Six Ways to End the School Year on a Positive Note

IT’S NOT TOO LATE!

Recently, a teacher invited me to observe his classroom to see if I had any suggestions for how to end the year in a better place. After a 90 minute observation, he and I talked for about 30 minutes and came up with specific things to try for the last few weeks of school. I applaud his courage and openness to do something different now – in May.

Teachers, students, administrators and even parents can feel frazzled and out of steam by May. It has been a long haul and a lot still needs to be done. Also, summer break is not a welcome time for all students – and this anxiety can manifest itself in many ways.

However, it is never too late in the semester to dust off our restorative tools and try something new (or old) in order to end on a positive note.

Recently, at a presentation about trauma-informed schools by Karen Simms of Meridian Consulting, I was reminded, once again, that restorative practices combine research and methods from many fields, including neuroscience, trauma, diversity science, organizational studies, culturally responsive teaching, leadership and effective communication. This is why high fidelity restorative approaches can transform classrooms and buildings over time.

With that in mind, here are SIX REMINDERS to help end the semester on a better note:

1. TRY FOCUSING ON CLASSROOM VALUES RATHER THAN RULES

 

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As I talked about in my last newsletter, values (just like ethics and morals) are more powerful human motivators than rules.

“People who want to kick [a] habit for reasons that are aligned with their personal values will change their behavior faster than people who are doing it for external reasons such as pressure from others,” says Elliot Berkman, Ph.D. Director, Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Psychology, University of Oregon.

Rules and policies come and go. Today the dress code says no hats. Tomorrow it says hats are ok. However, values like kindness, lifting each other up, dignity, compassion, creativity, gratitude, support, and growth are universal – – and timeless.

May is a great time to review the positive messages on your walls and doors – and make a whole-class commitment – for the rest of the school year – to work on our values.

Examples of this, used by real teachers, are below.

2. TRY ASKING KIDS FOR WHAT YOU WANT RATHER THAN WHAT YOU DON’T 5_9b.png

This is a small shift, which can have powerful effects. Studies have shown that people are more successful at shifting behavior when they can focus on what to do rather than what to avoid. Doing this in a calm manner without rancor also creates clear expectations and minimizes confusion, guilt, fear or defensiveness – which will all interfere with learning. If you can remember, include yourself in the reminders – as we are all working on our patience, gratitude, etc.

Examples:

  • “That is NOT the part of the book that we are supposed to be on” can become “Right now, let’s focus on THIS part of the book.”
  • “Please stop talking to her” can become “Please bring your listening and attention back to our speaker – just like it says on our classroom agreements up there.”
  • “That was disrespectful” can become “Remember, we are practicing kindness to each other. What is a kinder way to say that?” or “Remember, we are practicing kindness to each other. Let’s use kind words and polite tone when we speak to each other.”

3. TRY VALIDATING POSITIVE WORDS AND ACTIONS RELATED TO CLASSROOM VALUES – EVEN IF KIDS ARE “OFF TASK”.

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This idea builds on the power of internal motivation created by shared values – and supports the idea that part of being “on task” is living our values. When kids are doing anything that supports classroom values, notice it and make a comment about it out loud to reinforce that this matters to you. If you created class agreements together, or have positive messages posted on your walls, this is a great way to bring attention to them. When you try to re-direct kids using criticism, they are more likely to shut down for the next task. When you remind kids to be their best, it is easier to get re-focused with one’s dignity intact.

Examples:

  • If kids seem off topic, but they are being creative, enthusiastic, or curious – validate those positives out loud, connect them to a value, and then ask them to use those positives to move on to the next task. “I see you guys using your creativity to make up some jokes. I know creativity is something we value, especially for [our lab experiments; our poetry; our understanding of history] So, I appreciate that. Now – let’s use our creativity to re-focus on the assignment on the screen.”
  • If you notice someone saying please, validate it: “I appreciate you using a kind voice and kind words to ask your buddy for a pencil – because that supports our class value of kindness.”
  • If someone is standing up for a classmate, even if not in a polite tone, rather than telling them to mind their own business or stop, you can say, “I appreciate you standing up for each other, because that is a value that is up there. And now it is time to settle down and focus on our writing assignment.”
  • If someone admits doing something – even if they are making excuses for it, you can say: “First, I appreciate you taking responsibility for what you did. That is important to me and supports our class values. Now, I know we are all working on our patience here. Let’s refocus and work harder on our patience right now.”

4. TRY REDIRECTING NON-CONSTRUCTIVE BEHAVIORS WHEN THEY ARE STILL RELATIVELY SMALL

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Conflict research shows that we actually need to LOWER our threshold for behaviors that have a negative effect on classroom climate, rather than waiting for the behaviors to escalate past a point of intolerance, when we need to do a more serious intervention. We still want to respond with patience and kindness, but we want to do it sooner. Again, you can use your shared classroom values to your benefit here. This also supports students in learning new skills – without completely doing it for them.

Examples: 

  • When bickering first begins, rather than waiting patiently for it to stop so you can begin the lesson, or asking them to cut it out, you can try saying something positive before it escalates: “Hey you guys. Let’s take a quick look at which of our classroom values we are supporting right now. Are we being kind? Are we building each other up? No we are not. Let’s focus on what is important here – which is supporting each other and helping each other succeed.”
  • Or “I see you are both trying to argue for your point. I like that you are thinking deeply about the article. However, I am concerned that the name calling and put downs do not support our classroom values of respect, kindness, and lifting each other up. Can we try standing up for our points while also being kind and respectful?”

5. TRY VALIDATING HARD FEELINGS AND CHALLENGES AS OPPORTUNITIES

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We sometimes worry that if we validate that someone is struggling we excuse their behavior or we lower the standard. Or, we can get into a power struggle about how much of a certain behavior is under a student’s control (choice) versus beyond their control. However, research shows that (a) when people feel accepted, they are more ready to change; and (b) framing something as an opportunity supports a growth mindset.

The following three examples are from teachers talking to students privately in the hallway for a few minutes:

  • “I hear you are frustrated. This is not easy. It’s hard work. I know you can do it, though. I believe in you. Let’s figure this out together.”
  • “I know it feels like you can’t control your temper. What I hear in that is that it’s hard for you. There are things that are hard for all of us. Let’s take a breath together and think: what helps you to be patient when you start getting irritated?”
  • “It’s ok to feel angry or sad. I worry, though, when we put our anger and sadness on other people. Remember, one of our class values is safety. I want you to feel safe. [pause to let it sink in] I also want everyone else to feel safe. Can we go back in there and work on safety for everyone?”

6. TRY GIVING KIDS THE OPPORTUNITY TO PROCESS AND PLAN FOR THE TRANSITION TO SUMMER BREAK

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For many of our kids, summer break is the prize at the end of a long journey. It is a time for family, enjoyable activities, summer food and relative freedom. However, there is a subgroup of our kids for whom any breaks from school are a tough time of uncertainty, instability, lack of friends and supportive adults, and hunger. As Karen Simms reminds us, one of the best ways to help kids with this reality is to allow structured activities that help them process and prepare. This may look like a small group conversation or listening circle. It may also look like a writing assignment or other project. It is important to talk about break in a way that includes the reality of all students, without making anyone feel ostracized or different.

Writing Example:

“I know many of us are looking forward to the end of the school year, because: no more homework! However, there are many positive things about school that some of us will miss. Fold your paper in half. Now – on one side, make a list of things you will miss about school. On the other side, write down what can help you this summer even though you will miss these things? We will share out loud for those who want to.”

A Circle Example:

At the end of November last year, some teachers and I did a processing circle like this before winter break. Using a talking piece, the students answered:

  • What are you looking forward to about winter break?
  • What will be challenging or hard about winter break?
  • What is one thing that can help you have a better break?

Students talked openly about “hollering”, “hunger” and “hurt feelings” and were able to quietly support each other.

These kinds of circles or assignments also allow teachers to reach out to school personnel in order to connect kids to summer community resources – and to talk to the class about programs such as free food in the community, without mentioning any names.

As always, please reach out to me via email if you have questions or concerns. It’s never too late to go for a great ending. If you live in the Urbana-Champaign area, it’s also not too late for a classroom observation and private consultation with me.

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