The *First Two Steps* Towards Setting the Tone for an Inclusive Classroom - (Vol. 1/5) - "Strategies For Hearing ALl Voices" Series
Wanting to make your classroom more inclusive, but don’t know where to start?
Take five minutes to try this with your students.
Earlier this month, in launching the series on Strategies For Hearing ALL Voices, we looked at collaborative & cooperative learning as one of the critical practices for anti-bias education.
But we all know that collaboration and cooperation don’t “just happen.”
So how do we cultivate the kind of environment where they can?
Try these 2 simple practices to set the tone for an inclusive classroom: a place where all voices can be heard.
#1) OPENING CIRCLE
"Opening Circle" is a powerful routine to gather in community.
A common misconception is that the opening circle is only for first thing in the morning. However, it can actually be used any time that an "opening" would be helpful-- it can happen at the beginning of a day, at the beginning of a class period, or even at the beginning of a new activity.
It's a time to reset, to focus the energy of the group, and to hear the voice of every member of the community before moving forward.
A FEW NOTES ON THE DETAILS...
The circle shape is key! It is important that this conversation happens in a circle so that every face can also be seen equally. A circle is symbolic in many ways, and it creates a completely different tone than rows or table groups. It gets everyone into a collective mindset.
The teacher is a part of the circle. When the teacher joins the circle as a participating member, it creates a united sense of community. Every person in the space is seen as a contributing member, none more or less than the other, no leaders or followers, just one collaborative community in this moment.
Setup: Ideally, to form the circle, students can sit on a carpet, arrange chairs (without desks), or simply stand in the classroom to be free from distractions. When sitting at their desks, their hands and eyes can be easily distracted to things other than the speaker.
For younger children it can be helpful to provide more guidance on how to hold their bodies while they are sharing and listening. For example, "sitting criss-cross applesauce" or "rooting their feet in the ground and folding their fingers."
Keeping it quick: With a group of new students that don’t know each other yet, everyone can simply say their names aloud one-by-one. If students are already familiar with each other (and if time permits), students can also share a short answer to a specific question along with their name.
Try limiting responses to a just one word, one phrase, or one sentence. That can help keep the energy and engagement up as the speakers switch from one to the next quickly.
It also ensures that every speaker has an equal amount of time to share, without turning the floor over for a longer period of time for a long-winded student (teachers, you know the one!).
And of course, it keeps the opening circle to only a few minutes of class time, while still reaching the same intended result of connectedness.
Question prompts: The kinds of questions you ask in Opening Circle are the sort that don't have a right or wrong answer. Rather than being a quiz, they're the kind of questions that create space to share a personal feeling or experience. This allows students to share about themselves and further connect with each other, without fear of embarrassment or failure.
Whole-body listening: Frame the expectation up front for "whole-body listening." It's helpful for students to know what to do when it's not their turn. Waiting is hard! Set them up for success with some modeling. Some language to use with younger students might be to "listen with not only their open ears, but also with their open eyes" on the speaker.
Throughout the opening circle, don't forget to verbally acknowledge those students that are listening with both their eyes and ears; it provides positive reinforcement for those that are holding space for other speakers.
And finally... The Opening Circle establishes the tone and classroom environment in which all the day's activities will take place. It conveys that there's room for everyone’s voice, and that every individual member of the classroom community is valued for their experience and perspective.
A few resources to help you set up and run your opening circle:
THINK *BEFORE* PAIR, SHARE
Picture how many times a day-- or even how many times within just one activity-- that we as teachers are asking questions of students and seeking out their responses. Wow! It's a ton.
Think-Pair-Share is a way to shake up the usual Q & A routine, adding a more inclusive and collaborative bend.
There's a good chance you've tried or at least heard of this one before.
...But wait, there's more!
Even if you have tried this one before, I want to encourage you to challenge yourself with emphasizing the Think part. That's the part we tend to rush, or skip over, or de-emphasize too often. What difference might it make in your classroom to regularly and routinely give ample think time?
After a question is asked by the teacher, students take a moment to first Think silently on their own about the answer.
This allows space for an intrapersonal learning style before engaging in an interpersonal learning style. Students have a chance to consider their individual past experiences or activate their own prior knowledge before discussing with a partner or contributing to a group.
Let students know up front how long they will have to think. Keep time on a stopwatch or visual timer, and set up a signal for when time is up (such as a chime or a verbal cue). Alternatively, you can ask students to “Put your Finger on your Brain, until you’re ready to Explain,” which gives you visual indicator of who needs more time to think before engaging in a group discussion or whole group response.
Next, students are prompted to Pair up with another student nearby, share their thoughts with that person, and listen to their partner's thoughts.
Pairing up before sharing out in a large group ensures that every single student has the opportunity to engage with a peer and have their voice be heard (even if time does not allow for every single voice to be heard by the entire class).
It also allows students take a risk and “try out” and discuss ideas that they may be unsure of in a small, safe setting with just 1 person before being vulnerable enough to share them with the whole group.
Just like back in the Think step, you can again keep time on a stopwatch or visual timer during Pair work. This time, though, it is helpful to signal the halfway mark with a chime or verbal indicator to ensure that both students have an equal amount of time to share.
And remember those "whole-body" listening expectations from the Opening Circle practices earlier? Pair time is another good opportunity to model, remind, and reinforce those. Being a good partner means not just telling, but also listening.
Finally, students come back together as a whole group to Share out the ideas that they had thought of independently and discussed with their partner to further refine.
What makes this better than the usual Q&A routine?
Giving students independent think time can be a game changer for our slower processors and our introverts. An inclusive learning environment makes space for all learners!
The Opening Circle and Think-Pair-Share (again, emphasis on the *Think* part!) may be simple, but these two simple practices have the power to transform the tone of a classroom.
The Opening Circle can quickly become a ritual that students look forward to everyday, knowing that the first thing they will do after morning announcements is to gather together and take a moment to connect with each other.
Think-Pair-Share (or variations of the structure) can become the go-to format for any Q&A time, building a habit of thinking-before-speaking and making equal space for another’s voice.
Give these 2 strategies a try and let us know how it goes!
We want to hear from you:
What quick and simple rituals have you set in your classroom to ensure that every student feels seen and heard every single day?
Let us know in the comments!
What is anti-bias education? What's competition got to do with it? And how does collaboration support identity and diversity? Answering these 3 questions will lead us right into our strategy-packed series on hearing all voices in the classroom!
Teachers strive to lead every one of their students to success. But sometimes in our competitive society, we can confuse "success" with just "winning"-- coming out on top, and beating everyone else.
In our schools, students compete for
...the highest grades,
...a spot on the honor roll,
...the most robust resume,
...the internship with the highest status.
(And those are just the academic ones!)
As teachers, we can see that competition can be motivating for some students. So naturally we then reward the students with the fastest responses, or rank students by the number of books they’ve read, or play competitive review games to keep things interesting.
There's a catch, though.
This ongoing sense of competition creates an unavoidable bias, favoring some students over others.
Some students build confidence in their identity and their voice; others don't. It fails to support ALL learners' identity development.
It also fails to support students in developing a value for the diversity of the classmates surrounding them. It pits them against each other instead of being for each other.
Striving to create an inclusive, collaborative classroom that is anti-bias.
WHAT IS ANTI-BIAS EDUCATION?
The term "anti-bias" education first came onto the scene in 1989 with Louise Derman-Spark's release of the pivotal Anti-Bias Curriculum. In anti-bias education, the 4 key goals are for students to develop:
Teaching Tolerance (a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center) has continued to build upon the anti-bias body of work through their anti-bias framework and critical practices for anti-bias educators.
One of the critical practices teachers can implement is engaging students in collaborative and cooperative learning. Now, compare that learning style to the competitive one described above. When students collaborate and cooperate rather than compete, they ALL have the chance to develop their sense of identity and their appreciation for diversity.
THREE BENEFITS OF A COLLABORATIVE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT
Benefit 1: Exercising voice and honing listening skills. When we, as teachers, lead activities that make space for all students to share in a meaningful way, we are helping students find their voice and develop their sense of identity. And when we model effective listening skills, we are helping students recognize the value of the diverse, complex fellow humans surrounding them in their classroom community.
Benefit 2: Building peer-to-peer community. When students collaborate, they have the chance to build relationships across their differences. They also experience what it is like to put their collective knowledge and skills together to solve problems as a team. Through this process, they can find value in each others' contributions and see that the teacher isn't the holder of all knowledge in the room-- everyone has something to offer!
Benefit 3: Increasing engagement for all. Collaboration makes space for more voices than just the one coming from the most outgoing, confident, quick-thinking student in the class; everyone contributes to the group goal. Students thrive developmentally and are more deeply engaged in classroom environments that are learner-centered, cooperative, interactive, high-energy, and full of variation and spontaneity.
The best part about collaborative learning?
It applies broadly, across subject areas, across learning topics, across demographic differences, and across ages and grade levels. Anyone can engage in collaborative practices daily to create an anti-bias learning environment where all students feel a sense of belonging.
And collaborative learning is only one piece of the anti-bias classroom! After we lay a collaborative anti-bias foundation, we can move on to adopting strategies for leading discussions and for selecting responders to questions-- strategies that create the space for all voices to be heard, that encourage active listening, and that cultivate respect for multiple perspectives.
Here's a peek at what's to come:
Throughout this series, you'll see that there are A TON of strategies to choose from (seriously, we lost count of how many...). But don't get overwhelmed; choice is a good thing! Just pick a few to start with that resonate with you. Make them your own and share them with your students.
Most importantly, once you do choose a few, don't forget to explicitly model and practice the strategies. We can't emphasize enough the value of modeling and practicing strategies so that students can grow comfortable putting them to use!
Over time, this combination of a few new strategies, some solid modeling, and some regular practice will create an anti-bias classroom environment where all students feel seen, known, and heard.
"Equity" is a core value of Co-CreatED; it drives our "why," our mission, and our vision. Yet, it can be difficult to clearly define. What does Equity really mean, any way? Let's dig in.
CHAPTER ONE: GETTING TO A DEFINITION
I'll be the first to admit... I sort of have a tendency to overcomplicate things. Simplifying big ideas is super hard! So when I initially sat down to try to define equity, here's the rough draft I came up with:
Equity is the work of removing barriers that have obstructed the full advancement of certain groups. It is the pursuit of fair treatment, access, and opportunity for all people. It is recognizing that not everyone has the same starting line, then taking steps to remedy that, institutionally and systemically."
It's wordy. It's too much.
So like any good Millennial, I turned to Instagram for help.
And y'all, I have some really smart friends. Thank goodness! I always heard this saying that to be a great business leader, you should hire people smarter than you. I'd go even further than that to say if you want to be a great anything, surround yourself with people smarter than you, starting with your friends.
That said, I got some awesome responses! My hands-down favorite though, and the one I'm adopting here, was:
Equity is when everyone has access to what they need to be successful. "
How amazingly simple, straightforward, and TRUE is that?! That sums it up! THAT is equity.
The access piece is especially key.
Picture some people slogging their way up the long, steep staircase to access that top floor we call success, while others are taking escalators or elevators. All those people have access, but clearly some have easier access than others. How might we remove barriers and create pathways of easier access for ALL? That's a question of equity.
So now that we have a baseline, let's build.
ISN'T EQUITY JUST A FANCIER WAY OF SAYING EQUALITY?
Actually, they're pretty different.
Equal is everyone getting the same thing.
Equitable is everyone purposefully getting different things because we recognize that they have different starting points and thus different needs.
As an educator, it can be tempting to say, "I treat all my students equally." Those words sound good at a surface level. But if you dig a little deeper, is it right to give everyone the same thing regardless of their needs?
This infographic from The Inclusion Lab illustrates the difference well:
That's not to say we never want equality, of course! The reason we want to treat students with equity is so that they can all reach equally high levels of success, regardless of their starting points.
It's the difference between focusing on inputs vs. focusing on outcomes.
We know that schools do not exist in vacuums, and students come to us with a wide range of different baselines. Family dynamics, living conditions, socioeconomic status, health, and myriad other factors all play into how our students show up at school. They bring their whole selves, just like we do.
But someone's starting line shouldn't determine their finish line.
If we want equal outcomes for all-- which we do-- we have to vary the inputs to balance the equation. That's equity!
For our mathematical thinkers:
Different baselines + Equal Inputs --> Unequal Outcomes :(
Different baselines + Equitable Inputs --> Equal Outcomes :)
CHAPTER TWO: EQUITY IS A LITTLE... UNCOMFORTABLE.
Embarking on this mission to define "equity" in clear and simple terms proved to be harder than expected. Along the way, I realized that defining words is much harder when they have to do with an uncomfortable topic, and equity is just that. Uncomfortable.
Go with me for a minute, here.
In the nonprofit and private school sectors in particular, “diversity, equity, & inclusion" (D.E.I.) is a category of education work that has been gaining traction and momentum in recent years. "D.E.I. Practitioners" are becoming commonplace in independent schools, which is really great progress!
Over in the business sector, where a much wealthier and more powerful portion of society works, the equivalent term is "D & I" work. It's much more common to hear "D & I" (Diversity & Inclusion) than "D.E.I" (Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion). In that world, they tend to drop the "E" and focus on the "D" and the "I."
Perhaps the "E" gets left out because it is the uncomfortable part.
"D & I" -- Diversity & Inclusion-- are two concepts that feel good. Everyone is unique (diversity), yet everyone belongs (inclusion)... How wonderfully warm & fuzzy! These 2 words conjure up images in our heads of a rainbow of skin tones high-fiving, and happy thoughts of harmony, togetherness, and belonging.
The "E" on the other hand?
There are 4 reasons that "equity" makes us feel a little uncomfortable, especially in contrast with diversity & inclusion.
Equity is uncomfortable because...
It means we have to talk about unfairness and injustice.
If Equity had direct synonyms (which it doesn’t) the closest matches would be fairness and justice. So if we say we want equity, that implies that the current state of the world is unfair and unjust.
There are the haves, and there are the have nots.
If you’re in the "have"s camp, the suggestion that you have an unfair share of something feels like an accusation, an attack on your character. You’ve been accused of hoarding the goodness and keeping it away from others.
You might hear it as “YOU are being unfair,” or “YOU are being unjust,” which of course naturally triggers defensiveness. Thoughts like those usually then activate other thoughts, like "But I'm a good person!" Or "I worked hard for what I have!" Which are probably true, they're just beside the point.
It’s so much bigger than individual "YOU"s though. It’s systemic. More on that in a minute.
We can all see that there is unfairness and injustice in the world. That's a painful reality. I wonder what would happen if instead of that observation making us feel defensive, we opted to get curious about how we could take real steps to make it more fair and more just?
That mindshift could be a major step toward equity.
REASONS #2 & 3
Equity is uncomfortable because...
It means we have to confront stuff much bigger than us: privilege and systems.
We can't talk EQUITY without mentioning privilege.
What is "privilege," you ask?
Welp, here's a one-page Privilege Primer for you. We'll wait while you go get up to speed:
Got it... now what's that got to do with equity?
Looking back at our working definition of equity--
"when everyone has access to what they need to be successful,"
we see that privilege is a necessary part of the equity conversation, because it means some people have easier access to what they need to be successful than others.
Once we admit that we see privilege, just like we see disadvantage, we can start doing the hard equity work of addressing both.
...So back to that thing about systems.
I can't disrupt privilege on my own as an individual because it is systemic-- it's based on who holds power in our society, and what rules and systems have been historically put in place to maintain that power.
These rules and systems add up to what's known as Structural Inequality. And it even includes the laws governing our country.
There are current and historic laws-- actual laws! -- that carve out paths to power, success, and prosperity for some, while blocking the paths for others.
That's inequity on a systemic level. ( <-- click for an *AWESOME* resource!!)
Here are a few official, state-sanctioned policies that create structural inequality
(Most are still in effect even today)
While discrimination is of course appalling on the individual level, it is the systemic level that is most harmful. We are all part of a system that legally discriminates, resulting in better opportunity and better outcomes for some than others.
We are all accountable. What are we going to do about it? That brings us to...
Finally, equity is uncomfortable because...
It means we have to take action (and unequal action, at that!)
The fourth and final reason EQUITY can feel uncomfortable is because it necessitates action. Moreso even than its other two partner words we mentioned earlier (diversity, inclusion). It means we see the unfairness, and now we’re going to change.
Change is hard!
Human brains are wired to resist it.
Systems are-- by design-- built to resist it.
Then things get even more complicated, because to make the necessary changes, it means we have to take UNEQUAL measures to remedy the inequity--
We have to remove the barriers that block some people's paths, not all.
We have to fill the gaps that keep some people further from success than others.
Choosing to be UNEQUAL in the name of EQUITY can be a real mindbender.
But like we learned in preschool: "fair" isn't everyone getting exactly the same thing; it's everyone getting exactly what they need.
CHAPTER THREE: MYTHBUSTING
Once we get past the discomfort of defining equity, we also have to sift through the folklore that further obscures its true meaning.
There are two harmful myths that get in the way most of making equity a common vocabulary word.
The Myth of Meritocracy
Other aliases include: the American Dream myth, the Land of Opportunity myth, the self-made man myth, and the "pick yourself up by your bootstraps" myth
"If you just work hard enough, you can achieve anything! It doesn't matter where you start, success is there for those who work hard enough."
This myth is harmful to equity because it doesn't take into account the many social factors that make it easier for some to succeed, and harder for others to succeed.
It also creates an atmosphere of judgement, where it's easy to attribute nonsuccess to laziness or poor work ethic, and easy to attribute success to hard work even when it isn't the case.
It leads us to ignore the things that lead to success besides hard work, such as having educated parents, being born into a high social class, inheriting family wealth, having mentors, living in a resource-rich community, or the unearned privileges that go along with simply being white.
Similarly, it leads us to choose laziness as a singular explanation for nonsuccess, when the reality is actually a constellation of factors than might include having uneducated parents, being born into poverty, living in a resource-scarce community, exposure to addictive substances at an early age, and experiencing abuse or other childhood traumas.
The reason this myth keeps persisting is, it does happen.
There are of course people who overcome their circumstances and become successful.
American culture clings to these stories and retells them as though they are the norm, or at the very least, in a way that communicates that they are our expectation.
In reality, though, these stories are the exception, not the norm. That's where the trouble comes in.
Celebrating stories of exceptions means turning a blind eye to the norm and never getting around to answering the questions, "how might we make these stories more common? What is causing so many people to be unable to rise above their circumstances? What would change that pattern?"
Equity then, would be taking action to disrupt that pattern-- pinpointing and providing access to the things people need to become successful.
The "Education is the Great Equalizer" Myth
"Focus on your education and you'll go far! Education is the key to your future! No matter where you start, education can get you where you want to be."
It pains me that this one is a myth. It SHOULD be true!
Back in the early days of American education (~1840s), Horace Mann had a vision that schools could serve the purpose of closing gaps in society, equipping the poor with the skills and knowledge to rise out of poverty. He's often quoted for calling education society's "great equalizer" (p.59).
Unfortunately, his vision isn't quite coming to fruition, even (or especially?) nearly 200 years later.
In many cases, schools serve to further de-equalize (is that a word?) society. School funding gaps, discipline rate disparities, tracking, white-centric curricula, and more are all common fixtures that actively widen gaps, not close them.
The thing is, that vision doesn't have to be a myth. Education is the one institution in our society with the greatest potential to change the world. Schools could absolutely serve as the great equalizer they were meant to be.
What would it take to turn this myth into a reality?
Here is what *YOU* can do to make equity a reality:
Classroom leaders (teachers) :
School & district leaders:
Let's circle back one last time on that equity definition as we close out.
"Equity is when everyone has access to what they need to be successful."
Now that we know what it is, how will we know when we get there?
At the risk of getting a little too up-in-the-clouds-dreamy...
We will see a huge increase in positive outcomes for students who had a more challenging starting line in life, because school will have made the difference that they needed to succeed. The saying “school is the great equalizer” will ring true instead of feeling like a cruel ironic joke.
We’ll see community centers partnering with schools in high-poverty areas, acknowledging that it takes more than academic support to succeed. Community partners will come together to provide wrap-around services to meet children’s whole-person needs.
We’ll look at the day-to-day classroom experiences of children in high-poverty schools and high-affluence schools, and we won’t notice a difference in the way they are learning, the way they are disciplined, the way they are spoken to, or the quality of instruction they access. Hey, maybe we won't even have high-affluence vs. high-poverty schools any more.
We’ll have school board and district leaders with the courage to draw school zone lines that unite instead of divide races & SES-classes. We’ll see children learning with a variety of peers who are different than themselves.
We’ll see school funding formulas based on student need instead of based on local property taxes. We’ll stop talking about “the good schools” in “the good areas” because zipcode will no longer determine school quality.
We’ll see teacher prep programs at universities encouraging and preparing teachers to teach in high-need environments. Teachers won’t have to wait until grad school (if ever) to hear words like “cultural proficiency,” “culturally responsive practice,” “critical pedagogy,” or “social justice teaching.”
See you there.
Did this article resonate with you?
Ready to take the next step?
We'd love to work with you to make your school a more equitable place!
Get in touch:
Out of the 4 secret ingredients that make up a Co-Created education-- empowering, inclusive, rigorous, and supportive-- this final ingredient is the one with...
... the most information readily available online about it already,
...the most trainings geared in its direction already,
...the most attention paid to it already.
Yet, when it comes to putting all those things into practice, most schools and classrooms still have a lonngggg way to go in this area.
(So, on second thought, maybe the most lip-service paid to it, would unfortunately be a more accurate statement.)
Spoiler alert: the “it” I’m talking about supporting here is behavior and discipline.
There are a whole slew of resources and professional developments available on behavior and discipline, which shows that we all see a need.
So if we see the need, and the knowledge is out there, why is it still so rare to see it done really well in practice?
One explanation is that it comes down to mindset; handy tips and tricks can only go so far without addressing the beliefs, attitudes, dispositions, and expectations that we hold about behavior and discipline in our minds. We have to go further upstream and get to the source.
Before we do all that, let's get some definitions out of the way.
What does it mean to be supportive from a behavior and discipline standpoint? What does it mean to cultivate a supportive environment?
Students feel supported when their whole-person needs are met: clear boundaries provide security; a tightknit community provides a sense of belonging; and explicitly-taught social-emotional skills and executive functioning skills provide a practical toolkit for finding success.
Alright, now that we're clear on exactly what it means to co-create a supportive educational experience, let's take a deeper look at the role of mindset.
What's mindset got to do with it?
Dr. Marcia Reynolds is in the business of changing minds; she teaches leaders and coaches how to help people have breakthrough moments where they examine and challenge their own thinking patterns.
Check out how she visualizes the way we construct and deconstruct our mindsets:
Many things shape our mindsets-- our upbringing, our experiences, our education, our culture... the list goes on. These formative elements are what make up the "walls" in our minds that sometimes need to be brought down brick by brick so we can make positive change.
Self-Assess: What are the mental walls you've built around your concept of behavior and discipline?
Chances are, your responses to these questions reflect the type of environment you are creating in your school or classroom. Our actions don't come from nowhere; they come from our mindsets.
Everyone wants to feel successful and happy in their day-to-day work. Being honest with yourself about the questions above will feel uncomfortable in the short run, yet could lead to greater happiness and success in the long run for both you and your students.
If it's helpful to you, you could even draw it out-- literally visualize the mental walls so you can begin to break down any that need it.
Once you've done some big picture self-reflection, then it's time to drill down into the 4 specific mindshifts that will help you become a more supportive educator and help you cultivate a supportive learning environment.
TOP 4 SHIFTS TO GET YOUR MIND INTO SUPPORTIVE MODE
Supportive Mindshift #1
Support students as whole people-- instincts, needs, flaws & all.
Fifty years ago, legendary psychologist Abraham Maslow said,
When people appear to be something other than good and decent, it is only because they are reacting to stress, pain, or the deprivation of a basic human need such as security, love, and self-esteem."
Put in simpler terms, no one is their best self when something is missing or something is hurting.
Trauma, skill gaps, unmet needs, sensory sensitivities, or even unclear boundaries can all contribute to a student requiring some additional support.
Come to think of it, that doesn't just apply to our students-- that applies to all of us!
When we look for a root cause instead of looking for a culprit to blame, we move ourselves into a space of curiosity and compassion.
When we see that our students are just as human as we are and vice versa, we tap into empathy and connection.
A bit more on Maslow
Maslow’s work has since been commonly summarized in a hierarchy of human needs, visualized as a pyramid:
Although not all psychologists agree about the order or hierarchical structure of the pyramid, it still serves as a concise and accurate summary of our basic human needs.
It's likely that whatever might be hurting or missing for our students falls into one of the categories of that pyramid.
The simple act of recognizing that our students might be missing out on a basic need or hurting on a fundamentally human level helps us reframe the way we work with them, and it better positions us to provide support.
*Disclaimer* -- To be clear, this is in no way a plea to lower our standards based on students' circumstances, or to make excuses for them, or to let them off the hook. In fact, one of the most caring things we can do is hold students accountable.
The difference is in making sure they know it's coming from a place of human understanding, coupled with strong belief in their high potential.
Supportive Mindshift #2
Support students’ sense of security & belonging first.
As educators, we of course cannot meet our students' every need all on our own. We need partnership with families and the greater community in order to do that.
However, there are two particular areas of need that-- if we were to actively and purposely target them in the classroom-- could be making a HUGE impact in our students' lives.
Those areas are security and belonging.
The mindshift here is prioritizing those two areas as highly as any academic goal. The environment in which students learn makes *all* the difference in what they learn, how they learn, and to what degree they learn. Security and belonging come first if we have any hope of academic excellence.
Here are a few ways to make sure your students can answer "yes" to both those questions.
First, Community-oriented classroom management shows everyone they belong.
The dictionary defines community as:
"a unified body of individuals who feel a sense of fellowship with each other, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals."
( ...Ok, technically I combined two dictionary definitions to get that one, but still. It's a good one!)
That's the kind of community that will help our students (and us!) flourish and thrive. It's an environment where their innate need for belonging will be met, so that they can focus on learning instead of on survival. (Instincts are powerful things!)
That type of community doesn't happen magically or automatically. It takes purposeful effort and action. It takes working together to explicitly define what common attitudes, interests, and goals you all will share together.
To help kickstart that effort and action, here's a freebie for you, along with an example of the community commitments my class and I made together back in the day:
Second, clear boundaries make everyone feel more secure.
"Wow, I'm so thankful my teacher sets such clear boundaries and holds us all accountable!"
... said no student, ever.
Yet, even though they don't say it out loud, and even though they're probably not even consciously aware of it, they feel it.
Boundaries provide the safe perimeter that surrounds and defines the limits of the community. Inside of them is what we do tolerate in this community; outside of them is what we don't tolerate in this community.
As the leader of the classroom or school community, it is your sacred responsibility to ensure that those boundaries are defined, honored, and reinforced. While you will serve as the main caring authority holding students accountable to the boundaries, if those boundaries are clear enough, students will also hold each other accountable to them. Especially in the elementary years.
In the adolescent years, a hallmark of students' development is the need to push boundaries. So they need something sturdy to push up against! It is developmentally essential that the boundaries are clear, fair, reasonable, and consistently reinforced.
This is where natural and logical consequences come in as part of the learning process. A consequence is simply a result of an action; consequences can be negative, positive, or neutral. Students improve their decision-making skills each time they have the opportunity to reflect on what consequence resulted from the choices they made.
Final key to meeting students' security need: be the "solid object" in the room.
For just a moment, imagine yourself caught in a powerful storm, maybe even a hurricane.
You're out in the elements with no shelter, winds gusting, waters rising, hail pummeling. Just as you feel like the raging winds are about to sweep you away, you reach out desperately, grasping for anything to cling to. Your hand makes contact with a solid object, and you hold onto it with all your might. It's your lifeline. Over time the winds subside, and your safety is restored, thanks to your solid object.
I once heard an emotional meltdown described as a storm. During a meltdown, a child loses control-- sometimes emotionally, sometimes physically. Inside their minds and bodies, a storm is going on; everything is in tumult, swirling around in a cyclone of chaos.
Students need us to be the solid object in their storm, so they can feel safe and secure.
(Credit to the Handle With Care Program for this spot-on term and helpful model!)
Serving as a "solid object" looks like:
Supportive Mindshift #3
Support students’ behavioral challenges as learning needs.
What if the reason a student is behaving a certain way is because they genuinely don't know any better?
We've all been in situations with students where that explanation is true, and other situations where it very much is not. However, whether it's true 100% of the time or not is something I would challenge us all to let go of, and instead replace it with a new question:
"What can this student learn from this situation, and how can I support that learning?"
"What skill is this student missing that would help them do better next time, and how can I help them gain that skill?"
The two main learning gaps that result in behavioral challenges are in the areas of 1) social-emotional skills, and 2) executive functioning skills. Helping students fill these two gaps can be a complete and total game-changer, for them and for you (hello, regained sanity, reclaimed time, and renewed job satisfaction!)
Ideas for Supporting Social-Emotional Learning
Ideas for Supporting Executive Function Development
To sum up this third mindshift, there are specific skills students can learn to help them excel as students, as friends, and as people.
We can use this knowledge to reframe how we look at behavior challenges.
We wouldn’t kick a student out of class for struggling to read a challenging paragraph.
We wouldn’t kick a kid out of class for solving a math problem incorrectly.
Because those are learning problems. Learning problems don't trigger us the way behavior problems do.
But if we can train our brains to see behavior issues as learning opportunities, we can keep kids in class, learning, where they belong.
Because depriving a child of learning is not a fair or reasonable punishment for just about anything.
In Closing ...
Being a supportive educator and cultivating a supportive environment requires us to shift our mindsets around behavior and discipline in 3 key ways:
If becoming supportive educators and creating supportive environments were easy, it would be a widespread commonality. It would be the norm instead of the exception.
As you and I both know, that isn't the case.
If only there were an easy button for discipline and behavior! Sure there are several grab-and-go options out there. And those off-the-shelf solutions sound SUPER appealing when you're a hard-working educator, trying to fit everything in, without enough hours in the day.
I get it, I’ve been there. It makes sense.
Without the right mindset in place, though, that off-the-shelf solution has a pretty low ceiling of effectiveness. It can only go so far and can only do so much without a mindset to match.
The trouble with "mindshifting" is, it's inherently uncomfortable. A mindshift challenges our beliefs and paradigms, and brains don’t enjoy that feeling. Humans are wired to resist change. Which is why I’ve said it once before: a mindset might be the hardest thing in the world to change.
I’ve also been accused of being an eternal optimist, because I remain hopeful that we can all do hard things, and that change is possible, even when it comes to mindsets.
We are educators: we are in the business of shaping minds, literally.
Let's start with our own.
When was a time you effectively supported a student through a behavior challenge by connecting on a human level and responding with empathy?
This is the final installment of a 4-part series on the foundational pillars of a Co-Created education.
Check out the full series here:
Does this sound like the kind of environment you're trying to cultivate in your school or classroom?
Get in touch-- we'd love to work with you!