What’s the Best Way to Help Students See How their Actions are Perceived by Others?

When my son was in middle school, he struggled to see how his actions affected others.  He was unable to think about how others perceived his actions.  He didn’t realize that when he lied in school, teachers would have trouble believing him the next time he spoke the truth.  It was challenging for him to step outside of himself and imagine what others saw when he made the choices he did.  Of course, what we know about brain development tells us that most middle school boys struggle with this skill as it requires much reasoning and critical thinking, which happens in their undeveloped frontal lobe.  Most students in middle school, can’t think about how others might see their actions because their brains just aren’t ready for that level of critical thinking yet.  However, as a parent, it’s very frustrating when our children keep making the same type of mistakes over and over again because they know no other way, yet.  The good news is, that as they get older, this skill becomes something they can do, and so all hope is not lost.  Hang in there, because once boys make it through the difficult middle school years, things get slightly easier, in this department anyway.

As a teacher, I find it difficult to help my students see how their actions impact others.  As many of my students don’t yet have the brain capacity to think things through and empathize with others, I often struggle helping them see the error of their ways.  How can I help students see that certain things they do are perceived as rude and disrespectful by others?  What’s the most effective way to help them learn from their mistakes?  I’ve tried role playing and scenarios.  I’ve tried having conversations with them about their actions.  I’ve tried every trick in my book to help my students learn that their actions can impact others negatively, to very little avail.

Yesterday in my Humanities class, a student was completing an atlas study worksheet with his table partner.  He struggled to answer one of the questions and so asked for help.  As he had yet to peruse the introductory pages of the atlas like the instructions on the worksheet indicated, he had yet to learn how to locate the title on a map.  So, I reminded him that he needs to read and review those first few pages so that he can learn all about the various features of an atlas.  He argued with me saying that he had already learned all of this information at his old school and didn’t need to look over the opening pages in the atlas.  He simply wanted me to provide him with the answer, which I did not do.  When I walked away as I realized he wasn’t processing anything I said, he slammed his fist down onto the table.  Rather than confront him right away about this action, I simply pulled his stop light card to yellow as a warning that he needs to be more respectful.  I then went onto help other students who seemed more responsive to the feedback with which I provided them.  Later in the period, I then went back to this student who seemed confused as to why he had earned a yellow card.  I explained to him what he did when I walked away from him and his table partner.  He then informed me that in the country he is from, that is how he shows his anger.  I told him that at our school and in this classroom, that is not how we show our anger or frustration.  “It is completely acceptable and appropriate to be angry and upset, but it’s how you show that anger outwardly to others that makes a difference.  Slamming your first onto the table is not okay.  You cannot show your anger to others like this.  It is aggressive and disrespectful.”  He didn’t seem to understand why this action was not okay, no matter what I said.  After awhile, I needed to move on to help other students and could spend no more time trying to squeeze water from a fixed mindset rock of a student.

Is there anything else I could have done that would have helped this student see the error in his ways?  This certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve seen this type of behavior from this student this year.  I’ve tried talking to him later on about the choices he makes and he still seems perplexed as to why what he did was not appropriate.  I’ve informed his mother of the pattern of behavior and reactions I’ve seen from him, and she is very receptive.  She usually discusses these issues with him to help him understand why what he did was not okay.  He will even tell me that is mother explained to him why what he did was unacceptable, yet he continues to repeat the reaction in class.  What am I missing?  What else could I be doing?  I’ve even tried the Plan B approach that Ross Greene writes about in his book Lost at School with this student, and have had no luck.  Perhaps there is a cultural barrier at work as he is an ELL from a European country and this is his first experience at a US school.  That could very well be, and if so, what do I do then?  How do I help remove this barrier for him?  How can I help him see that his actions do impact others in sometimes hurtful and negative ways?  Perhaps this will be an ongoing struggle for him until his frontal lobe becomes more developed.  Maybe this year will be tough for him, but as he grows and matures, if he stays at a school in the US, this skill of empathy and perception will become easier.  In the meantime, I’m going to keep trying different approaches to help him see how others perceive his actions so that he will hopefully begin to understand how his actions have consequences.

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How Can We Help Our Students See their Fears and Anxieties About School as Normal?

This past Tuesday, some colleagues and I celebrated the beginning of our lengthy summer vacation by going to Portland, Maine.  I haven’t had so much fun since I can’t remember when.  Despite the dreary and cold weather, we walked around the Old Port like we owned the town.  We munched on tasty food and talked about non-school stuff; although, that was difficult at times since our common tie is life at a boarding school.  We tried.  We laughed, we got drenched as cars drove through puddles splashing rain upon us, and we sang and danced like nobody’s business.  Yes, that’s right, I said sang.  You see, the reason we went to Maine was to see City and Colour live in concert.  As my pals and I are enamored by Dallas Green’s sultry voice and insightful lyrics, we convinced some of our other teacher friends to come along for the epic journey.  And epic it was.  He played all of his best tunes including an acoustic version of Coming Home that went right into the end of This Could be Anywhere in the World by Alexisonfire, Dallas’ other band.  We almost cried.  As most of the people we went with enjoyed the show, it was really my two closest friends and I who were the most into the show.  We danced the night away.  You see, music moves us like the pied piper moved his mice.  I used to be worried what people around us must think when they see us dancing, “Those people must be drunk or on drugs.”  The beauty of it all is that I am completely sober during concerts.  Music fills my body with joy and I can’t help but move.  Sure, people point and giggle occasionally, but I no longer care.  I realize that if I feel something, I should show it.  So, I do, and so do my concert buddies.  We move to the rhythm of each song as if we are dancers in our own private ballet.  It’s so much fun.  Going to a concert is an experience for us and so I’m sure to leave my fears and anxieties at the metal detectors.

Like me, my students enter our classroom each year filled with fears and anxieties about all sorts of things.  “Will the other students like me?  Will I fit in?  Can I handle the workload?”  As a teacher, I make it a goal to help assuage this fear within my students by creating a safe, caring, compassionate, and supportive environment in the classroom.  Although the beginning of the year is generally the most stressful time for students due to the many unknown variables, the end of the year can also prove to be a bit challenging for our students as well.  After a wonderful year in the classroom, the students begin to worry about next year as the current academic year winds to a close.  They worry about the new students and teachers as well as the many changes that are sure to come in a new grade.  Instead of sending our students off on summer vacation stressed about the next school year, it’s important to help the students see that their fears and worries are a normal part of growing up and maturing.

On the last day of school at my wonderful educational institution, which came and went last Thursday, we devoted time to having the students reflect on the year and share their excitement and fears for seventh grade.  While my co-teacher and I wanted the students to celebrate all of the awesomeness that happened in the sixth grade classroom this year, we also wanted the students to realize that their fears are most likely the same concerns that their peers have.  “I’m worried about the homework load next year.  I’m worried about not fitting in.  I’m worried that the teachers won’t like me.  I’m worried that the new students won’t like me.”  By having the boys share their worries for next year aloud with their peers, they not only had the opportunity to be validated by the teachers and their friends, but they also had a chance to become allies with the other students so that they can work together to help each other overcome the fears they possess.  As we fostered a strong sense of community within the class this past year, we are hopeful that they will take care of one another next year.  Knowing what worries their peers will help them better support each other as they move into the seventh grade.  Helping the students to see that they have friends who support and empathize with them will help make the transition into the next academic year a bit smoother for our boys.

Can Caring for Farm Animals Teach Students Empathy?

Several years ago, my wife introduced me to this program used in Canadian schools and around the world called The Roots of Empathy.  It’s all about using parents and a newborn baby to teach empathy, kindness, and human development to students.  Since a family friend had recently given birth at the time I was reminded of this program about four years ago, I decided to give it a try in my class.  While I didn’t go through the training required to actually call our program a Roots of Empathy program, we utilized a similar curriculum.  My friend brought her infant son into my classroom once a month.  During those visits, we discussed various topics and allowed the students to play with the baby.  The experience seemed meaningful to the students as they were mostly engaged and calm when the baby was present.  However, there never seemed to be a lasting impact.  Perhaps that was because I was not properly trained to lead the program in a classroom.  Maybe I did things incorrectly, which lead to a non-impactful experience for my students.  Or maybe, the program isn’t effective for every class and every student.  My students were still unkind and disrespectful to each other throughout their four years together at my school.  Clearly, our copycat program did not work.  What if it wasn’t my implementation that was the problem that lead to the poor results we saw back then?  Does having a baby visit the classroom in unison with a relevant curriculum really help teach students empathy?

Today, my class visited a local farm for our fourth Farm Fun Friday.  The boys learned how to clear a garden, pick butternut squash, feed sheep, pick potatoes, and use a pitchfork.  The boys also had time to observe and play with their angora bunnies that are now almost a month old.   They weighed and measured their bunnies and made other formal observations in their Farm Journals.  The highlight for the students was the time they were able to cuddle and watch their bunny eat dandelion greens, sleep, or hop around the floor.  It was amazing.  The students were so kind and engaged.  They were careful around their peers and the bunnies.  If a student was near a bunny and unaware of that fact because his back was turned, his classmates would compassionately and quickly alert that student to the fact that a bunny was near.  They were thoughtful and curious.  Why are some of the bunnies’ ears folded down and others are sticking more straight up?  The bunny portion of our farm program in the sixth grade seems to be going very well.  The students look forward to spending time with their bunny each week.  They talk fondly of their bunnies outside of the farm as well.  They seem to really be getting attached to their bunnies.  It’s quite phenomenal.

So, is this bunny project more effectively teaching my students empathy and compassion than the actual Roots of Empathy program?  My students are kind and nice to each other on and off the farm.  They use respectful language towards each other and are always looking out for one another.  Now, is my class special because they are such a great group of young men?  Does the character of the students when undergoing programs to teach empathy matter or is that the point of programs like these?  The students in my class this year are nice and thoughtful students.  While they are energetic and enthusiastic, they are compassionate and caring.  Is this bunny program working so well because they are such a different group of students compared to the previous group I worked through the baby program years ago?  Is that why this bunny experience seems to be producing the kind of results I was hoping to see with the baby program years ago?  Perhaps being able to attach to the bunnies allows for deeper emotional connections; therefore, allowing the students to learn to empathize and be kind and careful when interacting with all animals including humans.  Since the baby program was only a monthly experience and the baby was already bonded to the mother, perhaps the students felt disengaged and separate from the child; thus, learning nothing about kindness or compassion.  It does make me wonder if a farm animal program such as the bunny program I’m currently utilizing in my class is more effective at helping students learn the vital kind and caring character traits needed to lead successful lives in a global society.  I really don’t know, but I am loving the results I’m seeing this year with the bunny program I’m using.  I feel as though it is helping my students learn to be more thoughtful and compassionate people.  So, who knows if other programs out there teach empathy and compassion as well, but this bunny program seems to be quite effective for my students this year.  And that’s what matter most to me.

How to Teach Empathy: Have Students be the Teachers

While I feel as though I’ve always been a kind individual, as long as you don’t ask my mother, empathy was not a value I possessed until much later in life.  Sure, I knew when someone was upset or happy, but I struggled to imagine why they were upset or what I could do to help.  Probably not until my sophomore year in college did I start to develop the skill of empathy.  Why was that?  Is it because empathy is an abstract concept and the human brain develops in such a way that it is only focused on egocentric thoughts?  Or is it that we as humans need to learn this trait as it is not innate?

In the sixth grade classroom, we try to help our students begin to develop this skill of empathy regularly.  Community building, compassion, and empathy are integral parts of our curriculum.  By the end of the year, our students are quite good at thinking about how their peers are feeling.  Selfishly, though, wouldn’t it be great if our students could empathize with us as the teacher too?  It’s hard work doing what we do to help guide students.  If our students knew how we felt and understood what we did, perhaps they’d work more diligently or stay more focused.  One can dream anyway.

However, without realizing it would be a consequence, a group of three students learned how challenging and tiring it is to be a teacher.  Today in STEM class, three students taught the class a lesson on ratios.  Their lesson included a slideshow, partner quiz, and fun group activity.  It was awesome.  At the start of the lesson, we told the three boys that we, the teachers, would be students today and that they would be the teachers.  They liked this thought, that is, until things got difficult.

It started out fine.  The students listened as one student went through the slideshow and explained ratios.  Everyone listened intently.  Then, there was a quiz on the slideshow that the students needed to complete with a partner.  Because the group didn’t discuss how this was going to be done or who was going to ask the questions, they weren’t prepared.  Middle school boys can smell fear and a lack of preparation miles away.  This is when it went south for them.

Two students picked up on this and started shouting out how the quiz should be instructed.  Other students began to get impatient and started meandering about the room.  Meanwhile, the other two group members were setting up their group activity because they forgot to do it at the start of the class.  The student leading the lesson told the students shouting to be quiet or they would leave the classroom.  Those students kept arguing with him.  He kicked one student out of the room but the student refused to leave.  He didn’t believe him.  I didn’t step in at any point.  I want the students to learn how to problem solve and figure things out.

The lesson continued with more talking and arguing, which wasn’t addressed.  So, some of the boys got louder and more out of control.  Then came the group activity.  Things spiraled out of control fast here.  While the three boys explained the directions clearly, they were not specific and they made the challenge too difficult.  The students needed to look for 34 colored tiles and then put them together as a ratio.  The tiles were hidden so well that the students began throwing books and carpet squares around to find them.  The boys stepped on one another and pushed people.  No one was hurt, but things were a bit out of control.  The three student teachers never stepped in.  Then after five minutes of this anarchy, the teachers finally had the students return to their seats.  While they did manage to have a few students clean up the classroom, things were not put back properly.  It was a mess.  The student teachers then reviewed the answer to the activity with much talking from other students.  The three boys never reminded the students of the rules but merely threatened them with consequences.  Did any learning happen in this lesson?  Oh yes indeed, learning did happen, but for whom?

At the close of the activity, the three boys debriefed the lesson with the students.  I was amazed.  They learned the power of reflection.  Then it happened, “You guys were so disrespectful to us.  I don’t know how Mr. Holt and Ms. Nai do it everyday.  It’s hard work being a teacher.”  Wiser words may have been spoken, but all I heard were those in that moment.  Sure, we wanted to have the students teach each others about math concepts, but if the student teachers do the learning too, even better.  The three boys leading today’s lesson now have an appreciation for teaching and what their teachers go through daily.  Perhaps this will help them be better role models in the classroom and encourage their parents to bake us giant chocolate chip cookies filled with empathy.

The students learned more than math today in STEM class.  They learned about empathy and how difficult it is to teach others and keep the class focused.  It’s not easy being a teacher, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.