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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

To See Ourselves as Others See Us

One of my first realizations after starting the Peaceful School Bus program was how easy it is for educators to forget that what we don’t do or say has an impact on students. It was only after starting to invite bus drivers into the school building did I realize how it important it was to have students see drivers and teachers communicating with each other. We may think that students know that all adults connected to the school work together, but for students seeing is believing. Similarly, if students don’t see bus drivers and teachers talking together, they might think that what happens on the bus never “makes” it back to the school building: what happens on the bus stays on the bus.

How we spend our time also sends students a message. If little or no time is invested within the school building to what happens on the bus, students will think that what happens on the bus matters very little to the people in the school. If students think that what happens on the bus doesn’t matter to the people in the building they will automatically assume that the people in the school don’t want to hear about what is happening on the bus. Part of the reasons why the Peaceful School Bus has been successful is that it contradicts in a tangible way these mistaken, implicit assumptions that students often make about the relationship between the school and the bus.

Another important unintended positive consequence of the Peaceful School Bus was how it changed how bus drivers viewed the school principal and the school itself. After the program was established, I noticed that bus drivers were more likely to show up a few minutes before dismissal and ask to speak with me. I always welcomed these visits because the drivers alerted me to problems on the bus that had not escalated into serious problems. Upon reflection, I realized how easy it was for bus drivers to look at a school principal and think, “He/she is probably too busy to hear about what is happening on my bus.” I realized that it is not easy to approach someone who appears very busy and strapped for time (as most principals appear to be). If I were a driver, I would want to make sure that whatever I had to share would be welcomed. If a driver thought there was a chance of being perceived as not being able to handle problems, that driver would not “take the risk” of approaching a principal (someone viewed as having a higher status).

I also thought about how someone responds to problems when he/she feels supported as opposed to not feeling supported.  If I feel unsupported or alone in facing a difficult problem, I tend to be more anxious and tense as the problem arises.  The more and anxious I am the less likely I am to make a calm and reasonable decision in response to the problem.  The more anxious and tense I am the less likely I am to have access a greater range of responses and instead rely on a very limited array of responses.  A bus driver who feels that he or she has to solve the problem alone might react in a way that will make the problem worse or rely solely on writing up  a behavior referral.   A driver who feels supported (has back-up) from people in the school, is more likely to stay calmer in the face of the problem and therefore probably make better decisions.  Sometimes just knowing you have back-up, means you are less likely to have to use it.  Educators in the school need to go out of their way to let bus drivers know that they have their support and are ready to lend it.

As idea ( I never used as principal, but wish I did)  is having the principal give each driver a permanent invitation card at the start of each school year. The card would state unequivocally that he/she welcomes their input and ideas about what is happening on the bus. It could even state that although the principal might appear too busy, he/she will find a way to make time for bus drivers.

Trust is such a powerful force within any community because it opens up lines of communication. When people communicate they can solve problems together in new and creative ways. People working together in trusting relationships are much more effective than any attempt to solve a problem just through rules and consequences. The true power of the Peaceful School Bus comes as much from the gesture of doing it than from what happens during the PSB activities.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Power of Stories

When my kids were young, I developed a set of "Billy" or "Susie" stories that I would tell them at bedtime.  I was not an imaginative story teller but I was able to tell these stories because they were based on the problems and issues that my kids were having at the time.  "Billy" and "Susie" were  pretend characters who coincidentally were having the same problems that my kids were having.  These stories were my way of getting them to reflect on their problems without them becoming defensive or feeling criticized.  Ironically, they were usually very able to offer pretty sound advice to  Billy or Susie on how to best resolve their problems.  (Some of you might be familiar with the Bernstein Bears series which were a popular, published version of  these types of stories.)

We all listen better and reflect more when we are not on the spot.  Even though we know this, how many times do we end up lecturing students after they have made a mistake or messed up.  I like the analogy of receiving a speeding ticket.  When we are caught speeding and are pulled over, our first reaction can often be to deny we were speeding.  This feeling is followed by a "why me"because everyone else was doing it.  These feelings push us away from the truth-we were speeding.  When these excuses don't work and we accept the fact that we were speeding, the LAST thing we want is the police lecturing us on why speeding is wrong and irresponsibile.  When we are on the spot, we don't  feel very open to the "helpful' advice the  person is giving us.  I know that would want the police to give me the ticket without comment or lecture.  I have plenty of time afterward to think about what I did and what can do to prevent speeding again.  If the police are mean, however, I will spend less time thinking about how I need to change and more time thinking about how they should change.

Kids are no different than we are when it comes to how reacting to being caught.  If we want them to learn from their mistakes, we need to think about how we can use stories to better deliver our message.  Better yet is getting them to think about it before they actually make the mistake. 

At our school, as part of our bullying prevention approach, we created an ongoing story concerning a group of kids trying to get along on a playground.  A group of teachers volunteered to play the role of kids and would act out scenarios typical of the type of problems kids had on the playground.  After presenting the skit to the students, the teachers would ask the students to pick one of the characters and write a letter to the character offering some advice on how they could have handled their problems.  We got great and insightful letters that we later on shared with all the students.  We had kids giving advice to kids based upon them watching a scenario where they were not on the spot. 

I extended this idea to the Peaceful School Bus with a story entitled, "What's Going On Here" (p. 69 in the Peaceful School Bus manual).  This was a story about the chronic problem of the older students wanting to sit in the back of the bus.  I made the story into picture book where I videotaped the pictures and provided narration to the story.  There were guide questions for the team leaders to use with the students to discuss the story afterward. 

I have mentioned the book Switch in previous posts.  I currently reading another book similar to Switch, entitled, Influencer.  Both books emphasize over and over the power of stories to change people's hearts amd minds.   I have also read several books on how to deliver effective presentations and stories again are mentioned as prominent ways to connect to the audience.  I think that if every teacher took even 5-10 minutes a month to tell students a story from their lives about how they dealt with a social, interpersonal problem, we would be letting kids know that we care about them and empathize with the challenges they face every day.  This should make them more likely to share with us when they are experiencing a challenging situation and need our help or advice.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Baby Steps Will Take You Far

I participated in a program called Tiny Habits ( that was part of a research project by Dr. BJ Fogg who works at Stanford University.  I was asked to pick three very small changes I wanted to make in my daily habits.  The changes had to be very, very small.  An example given in the project was flossing teeth.  Dr. Fogg said his change was to floss one tooth only.  This was a very deliberate strategy because the smaller the change the more likely we are to do it.  Our perception of the change strongly influences our behavior.  We automatically resist anything that is too big or requires too much work or willpower.  The change has to require zero will power.  The next part of the strategy was to anchor it to a habit already firmly established and to do it immediately after the established habit.  He flossed his tooth immediately after he brushed his tooth.  The rest of the program consisted of receiving daily  emails from him checking to see how I did with the change and reminding me to  recognize/celebrate the progress I made. I have continued two of the three tiny habits I that I selected.  I admit that these now happen almost automatically without any effort on my part.

I think that there is a lesson to be learned from this strategy of change.  In schools today too many of changes initiatives fail miserably because people in leadership/authority don't understand the basics of the change process.
The first mistake is that  the change is imposed from above so they people who are expected to change have little or no choice about what they they want or need to change.  (This is sad because a skillful leader usually finds that the choice people make for themselves is very often consistent with the change they would like to see.)

The second mistake is that the change is too big-people feel overwhelmed by what they think is expected of them.

The third mistake is not linking it to the positive habits already happening in the school.  The change is usually perceived as a criticism of previous efforts.

The final mistake is to rely the potential consequences of not making the change as what would motivate people to change.

Schools would make a lot more progress in any area,  if they applied the principles of tiny habits.  I thought of three questions that a school leader could ask their staff at the start of the year:

What was one thing you did last school year that helped improve our school?
What is one thing that you are willing to try this year to improve our school?
What is one thing you think would be reasonable to ask everyone to try this year to make our school a better place?

Staff could share their answers and then come to some agreement on a collective goal.  They could then check in with each other on how they are doing throughout the year.  For example,  I have often thought that if everyone staff person made a commitment to saying "please" and "thank you" as part of their directions to students, that the climate of the school would significantly improve.

 As Michael Fullan succinctly stated: "Think big, but start small".  Schools would do well to follow that advice.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Power of Posters

"...but clearly the most important factor (in getting students to be good bystanders) is the influence of other students, specifically what children think their friends expect them to do." -Ken Rigby

This quotation from the book, Children and Bullying by Ken Rigby, reflects the empirical results of a study entitled: Using social norms to reduce bullying

This study hypothesized that students overestimated the amount of bullying occurring in their schools and underestimated the amount of disapproval of it by their peers.  Given the developmental need to act in accord with peer expectations, students either would bully or refrain from intervening because acting this way was consistent with what they perceived to be the social norms of the school.  If their perceptions of both the amount of bullying and the level of approval for it  changed, then they might change their response to bullying.  The researchers decided to survey students to determine the gap between their perceptions of bullying and actual amount of bullying and approval of it among the student population. They found that there was much less bullying and much less approval of it than the students thought. Their intervention was simply to share the accurate percentages of bullying and approval of bullying by publicizing the "truth"  in posters spread throughout the school.  What they did was pretty simple: give students the facts and facts were that most of them were responsible and caring people.

Compare that approach with the scare tactics that schools often resort to by bringing law enforcement officials in school to talk to students.  In fact when it comes to cyber bullying, many of our messages about it often inflate students' inaccurate perceptions of it.   The results of the study were pretty impressive given the minimal amount of intervention it involved.  The amount of bullying was reduced by up to 35 % in the schools were the posters had the greatest exposure over time.  Just think of what could happen if students themselves were involved in analyzing the data from the surveys and making the posters that showed the accurate percentages.

This finding also shows the power of being positive when trying to change behavior and attitudes.  The Heath brothers in their book, Switch, refer to this as finding the bright spots.  Students live up or down to our expectations of them-we get what we expect.  When we focus on rule breaking and our fear of it  instead of the inherent empathy that most students have we are inadvertently exacerbating the problem of bullying.

In fact in New York state with the passage of Dignity for All Act, the focus of most principals is how to investigate, document and apply appropriate consequences in response to acts of bullying. There is a great fear of being out of compliance if they don't follow the right procedures.  There is nothing wrong with the new law and having incidences of bullying appropriately investigated and documented, however, schools might forget the importance of preventing bullying because they are too worried about what to do after it happens.  With the best of intentions, sometimes laws, policies and regulations point our time and energy in the wrong the direction.

I have a better idea-let educators be educators.  Let our task be helping kids realize that they are not the problem but rather the solution.  That no one is to blame but we are all responsible for caring for every member of the community.  We need to act out of our hope and belief in our students rather than out of fear and anxiety.  As this research demonstrated, taking the time to find the "true story" (most kids really care) and sharing it with students can have very positive impact on a school culture.

Here is an example of one of the posters used in the research:

      Tuesday, September 4, 2012

      The Universal Solution

      Following my caveats about the dangers of looking for a  program that could  solve the problem of bullying in schools, I do dare to offer one solution that I have never known to fail; it can work effectively from kindergarten to twelve grade regardless of the nature of the problem.  Here it is: share whatever the problem is with the people whom the problem impacts.  Involve them in understanding it and addressing it.

      Here are two examples: 

      There was a teacher who used recess as leverage to get students to do their homework and this approach "worked" for him for many years.  If a student didn't do homework or was behind in getting work done in school, he/she would forfeit recess time to get it done.  This worked until he had a parent challenge him asserting that recess/physical activity was a not privilege but a necessity.  This teacher asked me for some advice on how to resolve this dilemma.  I recommended that he share this problem (without using the names of the individuals involved) with his students.  This sharing could mean having them read newspaper stories about the research on physical exercise.  He could also share the legitimate need he had in holding students accountable for their work.  In a structured and planned way he put the "problem" back on them, asking them for their advice for how to resolve it.  A few days later he came to me with the solution the students ALL agreed to: there would be a certain amount of time guaranteed every day for recess for all students plus there would be an additional 10 minutes that was not guaranteed but could be earned by completing all required work.  This was the class's solution and it worked for him also.  He could also be sure that the students would most likely abide by it since it was their solution not just his.

      There was another first year teacher who was having a very successful school year with his students, but sometime in May realized he had forgotten a science unit that involved a kit that the class only had access to for a set period of time.  He realized that it would be very difficult to "fit this into" the typical school schedule that he had already established and had followed for the year.  He took this problem to his class and accepted responsibility for not planning the year with this unit in mind.  He asked for their help.  The students were unanimous in agreeing to voluntarily give up some of their recess every day for the length of the unit in order to find the extra time.

        I once a teacher ask me what to do with the inherent tension between raising test scores and finding time for students to think more reflectively.  I didn't have an answer but recommend that he pose that problem to his students.  If it was hard for him, why not give his students a chance to wrestle with the problem. It is difficult to think of a situation where this sharing, when carefully and skillfully presented, would not work.

      I recall an quotation from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (I never read the whole book but I do recall this line): "Truth comes knocking at our door and we answer it saying "Go away, I am too busy looking for the truth."  Learning to solve life's problems requires reflection, thinking, talking, sharing and interacting with others.  The problems that happen every day in the life of classroom could and should be the focus of thinking, reading, writing.  They are not distractions from learning if we  embrace them rather than view them as distractions or extraneous events.  The meaning and relevance so important for engaging students is really right under our noses living in their social interactions and the inevitable conflicts and issues that occur every day. As John Dewey so aptly said, "... the very process of living together educates". 

      So if we truly want to "solve" the problem of bullying, let's humbly, genuinely, and thoughtfully ask our students what they think about it and what they think could be done about it.  If we follow that lead, we will be heading in the right direction.  There is a lot to learn  when we ask the right question and truly listen.