Now is the Time...
Children are the Priority,
Change is the Reality,
Collaboration is the Strategy
Promoting Mental Health...
Improving Academics! http://tinyurl.com/MHacademicsVideo
Change is hard…like really hard. When was the last time you arrived at work and you were enthusiastically greeted by staff members that were asking for change? Chances are that it has been a while. Let’s face it, many folks are creatures of habit and moving change forward, even with its staff driven, can be a challenge. Just like in the classroom we have the folks that pick it up new ideas and run while others watch off to the side and others that are the little turtles that just need additional time. All of this remains true when you talk about leading and developing a positive school culture. It is hard work. From my experience, leading and developing a positive school culture is a long challenging process and it has its ups and down. Even with the guidance on school climate from experts in the field implementing it is another story as each building, staff, and community has different characteristics that make the implementation process slightly different. Considering all of this, here are the points I focus on and offer as advice for those seeking to develop and lead a positive school culture.
Rome wasn’t built in a day! I understand this statement but it still makes me cringe as I think about the lost time in moving slow when it comes to doing the right work for kids. However, I do understand the importance of having patience and that culture takes a while to develop. In fact, changing the culture of a building takes multiple years, especially if you are making a large shift in practice. If you have teachers that have been there for 10+ years, this process tends to take longer than if you had a large number of new teachers. As much as I would like, culture takes time as staff, students, and families need to spend a significant amount of time together to get used to each other and the new set of expectations. It is through time that the new expectations will start to become engrained in the daily work everyone does and it becomes accepted. So if you find yourself wanting to rush the process of having a deeply engrained culture of serving the whole child with high expectations…take a deep breath as you need to be ready for the long haul.
You can’t change a culture of a building through emails and by hanging out in your office. Leaders must get out and be present in the building. The same goes when it comes to committee meetings, data team conversations, and professional development that staff attend. You have to be involved so you can help connect the work being done back to the culture shift going on within the building. When you opt out of these opportunities to be present and involved in the building, you are missing out on opportunities to help reinforce the direction everyone is working towards.
Elementary teachers love to talk and connect with each other. Even if you aren’t at the elementary level, I would still highly recommend communicating continuously about the culture of the building and the direction the building is going. Just like the old art of storytelling, sharing the story of your building and how these new cultural norms impact students makes an incredible difference. One of my favorite ways to help bring the conversations to life is by highlighting a particular student and the positive impact the changes have made on them.
As a new building culture is being developed, it has to be at the forefront of the conversation and focus of all staff. This is something that has to be visited throughout the year, particularly in the beginning of the year as you work to acclimate new staff to the building. During these times, I would also encourage you to share the why the need for and the direction of the culture shift. One of the exercises we did with staff at the start of the year was to create a large timeline of the history of our building. This allowed the new staff members to see firsthand the changes and needs for a culture shift within the building.
As with anything, you need to stop and reflect to examine if your actions match with the words and actions of the building. Over the past few years, my staff have become really good at this. They have even become skilled at calling me out if my actions or words don’t align. While some individuals might shy away from this accountability or blunt conversation, I really appreciate it as it holds me to our common agreements and the hard work we are doing to move students forward.
Finally, I encourage folks to be mindful of the daily climate of the building. While climate is very different than the culture of a building, you can get at reinforcing the culture of the building by addressing the climate. A simple climate survey will help one examine the climate and perhaps identify some underlying culture issues. For example, an unhealthy climate characteristic or belief a building has can become rooted into the culture if left unchecked.
Rachael George is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015 and currently serves as the principal of Sandy Grade School in the Oregon Trail School District. Prior to serving as an elementary principal, George was a middle school principal of an “outstanding” and two-time “Level 5: Model School” as recognized by the State of Oregon. George specializes in curriculum development and instructional improvement as well as working with at-risk students and closing the achievement gap. Connect with George on Twitter @runnin26.
Four minutes late to his first class of the day, an 11th-grade boy at Oakland’s Skyline High School swung into his seat and blurted an explanation: “I had a bad nosebleed last night.” His U.S. history teacher, Jimmy Barbuto, looked up. Being late to class can wreck the morning flow at school, provoking confrontations and derailing lesson plans.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Barbuto replied. The remark was a nod to their shared humanity as well as an academic strategy, a tiny moment of modeling social skills that is part of a blooming movement in education known as social and emotional learning. While the term is jargon, the concept is straightforward: Help students recognize and manage their emotions so they can get excited about academics and get along with others.
The class rolled on. “Anyone doing self-management?” Barbuto asked his 28 students, who sat in rows and paid a good deal of attention, considering they were teenagers in the early morning. “Having appropriate things on the desk?”
Oakland Unified is one of hundreds of school districts in California that have adopted social skill-building in an effort to move from zero-tolerance discipline and drill-and-kill curriculum toward a more nuanced approach to the behavioral and academic needs of students. Oakland Unified has boiled down the concept to three signature teacher practices, most of them familiar to accomplished teachers: a warm welcome at the start of the day, perhaps with a morning circle depending on the age of the students; “engaging” teaching, such as encouraging students to pipe up with their opinions while learning how to listen to the opinions of others; and closing out the school day on an optimistic note by asking students to take a moment to consider what they’ve learned or someone they’ve helped today.
“There has been an explosion of interest in this work,” Emily Doolittle, a researcher at the federal National Center for Education Research, said at a panel discussion late last month of leaders in the field who contributed to a new issue of the journal The Future of Children dedicated to social and emotional learning. And with that explosion has come heightened concern among proponents about how to spare social and emotional learning from the fate of many ideas in education: the fizzle.
“Watch out for the quick fix,” said Stephanie Jones, a social and emotional learning researcher at Harvard.
“In education, it seems like there’s a fad a month,” said Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, which co-publishes The Future of Learning with Princeton University. “What are the crucial steps that need to take place to make sure social and emotional learning continues to advance?”
That is the question being asked by educators nationally and in California, where the California Department of Education in 2016 joined a multistate collaborative to develop guidelines for social and emotional learning. No consensus has emerged on what skills to teach or how to measure results, but interest in social and emotional learning is driven by evidence of its effectiveness, said Roger Weissberg, chief knowledge officer at the Collaborative on Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, a Chicago-based nonprofit.
“We have a commitment to rigorous science,” Weissberg said. But the evidence-gathering is still in progress. “We don’t have all the answers in the field,” he said.
“I worry about the fizzle a great deal,” said Stephanie Jones, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As with any initiative, over-selling is a risk – spreading the belief that social and emotional learning will fix every educational ill, Jones said. She referenced a maxim from her graduate school mentor: “Watch out for the quick fix.”
Clark McKown, a psychologist and associate professor at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center, proposed that the field move to set standards for social and emotional learning and provide incentives for school districts to adopt well-tested programs. In addition, he called for teacher training programs to require courses in social and emotional learning. All of this rests on the development of an accurate way to assess whether social and emotional learning programs are helping students with academics and behavior, he said.
Those efforts are in the works at the state and national level, Weissberg said.
In the meantime, Mark Greenberg, a professor of Human Development and Psychology at Pennsylvania State University, laid out the current state of the field in a description sure to resonate with administrators struggling to get their arms around what social and emotional learning is and why schools should care about it.
The concept typically is introduced in schools “as a fragmented succession of fads or quick fixes, isolated from everyday educational practices,” Greenberg and his co-authors wrote in The Future of Children. The result, he said, is “a hodgepodge of prevention, treatment and youth-development initiatives with little direction, coordination, sustainability or impact.”
Part of the mishmash is generated by a profusion of programs that use different approaches, including videos, discussions and role-playing, to develop different and sometimes overlapping skills. In Wally’s Feeling Wheel in The Incredible Years Series program, kindergartners learn about their feelings and those of others using pictures of faces grimacing, smiling or frowning that are labeled as scared, excited, angry and more.
In the Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies program, elementary school teachers promote empathy by leading a discussion about how a story character might feel, such as a girl whose family tells her they are moving to the U.S. and she will be given a new name.
And for high school students, many programs have not yet shown results, said David Yeager, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Yeager explained that teenagers need programs that don’t preach to them or imply there is something wrong with them. Instead, approaches that tap into a teenager’s desire to make a difference in the world can wake up a student’s interest, he said.
He also cited the success of a teacher mentoring program called My Teaching Partner-Secondary that helps high school teachers create “an intellectually challenging but respectful classroom.” Students who felt their intelligence was respected did a better job of following classroom rules, Yeager said.
In Oakland, the district has invested in social and emotional learning in elementary schools for years and is rolling out the concept in a few high schools, including Skyline, through teacher training. The idea is to integrate social skill building into academic instruction.
In U.S. history class, Barbuto turned to the question on the overhead projector screen: “Who was responsible for the Battle of Little Big Horn?” As the discussion progressed, Barbuto jotted highlights on the screen. He noted that Native American tribes spoke dozens of languages, and then he segued into a tip that at once promoted learning, self-awareness and planning. “For me, because I’m a visual learner, taking notes is important,” Barbuto casually remarked. “If I took notes, it meant I had to do way less studying in the future and it was easier to write the essay.”
Pens moved in notebooks. Message received.
Educators want nothing more than for our students to feel successful and excited to learn, and to understand the importance of their education. We want our students' attention and respect to match our own. I believe that most if not all of our students desire the same, but walking through our classroom doors are beautifully complex youth who are neurobiologically wired to feel before thinking.
Educators and students are carrying in much more than backpacks, car keys, conversations, partially-completed homework, and outward laughter. Buried deep in the brain's limbic system is an emotional switching station called the amygdala, and it is here that our human survival and emotional messages are subconsciously prioritized and learned. We continually scan environments for feelings of connectedness and safety. I am learning that the students who look oppositional, defiant, or aloof may be exhibiting negative behavior because they are in pain and presenting their stress response.
Over 29 percent of young people in the U.S., ages 9-17, are affected by anxiety and depression disorders (PDF). The thinking lobes in the prefrontal cortex shut down when a brain is in pain.
What is trauma? When we hear this word, we tend to think of severe neglect or abusive experiences and relationships. This is not necessarily true. A traumatized brain can also be a tired, hungry, worried, rejected, or detached brain expressing feelings of isolation, worry, angst, and fear. In youth, anger is often the bodyguard for deep feelings of fear. Trauma-filled experiences can be sudden or subtle, but the neurobiological changes from negative experiences cause our emotional brain to create a sensitized fear response. When we feel distress, our brains and bodies prioritize survival, and we pay attention to the flood of emotional messages triggering the question, "Am I safe?" We react physiologically with an irritated limbic system that increases blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration with an excessive secretion of the neuro hormones cortisol and adrenaline pumping through our bodies. Chronic activation of the fear response can damage other parts of the brain responsible for cognition and learning.
We are all neurobiologically wired for social connection and attachment to others. When children don't receive healthy connections in early development, the brain rewires and adapts just as readily to unhealthy environments. If brain development is disrupted by adversity at any age, but especially in early development (PDF), the skills of problem solving, reflection, and emotional regulation are compromised and diminished. Children and adolescents need stimulation and nurturance for healthy development and attachment. Students whose development is disrupted often walk through the doors of our schools mistrusting adults.
To learn and problem solve, we must prime the brain for engagement and feelings of safety. In recent years, there has been a significant emphasis on Common Core proficiency while teacher training has often lost sight of the impact of understanding brain development in students. The almond-shaped clusters of neurons resting deep in each temporal lobe must be quieted if learning and well-being are to be exercised and addressed. Educators too need to be aware of our brain states and subconscious emotional triggers that could throw us into a power struggle and a stress-response state as we interface with our students.
What can we do to create calm and safe brain states within ourselves and within the students who walk in with an activated fear response?
We first must understand that feelings are the language of the limbic system. When a student in stress becomes angry or shut down, he or she won't hear our words. Talking a student through any discipline procedure or thought reflection sheet in the heat of the moment is fruitless. Here are three ways to calm the stress response -- two of them through immediate action, and the third by a brief science lesson.
Movement is critical to learning while calming the stress and fear response. Teachers and students together could design a space, a labyrinth of sorts, where students can walk or move to relieve the irritation of the amygdale. Physical activities such as push-ups, jogging in place, jumping jacks, and yoga movements help to calm the limbic brain and bring the focus back to learning and reasoning.
Focused attention practices teach students how to breathe deeply while focusing on a particular stimulus. When we take two or three minutes a few times each day or class period and teach students how to breathe deeply, we are priming the brain for increased attention and focus. These practices might also include a stimulus such as sound, visualization, or the taste of a food. The focused attention increases an oxygenated blood and glucose flow to the frontal lobes of the brain where emotional regulation, attention, and problem solving occur.
Teaching students about their amygdala and fear response is so empowering. When we understand that this biology is many thousands of years in the making, hardwired to protect us, our minds begin to relax through knowing that our reactions to negative experiences are natural and common. A middle-school teacher and her students have named the amygdala "Amy G. Dala." By personifying this ancient, emotionally-driven structure in our brains, the students are befriending their fear responses and learning how to lessen negative emotion. We cannot always control the experiences in our lives, but we can shift how we respond, placing the science of our brains in the driver's seat of discipline!
Have you recognized students experiencing emotional pain? How have you helped them overcome this?
She founded The Hive Society — a classroom that's all about inspiring children to learn more about their world ... and themselves — by interacting with literature and current events. Students watch TED talks, read Rolling Stone, and analyze infographics. She even has a long-distance running club to encourage students to take care of their minds and bodies.
It had always been her dream to work with children in urban areas, so when Smith started teaching, she hit the ground running. She had her students making podcasts, and they had in-depth discussions about their readings on a cozy carpet.
"Things changed for me the day when, during a classroom discussion, one of my kids bluntly told me I "couldn't understand because I was a white lady." I had to agree with him. I sat there and tried to speak openly about how I could never fully understand and went home and cried, because my children knew about white privilege before I did. The closest I could ever come was empathy."
Smith knew that just acknowledging her white privilege wasn't enough.
She kept the same innovative and engaging teaching methods, but she totally revamped her curriculum to include works by people who looked like her students. She also carved out more time to discuss issues that her students were facing, such as xenophobia and racism.
As she said in her acceptance speech:
"We studied the works of Sandra Cisneros, Pam Munoz Ryan, and Gary Soto, with the intertwined Spanish language and Latino culture — so fluent and deep in the memories of my kids that I saw light in their eyes I had never seen before."
— They studied the work of historical Latino figures, with some of the original Spanish language included. Many children of color are growing up in bilingual households. In 2007, 55.4 million Americans 5 years of age and older spoke a language other than English at home.
— They analyzed the vision of America that great writers of color sought to create. And her students realized that our country still isn't quite living up to its ideals. Despite progress toward racial equality with the end of laws that enforced slavery or segregation, we still have a long way to go. Black people still fare worse than white people when it comes to things like wealth, unfair arrests, and health.
— They read excepts from contemporary writers of color, like Ta-Nehisi Coates who writes about race. Her students are reading and learning from a diverse group of writers. No small thing when they live in a society that overwhelmingly gives more attention to white male writers (and where the number of employees of color in the newspaper industry stagnates at a paltry 12%).
— They read about the Syrian crisis, and many students wrote about journeys across the border in their family history for class. The opportunity particularly struck one student; the assignment touched him so much that he cried. He never had a teacher honor the journey his family made. And he was proud of his heritage for the first time ever. "One child cried," Smith shared, "and told me he never had a teacher who honored the journey his family took to the United States. He told me he was not ashamed anymore, but instead proud of the sacrifice his parents made for him.
Opportunities like this will only increase as the number of children from immigrant families is steadily increasing. As of 2013, almost 17.4 million children under 18 have at least one immigrant parent.
Smith's successful shift in her teaching is an example for teachers everywhere, especially as our schools become increasingly ethnically and racially diverse. About 80% of American teachers are white. But as of last year, the majority of K-12 students in public schools are now children of color.
As America's demographics change, we need to work on creating work that reflects the experiences that our students relate to. And a more diverse curriculum isn't just important for students of color. It's vital for everyone.
Students explain their ideas to a partner, respond to questions, and push each other to more fully explore their thoughts before they put them down on paper.
Young, who teaches at Oakland’s Lincoln Elementary School, developed the approach through a unusual professional development experience designed to help a cohort of Oakland teachers integrate social-emotional learning strategies into their teaching of traditional academic subjects, like reading and math. In sessions led by faculty from Mills College, a liberal arts school in Oakland, the Mills teacher scholars each select one instructional practice as a focus area, spending at least a year improving it through guided inquiry work.
Inquiry is basically a structured, reflective conversation through which listeners help guide their peers and challenge their thinking. Teachers in the cohort meet weekly with their school peers and monthly as a large group for open-ended, reflective conversations and to review student work and videos of children interacting in their classrooms.
They pay close attention to how students’ emotions and peer interactions affect their learning. For example, one teacher focused on helping students have productive conversations about math problems, developing strategies to help them talk through disagreements about how to find a solution, and how to explain their reasoning.
“I really feel like the most powerful part of it is that it’s starting with what’s happening in your classroom,” Young said. “Not what’s supposed to be happening, not what the curriculum thinks should be happening. What’s actually happening.”
Social-emotional learning involves nurturing students’ interpersonal and behavioral skills through a variety of educational strategies. Around the country, more schools are experimenting with social-emotional learning, buoyed by research that correlates it with positive outcomes, like academic gains and reduced disciplinary incidents. Employers have also pointed to so-called “soft skills” as desirable traits for future employees.
Young’s inquiry work, which focused on classroom writing workshops, led her to bring more peer interactions into the writing process as a way of separating the act of conceptualizing an essay from the work of writing it out. She got the idea after she interviewed students about the purpose of the workshops and got answers revealing some students’ misunderstanding of why writing matters. “We do writing workshops to help improve our handwriting,” one boy told her.
“The purpose of writing was not clear to him,” Young said. “That really changed my thinking in a dramatic way.”
The process she devised improves students’ academic work, she said, and it leverages skills they’ve learned through the Oakland district’s social-emotional learning strategy, skills like how to listen, how to relate to the experiences of their peers, and how to provide feedback.
Schools that promote comprehensive social-emotional learning focus on three strategies: changing school climate through areas like discipline and family engagement, direct instruction of research-based social-emotional learning curriculum, and incorporating a social-emotional learning approach into traditional classroom work.
Districts that have committed to the strategy, including Oakland, say weaving social-emotional learning strategies into everyday classroom practices can be the most challenging. Strategies are still developing, and when the work feels like a fad, or a new, top-down mandate, teachers are less likely to “buy into it,” school leaders say.
Most teachers are also coming to classrooms from schools of education and other pre-service programs that did little to address social-emotional learning, forcing them to learn on the job, according to a recent survey of U.S. teacher-preparation programs by researchers at the University of British Columbia.
While social-emotional learning advocates emphasize concepts like prioritizing student discussions over teacher lectures, strategic thinking over a narrow focus on the correct answer, and giving students a chance to learn from their mistakes through productive failure; many teachers have never had such classroom experiences in their own K-12 educations, said Carrie Wilson, the executive director of Mills teacher scholars.
That’s why many refer to the program’s inquiry process as “adult SEL,” the shorthand for social-emotional learning. Before teachers in the program commit to the vulnerable experience of sharing their work with their peers, they have discussions about what they need to learn and how they can help each other meet their goals, Wilson said.
“Our theory of action is that in order for adults, teachers, and principals to be able to provide certain types of learning experiences for students, they have to be able to have those experiences themselves,” she said. “When you look at the opportunities for adults in schools to really engage in that type of experience, what we hear from teachers is that they are really few and far between.”
The Mills teacher scholars program partners with Oakland and five other districts in the San Francisco Bay Area, leading cohorts of teachers who are focused on a range of academic subjects and teaching areas.
Oakland’s cohort, which focuses specifically on social-emotional learning implementation, is made up of about three K-12 teachers from each of five “learning hub schools,” including Lincoln, where district leaders are trying new strategies to improve their social-emotional learning approach.
District leaders hope those teachers, who have now participated in the Mills cohort for three years and serve as instructional leaders, will eventually be able to lead the teachers at their own schools in similar inquiry work on-site. It’s part of a larger strategy to expand a deeper understanding of social-emotional learning districtwide.
Oakland is one of 10 largely urban school districts that have partnered with the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, to implement comprehensive social-emotional learning strategies and to allow researchers to study their results. Each of those districts—which also include Atlanta, Cleveland, and Anchorage, Alaska—has taken its own approach.
Oakland created social-emotional learning standards that outline age-appropriate strategies for developing relational and cognitive skills at each grade level, from pre-K to high school. In an unusual move, those standards also apply to the adults working in its schools.
The standards focus on the five competencies that CASEL emphasizes in its definition of social-emotional learning: self awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decisionmaking. Every school in the district is required to adopt a research-supported social-emotional learning curriculum that teaches students about skills such as how to recognize and respond to a peer’s emotions and how to resolve conflicts.
The challenge for teachers is helping students recognize how they are using those strategies throughout the day, including in their academic work, said Sonny Kim, a program manager in the Oakland district’s office of social-emotional learning.
“We wanted to give teachers space to work this out,” he said. “In the classroom, you can think of the teacher as the unit of change. How do we support teachers in really understanding how to teach social-emotional learning? Also, how does it become part of what they do?”
Peer conversations can be a valuable tool for teachers, helping them evaluate their approach and identify successes, Kim said. And teachers can also help each other recognize their own biases and identify the learning needs of specific students, he said.
That’s especially helpful in Oakland, where a mostly white teaching staff teaches racially and ethnically diverse students, Kim said.
For example, at Lincoln Elementary School, which is located in Oakland’s Chinatown neighborhood, students are largely from Asian immigrant families. Traditional cultural motifs like dragons hang in the hallways, and school leaders send notes home in both English and Chinese.
Every teacher in the Mills program watches how changes in strategy affect a small group of “focal students,” to look for success. Those students may be of varying skill levels or students with particular needs, such as English-language learners.
Malia Tayabas-Kim, a Mills participant who teaches 2nd grade at Oakland’s Garfield Elementary School, chose two English-language learners and two higher-level native speakers for her focal students when she completed her first inquiry, which focused on academic discussions of books.
“I would observe them on the playground and see how can they have these conversations that go on forever about Pokémon or basketball … And I thought, how can I get them to use that in an academic setting?”
After observing their classroom discussions on video with her Mills peers, she realized she needed to help students understand what an academic conversation actually looks like, and how to ask good questions and provide feedback. She had students complete “fishbowls,” sitting in a circle around two peers to observe their discussion. And she provided “scaffolding,” posters with conversational prompts and questions.
“They could see it, hear it, practice it constantly, and internalize it,” Tayabas-Kim said.
This year, her inquiry focuses on teaching her students to ask their classmates for evidence to support their opinions. That work hones students’ academic skills of analytical thinking and reading, and it relies on social skills like how to handle disagreements and how to have constructive conversations, Tayabas-Kim said.
After students mastered asking one another for evidence, she extended the lesson further, helping them identify what makes good evidence and why they should ask for it.
She saw the effects of her work when she witnessed two students discussing a book called "Why Do Puddles Go Away?" The girl who read the book responded to her partner’s prompts for evidence by referring back to diagrams as she carefully explained how condensation works.
The inquiry work helped Tayabas-Kim recognize things she might not have noticed in those peer interactions, she said.
“Being able to share my inquiry, having people listen and ask questions,” she said, “has moved my thinking forward.”
Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at www.novofoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
Producers for the show say they hope the series can help those who may be struggling with thoughts of suicide. However, the series, which many teenagers are binge watching without adult guidance and support, is raising concerns from suicide prevention experts about the potential risks posed by the sensationalized treatment of youth suicide. The series graphically depicts a suicide death and addresses in wrenching detail a number of difficult topics, such a bullying, rape, drunk driving, and slut shaming. The series also highlights the consequences of teenagers witnessing assaults and bullying (i.e., bystanders) and not taking action to address the situation (e.g., not speaking out against the incident, not telling an adult about the incident).”
Why is this important?
Additional Information/Platforms from Netflix
A few weeks ago, I had the terrific fortune of getting to present some of the bullying prevention work that I do to a group of children at a local bookstore. As if interacting with smiling, exuberant young people was not gift enough, a reporter also attended the event a wrote a lovely article about my book and the work I do with kids, parents, educators and youth care professionals. All in all, it was dream publicity and since then, has sparked many conversations with people in my town who saw my photo in the newspaper and immediately related to the examples of bullying that were discussed.
I have been brought to tears more than once since the article ran while listening to parents share their feelings of outrage and helplessness over their kids’ experiences with bullying in school. One gifted but socially awkward middle school student blew me away with his articulate, poised, yet searingly painful accounts of relentless physical and verbal bullying on his school bus. An elementary school-aged girl described how she had to learn to shed her Australian accent within a month of entering U.S. schools because of how she was shunned by her classmates. The commonness of it all routinely astounds me with every new account; the pervasive cruelty makes my jaw drop every time.
It is important for me to begin this article by establishing that without doubt, many of the stories of bullying that are shared with me are horrifying and some are unspeakably cruel. But now, I also want to be honest and share that some of the stories are... well... really not so bad.
Take this story recently shared with me by an acquaintance who read about my professional work:
Signe, I saw your picture in the paper last week. Congratulations! I didn’t know you worked with bullied students. It’s so important that you do — things have gotten so bad! Last week, my daughter was bullied really badly after school! She was getting off of her bus when this kid from our neighborhood threw a fistful of leaves right in her face! When she got home, she still had leaves in the hood of her coat. It’s just awful! I don’t know what to do about these bullies.
“Was she very upset when she got home?” I empathized.
“No. She just brushed the leaves off and told me they were having fun together,” she said.
“Oh,” I answered knowingly, aware that oftentimes kids try to downplay victimization by bullies from their parents, due to the embarrassment and shame they feel. “Did you get the sense she was covering for the boy?”
“No, no. She really seemed to think it was fun. She said that she threw leaves back at him, which I told her NEVER to do again! The nerve of those kids.”
“Those ‘kids,’ I clarified. “Was it just the one boy throwing leaves or were there a bunch of kids all ganging up on her?”
“No, it was just this one boy that lives about a block from us,” she assured me.
“Is he usually mean to her? Has he bothered her after school before?” I asked, eager at this point to figure out what the bullying issue was.
No. I don’t think so at least. That was the first time she ever said anything about him. It was definitely the first time that I noticed the leaves all over her coat. But it better be the last time! I won’t stand for her being bullied by that kid. Next time, I am going to make sure the principal knows what is going on after school lets out!
While I always want to be careful not to minimize anyone’s experience (it’s the social worker in me!) and a part of me suspects that the sharing of this particular story may have been simply this parent’s spontaneous way of making conversation with me in a store aisle, I hear these “alarming” (read: benign) stories often enough to conclude that there is a real need to draw a distinction between behavior that is rude, behavior that is mean and behavior that is characteristic of bullying. I first heard bestselling children’s author, Trudy Ludwig, talk about these distinguishing terms and, finding them so helpful, have gone on to use them as follows:
Rude = Inadvertently saying or doing something that hurts someone else.
A particular relative of mine (whose name it would be rude of me to mention) often looks my curly red hair up and down before inquiring in a sweet tone, “Have you ever thought about coloring your hair?” or “I think you look so much more sophisticated when you straighten your hair, Signe.” This doting family member thinks she is helping me. The rest of the people in the room cringe at her boldness and I am left to wonder if being a brunette would suit me. Her comments can sting, but remembering that they come from a place of love — in her mind — helps me to remember what to do with the advice...
From kids, rudeness might look more like burping in someone’s face, jumping ahead in line, bragging about achieving the highest grade or even throwing a crushed up pile of leaves in someone’s face. On their own, any of these behaviors could appear as elements of bullying, but when looked at in context, incidents of rudeness are usually spontaneous, unplanned inconsideration, based on thoughtlessness, poor manners or narcissism, but not meant to actually hurt someone.
Mean = Purposefully saying or doing something to hurt someone once (or maybe twice).
The main distinction between “rude” and “mean” behavior has to do with intention; while rudeness is often unintentional, mean behavior very much aims to hurt or depreciate someone. Kids are mean to each other when they criticize clothing, appearance, intelligence, coolness or just about anything else they can find to denigrate. Meanness also sounds like words spoken in anger — impulsive cruelty that is often regretted in short order. Very often, mean behavior in kids is motivated by angry feelings and/or the misguided goal of propping themselves up in comparison to the person they are putting down. Commonly, meanness in kids sounds an awful lot like:
• “Are you seriously wearing that sweater again? Didn’t you just wear it, like, last week? Get a life.”
• “You are so fat/ugly/stupid/gay.”
• “I hate you!”
Make no mistake; mean behaviors can wound deeply and adults can make a huge difference in the lives of young people when they hold kids accountable for being mean. Yet, meanness is different from bullying in important ways that should be understood and differentiated when it comes to intervention.
Bullying = Intentionally aggressive behavior, repeated over time, that involves an imbalance of power.
Experts agree that bullying entails three key elements: an intent to harm, a power imbalance and repeated acts or threats of aggressive behavior. Kids who bully say or do something intentionally hurtful to others and they keep doing it, with no sense of regret or remorse — even when targets of bullying show or express their hurt or tell the aggressors to stop.
Bullying may be physical, verbal, relational or carried out via technology:
• Physical aggression was once the gold standard of bullying— the “sticks and stones” that made adults in charge stand up and take notice. This kind of bullying includes hitting, punching, kicking, spitting, tripping, hair pulling, slamming a child into a locker and a range of other behaviors that involve physical aggression.
• Verbal aggression is what our parents used to advise us to “just ignore.” We now know that despite the old adage, words and threats can, indeed, hurt and can even cause profound, lasting harm.
• Relational aggression is a form of bullying in which kids use their friendship—or the threat of taking their friendship away—to hurt someone. Social exclusion, shunning, hazing, and rumor spreading are all forms of this pervasive type of bullying that can be especially beguiling and crushing to kids.
• Cyberbullying is a specific form of bullying that involves technology. According to Hinduja and Patchin of the Cyberbullying Research Center, it is the “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” Notably, the likelihood of repeated harm is especially high with cyberbullying because electronic messages can be accessed by multiple parties, resulting in repeated exposure and repeated harm.
So, why is it so important to make the distinction between rude, mean and bullying? Can’t I just let parents share with me stories about their kids?
Here’s the thing; in our culture of 24/7 news cycles and social media sound bytes, we have a better opportunity than ever before to bring attention to important issues. In the last few years, Americans have collectively paid attention to the issue of bullying like never before; millions of school children have been given a voice, 49 states in the U.S. have passed anti-bullying legislation, and thousands of adults have been trained in important strategies to keep kids safe and dignified in schools and communities. These are significant achievements.
At the same time, however, I have already begun to see that gratuitous references to bullying are creating a bit of a “little boy who cried wolf” phenomena. In other words, if kids and parents improperly classify rudeness and mean behavior as bullying — whether to simply make conversation or to bring attention to their short-term discomfort — we all run the risk of becoming so sick and tired of hearing the word that this actual life-and-death issue among young people loses its urgency as quickly as it rose to prominence.
It is important to distinguish between rude, mean and bullying so that teachers, school administrators, police, youth workers, parents and kids all know what to pay attention to and when to intervene. As we have heard too often in the news, a child’s future may depend on a non-jaded adult’s ability to discern between rudeness at the bus stop and life-altering bullying.
Signe Whitson is a licensed therapist, national educator on bullying, and author of three books including Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Cope with Bullying. For more information or workshop inquiries, please visit www.signewhitson.com
Every year, millions of people flock to Disney World, the self-proclaimed “happiest place on Earth.” Many return year after year to spend their hard-earned money despite the long lines and unpredictable weather. Why? Because of the magical feeling that exists there, and the way people who run the park make them feel. No matter where you come from, what language you speak, or your disability, Disney offers magic for all.
At Mary Williams Elementary, we strive to create a similarly magical feeling. We put our guests—students and parents—first, and work hard to keep those behind the scenes feeling inspired and supported. We also invest in digital technology that we believe can engage students, as well as make the teacher’s job more enjoyable. After all, who wants an autograph from a grumpy Mickey Mouse?
Of course, some people may argue that a school shouldn’t be likened to a theme park, or that entertainment and education don’t fix. We disagree. It’s this student-first way of thinking that’s helped our school go from a School of Improvement to a School of Excellence in just two years. With over 1,000 students, it’s not always easy, but we take pride in the fact that although the lines are long, students come every single day looking forward to the magical moments our classrooms offer.
At Disney World, staff are hired for attitude, not aptitude. Whether cast members or third-party employees, the organization unites everyone in a common goal: to help the guest.
You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.
At Mary Williams, the magic starts with a similar vision: that students come first. That means hiring with kids n mind. After all, some people may be great educators, but may not be the right fit for our students. Can they relate to English Language Learners? Are they sensitive to students with Special Needs? These questions matter because part of the magic is creating inclusive experiences for all.
Teachers also need to be included, especially when it comes to decision-making. As principal, I truly believe my role is to create conditions that allow everyone else to be successful. Sometimes that means simply stepping back and listening; other times, it means sharing curriculum knowledge or running to Walmart to get oreos for a ‘Phases of the Moon’ project. I want teachers to know we are part of the same team, with a common purpose.
This was the rationale for starting teacher-centered Edcamps during professional development. During these sessions, we don't go in with a plan. Instead, teachers decide what they want to learn, and what they'd like to help others learn, instead of being force-fed one-size-fits-all PD. Once the session is over, staff members know who to reach out and collaborate with. It’s this teacher-led model that’s the key to our next secret to success: using innovative technology to transform our classrooms.
When I started at Mary Williams, two things were clear: students weren’t fully engaged, and it wasn’t teachers’ faults. So we took a look at our competition—video games, iPads, smartphones—and realized while students were happily spending time on their devices, we were giving them old fashioned paper-and-pencil activities. The solution? Infusing some excitement into our lessons, Walt Disney-style.
Since then, we've experimented with dozens of different apps and online programs to boost learning and interest: 3-D printing, spheros, Osmos, virtual reality, coding, cyber security modules, drones, Robotics, multiple devices. But we never expect teachers to all use the same tools, and we never use tech for tech’s sake. Yes, we want our school to feel like Tomorrowland, but only because we know technology has the power to both differentiate and engage. As a result, the school has become a learning lab for both students and adults: a place of true innovation.
We also know technology cannot replace strong relationships. As Walt Disney said, "you can design and create and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it takes people to make the dream a reality." At Mary Williams, we believe in second chances. We understand that exclusionary practices hurt students and destroy the culture we try to foster. Instead we lead meetings by letting kids know we believe in them. We also host lunches, book clubs, and play minecraft and coding games with students. I do not like to miss an opportunity to ask them about the things we have implemented and ways we can improve as a school.
Although students come first, we also view parents as guests whose experience is just as valued. From the minute a parent walks onto our campus, they are welcomed, whether with the music playing in the office, the colorful murals that adorn the walls, or staff intentionally asking, “How can I serve you today?” We take time to foster relationships and go the extra mile to exceed expectations.Parents and teachers as partners
We’ve also found technology useful in serving our guests' needs. Our parents have access to me at any time of the day through Remind, which lets them text me if they need anything. We also use DoJo, Smore, Facebook, and Twitter to communicate, along with the occasional flyer for the refrigerator.
Parents are also regarded as stakeholders who deserve to know how we use our resources and time. Anytime I need an expert, I reach out to our parents first. During school-wide events, I make it a point to ask them for feedback and how we can improve: I call them quarterly to ask for input. At PTO meetings, I reveal market trends and student data to them. As a result, changes are not a surprise because they are part of everything we do.
The success of Mary Williams is the result of hard work, dedication, and inviting everyone to sit at what I call “the dinner table”. Magic happens as a result of crafting an environment where people feel safe to make mistakes, feel loved, are allowed to think outside the box, and are excited about coming back every single day. Is it easy? No. But if it were easy, everyone would do it. And like Walt Disney said: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”
Recently, I was talking with a high school student about his frustrations with a first-year teacher. The student said, "I like [the teacher] because he's understanding, but he doesn't require enough discipline. He tells us to stop talking, but he doesn't really do anything to stop it. If I say, 'I forgot my homework,' he extends the deadline, and he keeps extending it, so I don't bother doing it. He needs to be more strict!"
He didn't know it, but this student was asking for his teacher to be more of a warm demander -- a key strategy for creating equity in the classroom. Warm demanders are teachers who, in the words of author Lisa Delpit, "expect a great deal of their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them to reach their potential in a disciplined and structured environment." In my two decades of working in public schools, the idea of the warm demander is the most important conceptual framework that I've learned, and it guides my interactions with students on a daily basis.
The staff at June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco, where I am co-director, developed a four-part framework for how to become a warm demander:
Do you really believe that all children can learn? If you are not sure, read David Shenk's The Genius in All of Us to help you understand that brain science is clear: "Limitations in achievement are not due to inadequate genetic assets, but to our inability, so far, to tap into what we already have." You also need to understand the cultural strengths and role models of your students' communities. For example, can you imagine your Latina students being the next Dolores Huerta, Sandra Cisneros, or Ellen Ochoa? If not, you won't be able to remind your students of their unlimited potential.
Warm demanders understand that learning starts with trust. To build trust, you must listen to your students, and learn about who they are and what matters to them. You must be vulnerable, and share your true self -- including smiling and having fun. As Pamela Druckerman recommends in her book Bringing Up Bebe, you should follow the example of French parents and be strict about things that matter, but within those firm boundaries (which Druckerman calls a cadre or frame), trust children with the autonomy to make mistakes and learn from them.
My student who complained about the repeated extensions on homework deadlines felt disrespected by the teacher's actions because he knew that he ought to have been getting his homework done on time. Warm demanders demand that students demonstrate self-discipline -- not because they seek compliance, but because high standards communicate respect. This does not mean micromanaging students, nor does it mean punishing students who don't meet your expectations. It means teaching discipline and normalizing the hard work and effort that lead to success.
Warm demanders teach their students to have a growth mindset and understand that real learning comes through failure. Since most of us hate to fail, Jo Boaler suggests three strategies to celebrate mistakes in the classroom:
It's important to note that for failure to result in learning, it must happen in a safe environment, with guidance from someone like a warm demander teacher.
Through these approaches, warm demanders hold their students to high standards and provide the support that students need to get there, thus creating an equitable classroom. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/warm-demander-equity-approach-matt-alexander