Three Strategies That Transform Classroom Dynamics and Student Lives

In my last post – What Do Students Really Need – I shared the surprising brain science behind human connection.

For instance, we now know that students who feel that they belong in their school, are included by their peers, and have connection with even one caring adult, are more likely to succeed and thrive.

This week we share three specific ways educators can increase this sense of inclusion, belonging, and connection in their settings.

We call these strategies Breaking Good.

1. Break Bread Together

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The last thing we may want to do is share a meal with a child (or adult!) with whom we are struggling. Our natural reaction in these cases is to avoid them as much as possible.

In addition, breakfast and lunch are precious times for educators to prep, have some down-time, and do self-care.

However, sharing a “no pressure” meal can turn around a challenging relationship. Sitting down with kids at lunch or inviting them into your space for a quick bite allows you get to know each other in a new light.

One teacher, after one of our workshops, chose a specific child with whom she was having a hard time, and started having a casual lunch with him weekly. A month later, she was already reaping the benefits of their meals through greater connection and less struggles during class.

A weekly meal can also be a way to re-connect a small group of kids who are having a rough patch with each other. Another teacher in a Conflict 180 school started having a weekly lunch with a group of five girls who were friends, but often had small skirmishes in school. One week, when the teacher could not make it, the girls asked if they could still have lunch together, maybe with another adult, as the Friday meals were really helping them build peace with each other.

Of course, it is important to be mindful and fair about who is being invited, so this does not become another way to leave out the same marginalized kids. Another teacher, after a class circle that let him know his kids needed to get to know each other better as people, created a rotating schedule to have lunch with four of his kids every Friday. This way, he wound up having a casual lunch with everyone in his class about twice a semester.

Whether you’d like to improve a relationship with a student or a colleague, food is the universal language of care and connection.

Give it a try and have fun with it!

2. Break Ice Together

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We all know that Ice-breaking activities are helpful in the beginning of the school year to help build a classroom community.

However, ice-breakers can be a life-saver well beyond the first week of school.

Activities that let kids and adults get to know each other promote social bonding and team-building throughout the year. This can be particularly useful as things start to get tough and class morale breaks down.

Some teachers use a short ice-breaker once a week (usually on Fridays) to keep the wheels of connection in their class lubricated.

Others break out the ice-breakers as an intervention for tough times.

For instance, one teacher told me that she finds January to be a difficult time for her kids and she uses ice-breakers liberally after they return from break.

It’s important to remember that not all ice-breakers are created equal. Try to choose activities that help vulnerable kids feel safe and free from teasing, especially in a class where relational aggression is present.

Here are a three suggestions from Cult of Pedagogy:

Icebreakers That Rock

As with all other team-building activities, have fun and choose something you actually want to do with them! After all, part of the goal is connection with YOU.

3. Break Formation Together

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For building classroom community and a sense of cohesion, the formation that works best is a circle or U shape – where people can see each other’s faces.

Many classrooms around the country are experimenting with using circles to learn academics, from Spanish to Social Studies to Writing, as described in the book “Circle Forward” by Carolyn Boyes-Watson and Kay Pranis.

Of course, circles are not ideal for every learning activity.

Studies have shown that, for doing independent work, students seated in rows stay on task better and work more diligently.

For classroom discussions and cooperative learning activities, students benefit from sitting in circles (or semi-circles).

Students seated in circles and semi-circles for cooperative learning activities have been found to:

  • interact more with each other
  • ask more questions
  • develop a greater sense of community
  • learn more
  • report more satisfaction with the discussions

Circles also allow students to see each other’s faces during vulnerable or sensitive discussions (e.g., about gender, race, identity), creating more openness and less friction.

In many classrooms, learning in a circle even once a week has made a big difference in increasing engagement, reducing classroom struggles, and improving student connection.

Let us know how it goes!


Have a story to share about how restorative practices are helping you? Write to me at elaine@conflict180.com

Want to receive this blog and other Restorative News & Tips in your email? Sign up here.

Want more tools for connecting with students and reducing conflict? Check out our Conflict180.com/Resources page.

Next week – in the Conflict 180 blog – a teacher tells the true story of how a sloppy joe transformed her classroom and her approach to students.

What Do Students Really Need?

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Of course there is no doubt that our students are in need of many things. As schools are being asked to do more with less, educators can begin to feel like magicians, juggling priorities and pulling tricks out of their top hats.

Yet, the surprising answer from science is that the most important thing we can give our young people is still free and in plentiful supply. It remains the gift of meaningful connection.

Why Invest in Connection?

1. Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

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Photo by Mathew Purdy (2007 CC BY-ND 2.0)

In a series of MRI studies, social psychologists Matthew Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberger found that our brain’s pain centers light up when we experience social rejection – even in a game. Social rejection was even minimized by study participants who took Tylenol ahead of time.

Kids who feel socially marginalized or disconnected will often “act out” their pain in ways that look destructive. However, there is good news.

The flip side of the equation is that social connection feeds our brain’s “pleasure center” and insulates us from losses.

In MRI studies, our brain’s pleasure centers light up when we contribute to others – by helping them through a painful situation, for instance, or giving them a gift. Similarly, young people who feel that they belong and someone cares about them are more likely to thrive in school.

Kids who find meaningful connection in school are also more resilient, even in the face of trauma and hardship.

rejection-injection

2. Connection Can Be A Life Saver

Longitudinal research with kids living in hardship has found that kids who experienced a strong connection with ONE CARING adult – often a teacher – were more resilient in the face of trauma. They were able to thrive despite the odds stacked against them.

This is also true for kids experiencing mental health struggles.

A meaningful relationship with ONE caring adult helps protect kids against depression, suicidal thoughts, violence, and substance use.

one-strong-adult-relationship

3. Connection Can Help Academically

Research also suggests that strong student-teacher relationships can lead to better grades, especially for traditionally under-served kids.

Studies have also found that student grades are higher in classrooms where teachers show “caring behaviors” (e.g., willingness to listen; focusing on strengths; ability to reduce anxiety).

There is no better time to begin building meaningful connection with your students than in today’s disconnected, conflict-ridden world.

Find out what matters to them and what you have in common. Ask questions and slow down to listen. Show curiosity before assuming the worst.

And remember – what students really need is already there.

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Have a story to share about how restorative practices are helping you? Write to me at elaine@conflict180.com

Want to receive this blog and other Restorative News & Tips in your email? Sign up here.

Want more tools for connecting with students and reducing conflict? Check out our Conflict180.com/Resources page.

Next week – in the Conflict 180 blog – a teacher tells the true story of how a sloppy joe transformed her classroom and her approach to students.

Listening Underneath: How 4 Mornings of Dialogue Transformed 2 Months of Misery

janene_prothro_iceberg_hutui6It was Monday morning and Mr. Keaton was not looking forward to his 6th grade first period.

Johnny and Ricky had been at it for two months, with no sign of letting up.

Last Friday had been typical. In the first 10 minutes of class, Johnny had interrupted other students 3 times to share something urgent. Ricky took it upon himself to teach Johnny some manners:

“Shut up already! It ain’t your turn!”

Johnny spun around and cussed Ricky out. Other kids joined in. Kelli was hissing “shhh”, Louis was laughing at Johnny, and Bernard was attacking Ricky:

“Man! YOU shut up! You making it WORSE!”

From there, things predictably went down hill.

Over the past two months, Mr. Keaton had tried everything in his toolbox to put an end to the nonsense. He:

  • sternly brought the students back to task
  • reminded them of classroom norms
  • talked to each boy separately
  • sent them out of the room multiple times with referrals
  • showed his temper!

Nothing seemed to help. What had been a pleasurable 1st period at the beginning of the year was turning into a daily, dreaded headache.

Mr. Keaton realized there was one thing he had not yet tried.

Dialogue-Based Restorative Circles were a new school initiative and Mr. Keaton had heard circles took time. However, he felt like the conflict had aleady cost a ton of time, patience, and goodwill. They could afford to spend some time building community and peace.

That afternoon, Mr. Keaton emailed Ms. Noble, the school’s Restorative Practices coordinator. She took it from there.

time_memeDerivative of “Time” by Karen / CC BY / © Conflict180

Circle Prep Meetings

The goal of Dialogue-Based Restorative Circles is to get to the roots of the conflict. We do this by listening underneath for the deeper feelings and hopes that are not easily seen above the surface.

Mr. Keaton, Johnny, and Ricky first started exploring their underlying needs during individual circle prep meetings with Ms. Noble and Jacki (one of a dozen 8th graders learning to be circle keepers).

  1. Tuesday morning Ms. Noble and Jacki met with Mr. Keaton during his prep period. In this meeting, Mr. Keaton clarified, for himself, that he had been preoccupied with challenging events in his life (a wife on bed rest with twins; a sister back in rehab again) and that maybe he was not giving his students the kind of positive attention they needed. He wasn’t planning to share all this in the circle, and Ms. Noble wouldn’t “out” him. However, having clarity about his unmet needs would help him take responsibility for his choices later on.
  1. Wednesday morning  they met with Johnny, who chose to use a deck of Feelings and Needs cards to help him get clarity on what was happening for him.

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  1. Thursday morning Ms. Noble and Jacki met with Ricky, who became clear that he wanted to stay out of detention and be a better student. This conflict was sinking his academic boat.
  1. Friday morning Ms. Noble and Jacki met with the whole class (minus Ricky and Johnny) to do a brief prep. When the boys came back in, the dialogue-based restorative circle began.

Everyone sat in a semi-circle, facing each other. A set of Restorative Questions were taped to the board for all to see.

Restorative Questions try to shift the focus from “What rule was broken?” to “How do we repair harm and restore community?”

restorativequestions_conflict180

Everyone took a turn answering each question, with an option to pass.

Many students shared that they felt frustrated and exhausted by the conflict. When Mr. Keaton shared that he sometimes made things worse by not responding to the boys quickly enough, the students seemed impressed that their teacher was taking responsibility for harm. Many students then shared ways they had made things worse.

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When someone spoke directly to someone else, rather than to the whole group, Ms. Noble shifted from a traditional circle-sharing format to a “facilitated dialogue.”

For instance, at one point, Johnny, not meeting Ricky’s eyes, told him that he got to class upset most days because he was teased by a bunch of older boys on the way to school every morning.

“What are you hearing underneath that?” Ms. Noble prompted Ricky.

“That his patience is all wore out by the time he gets here,” Ricky said. Johnny nodded, looking relieved to be understood.

At another point, Mr. Keaton made a long speech to Ricky about how Ricky was a natural leader and even though he did not expect him to always be the peace-maker, he did have high expectations for him, and on and on in that vein. When Ms. Noble asked Ricky what he was hearing, Ricky looked a bit overwhelmed.

“That was a lot of words,” she said kindly, “What is the main thing you heard underneath?”

Ricky replied directly to Mr. Keaton: “That you’re proud of me. And you love me like a son.” “Yes, you got it” Mr. Keaton said, his eyes a little moist.

During the last round, the students agreed on 7 actions to make things better, including:

  1. Mr. Keaton will meet with Johnny 10 minutes before class every morning to connect and debrief.

  2. Mr. Keaton and Ricky will now have a “peace” signal.

  3. All students will wait for Mr. Keaton to address conflicts before trying to “help”.

  4. Mr. Keaton will have a weekly sign-up sheet for students to join him for a friendly lunch.

2 Months Later

 Two months later, Mr. Keaton reports that all is well. Johnny and Ricky have not become friends, but they are civil and there have been no more class conflicts.

In addition, to Mr. Keaton’s delight, Ricky has applied to be a student Circle Keeper.

The Restorative Revolution

Call me crazy – but I think we are ready for a Revolution. 

I’m talking about a revolution in the way we approach justice, transgression, punishment, crime, and every day conflict among ordinary people. I am talking about the way we treat each other after we hurt each other – even in very deep ways – and the way we treat those who are less powerful than us when “justice” is placed in our hands.

I am talking a transformational, society-wide, lens-shifting, all-affecting revolution the scale of the 1960’s civil rights and women’s rights movements, a revolution in how we think about who we are and how we live, work, and love together.

Not a solution to everything. Not panacea, utopia, peace and love for all. But a fundamental shift in the collective understanding of what might be possible.

I feel it in my bones, like the rumble of a train coming down the tracks way before you see its lights appear from behind the bend.

People are sensing the heavy creaking of the current justice system, the way it is over-burdened and under-humane, the way it takes our sons and daughters and nieces and nephews and puts them back into our communities more hardened and less integrated than they were before, the way it creates rifts among us, decreasing rather than increasing the sense of safety for which we all long.

And people are becoming dissatisfied with the way we inadvertently replicate that same model in our homes, with people most precious to us, and in our communities, the places where we spend our waking hours.

I work with a lot of communication modalities and I have been talking to people about empathy and healing and dialogue for a long time.

But when I mention the restorative practices work in which I am involved, people respond with the kind of excitement, the kind of energy I have not seen before. Their eyes light up. They smile.  They want to learn more. They want to get involved.

I am talking about people across all economic, class, age, and race differences: administrators working in the formal justice system and grandmothers of boys in the local jail, academics and activists, rabbis and conservative ministers, teachers and parents, college students and poets. When I share what might be possible, there is a spark, an electrical surge of hope.

And what is possible is a way of doing conflict and justice in which each voice and each side gets heard, in which people who have been hurt get to ask their toughest questions and those who have caused pain get to experience the impact of what they have done and come out feeling more human, not less. What is possible are solutions to conflicts that are not believable until you hear them, that stem from human creativity that is untapped by the current way we do things, and are agreed upon by everyone who is impacted by the conflict.

Restorative practices, as ancient as human society, have been making their way back into our collective knowledge. Some of them, like the Restorative Circles practice which I have been learning, are laced with a modern edge, an edge forged in the fires of inner-city Brazilian favelas where drugs, gun violence, racialized tensions and numbing poverty overlay the struggle for daily survival.

And that is what makes the possibility so palpable. There is another way and it works. It works to re-humanize people to each other in the most trying of circumstances across deeply etched lines. In a place where unbelievable beauty and unbelievable disparity go hand in hand, restorative practices are growing and being embraced by school districts, youth courts, youth prisons, neighborhoods and homes, presidential candidates and major news networks. Restorative Circles are winning awards and changing circumstances, changing lives, changing how people think about and live with conflict.

Not a solution to everything. Not panacea, utopia, peace and love for all. But a fundamental shift in the collective understanding of what might be possible.

A Restorative Revolution.  It’s coming.

Wanna get on board?


 

Photo credit: Train Tracks by Denise RosserCC BY-ND 2.0

Blog post: Copyrighted 2015 Conflict 180.