Ep. 38 – Reading Comprehension & SEL Comprehension

(Promised lesson resources from Episode 38 of the Not Your Normal Social Emotional Learning PODCAST are below this introductory text.)

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This might be hard, at first, to believe, but many educators don’t fully understand what kids’ brains need so they can remember and use what they read.  According to Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who has long studied the best ways to teach reading … fact-based and experience-based knowledge often gets left out of teachers’ reading instruction efforts. Well-intentioned teachers help kids learn to sound out letters, and then form individual words … a process educators refer to as decoding individual words, yet some of those same teachers are baffled by the fact that so many kids have trouble comprehending the full content of what they’ve “decoded.” Willingham contends, and I think this makes perfect sense… that lack of knowledge about the subject about which they’re asked to read is the reason for lack of comprehension during reading exercises… even when they can read individual words in a book or on a work sheet.

In other words… Even though many so-called “poor readers” can sound out words when they see them in print, they often do not comprehend most of what they’re sounding out.  Comprehension, it turns out, is a whole other ‘ball game,’ and it requires at least 2 other layers of enrichment besides the ‘decoding’ skill:   LAYER #1: a Continually expanding vocabulary, which needs to be exercised in their daily lives and interactions, and, equally important …  LAYER #2: factual and experience-based knowledge of the subjects they’re reading about.    In a word: RELEVANCE. In 7 words:  IN WHAT WAYS DOES THIS MATTER TO ME?    In 8 words: How does this show up in my life?   Here’s an extreme example, just to make the point:  Reading a book about a game that kids have played and enjoyed is going to gain a lot more ‘traction,’ in other words achieve a lot more ‘comprehension,’ than a book about scientific theories, because #1, the kids won’t have the necessary vocabulary to bring out the meaning of the combined words and sentences, and #2 the kids won’t have any lived experiences to relate to the combined words and sentences.


So what does this have to do with students’ social, emotional and life skills learning?  Well, most of us agree that for general well being and success, kids need to grow in openness to others’ perspectives (a close ‘cousin’ of empathy).  They also need to increase their capacity and willingness to be personally accountable and take responsibility.  They need to notice and be able to read social clues.  They need to be aware of and appropriately express their own feelings.  They need to engage in mutually respectful relationships, and on and on … and on …  

Those are mighty big concepts and simply discussing them, or reading stories about them, or having a lesson or 2 or 3 that illustrate those concepts in action has not been shown to create deep or long lasting impacts on children’s behaviors … BUT … there is a way to enliven RELEVANCE, which creates ENGAGEMENT, which has been shown to INCREASE retention and carry over influence, (often referred to as transfer of learning). I’m talking about carefully and respectfully designed peer group discussions, which are structured around wide ranging, not-so-predictable, but topic-related questions.  Questions to which students in the group will not necessarily have the same answers, but questions to which most of students will have answers that the other students will be interested in, which works to everyone’s advantage.  How?  

When kids collaboratively answer and discuss questions, based on their own knowledge, understanding and life experiences, they gain the benefit of self-expression, of course,  That process of self-expression also establishes ownership of what they know, which they and everyone in the peer group discussion observes and shares, for present and future reference, in the classroom and on the playground… with more and more independence and self-sufficiency.

When we want kids to grow their comprehension, in other words, their understanding about, and ownership of: •beneficial ideas, •feelings, •behaviors, •responses and •interactions… we have to do less talking while enabling (and empowering) the kids do more talking, in situations that naturally get other kids to listening, learning and sharing.  


Ready for a practical example?  

Perhaps you have some kids in your class who are whispering in front of other kids, and feelings are getting hurt.  You’ve tried lectures, you’ve tried reading books with stories about hurt feelings, and all of that has value, none of it is wasted or wrong, but… for all of that positive guidance and information to get “owned” by the kids, so they actually act on what they know, long term … for everyone’s sake, including your own … a different approach – one that increases kids’ vocabulary and relates to their experiential knowledge needs to be activated and anchored.

The thing is:  whispering covers a      w i d e     range of interactions between people… and so one important key to success will be to expand the kids’ spoken and  visual vocabulary around words and actions associated with WHISPERING.   

Below you will see pictures of all kinds of whispering interactions, with accompanying questions that invite students to discuss what they see in each picture. For instance, you’ll see kids whispering in class.  You’ll see one child whispering a secret to Santa.  You’ll see a few kids giggling and whispering, and you’ll see a picture of kids whispering while one person is excluded… in other words, the full gamut… not just the single kind of whispering that causes hurt feelings.  Conducting a peer group discussion that includes this much relevant variety is extremely beneficial for increasing students’ comprehension … see what you think. And if you try showing these pictures (or others you find on the internet), I would love to hear how it goes for you. Also, if you have any questions or problems, please let me know – I would love to help you through to your most satisfying experience with these resources. Really.

Notice that the pictures and questions do not focus immediately on solving the problem of hurtful whispering.

That is not the way to bring kids into a discussion, in order to increase, expand and deepen their comprehension.  BUT the right kinds of questions ARE the way, and the right kinds of questions are  OPEN-ENDED.  Open-ended questions that introduce relevant new vocabulary, and that do NOT overtly point to the behavior problems that are causing problems are your key to success.  We CAN trust kids to resolve their own problems and challenges, on their own, by gaining new comprehension about the effects of different behaviors on different people, through well-structured, peer group discussions.

Because well structured peer group discussions provide opportunities to all the individual kids in the group to answer questions, each from their own individual perspective … which will be engaging and interesting to all the students because the subject matter relates deeply and broadly to their personal experiences. The open-ended questions gently invite students to look at familiar situations from different perspectives – based on their own experiences and incorporating their expanded vocabulary  –  which enables them to integrate their classmates’ perspectives with their own perspectives, in a completely unforced way, so the learning is real, and really gets used in the kids’ real life interactions.


Relating all this back to reading,  when kids are tested on reading comprehension as a separate skill, divorced from any subject with which they’re personally familiar, they’re at an unfair disadvantage. On the other hand, kids who come to school with more prior knowledge  are at an unfair ADVANTAGE — and we all know that those are often the wealthier kids.  But it does NOT have to be that way.  

Why?  Because kids learn from other kids …. ORGANICALLY… and we, as their educators, are in prime positions to create the most constructive learning environments for EVERY student’s social, emotional and life skills development when we create opportunities that align with how every student’s brain acquires knowledge – – – naturally.  


Below are the visuals and open-ended questions for a peer group discussion that will get kids more mindful about all kinds of whispering and the effects of different kinds of whispering:

Whispering
Whispering amongst friends.
  1. Where do you think these kids might be? 
  2. What do you think is happening in this picture? 
  3. Why do you suppose people have two ears instead of just one? (PEOPLE NEED TWO EARS TO BE ABLE TO KNOW WHERE DIFFERENT SOUNDS ARE COMING FROM. When people can only hear out of one ear, they can’t tell where sounds are coming from. Do any of you know someone who can only hear with one ear?)
  4. What do you suppose it’s like for this boy when these two girls are whispering into each of his ears? What if they’re whispering different things? What would that be like for him?

Whispering in the theater
Whispering to not disturb others
  1. Where are these people? Why are they whispering?
  2. Who knows what ‘demonstrate’ means?
  3. Who would like to *demonstrate what whispering sounds like for our whole group? 
  4. How far away do you think one person can hear another person who is whispering? Shall we do an experiment to see how far we can hear whispers?
  • Ask for a volunteer. Whisper in the volunteer’s ear, while sitting or standing very close to the other kids...then test at further and further distances ’til your words can’t be heard … or make up your own experiment and demonstration to engage different volunteers and the group.

COULD ANY OF YOU HEAR THAT?  WHY or WHY NOT?


Whispering can be hurtful
Hurt feelings happen when people feel left out.
  1. How many kids do you see in this picture?
  2. Is the girl who is alone close enough to hear what the other girls are saying? Why do you think that? 
  3. If the girl who is alone can not hear what the other girls are saying, do you think she can guess what they’re whispering about? What do you think they’re whispering about? 
  4. Who thinks we can guess a lot about what other people say, or how they’re feeling, even though they don’t tell us, or we can’t hear them? Why do you think that? Shall we test your theory?  
  5. Ask if anyone would like to volunteer demonstrating body language. Once you’ve chosen a few volunteers to take turns demonstrating different forms of body language, whisper:
  • Feeling afraid
  • Feeling stubborn
  • Feeling bored    (If there was more than one volunteer, thank the first child, then ask for another volunteer to provide a few more demonstrations)
  • Feeling sleepy
  • Feeling curious
  • Feeling shy

Whispering a secret.
  1. Who knows what a secret is?
  2. Why do you think people have secrets?
  3. Did anyone ever tell you a secret? What was that like? How did that make you feel? Did you keep that secret after your friend told it to you?

Whispering in front of others
Whispering can hurt feelings of other people.
  1. How does the girl who is standing by herself feel?  Do her feelings matter?  Why do you think that?  What do you think the girl who is by herself will do next?    (Thinking Forward in Time)
  2. Sometimes, people hurt other people’s feelings. Why do you think they do that? (Perspective Taking)
  3. Do other people’s feelings matter? Can you tell us more about why you think that?  (Perspective Taking)
  4. Do your feelings matter? Why is that your answer?  (Recalling Personal Experience)
  5. If those 2 girls who are whispering wanted to share a secret, but didn’t want to hurt that other girl’s feelings, what do you think they could do differently?  (Creative Options

Whispering secret wishes to Santa
Whispering secret wishes to Santa
  1. Who do you see in this picture?  What’s happening?  What do you think will happen after this?

Return to the PODCAST.

MYTH # 2  about SEL:  Children pay too much attention to each other and not enough attention to teachers.

WELL, yes, that can be a problem, but with a gentle mindset adjustment the fact that kids pay so much attention to each other can turn into a powerful teaching aid that works to everyone’s benefit… yours and theirs.

 

Children’s early education is enriched by playing together with classmates. Each conversation, whether talking about the class pet or deciding which color block to put on top of the tower they’re building together, or who gets to be IT when they’re playing Hide N Seek helps children develop their thoughts, their language, their sense of themselves and how to best connect with others. This is a deeply important dimension of young kids’ development, and interacting with peers, with classmates, is really the only way those discoveries can be made. I mean, right?  HOW ELSE CAN IT HAPPEN?

Children, like all of us – as scientific research reveals – want and need to BELONG. As educators, we have a profound responsibility to nurture healthy belonging amongst our students. The kind of belonging that builds on the best, on the healthiest, on the most positive and most constructive of children’s shared values and perspectives.  This is not going to happen with lectures.            This is going to happen by creating consistent opportunities for kids to DISCOVER TOGETHER how much they have in common, in terms of their own honest feelings, understanding, values, and insights.

Sounds good, right?  Next question: How to make that happen?  Good question… in fact, questions are so often the answer, IF they’re the right kinds of questions, and IF they’re asked with the right mindset, within the right context.  We’ll get into all those IF’s in future podcasts, but for now, the ‘the right context’ is groups of kids pondering their answers, and responding to those right kinds of questions TOGETHER.  Gotta love those CIRCLE TIMES, eh?!!!

It’s easier than it sounds … and the healthy belonging that can be nurtured is everyone’s reward.   

On a more serious note, if healthy belonging is not nurtured in the earliest years of children’s development, is it such a mystery that feelings of isolation (not belonging), when ignored, devolve into the kind of mental torment that motivates some kids to use guns against their fellow students and against their teachers?   This is an issue we need to reverse-engineer, starting with our youngest students.

By ages 3 and 4 children are starting to identify and verbalize an ever-widening range of emotions…. By ages 5 and 6 they are, we know only too well, testing boundaries, yet they are still quite eager to please and to help out.  The commonality of the healthiest of their natural tendencies can be made more conscious amongst your group of students for everyone’s benefit, as I’ve mentioned before. 

For now, we just wanted to smash that myth that children pay too much attention to each other and not enough attention to teachers.   You CAN stop resisting that fact of life and make friends with it for the happiest and healthiest of Win-Win’s in your classroom. 

If you’re enjoying this blog, why not subscribe, then you’ll automatically receive the next Myth about Social Emotional Learning, which is:    Teachers need to be in control of children’s understanding about right and wrong.     Wouldn’t you love to see how that myth, too, can be blasted for everyone’s benefit?   Of course, and heck yes, right?  Who wouldn’t prefer to teach smarter, rather than harder?    Subscribing is super easy, so is sharing this blog with fellow teachers.  

4-Year Olds Are Ready for SOCIAL – EMOTIONAL LEARNING

Social-Emotional Learning for 4 Year Olds Does Not Have to be Hard!
Shared-Thinking Circle Times for 4-year old’s Social-Emotional Learning
By the age of 4, kids are ready to share with peers, in circle time, how much they know and how self-sufficiently they can choose behaviors that work best for everyone!  They just need (and want) to be respectfully and appropriately challenged!
Kids also want and need to be acknowledged for what they understand, what they perceive as real, true and valid … and they need to express what they understand with their own words … with a group of peers … in neutral shared-thinking class time opportunities – facilitated by adults who, just during these times, do not have the intention to be teaching, but instead have the intention to give all of their attention.
Young Children Have a Natural Need for Quality Attention
How many times have you read or heard about children ‘just behaving this way or that for attention?’ As if their efforts to gain your attention were a negative. Turns out that the more we learn about all the elements of healthy early childhood development, the more we come to appreciate the value of honoring children’s basic instincts, such as their natural need for quality attention.
Validating Proof from History and Human Biology
After World War II, orphans living in a clean, hygienic and basically attentive facility did not thrive. In fact, almost half of infants died, despite apparently having all basic needs met. It turned out that the infants needed at least one meaningful relationship with a caring, and involved adult in order to survive, grow and thrive. Since then, we have learned that Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is released in a manner directly proportional to the amount of caring attention children receive.
Quality of Teacher’s Attention Matters
It is now clearly understood that the quality of the attention children receive from their educators more often than not gives rise to repeated behaviors, as compared to ignored or unnoticed behaviors.  Sooooo … if we are giving our attention – yes, just simply our undivided attention – when kids are thinking together about positive and constructive solutions and outcomes to which they can all relate, surely it should come as no surprise that those solutions rapidly translate into behaviors by the children who – in constructive collaboration – gave voice to those solutions.

Constructive collaboration opportunities prepare children for future successes.
Young children welcome constructive collaboration opportunities.

Problem Solving is a Requirement for Children’s Real Learning!

Problem solving = real learning.
Problem solving. Discovery. Expressing ideas. Exploring. Constructing knowledge.

Young children, even very young children, need consistent opportunities to wrestle with age-appropriate challenges, conundrums, complications, obstacles, issues and “big fat botherations.”

Why?

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?

Empathy cannot be forced or taught, but it can be evoked.
Does making kids share make them generous?

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?

ANSWER: We enable children to discover their own solutions by asking them the kinds of questions that get them thinking, together, in fresh ways (with fresh perspectives) about old familiar problems.

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.” 

Sharing isn't always possible
Sharing isn’t always possible, but understanding each other is a big help.

Communication is key for real problem solving to occur.

Communication is key to problem solving for children.
Collaboration is an essential problem solving tool.

 

Self-Trust is Essential for a Life Well Lived

SELF-TRUST
Everyone is born with instincts and innate skill sets that, when honored, engaged and cultivated in the early years of life, have major influence on developing and anchoring self-trust.
 
Think about it: every baby knows when she’s hungry and tired. Every toddler knows what he likes to eat and with whom he wants to socialize. Children start out knowing and honoring their own rhythms, specific tastes and personal preferences.
 
And then “big people” start managing the details of children’s lives, because they know better. That message (that adults/outside authorities know better) is resisted for awhile, and then it progressively dominates, resulting in diminishment of intrinsic self-trust.
 
There are various responses to this progression, from resistance and rebellion to increased reliance on guidance and approval from ‘authorities,’ resulting in diminishment of self trust.
 
Outward manifestations of diminished self trust include:
  • Self-doubt
  • Indecision
  • Need for approval
  • Desire for external validation
  • Perfectionism
  • Fear of failure
 
Manipulative marketers and politicians accomplish their self-serving goals more easily when their audience is populated by people with diminished self-trust (people whose dominant orientation is: “Others know better than I do.”)
 
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO THE KIDS’ OWN WISDOM® APPROACH?  When students receive consistent opportunities to participate in, and constructively contribute to, shared-thinking opportunities based upon *Stretching, *Open-ended, *Age-appropriately challenging, *Relevant, and *Respectful questions (SOARR-ing questions), they experience their own validity, and their self-trust is the ultimate beneficiary. 

Challenging Behaviors in Early Childhood Environments

Challenging behaviors are readily adjusted when kids have opportunities to think together.

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!

"The mind at birth is a blank slate." NOT !!!
According to the old-fashioned way of thinking, children need to be taught EVERYTHING, because they’re ‘blank slates’ at birth.

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
  1. Make sure discussions never, ever isolate or point to specific individuals.
  2. 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 …
  3. … 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.)
  4. 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?”
  5. 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.)

Challenging behaviors are readily adjusted when kids have opportunities to think together.
Young children are surprisingly capable of adjusting their own behavior once we STOP telling them what to do …

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 !!!

Activate and Exercise Students’ Thinking Skills: #Nuclear Option

No one lives in a vacuum. Shared-thinking opportunities reveal shared values and understanding.

As educators, it is our profound responsibility to activate and exercise students’ thinking skills every day. Shared-thinking opportunities, based on open-ended questions, can get kids engaged with current events, especially if we don’t start out with lectures.

Rules are for reasons.

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.)

  1. 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?
  2. How did you react? If other kids were involved, how did they react to the sudden rule changes?
  3. 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)?
  4. Did their justifications (reasons) make sense to you?  Why or why not?
  5. What happened next?
  6. 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.
  7. Is there anything you don’t like about those sports / those teams / those players? Share some specifics with the rest of our group.
  8. 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.)
  9. 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.)
  10. How could this possibly matter to your life?RELEVANCE is the all-important factor for young learners.
  11. 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? 
  12. Let’s think about some reasons that might have been behind the recent implementation of the Nuclear Option. 
  13. Again … how could this possibly matter to your life?
  14. 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?

Complete objectivity is a lofty goal, but rarely is it not mixed with subjectivity.

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


Activate and exercise students' thinking skills so they're ready to deal with the world's problems.