Following a thought-provoking session on inclusion with colleague Diana Wilk at our district pro-d day (as a follow-up to a memorable day spent with Paula Kluth in the fall), I tried to share a story with her but emotionally struggled to get through it. It is a story of inclusion being modeled by kindergarten students and one that we can all learn from.
As in the majority of kindergarten classes, we have some students that struggle with personal space and can demonstrate some behaviours that can be looked at as being socially not acceptable. One student in one of our clases, Justin (not his/her real name), has some challenges and loves to wreck towers, buildings and other things that students have built with blocks, lego, and other items.
Our teacher, who cares deeply about Justin, decided that while Justin was learning that this was not acceptable to wreck other students buildings, she would take a picture of the students’ completed tower/building before it was dismantled. As students in kindergarten are often so accepting and patient, this temporary solution seemed to be working while Justin learned the necessary skills.
A few weeks ago, two girls had created a rather large structure with blocks. They were beaming with pride and asked their teacher to take a photo of their work. While the teacher was going to grab her camera, she heard, “Justin….NO!” and then turned to see Justin run over and smash the structure to pieces. The teacher comforted the two students and then took Justin to a calmer area of the classroom to once again talk to him and remind him about respecting other people’s work and personal space.
After a few minutes of working with Justin, the teacher was interrupted by the two girls asking if they could talk to Justin. They then brought over Justin to their newly created structure and said, “we built this tower but we need someone to take it down… will you be our wrecking ball?” Justin then turned into his own version of a wrecking ball and dismantled the structure as the girls cheered him on. The smiles in the faces of all three students, and the tears in the eyes of the teacher said it all. These students had come up with this inclusive solution on their own. Justin continues to cherish his role as a wrecking ball and is learning to wait until the timing is right to do “his job”. This role has enhanced his sense of belonging and created a more positive experience for him and his friends.
Inclusion does not just benefit those who struggle. By creating the conditions for moments like this to happen more often in schools, we can teach and practice the skills of empathy, understanding, and care and support our students in teaching so many of us that inclusion brings out the best in ALL of us.
cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by Erickson Ocampo: http://flickr.com/photos/coolbite1/3596619861/
Every year, as a principal, I hear the heart-breaking stories from parents and kids about not having friends, not being invited to play after school and never being invited to a birthday party. Although we are only a few students and children in communities, these stories are far too common and are not only devastating to the children but also the families.
As I grow with my kids, one of my goals is to always reach out and invite a child who, for whatever reason, needs a friend. I have seen parents do this in our school as they taught and modeled to our children the importance of including others in their circles.
When I was in elementary school, I remember new students moving to our town and struggling to make friends. On a couple of occasions (probably more), my parents asked me to choose a child that was new or struggled to have friends and invite them to come to a Canucks game with my dad and I (back when the Canucks games were mostly losses but very affordable). These events grew into friendships and modeled to me the empathy and care that is needed to truly understand and appreciate the value of friendships and inclusion of others.
As we move into another school year, my challenge to parents (including me) is for us to reach out and include students beyond our children’s typical friendship circles. If it is a new student in the class, set up an after school activity for a day. For birthdays, start by reaching out to one child that needs a friend… and if our children disagree, this gives us the perfect opportunity to embrace a teachable moment about empathy and care. If it is a student that struggles with some behaviours or disabilities that require support, invite the child to come over with the parent so you can truly understand the challenges that both the child and the family face. Raising a child with a disability and/or a child that requires significant behaviour support can also be very difficult for the parents. They, too, can be left feeling alone and negatively judged as “bad parents” when it is often a condition that is not about parenting and more about extra support, empathy, and understanding.
A series of these small efforts can have a life-changing impact on children, families and society as a whole. I invite you to join me, and many families whom I learn from, in reaching out and teaching our children to include others.
cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by forpawsgrooming: http://flickr.com/photos/forpaws/5554199536/
As “anti-bullying day” approaches again this year, I get questions as to what we will be doing as a school for this one day event. My response has been,
“As a school, we will continue to do what we do every other day: promote a culture of care, empathy and kindness through teaching and modeling. We will continue to try to nurture the strengths and interests in our students and help them to be more confident and proud of who they are. We will also deal with bullying and conflict (2 very different things but often confused) in a serious but teaching/learning manner so the lacking skills are taught and the focus stays long-term.”
Bullying is something that nobody should have to go through and when it occurs, we need to take this very seriously and deal with it very carefully. We also need to be proactive in what we do – we need to create the culture in which people are cared for and care for others. Now, I am not opposed to the intent of Anti-Bullying Day, as I am often blown away by the efforts of students and I believe we need to stand up to bullying, but I do think the focus is on the wrong thing: bullying. Whenever we focus on something, it grows. If we seek negatives in our life, we will find them. If we seek positives, we will find them too. Maybe we need to shift and focus on the positive qualities we want to see.
It is easy to put on a pink shirt and say that we are fighting bullying on that day… it is much more difficult to model, teach and create a culture in which kindness, care, and empathy is the norm. We probably would find it difficult to find someone who is NOT “anti-bullying” (or pro-bullying?) but maybe not have a difficult time to find students and adults who struggle to lead a life of care.
I see many examples of students standing up for qualities like care, acceptance, and empathy and then adults naming it “anti-bullying”. Check out this “acceptance” flash mob at a Vancouver Giants game in which the students use positive qualities (then titled “anti-bullying)”.
My former principal and mentor Roxanne Watson models this change and wrote a recent post that that challenges us to shift our focus:
… It is a complex issue. Each time I hear of another life lost to bullying I ask myself why we as a community have not been able to address this problem effectively.
Bullying. Bully-Prevention. Anti-Bullying. Stand Up 2 Bullying. Stop a Bully. Pink Shirt Day. There’s no shortage of attention to bullying these days, nor should there be. As a former child, an educator and part of a large family I have experienced first-hand the effects of bullying. I certainly read the paper and follow the news and there is no lack of stories which document the terrible impact bullying has, not only in our schools but in our workplaces, in our own families, neighborhoods, churches, teams, clubs and any other place where people come together. Each time a bullying story hits the news we hear a renewed sense of outrage and are inundated with anti-bullying campaigns. It seems to me, considering how often we hear of bullying and how many of us have experienced it in our own lives that these campaigns have not been effective over the years. So, I have a suggestion; Stop focusing on bullying and start focusing on kindness.
… I’m tired of hearing the word “bullying”. It has no positive conotations for me. It’s a negative spin on a negative problem. It’s time we stopped focusing on reducing bullying and started focusing on promoting kindness. For every anti-bullying program that’s out there there is a program that promotes peace/kindness/empathy. These are all skills our children (and adults) need to learn. Roots of Empathy is just one. Tribes TLC is another, Random Acts of Kindness is a program that has been used at Kent Elementary and found to be wonderful in promoting positive interactions without the need for the usual reward that comes with some of these programs. It has long been a goal of mine to switch peoples’ thinking (starting with my own) from reducing the negative to increasing the positive.
…Kent Elementary is a progressive school. They believe strongly in creating the conditions for children to be successful. (http://connectedprincipals.com/archives/6554) This is the type of approach that will reduce bullying. In the same way we create a positive culture for reading or healthy living or self-discipline we can create a culture that recognizes, promotes and teaches (coaches) kindness.
…I strongly believe that all people (not just kids) do the best with what they have at the time. Students who bully lack the basic skills and understandings of kindness. Perhaps they have not experienced kindness in their own lives. Do we punish them? Many believe this is the way. I do not. I believe we take them aside, model kindness, provide opportunities for kindness, recognize (not reward, but recognize) kindness and promote kindness. We create the conditions for them to be successful.
As with other successful approaches this will take time. It takes time to identify those people who truly are bullies (and they aren’t always children). It takes time to work with that individual, to have them see how people perceive them.
…You see, no “program” works for everyone. As in reading or math or behavior a multi-faceted approach is likely required. This takes time. I believe it also requires a shift from a focus that reduces the negative to a focus that increases the positive. Aren’t our children and our communities worth it?
Will we do anything different on anti-bullying day at our school? I am sure there will be dialogue around it and there will be Pink Shirts worn; more importantly, however, our bigger challenge is to continue to honour each child for who they are, focus on their strengths and support their challenges, teach rather than reward and punish, and model a life of empathy and care. I realize we do not have this all figured out and bullying still exists at Kent School… but I will leave with a few comments from parents/families in the past year that show the value of a school culture on a child:
Bullying is less of a concern for my daughter since Identity Day. Identity Day showed her that she had a strength and other children recognized this. The conversations at Kent around recognizing the strengths in others and themselves, along with my daughter’s participation in the drama program has given her a sense of identity and confidence. — a parent of an intermediate student
I am so happy that my cousin gets to come to school and be proud of who she is. — a family member at our honouring ceremony/luncheon
Please take a moment to watch this powerful video/poem by BC poet Shane Koyczan. I heard his words a few years ago at a conference and his story challenged me to seek the positives in others. Bullying needs to end… and there is power in voice and seeing the beauty in each child.
Thank you to Roxanne for her continued mentorship. Please take her challenge and focus on a school culture of kindness.
I just finished reading another great post by Timothy Monreal (@mryoungteacher) on “Teaching Empathy“. I do not disagree with Tim as I truly believe that the modeling of empathy and care is so important in our schools as well as in society. As I was reading it, though, I thought about one of my pet peeves: the statement “If I were in your shoes”.
Here is the thing: to be blunt, I appreciate the sympathy but you are NOT in my shoes so please do not pretend that you know what it is like to BE in my shoes. I have been speaking with a friend who has a child with a significant disability. He is doing his absolute best to make things work for his child along with his family. He came to me and said, “people keep telling me they know how I feel and then giving me advice on what they would do if they were in my shoes… they don’t know everything about me and they don’t know what it is like to me. I just wish people would give me some space”.
BOOM. We don’t know everything about what someone else is going through. All we know is what we are observing from our perspective. It is so important to model and practice empathy; however, we need to be careful to offer advice to people and pretend we know what it is like to BE them. We can often mistake sympathy with empathy.
The most important thing we can do is listen, truly listen. Be there… be there in the moment with that person. Listen with your eyes. If advice is requested, let’s ‘walk’ with the person and give advice from our shoes… and not pretend we actually understand what it is like to live in in the shoes of someone else.