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.
- 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 !!!
As educators, it is our profound responsibility to activate and exercise students’ thinking skills every day. Peer group discussions, based on open-ended questions, can get kids engaged with current events, especially if we don’t start out with lectures.
Making Politics RELEVANT for the Purpose of Activating and Exercising Middle Schoolers’ Thinking Skills
The GOP’s recent use of the Nuclear Option, in order to blast through the Democrats’ attempt to filibuster the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, offers plenty of potential to increase kids’ awareness and involvement with the world they’re growing into – if we open the subject by establishing relevance. (Actually, when it comes to successfully educating today’s youth, nothing – NOTHING – is a more essential responsibility of teachers than establishing relevance.)
Suggestions for Open-Ended Questions to Activate and Exercise Thinking Skills for Relevant Peer Group Discussions
(Start broadly in order to create relevance through known associations.)
- Have you ever been playing a game with some kids, and out of no where one (or more of them) announced different rules? Who has a story about a time like that?
- How did you react? If other kids were involved, how did they react to the sudden rule changes?
- WHY do you think that person (or people) made that sudden rule change? HOW did they justify their new rule to you (and to the other players)?
- Did their justifications (reasons) make sense to you? Why or why not?
- What happened next?
- Name some of your favorite sports and favorite teams. What is it that you like most about those sports / those teams / those players? Share some specifics with the rest of our group.
- Is there anything you don’t like about those sports / those teams / those players? Share some specifics with the rest of our group.
- What does the term “Nuclear Option” mean? (Encourage students to say the first thing that comes to their mind when they hear that term. Be open to all their contributions. Explain that you’re all exploring new ideas together – so “mistakes” demonstrate effort, and nothing negative.)
- Does anyone know what it means when it’s associated with interactions and decision-making in the U.S. Senate? (Very brief explanation: The nuclear option is a parliamentary procedure that allows the U.S. Senate to override / change a rule … with a simple majority of 51 votes, instead of with a supermajority of 60 votes … effectively ending a 60-vote requirement for confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee or the passage of legislation.)
- How could this possibly matter to your life?
- Do any of you know how the Senate responded to Obama’s candidate for Supreme Court Judge – just a few months before he left office?
- Let’s think about some reasons that might have been behind the recent implementation of the Nuclear Option.
- Again … how could this possibly matter to your life?
- The role of judges is to interpret laws objectively. Is anyone ever completely objective? Why do you think that? What examples can you give of people being completely objective? What about examples of people (coaches, referees, parents, teachers, police, friends, teammates, etc.) being partially objective?
Educators’ Critical Responsibility: Activate and Exercise Students’ Thinking Skills – Their Futures Depend On It.
“In our evolving world, the ability to think is fast becoming more desirable than any fixed set of skills or knowledge. We need problem solvers, decision makers and innovators. We need to prepare our children for their future, not for our past.” – Mike Fleetham
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.
OBSERVATIONAL LEARNING, sometimes referred to as vicarious reinforcement, can take place at any point in life. It’s most common during childhood as children learn from the authority figures and peers in their lives. It plays an important role in the SOCIALIZATION PROCESS.
Factors That Influence Observational Learning – Psychologist Albert Bandura (describing his own perspective as ‘social cognitivism’) is the researcher perhaps best identified with learning through observation. According to Bandura’s research, there are a number of factors that increase the likelihood that a behavior will be intentionally observed and then imitated. Among them:
People who are similar to us in age, sex, and interests
When the situation is confusing, ambiguous, or unfamiliar
The key element to note in Bandura’s highly regarded observations is that peers learn from peers. Peers are highly motivated to pay attention to peers for all the obvious reasons – acceptance and trust being prime among those reasons.
-Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory, 1977
Concerned by the apparent fact that being entertained trumps many Americans’ inclination to engage in deep thinking? Then please read on.
True, life is a tangled mess these days. It’s stressful to the max, and people need a little ‘escape’ time, but have we gone too far in the ‘escape’ time direction? And at what cost?
What does this have to do with our roles as educators?
“We ask questions to discover students’ level of understanding. Then we quickly move on because we have curriculum to cover. Great teachers go a bit deeper. They ask questions that take students from surface to deep, and even inspire students to ask their own questions.
Is it harder for teachers to go deep because society likes surface? Or do we need to work harder to go deep to combat society’s need to stay at the surface level?” Peter DeWitt
There are serious costs to not helping students gain personal satisfaction in deep thinking around challenging topics. For one, their vulnerability to unsupported claims when exposed to media, to politicians, and to sales people increases.
Students’ deep thinking ‘muscles’ must be exercised – regularly!
The ability to discern facts is a crucial skill for students to exercise and master, starting in their earliest years. Reading, writing and numbers are important basic tools for learning, of course. Our responsibility to students, though, must expand beyond providing basic tools. We’ve got to exercise students’ ability to question and to evaluate, starting with challenges common to all of them.
How else will they develop the habit of dealing rather than avoiding? How else will they experience the satisfaction of ‘seeing through’ points of view that don’t deserve total buy in?
Exercise their deep thinking muscles when they’re young
Young kids’ natural curiosity can be easily engaged in circle time problem-solving opportunities. Ellen Booth Church, author of “Educating Next-Generation Innovators,” suggests circle time discussions. Get kids thinking together about what’s same and what’s different amongst characters in a story you’re reading to them.
The kids will probably start by identifying different visual features of the characters. That’s fine, it gets the wheels spinning. Then go a little deeper. Ask if the kids can identify similar needs and feelings amongst the characters in the story. Perhaps go from the characters‘ needs and feelings to a comparison of the students‘ own needs and feelings.
Early practice with deep thinking exercises, if handled properly, help students gain confidence in their own reasoning abilities. With that confidence, they’re less likely to resist thoughtful analysis when challenges arise. Can you imagine how that would benefit our country?
Far-reaching benefits of deep thinking
Democracy cannot survive too much ignorance, or eroded civic knowledge, or complacency … Former Supreme Court Justice David Souter explains this very serious concern with accessible language in thought-provoking 3 minute video.
Can we make deep thinking as engaging to our students as the 24-hour flashiness that is constantly available to them? We can. It’s a challenge, but we can, and they’ll thank us forever if we consistently provide those kinds of meaningful opportunities.
Fortunately, creating consistent opportunities for our students’s to exercise their deep thinking skills is rewarding for us, too. We soon find our jobs becoming easier, rather than more difficult. Why? Because the students’ self-respect and mutual respect grow with this focus on their development as 21st century citizens.
Source inspirations for this post: What Presidential Candidates, Brangelina, and Reality Television Mean for Education and http://www.samchaltain.com/blog
Enriching every student’s experience in inclusive schools is much more likely with well designed peer group discussions.
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.