Strategies to Support Learning

I know I must sound like a broken record when I keep returning to social and emotional learning as a pandemic priority… but I found more support in an Education Week piece by Stephanie Jones, “4 Social-Emotional Practices to Help Students Flourish Now” [EdWeek]. The Gerald S. Lesser Professor in early-childhood development at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, she affirms the imperative that teachers and parents work to “help children feel stable, safe, and ready to learn.” Jones offers four specific strategies:

  • “Ask questions and listen actively.”

Jones describes the disappointments and traumas of the last two years and the intense pressure that children [and parents] feel about catching up academically. She urges adults to check in with children and have conversations about how they’re feeling.

  • “Let your students know what’s going to happen and establish clear and predictable expectations.”

I have always seen value in this approach, but it becomes even more important in times that feel unstable. Jones urges teachers to establish concrete and predictable procedures, and to give students more time when they need it. She encourages families to develop predictable rituals and routines at home, and to invite conversations with prompts like “What was the hardest and easiest for you today?” or “What are you grateful for today?” Students need to be seen and heard, especially when they are under stress, and adults need to provide those opportunities.

  • “Provide extra social and emotional time, not less.”

Helping students thrive in the current climate requires more support for emotional development and stability. Jones urges “respectful, open, and accepting learning environments.” She offers several strategies, including journaling, daily greetings, and open discussion about how students are feeling. Neuroscientists tell us that students’ readiness to learn is highly correlated with their emotional well-being. “Emotion has a substantial influence on the cognitive processes in humans, including perception, attention, learning, memory, reasoning, and problem solving. Emotion has a particularly strong influence on attention, especially modulating the selectivity of attention as well as motivating action and behavior” [Frontiers in Psychology]. Investing time and energy in the emotional well-being of students ultimately pays off in their learning.

  • “Enlist families to step back, connect, and listen at home.”

Jones asserts that the responsibility to support students and their learning should not depend only on teachers. “Parents and other guardians can play a uniquely valuable role in providing children with feelings of stability and comfort” [Op.Cit.]. She suggests that parents share their own feelings and sense of vulnerability, then listen actively and affirm what their children say.

I loved Jones’ closing statements: “…it is only when students feel safe, listened to, and supported by adults in their life that they can fully engage in academic work and everything else they do” [Op.Cit.]. I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Choose Kindness

Melanie McCabe’s story in the Washington Post  last week warmed my heart. Every year before Valentine’s Day she would tell her high school seniors about her own Valentine Day humiliation when she received a valentine from the boy she had a crush on. Excited to open it, she then read, “TO THE UGLIEST GIRL IN CLASS.” Embarrassed and tearful that day, she didn’t enjoy the holiday again for years.  

That experience prompted McCabe’s annual “party that celebrates kindness instead of cruelty.” She gives her seniors the materials to create mailboxes. She distributes hundreds of pre-cut pink squares of paper and challenges them to write one positive comment to each and every  classmate. McCabe plays music and watches her students compose their messages. Some have told her years later about the power of that experience.

Earlier that day I had read another Post article about the impact of President Trump’s behavior on bullying in schools. “Since Trump’s rise to the nation’s highest office, his inflammatory language — often condemned as racist and xenophobic — has seeped into schools across America. Many bullies now target other children differently than they used to, with kids as young as 6 mimicking the president’s insults and the cruel way he delivers them.”

For over twenty years I have worked on keeping students safe in school and preventing bullying, both in my own school and, through volunteer work, in other school districts, including the one in my hometown. The responsibility of schools and teachers to keep students safe so they can learn and thrive is an absolute value I hold. The current climate challenges that responsibility on a daily basis.

McCabe reminds us that we can teach kindness. She writes, “In recent years, the world that all of us inhabit has grown uglier — more divisive and unkind. Today there are bullies we contend with via social media who are far more powerful and corrosive than the childhood villain I remember so vividly.” Practices like her Valentine’s Day “party” can help reverse this tragic trend. I hope teachers currently in the classroom create their own opportunities to steer the culture to kindness.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2020/02/13/valentines-day-was-humiliating-me-child-i-tell-my-students-about-it-every-year/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/local/school-bullying-trump-words/