Out of the 4 secret ingredients that make up a Co-Created education– empowering, inclusive, rigorous, and supportive– this final ingredient is the one with…
… the most information readily available online about it already,
…the most trainings geared in its direction already,
…the most attention paid to it already.
Yet, when it comes to putting all those things into practice, most schools and classrooms still have a lonngggg way to go in this area.
(So, on second thought, maybe the most lip-service paid to it, would unfortunately be a more accurate statement.)
Spoiler alert: the “it” I’m talking about supporting here is behavior and discipline.
There are a whole slew of resources and professional developments available on behavior and discipline, which shows that we all see a need.
So if we see the need, and the knowledge is out there, why is it still so rare to see it done really well in practice?
One explanation is that it comes down to mindset; handy tips and tricks can only go so far without addressing the beliefs, attitudes, dispositions, and expectations that we hold about behavior and discipline in our minds. We have to go further upstream and get to the source.
Before we do all that, let’s get some definitions out of the way.
What does it mean to be supportive from a behavior and discipline standpoint? What does it mean to cultivate a supportive environment?
Alright, now that we’re clear on exactly what it means to co-create a supportive educational experience, let’s take a deeper look at the role of mindset.
What’s mindset got to do with it?
Dr. Marcia Reynolds is in the business of changing minds; she teaches leaders and coaches how to help people have breakthrough moments where they examine and challenge their own thinking patterns.
Check out how she visualizes the way we construct and deconstruct our mindsets:
Many things shape our mindsets– our upbringing, our experiences, our education, our culture… the list goes on. These formative elements are what make up the “walls” in our minds that sometimes need to be brought down brick by brick so we can make positive change.
Self-Assess: What are the mental walls you’ve built around your concept of behavior and discipline?
- Are you the all-mighty power holder in the classroom, or is power shared?
- Is it, “I’m the adult, you’re the child, remember your place,” or is it a partnership led by you as the caring authority?
- Are children meant to be “seen but not heard,” or is there generally a buzz of productive noise in your classroom?
- Does a misbehavior feel like a threat to you, or is it simply a learning opportunity?
- Are you doling out punishments, or holding students accountable with logical consequences?
- Do you focus on finding fault or finding solutions?
- Do you view parents as problems or partners?
- Are apologies and forgiveness one-way or two-way?
- Is respect one-way or two-way?
Chances are, your responses to these questions reflect the type of environment you are creating in your school or classroom. Our actions don’t come from nowhere; they come from our mindsets.
Everyone wants to feel successful and happy in their day-to-day work. Being honest with yourself about the questions above will feel uncomfortable in the short run, yet could lead to greater happiness and success in the long run for both you and your students.
If it’s helpful to you, you could even draw it out– literally visualize the mental walls so you can begin to break down any that need it.
Once you’ve done some big picture self-reflection, then it’s time to drill down into the 4 specific mindshifts that will help you become a more supportive educator and help you cultivate a supportive learning environment.
TOP 4 SHIFTS TO GET YOUR MIND INTO SUPPORTIVE MODE
Supportive Mindshift #1
Support students as whole people– instincts, needs, flaws & all.
Fifty years ago, legendary psychologist Abraham Maslow said,
When people appear to be something other than good and decent, it is only because they are reacting to stress, pain, or the deprivation of a basic human need such as security, love, and self-esteem.”
(A. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, 1968)
Trauma, skill gaps, unmet needs, sensory sensitivities, or even unclear boundaries can all contribute to a student requiring some additional support.
Come to think of it, that doesn’t just apply to our students– that applies to all of us!
When we look for a root cause instead of looking for a culprit to blame, we move ourselves into a space of curiosity and compassion.
When we see that our students are just as human as we are and vice versa, we tap into empathy and connection.
A bit more on Maslow
Maslow’s work has since been commonly summarized in a hierarchy of human needs, visualized as a pyramid:
Although not all psychologists agree about the order or hierarchical structure of the pyramid, it still serves as a concise and accurate summary of our basic human needs.
It’s likely that whatever might be hurting or missing for our students falls into one of the categories of that pyramid.
The simple act of recognizing that our students might be missing out on a basic need or hurting on a fundamentally human level helps us reframe the way we work with them, and it better positions us to provide support.
*Disclaimer* — To be clear, this is in no way a plea to lower our standards based on students’ circumstances, or to make excuses for them, or to let them off the hook. In fact, one of the most caring things we can do is hold students accountable.
The difference is in making sure they know it’s coming from a place of human understanding, coupled with strong belief in their high potential.
Supportive Mindshift #2
Support students’ sense of security & belonging first.
As educators, we of course cannot meet our students’ every need all on our own. We need partnership with families and the greater community in order to do that.
However, there are two particular areas of need that– if we were to actively and purposely target them in the classroom– could be making a HUGE impact in our students’ lives.
Those areas are security and belonging.
The mindshift here is prioritizing those two areas as highly as any academic goal. The environment in which students learn makes *all* the difference in what they learn, how they learn, and to what degree they learn. Security and belonging come first if we have any hope of academic excellence.
Would your students describe your classroom or school as a place where they feel both physically and emotionally safe?
Would they describe it as a place where they belong?
Here are a few ways to make sure your students can answer “yes” to both those questions.
First, Community-oriented classroom management shows everyone they belong.
The dictionary defines community as:
“a unified body of individuals who feel a sense of fellowship with each other, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.“
( …Ok, technically I combined two dictionary definitions to get that one, but still. It’s a good one!)
That’s the kind of community that will help our students (and us!) flourish and thrive. It’s an environment where their innate need for belonging will be met, so that they can focus on learning instead of on survival. (Instincts are powerful things!)
That type of community doesn’t happen magically or automatically. It takes purposeful effort and action. It takes working together to explicitly define what common attitudes, interests, and goals you all will share together.
To help kickstart that effort and action, here’s a freebie for you, along with an example of the community commitments my class and I made together back in the day:
Second, clear boundaries make everyone feel more secure.
“Wow, I’m so thankful my teacher sets such clear boundaries and holds us all accountable!”
… said no student, ever.
Yet, even though they don’t say it out loud, and even though they’re probably not even consciously aware of it, they feel it.
Boundaries provide the safe perimeter that surrounds and defines the limits of the community. Inside of them is what we do tolerate in this community; outside of them is what we don’t tolerate in this community.
As the leader of the classroom or school community, it is your sacred responsibility to ensure that those boundaries are defined, honored, and reinforced. While you will serve as the main caring authority holding students accountable to the boundaries, if those boundaries are clear enough, students will also hold each other accountable to them. Especially in the elementary years.
In the adolescent years, a hallmark of students’ development is the need to push boundaries. So they need something sturdy to push up against! It is developmentally essential that the boundaries are clear, fair, reasonable, and consistently reinforced.
This is where natural and logical consequences come in as part of the learning process. A consequence is simply a result of an action; consequences can be negative, positive, or neutral. Students improve their decision-making skills each time they have the opportunity to reflect on what consequence resulted from the choices they made.
Final key to meeting students’ security need: be the “solid object” in the room.
For just a moment, imagine yourself caught in a powerful storm, maybe even a hurricane.
You’re out in the elements with no shelter, winds gusting, waters rising, hail pummeling. Just as you feel like the raging winds are about to sweep you away, you reach out desperately, grasping for anything to cling to. Your hand makes contact with a solid object, and you hold onto it with all your might. It’s your lifeline. Over time the winds subside, and your safety is restored, thanks to your solid object.
I once heard an emotional meltdown described as a storm. During a meltdown, a child loses control– sometimes emotionally, sometimes physically. Inside their minds and bodies, a storm is going on; everything is in tumult, swirling around in a cyclone of chaos.
Serving as a “solid object” looks like:
- Maintaining a healthy level of control over our own emotions, even when students are not in control of theirs
- Remaining calm in moments of stress
- Being there for students consistently, through the good times and the bad
- Remembering that a student’s behavior is about them, not about us; resisting the urge to take it personally
- Acting responsively rather than reactively
- Showing students we are trustworthy in all 3 pillars of trust: reliability, competence, & motive
Supportive Mindshift #3
Support students’ behavioral challenges as learning needs.
What if the reason a student is behaving a certain way is because they genuinely don’t know any better?
We’ve all been in situations with students where that explanation is true, and other situations where it very much is not. However, whether it’s true 100% of the time or not is something I would challenge us all to let go of, and instead replace it with a new question:
“What skill is this student missing that would help them do better next time, and how can I help them gain that skill?”
The two main learning gaps that result in behavioral challenges are in the areas of 1) social-emotional skills, and 2) executive functioning skills. Helping students fill these two gaps can be a complete and total game-changer, for them and for you (hello, regained sanity, reclaimed time, and renewed job satisfaction!)
Ideas for Supporting Social-Emotional Learning
- If you have budget, use the CASEL website to select a program specifically designed for social-emotional learning, created by experts. Their program selection process at CASEL is rigorous, so if it’s listed here, it met a range of important criteria.
- If you don’t have budget, try this list of FREE resources. A special educator curated over 100 free tools, out of the goodness of her huge heart and passion for educating ALL learners well.
- Teach social skills explicitly, basically as though it were an academic subject. Make it a regular part of the curriculum. When you take it seriously, so will your students! Here are some sample pacing guides for a social skills course at the Elementary and Middle School levels. The lessons take 20-30min. Could you find 20-30 spare minutes in your schedule somewhere? Homeroom, morning meeting, advisory,…etc.
- Borrow a page from the Montessori playbook and set up a “peace table“ in your room for conflict resolution
- Learn more about restorative practices. Start here, then check out my colleague’s program RestoreMore (she even offers a FREEBIE to preview what she’s about) !
Ideas for Supporting Executive Function Development
- First, learn what the “executive functions” of the brain really are. The 3 main areas are working memory (holding short-term info in our heads), cognitive flexibility (perspective-taking, creative problem-solving, adaptive thinking, etc.), and inhibitory control (self-control, impulse control, selective focus, etc.).
- Consider that perhaps a few rare unicorn kids are born with these skills, but more often than not, executive functioning skills are learned skills. And if for any number of reasons a student hasn’t learned them elsewhere, they gotta learn ’em somewhere. You could make that difference for them!
- A few programs to look into that support various aspects of executive functioning are The Alert Program (which ties together self-regulation with sensory awareness), the Habits of Mind approach, and The Center on The Developing Child at Harvard‘s (super practical and useful!) Activities Guide for building executive functioning skills.
- Give students tools for managing their time, their assignments, and their materials. Tools like this one, for example, where students timelined out their project completion plan. Don’t assume they’ll handle it on their own; support them in these critical organization skills! Practices like regular agenda checks, locker checks, and binder checks support accountability and habit-building.
To sum up this third mindshift, there are specific skills students can learn to help them excel as students, as friends, and as people.
We can use this knowledge to reframe how we look at behavior challenges.
We wouldn’t kick a student out of class for struggling to read a challenging paragraph.
We wouldn’t kick a kid out of class for solving a math problem incorrectly.
Because those are learning problems. Learning problems don’t trigger us the way behavior problems do.
But if we can train our brains to see behavior issues as learning opportunities, we can keep kids in class, learning, where they belong.
Because depriving a child of learning is not a fair or reasonable punishment for just about anything.
In Closing …
Being a supportive educator and cultivating a supportive environment requires us to shift our mindsets around behavior and discipline in 3 key ways:
Supportive Mindshift #1 ) Support students as whole people– instincts, needs, flaws & all.
- Our students are just as fully human as we are. We can build our empathy muscles by approaching a behavior challenge with curiosity and compassion. Channel Maslow and think, “what might be hurting? what might be missing?”
Supportive Mindshift #2 ) Support students’ sense of security & belonging first.
- Students need clear boundaries, a strong classroom community, and a “solid object” adult in the room to feel secure and to feel they belong.
- Students need clear boundaries, a strong classroom community, and a “solid object” adult in the room to feel secure and to feel they belong.
Supportive Mindshift #3 ) Support students’ behavioral challenges as learning needs.
- Teaching social-emotional skills and executive functioning skills is a time investment that pays off in dividends. It reduces behavior challenges significantly and positively impacts all other academic areas!
If becoming supportive educators and creating supportive environments were easy, it would be a widespread commonality. It would be the norm instead of the exception.
As you and I both know, that isn’t the case.
If only there were an easy button for discipline and behavior! Sure there are several grab-and-go options out there. And those off-the-shelf solutions sound SUPER appealing when you’re a hard-working educator, trying to fit everything in, without enough hours in the day.
I get it, I’ve been there. It makes sense.
Without the right mindset in place, though, that off-the-shelf solution has a pretty low ceiling of effectiveness. It can only go so far and can only do so much without a mindset to match.
The trouble with “mindshifting” is, it’s inherently uncomfortable. A mindshift challenges our beliefs and paradigms, and brains don’t enjoy that feeling. Humans are wired to resist change. Which is why I’ve said it once before: a mindset might be the hardest thing in the world to change.
I’ve also been accused of being an eternal optimist, because I remain hopeful that we can all do hard things, and that change is possible, even when it comes to mindsets.
We are educators: we are in the business of shaping minds, literally.
Let’s start with our own.
This is the final installment of a 4-part series on the foundational pillars of a Co-Created education.
Check out the full series here:
Does this sound like the kind of environment you’re trying to cultivate in your school or classroom?
Get in touch— we’d love to work with you!