Friday, June 14, 2013

Creating Safe Spaces that Nurture Learning

The following article is from Mark Hyatt, the President and CEO of the

Character Education Partnership, the national organization that awards

School of Character and Promising Practices recognition.

Creating Safe Spaces that Nurture Learning

By Mark Hyatt, President & CEO

When it comes to flourishing in school nowadays, scientific evidence is mounting that confirms what many of us have suspected all along—that if we want children to truly learn, and to perform better in life as both students and citizens, then we have to educate them in an environment that they see as safe, caring and nurturing. In short, school social climate matters, so social and emotional learning (SEL), combined with character education just may be the magical combination that makes academic growth possible.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Every day, more and more educators seem to be reaching that same conclusion. In fact, even as I was composing this blog, a friend alerted me to an article headlined “The Benefits of Character Education,” in the May issue of The Atlantic magazine. Written by Jessica Lahey, an elementary school English teacher in Lyme, NH, the light-hearted piece details her journey from being a skeptic about character education to becoming a true believer after seeing how emphasizing such core values as kindness, compassion, empathy and self-control had transformed her classes of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. Writes Lahey:

At a time when parents and teachers are concerned about school violence, it is worth noting that students who attend character education schools report feeling safer because they know their fellow students value respect, responsibility, compassion and hard work. From a practical perspective, it’s simply easier to teach children who can exercise patience, self-control, and diligence, even when they would rather be playing outside – especially when they would rather be playing outside.

Who can argue with that? Studies conducted by the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) also persuasively argue that when students are surrounded by caring adults who provide them with safe, supportive school environments, they are much more likely to thrive. Many liken this relationship to the concept of the “dry sponge.” If children do not feel that they are in a safe and supportive school environment, their distracted minds are unable to concentrate enough to fully absorb their lessons, especially the complex concepts now being emphasized by the national push to improve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. In this sense, according to the analogy, social and emotional character development (SECD) moistens the “sponge” enough to allow these students to process, reflect, absorb and learn.

At CEP, our 11 Principles of Effective Character Education form the cornerstone of our philosophy for mobilizing student, teacher, parent and community involvement in creating both relationships and institutions that value and promote good character. Adherence to the 11 Principles also serve as the basis upon which K-12 schools around the country are designated as State Schools of Character and National Schools of Character. At least three of the principles directly address social and emotional learning goals. Specifically, schools must “define ‘character’ comprehensively to include thinking, feeling and doing”; they must commit to “create a caring community”; and they must “regularly assess (their) culture and climate” to ensure program effectiveness.

One of the nation’s leading experts in this area of social research is Dr. Maurice Elias, PhD, director of Rutgers University’s Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab in New Brunswick, NJ. “We’re talking about a field that is as well-supported by research as any other endeavor in education,” he says. “It makes sense in our hearts. It makes sense in our minds. It makes sense in our data. And we can do it… Our work has established an inextricable link between children’s social-emotional and character development and their academic achievement and life success.” Dr. Elias will be a keynote speaker at this fall’s National Forum.

I have experienced this phenomenon first-hand. Not long ago, when I ran a system of K-12 charter schools in Colorado, I used to tell my teachers and staff at the annual back-to-school training sessions that, throughout the upcoming school year, I would be asking students if they could give me the names of adults at their school whom they KNEW actually cared about them and their success. In turn, I stressed to the faculty that if their students could not name any supportive adults, then we all would have a problem. I wanted our students to know that everyone—from the principal to the custodian—honestly cared about them, as well as each other. When we know others care—we thrive. I firmly believe that. And the results at those schools reaffirmed that belief.

In Chicago, with the help of the NoVo Foundation and the 1440 Foundation, CASEL is working to promote that same message nationally. Last fall, the nonprofit released its 2013 CASEL Guide, which identifies 23 school-based programs that successfully promote students’ self-control, relationship building and problem solving, among other SEL skills. They also improve academic performance, according to a review of more than 200 separate child development studies.

“It’s really a ‘two-fer’,” says Dr. Roger Weissberg, CASEL’s President and CEO, and a professor of psychology and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “If you address kids’ social and emotional growth, you’ll also be benefitting them academically.” In my experience, the equivalent term is “force multiplier.” If we first teach our children—both at home and at school—how to be good, honest and compassionate people, then the benefits can be exponential. Remove, or at least reduce, the social and emotional barriers to their character development and their academic potential can truly be limitless.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Every Child Is Different

“Every kid is different”. You’ve probably heard it a million times. If you have more than one child, you’ve probably seen it in your own home.

What accounts for these differences between children? Family therapists often point out that every child is born into a different family. The family that child number two enters is different from the family that welcomed child number one into the world. The “nurture” side (environment) of that old Nature-Nurture debate changes as the family changes.

Perhaps even more important is what child specialists and therapists call “temperament”. Temperament (nature) describes how a child approaches and reacts to the world- a personal "style." It is largely inborn , so that one child may be the energizer bunny while another may seem almost always calm. Most parents instinctively understand that their kids have different temperaments, but this can become confusing when we try to create consistency in our rules and expectations.

It’s helpful to consider a child’s temperament when thinking about his or her social/emotional development. If we have identical expectations of every child, we are likely to run into unnecessary frustration- for ourselves as parents, and for our children. The highly responsible oldest child may need permission to ease up and have some fun, while the youngest, less diligent child is likely to need more reminders to plan ahead for work and projects. In education, teachers often adapt their teaching style and expectations in order to respond to the different needs of different children. Known as Differentiated Instruction, this is a widely recognized educational technique, helping teachers succeed with students who may be different by temperament or ability. A similar technique can be helpful when dealing with our child’s social/emotional needs. What is helpful for Johnny may be different from what Jane needs.

“But that’s not fair!” This is what parents (or teachers) are likely to hear from kids who complain that a sibling or peer is being treated differently. Parents can easily fall into the trap of thinking they must treat every child identically. When this proves impractical, a frustrated parent will often resort to that old standby “Because I said so!”, an answer that doesn’t help a child learn to accept the fact that fairness isn’t always possible.

When children insist that being “fair” means treating everyone the same, it’s helpful to remind them that “fair” is different from “the same”. As one educator puts it, “We don’t make everyone wear the same size shoes. I wouldn’t make a kid who needs a size 8 wear a size 6. That wouldn’t be fair”. This logic is obvious to even young children, and can be useful in ending the “fairness” complaint.

Obviously, we don’t want to apply rules randomly, since this undermines our authority. But, it can be helpful to remember the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Spending Time Outdoors Helps Chldren Solve Their Own Problems

The following information was reported via the BBC.
There are many reasons why it’s a good idea for children to spend time in nature, and now here comes another one: the development of social skills.
Experts recently have been pointing out that time in nature reduces stress, soothes the psyche, and eases tensions, paving the way for improved communication and closer bonding with others.

So here’s a study that demonstrates exactly this point:

Children In Wales Solve Problems With No Help From Grown-Ups

In Brigend, a town in south Wales, about 22 miles west of the capital, Cardiff, a group of nursery school children took part in a trial of outdoor learning in the woods designed to promote independent play.
The result? Through the experiment, they learned to solve disputes without any help from adults.
In the trial, led by the Forestry Commission of Wales, the Pontycymer Nursery children were taught how to carry out a simple risk assessment of the woodland and given basic resources such as buckets, ropes, trowels, mud and water to encourage them to start playing.

The resources were reduced each week until the children just used what they could find in the woods to interact with and use in their games. The adults with them observed the children discreetly and recorded how involved the children were in their play.

WfL (Woodlands for Life) education manager Karen Clarke said each child was assessed three times during the session for two minutes each time to analyse how they were interacting with their environment.  She said of the mediation skills the children started showing: “The conflict resolution came along during the project. Withdrawing adult-led interaction, it was a byproduct of the process.  “It was a very positive side of it.”
She added that four children in particular who appeared not to be interested in their surroundings at the start became much more engaged as the project went on.

The children learned “how to negotiate with each other to get an agreed outcome” and were “finding out about becoming more resilient when things don’t go their way.  Ms. Clarke reported on how the youngsters grew in confidence and were able to implement conflict resolution with no outside help.

The idea of giving children resources and encouraging them to work together in unstructured free play has been taking off around the world. In the US, as well as the UK and other parts of Europe, the notion of “Wild Zones” has been gaining popularity: places that allow for all types of play, outdoor laboratories on creativity with open-ended possibilities for self-designed play and socializing.  In outdoor settings, children are provided with resources like sticks, flowers, mud, branches, and they work together to create whatever they want.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Benefits of SEL

The following information is provided through the CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) webiste.

Schools that create socially and emotionally sound learning and working environments, and that help students and staff develop greater social and emotional competence, in turn help ensure positive short- and long-term academic and personal outcomes for students, and higher levels of teaching and work satisfaction for staff.

SEL improves students’ positive behavior and reduces negative behavior.

It promotes young people’s academic success, health, and well-being at the same time that it prevents a variety of problems such as alcohol and drug use, violence, truancy, and bullying.

A large body of scientific research has determined that effective SEL in schools significantly improves students’:

•Social-emotional skills

•Attitudes about self and others

•Social interactions

It also decreases their levels of emotional distress and conduct problems.

SEL is also associated with significant improvements in students’ academic performance and attitudes toward school.

A landmark review found that students who receive SEL instruction had more positive attitudes about school and improved an average of 11 percentile points on standardized achievement tests compared to students who did not receive such instruction.

SEL prepares young people for success in adulthood.

SEL helps students become good communicators, cooperative members of a team, effective leaders, and caring, concerned members of their communities. It teaches them how to set and achieve goals and how to persist in the face of challenges. These are precisely the skills that today’s employers consider important for the workforce of the future.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Why A Teen Who Talks Back May Have A Bright Future

The following research was reported on National Public Radio.

If you're the parent of a teenager, you likely find yourself routinely embroiled in disputes with your child. Those disputes are the symbol of teen developmental separation from parents.
It's a vital part of growing up, but it can be extraordinarily wearing on parents.

Now researchers suggest that those spats can be tamed and, in the process, provide a lifelong benefit to children.

Researchers from the University of Virginia recently published their findings in the journal Child Development. Psychologist Joseph P. Allen headed the study.
Allen says almost all parents and teenagers argue. But it's the quality of the arguments that makes all the difference. "We tell parents to think of those arguments not as nuisance but as a critical training ground," he says. Such arguments, he says, are actually mini life lessons in how to disagree — a necessary skill later on in life with partners, friends and colleagues on the job.
Teens should be rewarded when arguing calmly and persuasively and not when they indulge in yelling, whining, threats or insults, he says.

In Allen's study, 157 13-year-olds were videotaped describing their biggest disagreement with their parents. The most common arguments were over grades, chores, money and friends. The tape was then played for both parent and teen.  "Parents reacted in a whole variety of ways. Some of them laughed uncomfortably; some rolled their eyes; and a number of them dove right in and said, 'OK, let's talk about this,'" he says.
It was the parents who said wanted to talk who were on the right track, says Allen. "We found that what a teen learned in handling these kinds of disagreements with their parents was exactly what they took into their peer world," with all its pressures to conform to risky behavior like drugs and alcohol.

Allen interviewed the teens again at ages 15 and 16. "The teens who learned to be calm and confident and persuasive with their parents acted the same way when they were with their peers," he says. They were able to confidently disagree, saying 'no' when offered alcohol or drugs. In fact, they were 40 percent more likely to say 'no' than kids who didn't argue with their parents.

For other kids, it was an entirely different story. "They would back down right away," says Allen, saying they felt it pointless to argue with their parents. This kind of passivity was taken directly into peer groups, where these teens were more likely to acquiesce when offered drugs or alcohol. "These were the teens we worried about," he says.

Bottom line: Effective arguing acted as something of an inoculation against negative peer pressure. Kids who felt confident to express themselves to their parents also felt confident being honest with their friends.
So, ironically the best thing parents can do is help their teenager argue more effectively. For this, Allen offers one word: listen.

In the study, when parents listened to their kids, their kids listened back. They didn't necessarily always agree, he says. But if one or the other made a good point, they would acknowledge that point. "They weren't just trying to fight each other at every step and wear each other down. They were really trying to persuade the other person."

Acceptable argument might go something like this: 'How about if my curfew's a half hour later but I agree that I'll text you or I'll agree that I'll stay in certain places and you'll know where I'll be; or how about I prove to you I can handle it for three weeks before we make a final decision about it."

Again, parents won't necessarily agree. But "they'll get across the message that they take their kids point of view seriously and honestly consider what they have to say," Allen says.
Child psychologist Richard Weissbourd says the findings bolster earlier research that finds that "parents who really respect their kids' thinking and their kids' input are much more likely to have kids who end up being independent thinkers and who are able to resist peer groups."

Weissbourd points to one dramatic study that analyzed parental relationships of Dutch citizens who ended up protecting Jews during World War II. They were parents who encouraged independent thinking, even if it differed from their own.
So the next time your teenager huffs and puffs and starts to argue, you might just step back for a minute, take a breath yourself, and try to listen. It may be one of the best lessons you teach your child.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Five Tips to Help Parents Prevent Bullying

 Parents and guardians are among a school's best allies in bullying prevention:

1) Talk with and Listen to Your Children Everyday Ask: questions about their school day, including experiences on the way to and from school, lunch, and recess. Ask about their peers. Children who feel comfortable talking to their parents about these matters before they are involved in bullying are more likely to get them involved after.

2) Spend time at School and Recess: Schools can lack the resources to provide all students individualized attention during "free" time like recess. Volunteer to coordinate games and activities that encourage children to interact with peers aside from their best friends.

3) Be a Good Example: When you get angry at waiters, other drivers or others, model effective communication techniques. As puts it, "Any time you speak to another person in a mean or abusive way, you're teaching your child that bullying is ok."

4) Create Healthy Anti-Bullying Habits: Starting as young as possible, coach your children on both what not to do (push, tease, and be mean to others) as well as what to do (be kind, empathize, and take turns). Also coach your child on what to do if someone is mean to him or to another (get an adult, tell the bully to stop, walk away and ignore the bully).

5) Make Sure Your Child Understands Bullying: Explicitly explain what it is and that it's not normal or tolerable for them to bully, be bullied, or stand by and watch other kids be bullied.

(These tips were adapted from materials by the National PTA and

Friday, April 1, 2011


The following is adapted from the work of Maurice Elias and L. Breune in "Social Decision Making/Problem Solving".

Whether one calls it a Sharing Circle, Morning Meeting, Sharing Time, Advisory Group, Circle Time or any of a number of related titles, the reality is that students welcome the chance to come together informally to address issues of social and emotional concern. Students benefit from a "buffer" between personally and interpersonally challenging parts of their day, and applying themselves to serious academic work. Especially challenging parts of their day include their prepariation for and trip to school, lunch and recess, and dismissal. For this reason, schools find it useful to have circle times and related gatherings to start the school day, after lunch/recess, and at the end of the day. Such activities recognize and help to implement three essential principles of social-emotional and character development (from "Lessons of Life", HOPE Foundation,

1) Caring Relationships form the Foundation of All Lasting Learning:  Gatherings bring everyone together and make a statement that while agendas are important, relationships come first. They also set a climate in which learning is most likely to be internalized.

2) Emotions Affect How and What We Learn:  Academic work can't proceed when students' emotions are churned up, when they are anxious, fearful, or angry. The group focus during start of the day gatherings is on providing an opportunity for some expression of concern, or at least using a ritual beginning to give students a chance to get their own emotions regulated a bit. By doing so, they are better prepared for the academic tasks ahead of them. After lunch or recess or at the end of the day, addressing students' emotions makes it more likely that students will recall and follow through on the day's learning.

3) Goal Setting and Problem Solving Provide Direction and Energy to Learning:  Gatherings provide a chance to reaffirm common goals, set personal goals, problem solve issues of general concern, or transition into the social-emotional and character development activity about to be undertaken. Gatherings also reinforce goals by providing opportunites for testimonials about progress on projects, attempts to use new skills, reflections on what has been learned, or to get feedback on aspects of what has been taught during the day that have been particularly challenging.