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.
We consistently observe that children love attention, but have we ever analyzed what’s underneath that obvious fact?Since the answer is in this brief article’s title, I’ll say no more on that. I will, though, emphasize the need to analyze the quality of our attention on children.
When our attention is complete and undivided, how do we imagine the impact will be on children’s feelings of being valued?If the answer to that question doesn’t come straightaway, can you reference your own childhood, and the quality of attention you received, to gain insight?
For uncountable reasons, attention on others cannot always be pure and undivided, but moments (yes, just moments) – every day – can and do have deeply nourishing impact … especially when those moments have nothing to do with situations that require corrections which, unfortunately, are the most common times our attention is undivided. Let’s see if we can stretch our pure and undivided attention ‘windows’ to include neutral, happy and constructive moments.
A few more important elements: words aren’t necessary. In fact, they’re sometimes a distraction, with their labeling and ‘boxing’ effects.Just be consistent and uncomplicated, then notice the effects over time.
Parkland’s shooting is the most recent reminder that we have a chronic anger problem in our country.
Enacting sensible gun laws will be a necessary and constructive step forward for our country, but we can do more … much more.
We want to blame the NRA and the politicians for defending what, in our minds and hearts, is indefensible. If only legislators would pass more sensible gun laws, we want to believe that the curse of ongoing atrocities would be lifted from our country; but more is needed … much more.
Time to process
First, we need time to process the crushing incomprehensibility of yet another act of violence. One of the most difficult pieces of ‘processing’ is forgiveness. Scarlett Lewis, the mother of 6-year old Jesse Lewis (shot down in the Sandy Hook tragedy), is a living example of forgiveness in action. Her message is healing and deeply important.
Without accepting the challenge of forgiveness, how can we expect life to move forward and build better tomorrows? Watch Brené Brown’s short explanation about the essential, yet not-so-obvious elements of true, life altering forgiveness.
Is understanding possible, or even necessary?
Is it even possible to understand the toxic mix of emotions that sometimes transform into anger … which, over time, transforms into murderous rage? Understanding might be too much of a stretch for most of us, but that doesn’t excuse us from acknowledging – and constructively responding to – difficult truths.
Unprocessed experiences and emotions
Mental health issues as a ‘go-to’ answer dooms us to loose and sloppy responses. “Framing the conversation about gun violence in the context of mental illness does a disservice both to the victims of violence and unfairly stigmatizes the many others with mental illness,” says American Psychological Association President Jessica Henderson Daniel, and “… it does not direct us to appropriate solutions to this public health crisis.”
Acknowledging the role of shooters’ unprocessed experiences and emotions is a first step towards neutralizing the root causes of their explosive violence.
Sheriff’s offices got at least 18 calls about the Parkland shooter over the past decade. Those calls described guns in his possession, threats and violence. It got so bad that some teachers even went so far as to ban him from their classrooms. “Looking in his eyes, he just looked like there was a problem,” one teacher told The Washington Post.
Developmental delays are not meaningfully corrected with punishments. Expulsion, rejection, and exclusion do not help. Those responses from teachers and classmates only exacerbate problems – as we have witnessed too many times.
There are, though, constructively pre-emptive approaches, available for K-12 students that have been shown to ease the isolation, frustration and dis-empowerment resulting from warped perspectives on reality. When groups of young students consistently exercise, together, their innate reasoning and perspective-taking skills while focusing on age-appropriate challenges, unimagined (yet hoped for) alignments and connections develop.
The TOGETHER element is essential. Absolutely essential.
Collaborative problem-solving experiences, when age-appropriately relevant, (without intrusive, judgmental, or lecture-y comments from adults) does more to ‘build belonging’ than any structured curriculum ever could. Why? Because, as Dr. Lilian Katz’ research has documented:
“The younger children are, the more they learn from interactive experiences, rather than passive experiences.”
Solving age-appropriate challenges in collaboration with peers builds belonging by building mutual-respect along with self respect… experiences, we can all agree, are totally lacking in school shooters’ lives.
“Children who are generally disliked, who are aggressive and disruptive, who are unable to sustain close relationships with other children, and who cannot establish for themselves a place in the peer culture are seriously at-risk for the rest of their lives. The elements of social competence are not usually learned through instruction, or lessons, or lecturing, or preaching.
“Scolding or preaching about being ‘nice’ is the wrong content for relationships between adults and children.”
~ Dr. Lilian Katz
Even very young children resist being told what to do, how to think, and how to behave all of the time. Children are, though, completely open to, and interested in, collaborative problem solving around challenges that matter to their own well-being. It is an instinctive/primitive approach to real learning which, by the way, is conclusively validated by contemporary brain science. Putting into action, which includes giving personal voice to, personal understanding is one of the most efficient approaches to building real understanding that is really used.
Neuronal connections that can save lives
Amygdalae, small almond-shaped areas of the brain, located deep within the limbic system, receive all incoming signals from the environment in about 20 milliseconds. The pre-frontal cortex, where logic and self-regulation reside, receive those same signals about 280 milliseconds after the amygdalae… putting the pre-frontal cortex at a serious disadvantage for responding in the most well-reasoned and appropriate ways.
The result, when mindfulness practices and shared-thinking opportunities are experienced on a regular basis: walls of separation and isolation are dismantled, while connections between students’ prefrontal cortex (executive functioning) and amygdala are strengthened – due to an increase of gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), the calming neurotransmitter. Emotions are still felt, but they no longer have the power to consume, because neuronal connections to constructive options have been physically built up in the ‘hard-wiring’ of the brain … something lectures are incapable of accomplishing.
“Neuroscience tells us that positive emotions are generated in the brain when students develop their own ideas.” – Prof. James Zull
Real solutions exist, AND THEY NEED TO BE IMPLEMENTED NOW!
Young students need to directly experience feeling included, feeling that they belong … and we need to accept our responsibility to consistently provide those types of nurturing experiences in order to neutralize the toxic build-up of anger that is so impossibly, heartbreakingly destructive.
Teach Smarter, Not Harder, to Increase Students’ Social Emotional Learning
Socrates and John Locke are influential philosophers separated by 2,000 years. They are also separated by very different assessments of inborn human capabilities.
When educators want to succeed at students’ mastery of numbers and the alphabet, Locke’s “Blank Slate Theory” is completely relevant and valid. But Locke’s perspective that young children lack humane instincts, valid insights, reasoning abilities, and collaborative problem solving skills evaporates when held against experience-based research and current brain science.
It’s more than obvious to anyone who lives or works with very young children, that each is born with personal likes and dislikes. Research at major universities confirms the fact that children also come into the world with the very skills and capacities necessary for successfully navigating the social-emotional challenges presented by their own personal likes and dislikes.
Research also shows that by age 4 – under the right circumstances – children are (1) willing and able to communicate ideas and feelings, (2) listen to peers’ ideas and feelings. They are also more than willing and able (3) to adapt what they discover about peers’ ideas and feelings to improve their own responses / interactions, for everyone’s benefit, including their own, rather than just their own benefit – without repetitive interventions from adults.
Perspective-Taking Skill Shapes Social Emotional Success
We’ve all got our own perspective. Each has some degree of validity, but perhaps not the whole picture. Perspective-taking, which includes but is not limited to empathy, is the #1 skill with the greatest potential to shape the most broadly beneficial outcomes in business, politics, and religions; in other words, perspective-taking is the most significant foundation of any successful interaction. Enabling and empowering 4 and 5 year olds to connect with, and exercise, their natural born perspective-taking skills results in measurable social emotional learning and development. Established tools like play and team sports create the interactions that help young children see the world from others’ perspective and provides spontaneous opportunities to exercise and apply their ‘hard-wired’ perspective-taking skills.
Facilitated, intentional shared-thinking opportunities provide educators with an easy-to-implement format for teaching smarter, not harder by expanding beyond the happenstance of play and sports to accelerate and coalesce social emotional learning.
The Kids’ Own Wisdom Approach
So how do educators provide young students with the numerous advantages of perspective-taking without adding excess preparation and work to their days?
In the next 7 blog posts about Social Emotional Learning we will describe:
Why facilitation is educators’ easiest and most successful approach to developing students’ social emotional learning in and out of the classroom.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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?
Sometimes kids (little ones and big ones) have resistance to our direct efforts to grow their growth mindset. That’s when questions that are actually conversation starters, can help.
Conversation implies all kinds of POSITIVES: √ Respect for students’ perspective and problem solving abilities √ Interest in what they think and feel and deal with √ Engagement with their values, their priorities √ Trust in students’ intentions √ Listening, really listening
When kids receive quality attention, on a regular basis, to express themselves – especially with regard to their challenges – they get to directly experience that they matter. When they feel that all-important sense of mattering, then the effort it takes to overcome challenges is much more likely to matter, too.
Of course, listening to endless, random complaints and whining doesn’t have much value for anyone.
But respectful conversations that start with respectful questions … now that’s a different story. Try it, and let us know how it goes. We’d LOVE to hear your experiences.
Empathy and self control are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites impulsivity and selfishness.
Neuroscientists have reached consistent agreement about the part of the brain where empathy activates responses. What’s fascinating is that current research is linking this same part of the brain with self control.
Can Empathy be Taught?
From the Kids’ Own Wisdom perspective: NO. And from the neuroscience perspective, I imagine the answer would be the same. So, what to do? Empathy is essential for humanity to remain humane.
Empathy can be drawn out. Empathy can be exercised. Several programs are succeeding at just that task. ROOTS OF EMPATHY is one time-tested program:
A growing number of educators and social entrepreneurs across the country are discovering that the secret to learning empathy, emotional literacy, self-awareness, cooperation, effective communication, and many of the other skills classified as “social and emotional learning,” lies in experience, not in workbooks and rote classroom exercises. Unleashing Empathy: How Teachers Transform Classrooms With Emotional Learning
Dogs in Classroom Help Children Learn Empathy
A South Carolina education program is proving that dogs themselves can do plenty of teaching: Healing Species, sponsored by the Pee Dee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault, is a compassion education and violence prevention program being taught in two schools in Florence and Darlington Counties. There is high hope that these programs will expand to other schools.
The concept is pretty simple: bring kind rescue dogs into classrooms to help kids learn empathy and pique their interest in difficult subject matter. But the effects are profound.
“Even for my toughest kids, the most street savvy, it almost physically transforms them into a child with empathy. I’ve got guidance counselors giving me specific instances where students are applying what they learned and taking care of each other when that wasn’t there before.”
Kids’ Own Wisdom is another effective approach that does not attempt to teach empathy. Instead, peer group discussions are structured around SOARR-ing questions to evoke kids natural inclination to collaboratively solve problems. Kids willingly (enthusiastically, even) resolve their own challenges. They just need the right kinds of questions, under the right circumstances (peer group discussions) to ‘spark’ their innate creativity and perspective taking abilities.
Did you ever, in your wildest dreams, imagine that neuroscience would combine with babies and dogs to help us help our students create better lives for themselves? Fascinating times, to be sure.
Neuroscience Explains: The Empathy-Self Control Connection
An interesting experiment helped to demonstrate this connection: Volunteers saw a picture of a man standing in a room with red discs on the wall. The volunteers could see all the discs, but they had to try to estimate how many the man in the room could see. This required them to shift their perspective to the man’s, and they were less able to do this when the rTPJ, (the location of empathy in the brain, as identified by scientists), was disrupted. What’s even more fascinating, this experiment predicted both impulsivity and selfishness – the opposites of self control and empathy – as measured in different experiments.
Long term consequences
Impulsivity and selfishness are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites restraint and empathy. Perhaps this is why people who show dark traits like psychopathy and sadism score low on empathy but high on impulsivity.
Perhaps, also, it’s why impulsivity correlates with slips among recovering addicts, while empathy correlates with longer bouts of abstinence. These qualities represent our successes and failures at escaping our own egocentric bubbles, and understanding the lives of others—even when those others wear our own older faces.
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.
The Kids’ Own Wisdom approach makes constructive use of this researched and well-documented fact about learning by creating specific opportunities for children to think together, problem-solve together, and to act upon their conclusions together.
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.
“Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.”
-Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory, 1977
Teachers do well when they make use of the facts about how real learning happens by creating groups discussions around topics that are 100% relevant to their students. Care must be taken, though, to assure that students feel respected enough in these discussions so they can exercise their own creative problem-solving skills to arrive at their own most balanced and constructive conclusions.
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!
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: thepsychologicalidentificationwithorvicarious experiencingofthefeelings,thoughts,or attitudesofanother.
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.)
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.