By Laurel Shockley, Assistant Head of Lower School/ Director of Lower School Teaching and Learning
Car line – two words that can strike fear in even the calmest of parents.
Will we make it on time? Does my child have on both shoes? Did she hear her number today? Did I forget math club was this afternoon?
The list goes on, but there is more significance to car line than most people realize.
Greeting our Lower School students each morning, and sending them off in the afternoons with a friendly farewell, frame my days at school in the best possible way. A few years ago, when morning and afternoon car line duty became a part of my daily routine, I noticed a few things that we're concerning.
An enthusiastic, “Good Morning!” to one of my young friends was often greeted with downcast eyes and no words at all. Afternoons were no different, “Have a great afternoon! See you tomorrow!” Silence.
These were the same kids I interacted with during the day, the ones who gave me warm hugs and smiles and even great conversation. Why was the car line interaction difficult for so many of them? My gut told me it had something to do with developmental readiness. In fact, the relationship between brain development and explicit teaching of behavioral skills led us in the right direction.
Just as children need to be taught skills, they also need to be taught to transfer them to other settings. Children learn contextually and need to be provided a supportive environment to test out new skills in different arenas.
This issue percolated in my mind around the same time I read and reposted “A Letter to Teachers on the Use of Stoplights in the Classroom” from a blog about classroom behavior management that emphasized the need to move away from shaming children as a way to guide behavior and toward a more compassionate way of teaching the skills needed to achieve acceptable behavior. Many of our teachers read the blog and agreed with the message. Some teachers looked at the resources listed at the end of the blog post and clicked on the link to learn about Responsive Classroom. This led to interest in attending a Responsive Classroom conference. After attending the conference, teachers came back, ready to make big changes in their classrooms.
The third part of this social/emotional learning trifecta was what we were learning about neuroscience. The latest research indicates that we can change the brain by training the mind through social/emotional learning. We know that a young child ’s brain is in a state of constant growth, being molded by positive and negative experiences. We needed to promote positive brain changes by fostering healthy social/emotional habits.
In a video called The Heart-Brain Connection: The Neuroscience of Social, Emotional Learning, neuroscientist Richard Davidson emphasizes that social/emotional learning changes brain function and structure and promotes adaptive emotional and cognitive functioning. Through controlled experiments, it was found that social/emotional learning not only helps a child ’s brain function, but also his/her body.
The level of cortisol, the hormone that is released in response to stress, is lower in children who have been explicitly taught positive emotion regulation skills. If children can lower anxiety by learning skills to calm themselves, there is improved function of the prefrontal cortex, which means improved emotion and improved cognition. By improving cognition, children perform better on tests of working memory, which underpins aspects of all academic performance. The methods of Responsive Classroom in teaching social/emotional skills have been a good match for our goals.
Many of our teachers and administrators have attended Responsive Classroom workshops, and we have brought a Responsive Classroom trainer in to conduct a workshop for all of the Lower School teachers and administrators here at Randolph. We have implemented Morning Meeting in all of our classrooms. During Morning Meeting our students learn the skills and importance of things like bouncing back (really listening to what someone is sharing and responding with a comment or question that appropriately relates), eye contact, body language, etc. We are handling behavior in a much more respectful way. There is more communication between teachers and students in order to guide them in handling situations better.
Just as a child who has difficulty with a math concept would receive extra help from the teacher and there would be some communication with parents about supporting that need at home, our approach to behavior is much the same. This makes the interaction positive rather than shameful.
Three years after my initial concerns regarding my interactions with children during carline, I am happy to report that I almost always get a friendly response, eye contact, high fives, or a hug as our kids are coming and going. Our students are practicing the skills they are learning. You can see them work to intentionally transfer the lessons from Morning Meeting. It is often adorably awkward, with piercing eye contact that lasts just a bit too long. They just want to make sure I know they are making a connection with me before they move on, and I couldn’t be happier!
Here are some of the benefits our teachers have seen from using Responsive Classroom:
Good listening and empathy
Predictability and structure are very important for young children. The introduction of Morning Meeting and the Morning Message has given the students in my class a consistent start to our day. They have learned how to greet others and listen in a respectful way, and everyone’s thoughts and ideas are of value. This is very evident during the share time. Listeners may offer empathetic comments or ask clarifying questions.
These skills culminated in an activity at the end of the year with Mrs. Bernick’s kindergarten class. We invited them to our class room for a “tour” of 1st grade for the rising 1st graders. My students were each paired with a student from her class. They greeted their partners at the door and then toured them around, telling them about the activities we did and things to look forward to. Hopefully, this will help some of the anxiety experienced by some students when moving to a different hallway and new grade. Lots of sharing and genuine conversations resulted between students during this activity.
Lisa Watson, 1st grade teacher
The Peace Rose is one of my favorite classroom tools for teaching kindness, caring for one another, and problem-solving. The peace rose allows children to become problem-solvers while recognizing and expressing their own feelings and respecting the feelings of others.
When a non-physical/dangerous problem arises during the school day, my students are encouraged to get the peace rose and ask those involved to talk. The child holding the peace rose expresses what they are upset about and how they feel. When they finish, the rose is handed to the other child. Only the child holding the peace rose is allowed to speak. They are encouraged to use “I” statements and refrain from unkind words. When the children reach a solution, they hold the rose and say, “We make peace.”
The peace rose has been an amazing tool for my students. It gives them a way to feel control in the situation.
Nichole Knapp, Kindergarten teacher
Positive body language
In our 3rd grade classroom, we have Morning Meeting. We discuss how important it is to be respectful to each other by listening and responding in conversation and with positive body language. I have seen how the behaviors we practice in Morning Meeting are being used throughout the day in the classroom. However, I could never be sure how much these behaviors were becoming a part of each child’s personality, both in and out of school.
One day, I received an email from a parent. She described an incident at a local restaurant, when she and her daughter encountered another child from our class. The parent noted that the interaction between herself and the children was engaging and the children were using good manners without being reminded. The parent was aware of the Responsive Classroom techniques being used in class, but was impressed that the children were using these behaviors outside of the classroom. She added, “Thank you very much for these lessons you are giving on social interactions. This will be so helpful to the kids throughout their lives.”
Later in the year, the parent thanked us for teaching the children to greet others with respect and to use good manners. “Those are skills that are often overlooked at school, and can be just as important as academics.”
Making sure that part of our day is used to learn social skills is valuable because it helps children more easily navigate the cooperative process of discovery and learning, and will serve them well throughout their lives in all situations.
Elizabeth Cantley, 3rd grade teacher
Classroom management is an integral part of a successful class room. It needs to be done in such a manner that a child’ s dignity is consistently respected. One such method I utilize in my classroom is called Take a Break. I began using this strategy two years ago. It is a two-part system in which students may be asked to take a break or can choose to visit the designated “special area” if they are in need of time for themselves. It teaches students how to cope with various emotions, such as frustration, anger, jealousy, or sadness by using tools such as breathing techniques, drawing, writing, and using stress balls.
For an educator, one measure of a successful method is when students transfer what they have learned to everyday life at home. Last year, a parent told me an inspiring story. Her child had created his own at-home version of Take a Break in order to have a calming space when he got frustrated. He had even used this strategy when he had gotten in an argument with a sibling! He had truly learned how to cope with frustration both in and out of the classroom.
Henri Helstowski, 2nd grade teacher
The skills learned and developed through Responsive Classroom activities were demonstrated by our students during the spring Young Voices Choir musical, Lion King Kids. An independent contractor was hired to provide wireless microphones for the principal characters and teach them how to use the equipment. He was complimentary about the talent of the students on the stage, but more importantly, he was so impressed with the respectfulness of each student. He remarked that he had never worked with a group of students who were so polite and responsive. When he talked to the students, they paid close attention and looked him in the eye. When asked questions, no one shrugged or gave an inaudible reply, but spoke up and graciously responded. They expressed themselves very maturely and were considerate in both their words and attitude. He was greatly impressed and told me so numerous times.
Lea Hoppe, Lower School music