  • “There is not just one correct answer here, it is more open-ended depending on interpretation.”
  • “That’s an interesting interpretation. Did anyone else see it differently?”
  • “So-and-so solved the problem this way, but is there another way to solve it?”
  • “Can you think of another reason why the character may have responded this way?”
  • “How might someone else respond differently based on personal beliefs or circumstances?”
  • “One valid point does not negate another valid point.”

Equitable Practices in the Classroom, Part I

Equity is much more than an educational buzzword—it involves the conscious and subconscious decisions and methods that we teachers implement in the classroom every day. Equity is also closely linked to student engagement, performance, achievement, and academic expectations. Because of the serious implications of classrooms that lack culturally responsive teaching, equity has become a major focal point for professional development among educators. Equitable practices are so critical, in fact, that most districts incorporate equity standards in teachers’ evaluations and professional growth systems.

 

With such an emphasis on equity in education, it is important that teachers know how they can foster and promote equitable practices seamlessly into their instruction and classroom procedures. Many of these strategies fall under “best practices”—strategies that most teachers utilize intuitively every day. However, there are additional efforts that can be made to ensure that equity is at the forefront of our teaching and learning.

 

Addressing students:

Teachers should work to welcome and address students by name at the door upon entering class. This helps to build a positive classroom climate and ensures that students know they are each cared for and welcome.

 

Teachers should ask about correct pronunciation and if students have a preferred nickname. Often, students are shy about correcting a teacher’s pronunciation; however, it is important that teachers correctly identify and pronounce students by name to recognize their personal and cultural identities. Over time, when teachers continuously mispronounce a student’s name, it sends an unintentional message that the student’s name is arbitrary, difficult, or complicated. In essence, teachers may be inadvertently “othering” a student by neglecting to correct their pronunciation or drawing attention to the name’s unique qualities.

 

Teachers may also unknowingly address students by name only when they have done something wrong or are being reprimanded. While unintentional, this habit creates a negative rapport among teachers and students. Instead, teachers should consciously address all students by name when recognizing them for positive behaviors as well.

 

Student participation:

Best practices include random calling methods to ensure that all students get the opportunity to share in whole group and small group settings. Calling sticks help teachers to truly randomize student participation. This practice fosters equity in a few different ways: it holds all students accountable for learning, and it also establishes the belief that all opinions are valid and everyone’s perspectives matter. Calling sticks also encourage students to maintain focus and engagement because they never know when they will be asked to participate.

 

Calling sticks and other random calling methods should be used for more than just participation. Teachers can utilize calling methods to encourage students to come up to the board to lead a part of the lesson. Teachers can also use calling sticks to highlight a randomly selected student’s writing, art, poem, math strategy, etc. The key is to allow all students the opportunity to speak, demonstrate learning, ask questions, and receive praise.

 

Participation during group work or collaborative presentations can provide teachers with another opportunity to build equity among learners. Oftentimes, group work and presentations reward the talkative leaders and participatory over-achievers. Instead of allowing groups to determine who will share out or present, randomize the speaking role. Insist that the group member with the most recent birthday, shortest hair, longest bus ride, most siblings, or most colorful clothing share out. This provides the more quiet, reserved, or reticent group members with the low-risk opportunity to share the group’s work.

 

Proximity is another method to ensure equity when addressing students, particularly with student behavior. Teachers may subconsciously move toward students who are misbehaving or disrupting; however, it is just as important to use proximity when students are on task and exhibiting positive behavior. Physical proximity, whether addressing positive or negative behaviors, sends the same message to all students—“I see you; I recognize what you’re doing.” When students are “caught” doing something positive, use physical proximity to send that positive message. This subtle recognition helps to build classroom environment and an encouraging climate for students.

Lesser Known Facts about Bullying

Bullying and its effects on students are of major concern to parents, educators, counselors, administrators, and even lawmakers. Because of both the prevalence and dire consequences of bullying, communities are taking much-needed strides to overcome this growing problem. While much is known about bullying behaviors, effects, and overall statistics, there are some lesser known details about bullying that are helpful to parents and educators as we work to combat this serious issue.

 

While bullying can and does happen at any grade level, middle schools statistically see the most instances of bullying. There are several theories surrounding this research, including the increased need to fit in and/or follow the crowd, greater likelihood of peer pressure, the onset of puberty and hormones and lack of impulse control. What many middle school teachers are seeing is a combination of these factors, all of which create a pseudo-breeding ground for bullying behaviors.

“Social bullying” is one of the most common types of bullying. This is also sometimes referred to as “relational” or “relationship” bullying. Social bullying involves a group of peers, which can range from a large group, such as an entire classroom of peers, to a small gathering of only a few peers. The key distinction is this type of bullying involves a deliberate “pack mentality.” The bully or bullies will torment their target by means of intentional exclusion, spreading rumors that they know are false or hurtful, plotting to publicly embarrass the target, and manipulating others to turn against and/or join in the harmful behavior. This subcategory of bullying is especially hazardous because it aims to isolate the child, making him or her feel as though they have no one to turn to within their peer group.

 

Some effects of bullying, especially in severe cases, may last into adulthood. These include depression and anxiety, decreased achievement or motivation, and social avoidance or agoraphobia. Research also indicates that children and teens who do the bullying are more likely to suffer consequences of risky behavior later in life, such as alcohol and drug use, vandalism, sexual promiscuity and physical violence.

 

Adults who are not familiar with bullying prevention programs, adolescent behaviors, and school protocols may have a “blind spot” when it comes to instances of bullying. Children and teens often report that bullying has taken place when and where adults are present, but that the adult either did not recognize the behaviors or did not intervene.  Bystanders, especially adults and authority figures, are often looked upon by victims to de-escalate the problem. When adults fail to do this, the victim is often more intimidated and discouraged.

 

While legislation varies from state to state, bullying itself is not illegal. However, in Maryland, cases where bullying includes or results in further harassment, intimidation, hazing, misuse of electronic devices (cyberbullying), or civil rights violations could be in violation of the law. Cyberbullying, although it’s not face-to-face, is not any less harmful to the victim. In actuality, since most cyberbullying occurs via social media platforms, where adult presence is limited, the harm can be even more extensive or relentless.

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?

Parent Conferences

Parent conferences are extremely beneficial for students and their academic success. The constructive feedback and collaborative effort that parent conferences offer provide foundations for growth, no matter the student’s previous track record or measures of ability. Like many school districts, November is the month when Montgomery County Public Schools open their doors to parents and guardians for conferences. While any meeting of the minds is beneficial to students, there are methods to optimize the conference so that both parents and teachers walk away with feedback and strategies to best support the learner at home and at school.

For the parents:
➢ Come prepared with specific questions about your child’s academic progress. Questions like, “How is so-and-so doing?” is broad and somewhat generic, which will likely beget a broad response and leave the teacher with little direction with which to steer the conversation. Instead, review recent grades or classwork at home with your child and prepare to discuss specific areas of weakness on recent tasks. This allows the teacher to focus in on specific areas of need and strategies for growth.

➢ Consider asking questions that span beyond academic success. Ask about participation, where your students sit in the classroom, if they are socializing or pairing up during partner or group work, how frequently they ask questions or come in for extra help during lunch, if they arrive to class on time and with necessary materials? Beyond the academic picture, answers to these questions provide parents with an overall view of their child as a learner.

➢ Be ready to listen to constructive feedback about your child’s behavior. Often times, the child you see at home is a slightly (or sometimes vastly) different person from the student, athlete, peer or  persona that your child displays at school. Teachers are good at navigating precarious conversations about behavior, but they also aim to provide genuine feedback. Therefore, some information may be surprising or difficult to hear, but know that they will follow up their concerns with helpful strategies and new approaches to remedy any issues.

➢ Feel free to take notes. These meetings involve a lot of feedback from several different teachers, especially when your child is at the secondary level. It might be difficult to remember the key pointers from each teacher, particularly when your child’s abilities and behaviors vary from subject to subject. Therefore, a quick jot of each teacher’s talking points will ensure that you can refer back to these observations and suggestions when discussing with children at home.

For the teachers:
➢ Aside from current grade sheets, compile a few work samples with your feedback or comments included. Photo copy these samples so that parents have the option to take them home for further discussion with their child. If possible, provide a range of the student’s written responses or essays and include the rubric so that parents have an idea of what the task entailed and where their child may need help.

➢ Lead with positive comments so that the conversation is balanced. It is difficult for parents to hear criticism of their child; they may become overwhelmed or even defensive during a tough conversation. Talk about the student’s unique strengths first if you know that you will need to venture into a more critical conversation regarding his or her struggles.

➢ Prepare to offer strategies and resources that students can use outside of school to improve their areas of need. There are many online resources and apps that can help students with everything from spelling and typing to geometry and study skills—the problem is, parents often need guidance when finding age-appropriate and ability-specific resources that also align with the Common Core State Standards. A quick reference guide will help ease the stress of finding additional supports to use at home.

➢ Ask about the student’s interests, extracurricular activities, weekend obligations, and study habits. Answers to these questions can provide helpful insight into the student’s after-school schedule and ability to juggle social, academic, and home obligations. This also opens the door to discuss time management skills and how to ensure that academics remain a priority.

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.

Back to Middle/High School: Combating the Sunday Scaries

For me, the Sunday scaries began about a week ago, when it became suddenly undeniable that my summer was coming to an abrupt end. Painful as this realization was, I can only imagine it to be even more so unpleasant for my students. Yes, I’m a teacher. And yes, my Sunday night scaries can still be just as brutal as the impending doom that accompanied my Sunday evenings throughout adolescence.  Almost 20 years has passed since my own bouts with middle school anxiousness were at an all-time high, and yet, Sunday scaries can still summon that familiar sense of impending doom. So what is a high schooler (or high school teacher) to do when the scaries rear their ugly heads? Asking for a friend…

 

Stop saying “I’ll do it Sunday”

Quite possibly (and most logically), the reason that Sunday scaries are even a thing is due to the fact that adults and adolescents alike choose to postpone or procrastinate during the weekend. For many of us, Sundays are reserved for cleaning, laundering, meal prepping, etc. High schoolers do the same thing—they put off any homework, projects, or essays until Sunday evening. Teens put school work off until the last minute because it is the last possible thing they would like to do during their weekend reprieve.

 

While this makes perfectly logical sense, teens only compound their stress further and muster up Sunday scaries when they choose to save every task for Sunday night. Furthermore, in putting off these tasks, whether it be school work or chores, the item to be completed becomes that much more dreaded purely because of our previous avoidance. Instead, encourage teens to complete at least part of a large assignment or homework item early on in the weekend.

 

This small modification removes the daunting task of simply sitting down and starting. For many, starting an assignment or essay is the most difficult aspect, and thus, the most avoided. Tackling something headon removes the anxiety associated with the very beginning of the task. In chunking an assignment or essay over the weekend, teens also help themselves with their time management, maintaining focus and attention, and prioritizing the most difficult aspects of the assignment, as opposed to all-out cramming in one sitting.

 

Double check for necessary items beforehand

Again, saving things for the last minute (Sunday night) only allows room for more unforeseeable obstacles and less time to circumvent those obstacles. If middle and high schoolers know that a permission form, essay, or application is due in the early part of the week, Sunday night is NOT the time to realize that they are missing a key component of that form, essay, application, etc. Checking for these essential items during the course of the weekend leaves time for any unexpected emergency to be taken care of so that Sunday scaries are kept at bay.

 

Mark my words: Sunday night is when all printers run out of ink, or paper, or jam, or malfunction, or spontaneously explode. And you better believe that anywhere from two to ten other students will have the same printer “catastrophe” that prohibits them from submitting their essay on Monday morning. High schoolers can avoid this panic attack and their teacher’s subsequent eye-roll by printing ahead of time—it’s much easier to find an open Staples or Office Depot on Saturday afternoon than after 10pm on Sunday.

 

Know your priorities and work accordingly

Organizing tasks appropriately throughout the weekend allows students to identify and prioritize a to-do list. As natural procrastinators can tell you, teens would much prefer to do the easy or fun tasks first. However, this is of no help to them. Parents should encourage teens to get into the habit of completing the more difficult or high-stakes items first.

 

Yes, it may be more enticing to come up with a cheer for the pep rally, but the history research paper should come first. Help middle and high schoolers prioritize their lists by using the “fun” tasks as rewards for completing the difficult items first.

 

Look ahead

Using a small amount of time on Sunday night to look at the week ahead can help to alleviate the Sunday scaries as well. Often times, stress of the unknown or last-minute surprises are what create anxiety for teens. By sitting down and perusing the week’s calendar, families can ensure that a) everyone is on the same page about appointments/events, b) there are no surprises or last-minute to-dos, and c) events and tasks are evenly spaced as to not overbook any member of the family. A combined calendar in a central location also helps to correct the “I didn’t know” or “I forgot” excuse. If everyone is on the same page about the upcoming week, goals are sure to be met.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Background

While oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) was added to the DSM in the 1980s, its existence and diagnosis is still hotly debated and somewhat misunderstood among families and educators. Surprisingly enough, ODD is one of the most common behavioral disorders to be diagnosed in children. Furthermore, researchers have also found that oppositional defiant disorder in both boys and girls is often accompanied by a previous ADHD diagnosis.

 

Symptoms

While ODD is a disorder that affects both boys and girls, symptoms are typically known to vary between the sexes. Though this is in no way absolute, researchers have found that boys with ODD display their opposition and defiance in more physically aggressive manners; their frustrations may escalate quickly and in more overtly explosive ways. While girls, on the other hand, are more likely to display oppositional or defiant behaviors in subtle, sneaky, or manipulative ways. For instance, girls with ODD may be deceitful or cunning and interact with others in intentionally uncooperative ways. Again, these are not hard and fast rules; they are simply some of the known observations experts have made between the genders.

 

It is also important to note that symptoms associated with ODD are typically misbehaviors that most children and teens will display at some point during their development. However, the difference between mere misbehaviors or teenage moodiness and ODD is the prevalence and severity of the behaviors. With regard to a diagnosis, ODD behaviors have likely become so frequent that they are deemed as the “norm” for that child.

 

Support in the Classroom

Behavior Support Additional Considerations
Disproportionate anger/frustration/

irritability

  • Provide student with flash pass to the counselor for when tempers flare
  • Allow student to take brief “brain breaks” throughout the day, especially when transitioning between activities or subject areas to alleviate stress
  • Provide student with preferential seating near the door for easy access to the hallway if frustration escalates
  • Provide student with fidget cube or stress ball to channel negative energy
  • Classrooms as a whole can benefit from stress-relieving or meditative practices, but these coping skills are especially beneficial to students with ODD; schools and counselling departments are beginning to focus students’ attention on mental self-care and coping methods to reduce anxiety and stress
Argumentative, uncooperative, defiant towards adults/authority figures
  • Present requests or directives in the form of an “either/or” question. For example, if a student throws paper off the desk, the teacher might say, “Would you like to either pick up the paper now, or pick up all scrap paper at the end of class?”
  • Remind student that his/her defiance is a choice that will result in a consequence; ask him/her if she would like to make a different choice to amend the tone/behavior/attitude
  • Stay calm; you cannot fight fire with fire. As difficult as it may be, teachers and other adults must remember that the ODD behaviors are stemming from a larger issue.
  • Deescalate the tone of the situation by maintaining a calm, understanding, yet firm demeanor. Act with care and be deliberate in your directives toward the student.
  • Remind students that you are there FOR THEM; everything you do is meant to ensure safety and success in the classroom. By reaffirming your desire to help him/her, a defiant student may soften the edge and be more receptive to your requests.
Physical aggression; vindictive, spiteful, or manipulative behavior
  • Physical altercations are never okay; remind students that verbal disagreements should never escalate to physical interactions
  • If something physical does transpire, adults must be sure to document the situation thoroughly. This includes all parties involved, what instigated the issue, and anyone who may have witnessed the altercation. Teachers should also note when and where the event took place so that administration and parents are made aware of the full situation.
  • Teachers can consider activities or brain breaks that either diffuse or expel aggression or anger.
  • Items such as Rubik’s cubes, coloring books, or sudoku challenges help students to come down off of the aggressive moment by occupying the mind
  • Consider creating a small, comfortable, secluded corner of the room where students can take a breath and collect themselves before re-entering the classroom environment
  • Teachers and guidance counselors can help to mediate aggression and manipulative behaviors by helping students to reflect on an incident. Prompt students to think about why they lied, cheated, manipulated, etc. Ask them what they could have done differently that would have resulted in a more positive outcome.

Encouraging Independence and Self-Advocacy in the Classroom

Instruction in the primary grades is full of crucial elements and concepts—academic, social, and foundational skills that truly set students up for success. Besides the actual content-based curricula, elementary students should be exposed to essential tools and methods for fostering and developing self-advocacy, self-sufficiency, and autonomy in order to prepare them for their later years of academia and real-world challenges.

Classroom Practices and Procedures
Prepare students from the beginning of the school year by implementing and adhering to specific and consistent routines. For example, teachers may choose to begin each day or lesson with a warm-up to initiate thinking, spur conversation, and introduce concepts. Notably, a warm-up procedure can play double duty for teachers who hope to build independence among students.

 

Teachers should:

  • Introduce the warm-up procedure and expectations so that students know exactly what is expected of them when they enter the room.
  • Model the warm-up process and begin with simple questions or sentence frames to allow elementary students to focus primarily on the routine at first.
  • Evaluate or assess the warm-ups right from the beginning so that students apply a sense of value or importance to the daily practice/procedure.
  • Remain consistent with the procedure and expectations for each warm-up so that students are able to grasp the process and begin to initiate it each day on their own.

With a few weeks of practice, a simple warm-up lesson will begin to help prompt students to initiate a more independent work ethic. Because the process has been explicitly taught, modeled, and rehearsed, elementary students can quickly grasp the concept of activating, self-monitoring, and assessing their thinking.

Introduce the concept of self-advocacy by starting with a means of organizing the night’s homework assignments.

Similarly to the warm-up, teachers should introduce the mandatory practice of writing down the homework at the very start of the class. Emphasize the fact that writing down homework assignments, even if the assignment is “none,” is not optional. This helps students begin to adopt organizational strategies and self-management tools. Writing down the homework every class period also prompts self-advocacy in the sense that students begin to take ownership of the work that they must complete at home.

 

Teachers should:

  • Keep assignment titles brief but clear so that students know exactly what they are to be completing at home.
  • Clearly announce and write down due dates and deadlines so that students can copy those essential details as well.
  • Monitor agenda completion and subtly check or signature the daily assignments, especially for students with executive functioning needs. This helps hold students accountable for capturing the homework assignment and allows parents to see that teachers have signed off that the homework that was written down is correct.
  • Encourage students to checkmark or cross off homework and agenda items as they are completed. Again, this helps students to practice self-monitoring and organizational strategies.

Plan weekly or biweekly conferences to check in with students on their current classwork, writing progress, recent assessments, etc.

These brief, five-minute, one-on-one conferences encourage students to speak up on their behalf regarding any missing classwork, confusing concepts, or recent grade changes. It also provides a time for teachers to check in on any potential areas of need on the individual level. In doing this, elementary students can begin to see that they play an active and essential role in their learning and development in school. They also begin to see the teacher as their ally, someone who is there to help them reach their goals and conquer obstacles.

 

Teachers should:

  • Prompt students to ask questions by providing samples of guiding questions or sentence frames to initiate the conversation.
  • Offer students the option to write down their questions or concerns; this is especially helpful for shy or reluctant students who may need a little encouragement when speaking on their own behalf.
  • Consider using data folders, charts, progress checks, or any other method of organizing data so that students have a tangible, visual collection of work to evaluate and discuss. A data folder also allows students an additional opportunity to organize and review completed work, which aids in the process of self-advocacy as well.

Behavior Management Strategies Taken from the Teacher’s Playbook

If asked about observations pertaining to student trends over time, teachers, administrators, and any other school personnel will likely tell you how the culture of behavior in schools has drastically changed, even in just the last decade. While this is a generalized observationnot necessarily one that rings true for every child in every school across Americaprofessionals working in the realm of education report an overwhelmingly recognizable shift in behavior and behavior-related challenges in schools.

For parents that are struggling to manage behaviors at home, the stress can be all-encompassing. As teachers and parents may witness, when these behaviors go unaddressed, there is a tendency for actions or attitudes to escalate. While educators certainly do not have all of the answers, what they do have is plenty of experience with a wide range of personalities and demeanors.

Maintain consistency and stay strong

As teachers well know, adolescents and even young children can be masters of persuasion. Whether begging, throwing fits, crying, or pitting parents against one another, a child’s aim is typically the same when it comes to these strategiesthey are trying to break you. The reason that they attempt these methods is probably because they have seen it work before, either among siblings, at a friend’s house, or maybe they’ve even worked you over in this way before. The point is, when children are used to getting what they want when they want it, they will go to great lengths to achieve or receive.

Therefore, if you have already said “no,” do not falter; do not waiver or go back on your word. In doing this, you are showing your child that they can convince you to change your mind. Will it be embarrassing when your child throws a tantrum in public? Yes. Will they likely stop immediately if you cave in? Yes. But will they remember their success rate from throwing this fit? Absolutely. It may make your life easy in that moment, but going back on your word just to stifle a temper tantrum will inevitablely backfire because you are essentially reinforcing that negative behavior.

Ditch empty threats

Just as a teacher would not give detention and then “let it slide,” parents must follow through. If you impose a consequence, you must be ready to deliver that consequence. Empty threats or punishments that never come to fruition are just other examples of adults reinforcing negative behavior. Your child will remember how the “week without screen time” turned into just one night without the iPad before bed. In dropping the ball on the original consequence, your child will be less inclined to take those warnings seriously.

Put the child in control of the outcome

Teachers typically spend a great deal of time setting the expectations for their classroom environment, assignment protocol, and behavior. The point of setting the stage so specifically and deliberately is that students are made aware not only of the expectations, but also the subsequent consequences if those expectations are not met. Students know in advance that they will lose a certain percentage if work is submitted late. They also know that unkind words or behavior will result in lunch detention or a phone call home. Because of these known repercussions, students are careful to adhere to the rules.

It’s the same at home. Parents should calmly remind children of the expectation and the consequence that their child will be choosing if the behavior continues. This puts children in the driver seat by reminding them that they are in control of their behavior and how that behavior will play out. Explain to them that they “are choosing a consequence by behaving this way.” Children will be less inclined to continue the behavior when they know that this behavior would essentially mean that they’re imposing a punishment on themselves.