Friday, 8 August 2014

Bullying? Pondering for the New School Year

When we even say the word, we may conjure up past experiences, we think about something we have read in the news, we may cry for the pain of our own children.

Reading Stuart Shanker's Calm, Alert and Learning gives credence to the fact that children need to learn empathy.  Without empathy we have bullies.  Unless a child learns to care about someone else's emotions, learns to help others deal with their emotions, and learns to distinguish between theirs and someone else's emotions can result in emotional and related psychological and behavioural problems such as bullying (p. 95).

A google search reveals this definition for bullying:
  1. 1.
    a person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.
    synonyms:persecutor, oppressortyrant, tormentor, intimidator; 
  1. 1.
    use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants.
    "a local man was bullied into helping them"

Shanker states that many psychologists believe that empathy is a core temperament trait and it plays a key role in a child's prosocial development (p.99).  Without empathy a child cannot even imagine how another child may feel should he/she make fun of her or get rough with her.  Children need to do more than communicate; they need to understand another's intentions, attitudes, desires, fears and so on.  In other words, they often co-regulate one another to create a harmonious relationship. Without this ability and an underlying lack of empathy, a child can become a bully. Without the ability to self-regulate in the prosocial domain, or fit in with the larger group or one on one, bullying can become the norm for some children.  If a child cannot empathize, it becomes easier to persecute, tyrannize, threaten, harass and so on.

Shanker provides the following table for teachers to distinguish between play-fighting and bullying:

Play Fighting                                                                         Bullying

-positive facial expressions (eg. smiling)                                  -negative facial expressions (eg angry looks)
-voluntary participation                                                           -involuntary participation
-alternated roles (eg being chased, then being                          -fixed roles (being either the aggressor or the
the chaser)                                                                            victim always)
-tempered force                                                                     -aggressive force
-children stay together after playing                                         -children separate after an encounter
                                                                                                      (p. 96)

These distinctions can help us in the classroom to determine if bullying is indeed happening.  Important to be able to do because we hear the word "bully" for many different interactions in the classroom and on the playground.

How to bully proof your classroom?  Do you need a program?  Or do we need to ensure our students are having opportunities to learn to be empathetic.  Do we offer discussion times about how the other person might feel?  Classroom meetings can be an excellent moment to learn about the perspective of classmates. Can we offer book studies and discuss the feelings of characters?  A few ideas are offered here. Or do you use a program such as Roots of Empathy?  This innovative program uses a new baby in the classroom to help students learn about empathy. A parent and baby visit the classroom every three weeks and children observe the baby and label its feelings.  It has met with positive results.

I would love to hear other ideas to promote empathy in the classroom that resulted in less bullying.  What do you do as a teacher?

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Almost Back to School Time

Yes, we are getting closer to that date.  You are probably thinking about how the school year will go, how you will approach your lessons and how your classroom will look.  As teachers, we think about the themes our decorations might be focused on.  We think about how to make a warm and welcoming space for our new students.  Hey, we wonder who will BE in our classroom?  What will they be like?  Will the class be an "easy one" or will it be a "tough year"? 
To prepare for the new school year, I have been reading Stuart Shanker's book, Calm, Alert and Learning: Classroom Strategies for Self-Regulation. Shanker lists five domains for self-regulation including the biological, the emotional, the cognitive, the social and the prosocial domains.  He reminds teachers and parents that students do not learn to self-regulate in each of these domains by osmosis but rather need to be taught and to be given experiences in order to learn to self-regulate.  He suggests teachers think about a successful student in the classroom because that student is likely successful in all of these domains and then think of a student who we were sure had ADHD.  Rather than labeling that little person, maybe some help to self-regulate is needed. Shanker states, "[s]elf-regulation is increasingly being seen as essential for enabling children to respond efficiently and effectively to the everyday challenges they face in and out of school" (page xii). 

He shares six critical elements for optimal self-regulation: 
  1. when feeling calmly focused and alert, the ability to know that one is calm and alert.
  2. when one is stressed, the ability to recognize what is causing that stress
  3. the ability to recognize the stressors both within and outside the classroom
  4. the desire to deal with those stressors
  5. the ability to develop strategies for dealing with those stressors
  6. the ability to recover efficiently and effectively from dealing with stressors    
(page xiii)

This may seem like a monumental task to help students understand themselves, allowing them to self-regulate but without these skills, students will not have the capacity to learn.  Without an understanding of the domains of self-regulation, teachers may misinterpret the behaviors of a student.  For example, a student who seems to daydream or doesn't get her work done may be hypoaroused for any number of physical reasons (maybe lack of sleep or food) and the teacher may see this student as lazy or even rude.  However, if we take the time to understand the underlying causes for this behavior, we may change the way we teach this student so the correct amount of arousal and then engagement occurs.

This book is fascinating as it gives the reader an opportunity to see students in a completely different light.  It challenges the labels we often put on students.

One final example will serve teachers everywhere...
As we gear up for the new year, teachers are planning their classroom look as I said earlier; Thinking about all of the cute items you could incorporate to make the space warm and inviting.  However, hold those thoughts. If you think you may have students who have difficulty paying attention (and who doesn't?), you may want to reconsider what you do with your space.  For example, you may want to limit the amount of "stuff" you put on the walls.  Put away those brightly colored borders and commercial posters. Try to use natural light as much as possible as those pesky fluorescent lights can cause problems and the natural light is calming.  Keep your clutter to a minimum (organize your papers, etc in bins of some sort).  Cover the bottom of desks and chairs with tennis balls if you are lucky to have no carpet (carpet is problematic for many other reasons such as allergies, dirt, chemicals). Arrange your centres so that noisy centres are in one place and quiet centres are away from them. Try not to use noisy fans.  Make available a quiet space where students can go when they need a break. 

Consider giving all students a fidget toy - the students who need it will be grateful and the others will forget about it.  Explain why you are giving the fidget if you are worried students will "play with it" too much.  Post your schedule and try to stick with it so all students know what is coming up. Allow students to know when transitions are coming and use the same signal each day - maybe a chime or a drum or a pattern of clapping. Give students choice in how they present their learning so they have autonomy over their learning.  Observe your students over a period of time so you can see what and when they become hyperaroused and then consider changing your practices at those times.  Finally, model your own self-regulation to your students so they can see how you handle the stressors in life.  (Shanker, 2013, 20-21).

These are just some of the ideas in this great book.  If you decided to give this a try, you might be surprised at the results.  Your students may be calmer and you will have a great year.  AND you will save yourself some money by not buying all those cutesy things.  Have a great year and do try and read this book!  You won't be sorry for taking the time to read it!