by Robert F Sherman Ph.D., Founding Partner, SEL Consulting Collaborative and President, Sherman Consulting.
Returning to school after holidays and vacations can be an anxious or dreaded time for students, staff, and teachers who had just settled into routines at home: spending time with family, opening presents, and doing whatever can be done to unplug and decompress. We all know that apprehensive feeling that what has been easier, or at least familiar, is about to change, and possibly get tougher. Even though some students and teachers will be excited to see the members of their school community, most everyone has some anxiety that gearing back up will be challenging. Happy New Year, everyone.
Another way to look at this nervous post-vacation time of reconnection is that it also provides positive opportunities: for a relationships reset, a time to move to even more productive and inclusive classrooms and schools overall. The return to school can give the chance to breathe a little, take stock of the ways everyone can be together most productively in a classroom, and revisit norms and expectations. The reset moment gives us an inflection point for maintaining or improving the conditions necessary for all students and staff to thrive for the remainder of the school year.
Many assert that interpersonal relationships in the classroom–good ones, or less than good–hold major influence over outcomes for both personal development and learning. These interpersonal relationships, especially youth/adult ones, are the potting soil for growth and thriving. If relationships are not well watered and fertilized, stagnation or even wilting, often follow. How it feels to be at school, ways that all students can be included and no one marginalized, and making certain that everyone in the room is genuinely connected to others, set the stage for individual and collective experience. Safety and belonging are bedrocks of meaningful community membership and participation, and also the preconditions for optimal learning in school. Basic lessons from SEL emphasize that strong bonds and growing trust build the safety necessary for good concentration, engagement with others, and with the academic tasks at hand. We learn primarily from and with others.
IT ISN’T LOST TIME! TRUST AND RELATIONSHIP-BUILDING BOOST FOCUS
Now let me go one slightly more radical step forward with ideas about the impacts of intentionally building community in classrooms, post-holiday break: that students and educators both, in fact, get a second “first week of school.” This second first week offers a new get-to-know-one-another, a chance to re-establish, or newly establish interpersonal norms for how we want our classroom and community to feel and function. Are we certain we know what would work for doing so? We do: fun, engaging, interactive activities, with little or no academic pressure, that allow us to tell each other our own stories (histories, families, lived experiences) in order to discover more about one another and ourselves, including our similarities and our differences. Time spent community/relationship-building is not “lost.” Instead, it can accelerate students’ ability to focus and concentrate down the line, as trust and comfort come more into the picture than before. This is SEL in action.
Moreover, post-vacation is a terrific time to take a look backwards and learn from what happened earlier in the year. “How do you think we did together last semester? How did class feel? What worked well, and what might we improve?” are all questions that can lead into the suggested activities and ideas found below. The intention, and the imperative here, are to co-generate ideas about making school and learning an engaging, safe, and positive experience. Not everyone will be comfortable critiquing or criticizing, so it is crucial to keep the tone accepting and inviting. Ask directly and don’t be defensive! (It goes without saying these types of reflection questions aimed at improvement are not only relevant to teachers and students, but department, building, or district leaders and their faculty and staff.)
What are accompanying activities that might help answer these questions and reach towards the goals of classroom climate improvement through student input? Teachers and students know lots of ways to have fun in a classroom, and there are many pathways toward unforced sharing and active listening. Properly encouraged, almost everyone will feel able to share stories about family, their culture, and as they grow, their personal interests, dreams, goals. and purposes. Singing and dancing always have outsized potential for group cohesion. Music brings us together pre-verbally. Games that help us learn about one another–favorite ice cream flavors for kindergartners, telling about families for third graders, discussing friendship or honesty or fears for high school students–open and connect us. And there are many more ways that community can be built. For example: taking time, in age-appropriate ways, to develop norms for behavior together, expectations for how we’ll keep one another safe without bullying, snideness, or judgmentalism. The key instruction here is to welcome input and contribution. Rather than discipline strategies emerging only from adults, tap the energies and creativity of the whole class to imagine, develop, and agree to sensible, safety-enhancing ways of being together, navigating challenges, enjoying, and learning.
Following are age-specific examples to consider, sorted into three ways of approaching the reset of relationships in the classroom and a refresh of the culture. Teachers and school staff, please reach into your own grabbag of possibilities, games, and strategies, ones that suit your own style, students, and environment. After the holiday break, take full mornings for these activities for a week. Extend out morning meeting times, giving ample room for discussions and reflection. The three strategies are: (1) Tell about yourself; (2) Play games; and (3) Revisit/create community or classroom agreements.
- Tell about yourself: The most classic interpersonal game for younger students involves telling the story of their names. Everyone has one, they often reflect cultural background, and almost everyone feels comfortable sharing the tale of why they were given their specific name (be sensitive to any children who may not know their name history). The best way to manage this game is to give everyone a turn to speak without interruption, then have a pre-set time for questions from others. Students themselves usually encourage this particular, nonthreatening sharing which directly builds empathy and curiosity about similarities and differences. Or ask about simple common connections: what was a favorite holiday treat you enjoyed over break? Which food would you like to eat every day?
- Play games: Physical games that encourage teamwork and collaboration are also very useful ways to build community spirit and build relationships. Elementary schoolers have less play than in early childhood years, but these can be essential for regulating mood and classroom energy. Choose games that feature sameness and difference as a very easy place to start, as are charades, and dance-freeze.
- Community agreements: younger children are indeed able to articulate what makes them comfortable or anxious. Have a multi-session discussion of making the classroom a comfortable place for everybody, and write findings down. This might focus on treating one another well, offering support when things go well and when they don’t, preventing bullying, using a peace corner, or breathing techniques for calming down or focusing.
Matters interpersonal are of greatest importance in the high-stakes social world inhabited by early adolescents. Feelings run high and virally for this group. Middle schoolers are becoming more and more able to articulate the importance of the group and community, and clearly sense their own places in these. The social scene dominates their hopes, satisfactions, and dreams, and they are quite ready to focus on it.
- Tell about yourself: Early adolescents have lots to tell about, including what they did over the holidays, their families, cultures, or their faiths. They are suddenly more adept at expressing outrage and grievance, which when well facilitated in a group discussion can lead to very productive discussions of just what they are facing. For example, no longer little kids, but not yet high schoolers, what does it feel like to be their age? They can also respond well to evaluative prompts that can help improve classroom practices such as: what was the best part of our week, and what was the worst?
- Play games: while there are stronger physical skills in middle school, maintaining productive order and focus are the bigger challenges, and a new reticence to participate may be present for some. But lots of low risk games fit the bill. One example is Railroad Tracks: two long ropes parallel to each other with students lined up in the middle. Each student, one by one, calls out a set of opposites – sweet or sour, day or night, cat or dog. Students jump over the left rope if they prefer the first one, or over the right if they prefer the second. Everyone looks around and gets to know their classmates while blowing off physical steam. Look here for more resources.
- Community agreements: With deep social concerns, middle schoolers are inclined to think quite harshly about rules and norms. Given the opportunity to develop classroom norms for themselves, they usually embrace the task. Questions might be: how can we ensure that everyone in class is included in discussions? How will we handle unwelcome behavior in this classroom? In what ways will we celebrate our successes in class? Developing a blueprint for agreed upon classroom norms allows both teacher and students to refer back when reminders of the norms are needed. Often called Classroom Charters, examples show great variety at the middle school level.
- Tell about yourself: by high school, young people are thinking more abstractly and more consistently about who they are and how they do and will fit into the world. This allows for much more complex and self-aware discussions in the classroom about goals for self, community, and the world, worries about the future, and the types of planning and preparation that will lead to the most productive results. Questions abound: what makes a leader? Who gets to make the important decisions and why? How do I begin to separate from my family and still feel safe? What gets in the way of good friendship choices? What self-care can I maintain in order to shore up my mental health? How do I support a friend in crisis? What is it that I think I want to accomplish with my life?
- Play games: with larger bodies, these can be challenging in smaller classrooms. One example is a game called Snowball Toss: without giving their names, students write one of their major stressors on a piece of paper, crumple it up, gather in a circle, and throw their paper balls in a mock snowball fight. After the throwing part, each student picks up a snowball and reads it aloud. A short conversation on managing that particular stress–or, commiserating about it– follows the reading of each snowball. This game and others can be found here. Obviously, as students grow, so too does the seriousness of their stressors, so careful facilitation will be necessary depending on what kind of challenges are shared in games like this.
- Community agreements: High schoolers are well able to articulate and appreciate rules and regulations, however much they wish to rebel against them. Establishing norms for classroom behavior, interpersonal respect, physical property, and safety are critical, and must be co-generated in the classroom to be truly useful. Doing so gives power and authority to young people, autonomy and influence not generally available to adolescents. It is therefore quite powerful if they are invited to lead the creation of such agreements and adults chime in only as needed. A written, living document on how we can and should interact interpersonally can become a great point of reference over the remainder of the year. For some expansion of these ideas, look here.
The new year does offer a restart, a time to think through resolutions to make for a productive year to come. Take the time without academic pressures to accomplish an integrated reset, and start the new year with reinvigorated relationships and community engagement. It will pay dividends many times over during the remainder of the year.