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.

Build Healthy BELONGING

Healthy belonging is a necessary growth factor.

Belonging.  It’s a feeling… a feeling that has a powerful influence on everyone’s life.  We all know when we feel that we belong, and we all know when we don’t feel that we belong. (And “all” definitely includes young children.)

That feeling of belonging is one of the most fundamental needs that subtly, but powerfully, influences all of us … and it has always influenced us, pretty much from Day 1 of our lives. 

Healthy belonging must be nurtured.
BELONGING is a deep-rooted need that must be developed in healthy ways starting at the youngest ages.

 

The instinct to belong is as natural as breathing.  What we want and need to belong to can and does differ widely as we grow, which is a good thing and makes a lot of sense – right?!    But …

… as young ones, just starting out in the new adventures of preschool, kindergarten and first grade, discovering shared values, feelings and instincts with classmates and peers is a powerful approach to building the healthiest kind of belonging. The kind of belonging that – very long term – can help to neutralize feelings of isolation that, research has shown, are one of the deep-rooted influences that, so heartbreakingly, result – later on – in school shootings and student suicides.    

Healthy belonging can help to neutralize the negative effects of isolation.
Building healthy BELONGING is one very positive way to reduce the isolation that research confirms is part of the cause of school shooters’ motivations.

What kinds of values, feelings and instincts can young children discover that they share, so that ‘belonging’ is naturally built within the day-to-day dynamics of their class?   

Here’s the answer to that question, and it’s an answer that can enrich every teachers’ class management … making class management much, much easier:  Present groups of kids with appropriately challenging questions that evoke, that draw upon kids’ own hard-wired •empathy, kids’ own •ability to distinguish what’s fair and what’s not, and kids’ natural •instinct to ‘tell it like it is.’

When young children are provided with multiple opportunities to collaboratively discover solutions to challenges with which they’re all familiar, during times in which none of them (this is important, of course) … none of them is ever made to feel defensive – even when those familiar challenges are extremely, even exhaustingly, familiar … When young children are provided with multiple opportunities to collaboratively discover solutions they respond with solutions that invariably surprise and delight teachers. 

Healthy shared experiences build healthy belonging.
Recent brain imaging research shows that when humane instincts are activated and engaged, all associated areas of the brain connect and, with enough consistent repetition, become integrated.

Recent brain imaging research has demonstrated that when the brain contemplates and combines distinct pieces of information – for example: the ‘what, where, when, why and how’ of specific events, different areas of the brain are activated and connect. When different sensibilities and humane instincts are also activated and engaged within those same exercises, all of those areas of the brain connect and, with enough consistent repetition, become integrated. When that kind of healthy, creative and constructive brain activity is shared amongst peers, is it so difficult to appreciate how much more effective at building belonging that is as compared to passive or rote learning experiences?

When groups of children have consistent opportunities to analyze familiar challenges and problems, through a series of respectful and open-ended questions  (yes … truly open-ended questions), they readily stay engaged and interested into the next level of open-ended questions (and again emphasizing: open-ended questions) that invite them to share ideas about possible solutions. 

Typically, a class full of young children ,during these shared opportunities, is a class full of raised hands with answers and solutions that make sense to everyone.  What’s incredibly sweet to experience, as a teacher, is that the kids who have some personal familiarity with a specific challenge or problem (you know, the kids who push, who rarely share, kids who constantly use their outside voices inside, or … you name it)  … those kids actually listen and really take in their classmates’ answers and solutions.  Because, for one reason, they’re not being TALKED TO, so they remain receptive, and for another reason, it’s their peers who are talking – which is much more interesting and relatable than grown-up’s lectures and instructions. Duh.

Back to the concept of building belonging, and I’ll repeat that I’m referring to healthy belonging.  When healthy belonging is prioritized and creatively activated as the binding and strengthening influence for everything else that needs to happen in the classroom, everyone wins – including you, of course … short term, long term and even onto very long term. 

Short term belonging happens within circle time shared discovery opportunities, with kids’ genuine engagement and collaborative contributions. Long term belonging shows up when kids bring their own collaborative solutions onto the playground, into the lunch room and into different learning activities of your classroom.  Very long term belonging is what grows and takes roots over time, because that healthy belonging had a chance to get started as a formative and foundational  influence from kids’ earliest ages.

Healthy belonging requires deep roots.
Deep roots of healthy belonging need to be nurtured from the earliest school experiences.

Obviously, we shouldn’t expect significant results to stick with the snap of our fingers, or with one or two shared thinking circle times – but results do stick when young kids are consistently provided with opportunities to engage in this truly important and mutually respectful way.

The rightness of this kind of approach is validated by kids’ constructive engagement … aaaand by how much you get to learn about, and with, your young students.

Yes, there’s a learning curve – but it’s not steep, and if you’d like some support, please let us know.  That’s WHY we’re here… for you, for your students.

Listen to the podcast (EPISODE 14) of this blog on iTunes, with this link:   https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/not-your-normal-social-emotional-learning

Surprisingly Successful Approach for Students’ Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Social Emotional Learning: Blank Slate Theory vs. Innate Human Potential
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.

The theory of mind that young children acquire in preschool years provides conceptual foundation for metacognitive skills required in school.
Research shows that shared-thinking experiences create better learners. Metacognitive skills are initially developed during preschool years.

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

Perspective-taking in visual form.

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:
  1. Why facilitation is educators’ easiest and most successful approach to developing students’ social emotional learning in and out of the classroom.
  2. Three benefits of developing learners’ self-awareness and self-trust.
  3. Brain science of self-regulation for learners’ accountability and agency.
  4. How to build belonging in the classroom, which includes both shy and challenging children.
  5. Why the communication that happens without words, is as powerful as words, and why young children need to share this understanding.
  6. How to create SEL opportunities that release neurotransmitters and hormones that affect mood, emotions, attention and focus.
  7. The school readiness benefits of consistently exercising young children’s critical thinking and collaborative problem-solving skills.

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.