Holland Hallmarks Articles
Creating Empathic School Communities
Head of the Primary School
We work to instill values in our families and our schools. The Primary School values are four simple words: friendly, helpful, respectful, and responsible. The teachers, teaching assistants, and I ground every discussion regarding behavior with our students in these values. We help them understand when their actions do not reflect them and redirect/guide our students to make better choices.
Our challenge is that popular culture doesn’t necessarily reflect a high level of expectations. Derogatory statements (insults and put-downs) and unfriendly behaviors, such as exclusion, are evident in TV shows that cater to a young audience. Some Apps and video games are developed along violent lines. You gain points for anti-social behaviors. How confusing it must be for our young people today! And schools everywhere are very aware of the results. There is an increase in these types of anti-social behaviors in the classroom, in the lunchroom, and on the playground. What can families and their schools to do? We can’t give up, and we must stay proactive.
I’ve been re-reading Barbara Coloroso’s book The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander. One of the later chapters addressed how we can further address these issues in order to create what she terms are caring schools and involved communities. Ms. Coloroso refers to the work of one of the world’s leading experts on this topic – Norway’s Dr. Dan Olweus. He developed a program built on four principles that significantly changed students’ behavior. And, of course, a key element is that the partnership between home and school is critical, so that the messages are consistent in both environments.
The principles that Dr. Olweus identified are:
1. warmth, positive interest, and involvement from adults.
2. firm limits as to unacceptable behavior.
3. in case of violations of limits and rules, consistent application of non-hostile, non-physical sanctions (discipline as opposed to punishment).
4. behavior by adults at home and at school that creates an authoritative (not authoritarian) adult-child interaction or child-rearing model (backbone as opposed to brick-wall structure.)
When I read these principles, I was relieved because I’m confident that our Primary School is based on these characteristics. Upon further reflection, I also realized that some of the negative pressures and models our young students are facing within today’s popular culture are being explored in their relationships here at school, and we see evidence of this at an earlier age. Behaviors that might have been described as common and more developmentally relevant in the upper elementary and middle school years are now showing up in the earlier grades. As I told our third grade students recently, if you engage in or are aware of classmates who are not behaving in a friendly, helpful, respectful and responsible manner, it is up to each and every one of us to do something to stop the situation. Remember the adage, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem”? It still holds true – perhaps even more so today.
The faculty and I are discussing these issues. It’s one of the reasons we asked Mrs. Christy Zahn to work with our third graders in an empathy class two years ago. This twelve-lesson approach continues each year, but we know that’s not enough. We are researching additional learning opportunities for our students to explore, discuss, and learn how to respond more appropriately. We need to emphasize positive steps to create a strong and accepting community, and also establish clear rules and consequences when they are not followed.
For example, our third grade students identified some problem areas on the playground and in the lunchroom earlier this year. We are holding class and grade level meetings, and together we’ve created some pro-active strategies that are now in place. I reminded the students about the New Friends Day they participated in during their time in the four-year-old and kindergarten programs. Our third grade students readily incorporated this idea and now “mix it up” and sit with people with whom they don’t usually have lunch once a week. One group recently decided to ask a question of the whole table and learn more about each other. The classes also participated in a similar exchange of ideas during a social and emotional learning class with the teachers and me. They asked for the questions I’d developed for the inner/outer circle activity, so they could use them during their future lunch table discussions. The teachers are expanding this idea and will have the students “mix it up” within the full grade and not just among the members of each individual class. In addition, the students also suggested that they try the same strategy during recess times and are having more sophisticated New Friends Day recess times. Deliberately creating additional opportunities for developing positive interactions among peers is reaping benefits. A parent recently told me that her child is less hesitant about interacting with other classmates and isn’t relying so heavily on just a couple of close friends.
Will measures such as these completely eradicate anti-social behaviors? Probably not, so the other side of the issue must also be dealt with directly and consistently. Just talking about the issue isn’t enough. Students can say “all the right things” in a class meeting or empathy class and still not follow through with positive behaviors. Therefore, the teachers at all grade levels and I are making sure that our supervision of children during less structured times is vigilant. We are constantly gathering information from our observations and from the students themselves. There are clearly established school and classroom rules. When students make poor choices, there are consistent consequences – within the classroom and, when necessary, with me. Our parents are a part of the equation and solution, too.
As Ms. Coloroso points out, “Kids can’t stop the anti-social behaviors (including bullying) they experience or witness all by themselves. They need adults at home, in the schools, and in community programs committed to breaking the cycle wherever they see it and whenever they hear about it.”
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10-4-11 Weaving a Balanced Literacy Framework
9-6-11 Laying the Groundwork for a Successful Year
8-9-11 Educating Learners for the Future
5-3-11 Building a Strong Foundation
4-6-11 Four-Year-Olds Discover Meaningful Connections in Mathematics
3-2-11 Class Placement Decisions- Fitting the Pieces Together
2-7-11 Heart Healthy, Happy Bodies, Boosted Brainpower
1-11-11 Motivation and Learning
12-7-10 Encouraging Words of Praise
11-2-10 Soaring to Success
9-7-10 Are Those Eyelids Drooping in the Afternoon?
8-10-10 News from the Primary School
5-19-10 The Wonderful Virtues of Free Play
3-23-10 Primary School Science
2-23-10 Supporting Children When Scary Things Happen
1-26-10 Learning in a New Environment
12-15-09 Celebrating Our Learning
11-17-09 Thinking of Others
10-20-09 Taking Mathematical Thinking to the Next Level
9-22-09 I can tell that we are going to be friends
5-20-09 Embrace the Change
4-21-09 Stretching Our Mathematical Minds
11-20-08 The Nature of Speech and Internal Thinking
10-23-08 Creating a Learning Environment That Develops Strategic Thinking
9-24-08 Reading and Writing Workshop – An Overview
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