In our last post in this series on life after clip charts, stickers, and time outs, Kristi made the point that change is hard. In the week since that post, many of us have started school. You’re no doubt adjusting to new routines, new students, and perhaps a new grade or even a new school. Change. Is. Hard. We hear it. We get it.
The week before my students arrived, I kept reading and reciting the belief statement Kristi wrote:
All children have the right to be safe (emotionally and physically), to feel valued and valuable, to be treated as capable of contributing to the community, and honored as inherently trying to do their best.
Perhaps you, too, created a belief statement about building community or maybe you borrowed Kristi’s.
Maybe we’ve taken time to look at the layout of our classrooms through our students’ eyes and found ways to make them feel ownership. Perhaps we’ve thought more about the flow of the schedule and the structured vs. unstructured time. Likely we’ve thought carefully about the read alouds we’d like to share in these first few days to make children feel a sense of belonging and a sense of joy.
There is no magic replacement for systems like clip charts, instead there’s a different way of being. And, as Kristi reminded us, adjusting to that new way of being is a daily practice. We practice empathy when we respond to problems. We practice thinking carefully about our language. We practice reframing social and emotional awareness and skills as a developmental process.
And we give our students opportunities practice these skills.
Today, we’re sharing three tools and practices that you can introduce to your class in the first week of school (or later- it’s never too late!) to help them build emotional awareness, self- regulation, and problem solving skills.
Let’s get to it.
Practice One: Build Awareness
In order to build self-regulation or solve problems as they arise in the classroom, we need to first help students understand that it’s completely normal to get upset, to get too silly, to feel frustrated, etc. It’s a part of being human. We all experience strong reactions- the goal for our students is to help them practice coming down from those moments quickly so they feel better and are ready to actively engage with the community. Returning to our belief statement, the more students are aware of their feelings and in control of their reactions, the more they will see themselves as capable, safe, and valued.
Here are three ways you can teach children about where these big feelings and reactions come from:
1. Build awareness about the brain.
One way to do this is by using Daniel Siegal’s hand model of the brain to teach children about what happens when the upstairs brain goes offline and the emotional brain takes over. Pair this with picture books such as When Sophie Gets Angry and The Most Magnificent Thing to give children a model for what it can look like to “flip their lid” and then calm down.
2. Build awareness about emotions
You might also introduce “I statements” to your class and help them name what they’re feeling and what they’d like or need. Expressing their anger or sadness in this way moves them away from blaming or dwelling in the problem and moves them towards finding solutions. As a class, you could create a scaffolding chart with photos of children expressing different emotions and a set of solutions.
3. Build awareness about regulation
Leah Kuyper’s Zones of Regulation teach children about what it feels like to be in different states of alertness. By identifying the feelings (in both mind and body) that exist in four differently colored zones or states of regulation, children begin to independently access strategies for emotional regulation and social cognition.
Practice Two: Cultivate Self-Regulation
As children build awareness of their emotional states, the will become more attune to when they need to calm down or energize. Sometimes a quick break away from the group is exactly what a child needs to rejoin the group in a way that makes them feel capable, valued, and safe. It’s true for all of us-- what do you do when you get upset or need an energy boost? Sometimes I go to the quietest place I can, sometimes I get drink a tall glass of cold water, and sometimes I take deep breaths and clench and release my fists.
(From Lisa Hanna's Fifth and Sixth Grade)
These self-regulation breaks stand in contrast to time outs. Traditional timeouts isolate children, are a disjointed punishment from the behavior, and often further escalate emotions. What you call a reset break or a self-regulation break doesn’t matter, how you use it does. Offer these breaks as a choice to students and find a menu of options that would work well for the needs of your students. Sometimes you might suggest that a student take a break. You might say, “It looks like your body is really energized… try a quick movement break."
Introduce these routines like you’d introduce any routines in your classroom- step by step. Teach students about when they might choose to take a break, what they might choose and how it might go. As with any routine, practice, practice, practice.
Practice Three: Scaffold Problem Solving
One of the tools that both Kristi and I have found most helpful in helping students practice problem solving, gaining independence in the classroom, and collaboration skills has been the Glitch-Bummer-Disaster scale. Many of us have heard of and used problem scales. These scales helps students independently determine the “size” or “kind” of their problem and what they might do about.
Create the scale with your students and come up with examples of glitches, bummers, and disasters. You could role play different problems and solutions and, once the scale is complete, refer to it throughout the day. This takes practice for us as teachers, too. Instead of automatically solving problems quickly as it is so tempting to do, start from a place of empathy, and then try out questions like these:
It seems like you’re really upset about that. I hear you.
What kind of problem do you think that is?
Do you have any ideas about how you might solve it?
As the year goes on, you’ll notice that you will have to do less prompting and that your students will be doing more and more independent problem solving. They’ll be opening snack pouches with community scissors, taking turns with rock-paper-scissors, moving their seat closer to the computer cart when they run out of battery life, and on and on. Learning to solve problems on their own makes children feel like a capable and valued member of the class community.
Change is Hard, But it’s Worth it
There’s nothing like these first few days of school. They exhaust you to the bone. But in these first few days we start to see little glimpses of what’s possible, of the community we’re creating. Keep cultivating that sense of optimism. When you catch those little glimpses remember the Kurt Vonnegurt quote, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”