Young children, even very young children, need consistent opportunities to wrestle with age-appropriate challenges, conundrums, complications, obstacles, issues and “big fat botherations.”
BEWARE: Obvious answer ahead… because life is full of problems (always has been ~ always will be) and resisting them, complaining about them, or running away from them is just no way to live.
What kinds of problems do children need to solve?
SHARING & INCLUDING, for starters: Kids don’t always want to share. They don’t always want to include others, either… BUT kids do always want others to share with them, and they do always want to be included. How do we, their teachers, put those two seemingly irreconcilable opposites together?
If we’re going to really succeed at supporting our students in resolving their own challenges, then we must view our role from a big-picture point of view, rather than attempting to implement immediate ‘fixes’ or behavior modifications. Kids need help with honestly exploring their own and others’ feelings about challenging situations that are oh-so-familiar. Children need gentle *guidance (where to look, but not what to see) in order to understand that all kids in their group feel pretty much the same when it comes to sharing. (*Guidance is best achieved with the right kinds of questions that invite kids, within peer group discussions, to safely express themselves and listen to each other, in a non-judgmental setting.)
The more kids learn and experience how much they genuinely share feelings and understanding, related to a variety of situations, the less alone/shy/isolated they’ll feel, and the stronger will be their sense of belonging to, and being part of, the group. Sharing is easier in that kind of environment. And if not sharing, then shared understanding about why “it’s just too hard to share that last cookie with someone else.”
Communication is key for real problem solving to occur.
Thinking back on your own education, do you remember teachers, or do you remember methods and techniques? If you answered ‘teachers,’ then you’re with just about everyone else, because …
… teachers are the heart of the educational system. When they build belonging in their classroom, they’re building success for every student in their classroom.
Attend to Classroom Climate
As educators, we tend to believe our classroom is a neutral environment, but some settings are more inclusive and welcoming to certain types of students than we realize. It’s important to be mindful of how environments can feel “chilly” to some students and how other classrooms foster connections between the teacher and students, as well as between all of the students to each other.
One way to foster connections is for teachers to actively work to find common ground between students and provide opportunities for students to recognize similarities among their peers.
When provided with consistent opportunities to discover shared values with peers, students directly experience the sense of belonging they (and all humans – for that matter) require in order to manifest more of their full potential as learners and collaborative problem-solvers.
- Need for approval
- Desire for external validation
- Fear of failure
Young children, even by age 4, generally have strong reactions to always being told what to do … especially when it comes to their feelings and their interactions with others. Their strong reactions often show up as challenging behavior, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It really doesn’t.
From Challenging to Cooperating
The key to successfully creating more cooperation in early childhood environments is to provide young learners with multiple opportunities to discover how much they have in common with peers. This very practical approach is NOT achieved with lectures, books or videos … at least not nearly as effectively as it is achieved with peer group discussions.
We were never blank slates!
When children are treated as blank slates, most of them automatically resist. It’s almost as if they’re wired to resist … but is that such a terrible thing? Well, sure, it can be, when resistance turns into challenging behavior. But resistance can be interpreted as a signal that children have a solid sense of who they are and how “things” should be. Rather than treating children like blank slates who need to be taught everything, especially when it comes to their behavior, wise educators use relevant peer group discussions as one powerful key to successful turnarounds in their students’ behavior.
Five easy keys to designing successful peer group discussions
- Make sure discussions never, ever isolate or point to specific individuals.
- Use visual examples of the topic around which you want your students to discover solutions, (Google IMAGES is a great resource for pictures of: pushing, not sharing, pulling cat’s tail, street safety issues, whispering in front of others etc., etc.) but …
- … do NOT start discussions about specific behaviors – even though you’re showing a picture of that behavior. Instead, start discussion with broad where, what, who or how’s the kids will easily succeed at identifying and describing. (Neutral successes are important at this point.)
- After a few of those kinds of questions, then everyone is ready to “unpack” what’s going on in the picture you’ve shown them… just be sure the questions are open-ended and non-leading! If ever the questions you ask are not open-ended, then be quick to follow with, “Why is that your answer?” or “Will you tell us why you think that?”
- Paraphrase kids’ answers. Of course, that doesn’t mean ‘parrot’ their answers. It means saying, in your own words, what you think each child said for the purpose of making sure you really understood. (Other benefits of this 5th key: √Fully acknowledges each student’s contribution to the discussion. √Keeps you really, reeeeeally listening. √Because they’ll be especially interested in how you paraphrase their thoughts, when you add vocabulary-enriching synonyms for their most commonly used words they’ll be paying LOTS of attention.)
We all want to belong, and – actually – we all pretty much do… we just need to discover that fact together.
When you get right down to it, we all have a lot more in common than we have differences that separate us. For instance, none of us likes to be interrupted or pushed. None of us really likes to fight or interact with people who don’t consider fairness a value to live by… but …
… trying to reasonably and logically explain that to young kids, who function mostly out of the emotional part of their brains, is rarely – if ever – productive.
The good news is: getting groups of kids engaged in discussions around subjects that really matter to them, with questions that communicate respect for their intelligence and collaborative problem solving abilities …. well, that’s a horse of a different color !!!
How do we prepare students, even very young students, to constructively engage with the world they’re growing into? As educators, we must activate and exercise students’ thinking skills many times every day. Not, of course, in overly serious ways, because children must be allowed to develop at a natural pace through the stages of childhood.
Exercising Thinking Skills Can Be Fun and Relevant
Fortunately, there are ways to exercise children’s thinking skills in ways that directly improve their own day-to-day lives.
With the right kinds of questions (and zero lecturing), young children’s thinking skills can be exercised, so those skills naturally become stronger. Questions can and should be about familiar topics – like, how to: √ treat animals, √ play fairly, √ get someone’s attention. The right kinds of questions (non-leading and open-ended) will draw upon children’s hardwired honesty, common sense, and ability to empathize.
Using Critical Thinking to Find Trustworthy Websites
By the time students are in middle school they have become much less likely to ask questions around everyday elements of their lives. Why? Too embarrassing to appear ‘dumb.’ No problem. We, as their educators, can present topics of discussion for the entire class, with directives on how to discover the most trustworthy answers. (DIRECT BENEFITS: Everyone saves “face,” while gaining the benefits of what they need to learn.)
What about Cyberbullying?
How do we get students thinking about the ramifications of their online communications, without lecturing? Peer group discussions with, again, non-leading and open-ended questions helps to bring issues “into the light,” without putting anyone on the defensive. When students consistently receive opportunities to think together, they will come to conclusions, and even solutions, that work for everyone. Can you think of a better way to prepare them for developing the sophisticated problem-solving skills they’ll need as adults?
Young people experiencing anxiety, sorrow, depression, hurt feelings, social isolation – any emotional pain – are seriously handicapped in their ability to learn. Teachers can help these students, without ever analyzing the source of those students’ problems.
Get Kids Moving
All kids, to one degree or another, are kinesthetic learners. Engaging their bodies in whatever lessons we’re trying to teach makes life and learning easier for everyone!
Working movement into as many lessons as possible might seem like a tall order, but the rewards can be worth the extra effort. Try:
- Role-playing right in the middle of story time.
- Pantomime opposites during vocabulary lessons. (The teacher can say the word big, and the children can pantomime small.) Here’s link to a starter list of 38 opposites.
- Get kids learning to rhythmic beats. Kids of all ages can learn just about anything (letters, numbers, multiplication tables) while moving to a rythmic beat.
Get Kids Laughing
Laughter has the power to fuel engagement and help students learn. It’s the best medicine … we all know it. And science confirms it: when we laugh, cortisol (the stress hormone) is reduced. Other benefits include:
- Release of health-giving chemicals into the brain.
- Building a sense of togetherness and trust.
- Triggers creative thinking.
Get Kids Thinking and Problem Solving Together
Peer group discussions can provide important opportunities for kids to:
- Express their own understanding in their own words, and discover their significance when peers and the teacher actually listen to them.
- Learn that others feel and understand in ways to which they can relate, even if not the same ways. Thus, they discover the significance of others.
- Grow in a sense of belonging, which is the opposite of pain causing isolation and loneliness.
How can that kind of a meaningful experience be consistently brought into the classroom? It’s relatively easy:
- Find images of situations with which all the students are familiar and, to one degreee or another, are challenged by.
- Before showing the picture to the kids, create a list of 10+ open-ended questions that respect, and age-appropriately challenge, the kids’ intelligence.
- Ask the questions – then really, really listen to the kids’ answers. These discussions are not the time for lectures. When one question stops eliciting engaged discussion, ask another one, and be sure to get as many of the kids talking and sharing their ideas as you can.
Here’s a link to receive some specific ideas for helping bring kids into alignment with their own inner resources and strengths. We want to help kids learn, and sometimes we first have to help them be open to learning. Try any and all of the above 3 evidence-based approaches and then leave a comment with your results.
Educators with behaviorally challenging students must double-down on cultivating relationships that those students feel they can trust. But, according to Dr. Ross Greene, “whether a child is behaviorally challenging or not…collaboration is the key to improved relationships, better communication, and solving problems.”
How can one teacher accomplish this with a room full of wildly diverse kids? One way is to provide regularly scheduled peer group discussions around topics and challenges important to all the kids in the class. Kids are naturally interested in what their peers think and care about, (whether or not they’d ever openly admit it) so they’re inclined to listen to each other’s answers IF the questions used to move the discussions along are neither leading nor overly simple.
Familiar challenges at ‘comfortable’ distances
When all the kids in the peer group discussion are listening to each other, you can be listening for clues about each child’s values and personal challenges. Surprisingly, when peer discussions are objective – in other words, focused on pictures that keep familiar and relevant challenges at ‘comfortable’ distances, kids are much, much more likely to reveal their honest thoughts, feelings and insights. Those are the times when you can learn so much that will help you gain deeper appreciation for all the kids, even (and sometimes, especially) the ones who create the most challenges.
For more insights and wisdom from experienced educators: When You Can’t Relate to Your Students’ Experiences – Edwords Blog – BAM! Radio Network
Enough theory …
Okay, so enough theory. How’s about a sample of an effective peer group discussion around PLAYING FAIR? Check out this link.
Just remember that for peer group discussions to succeed, the teacher does not so much ‘teach’ as ‘facilitate.’ Facilitating is all about keeping discussions moving forward by asking new questions whenever the current question has lost its ‘engagement factor.’ Facilitating, more importantly, is about listening, really listening.
Real listening happens with ‘full on’ attention
Our attention – when it’s open, accepting, interested, and sensitive to our students’ unspoken messages – is one of the most nurturing ways we can, with consistency and over time, develop a sense of safety for our students who are living with adversity. Get ready to do some powerful learning of your own. Learning that will help you create more safety and ‘belonging’ for all the kids in your class.
Enriching every student’s experience in inclusive schools is a worthwhile challenge on so many levels, for so many reasons. By creating ‘peer group’ discussions around topics to which all students can relate, belonging grows and community is spontaneously built. Talk about enriching!
When discussions are facilitated around well-designed lists of open-ended and wide-ranging questions, much can be learned by all participants, including the facilitators. Just 10-15 minutes of this type of exercise, a couple of times each week, can reveal surprising layers of insight from all participants. All.
Building belonging …
Ultimately, these experiences build ‘belonging,’ in the most natural and un-forced sense. Fundamentally, we’re all interested in each other, and we’re all ‘wired’ for empathy. (And we are working with the following definition of empathy:
EMPATHY, if it is to grow, has some very definite requirements: √ It can't be taught. √ It can't be forced. √ It's born right in us, so it just needs to be exercised.
The natural instinct to empathize is most available when there is zero pressure to do so. Peer group discussions can create those enriching opportunities. (No lectures required. In fact, lectures during these discussions, turn out to be counter-productive.)
Benefits for students without disabilities include:
- Prepares all students for adult life in an inclusive society
- Increased appreciation and acceptance of individual differences
- Increased understanding and acceptance of diversity
- Respect for all people
- Opportunities to master activities by practicing and teaching others
Benefits for students with disabilities include:
- Peer role models for academic, social and behavior skills
- Increased inclusion in future environments
Higher expectations for themselves
Benefits for facilitators:
Take the long view when measuring WIN-WIN-WIN Gains
When peer group discussions are designed around real-life topics common to all students’ experiences, triple-wins really can be achieved. Just remember to take the long view, in terms of measuring progress. The first time you go to the gym you don’t expect to look in the mirror and see a difference. Right? In fact, there’s no exact time when you can predict when you’ll see improvements, but you know that if you continue to workout on a regular basis, positive results are inevitable.
Same with the process of building belonging by facilitating regularly scheduled peer group discussions. If you continue to provide opportunities for kids to share their thoughts around topics that are personally relevant, commonalities, shared values, and empathy will grow. It’s a beautiful inevitability.