Please visit
for new posts


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Being caught off guard

At the school where I was principal we used an approach to self regulation based on the work of Mark Ylvisaker.  We would use simple concept word pairs with students to help them more accurately understand social situations.  We found that many of the 'innappropriate" behaviors that students demonstrated were often the result of misinterpreting social situations.  This level of social/emotional learning went beyond just acquiring social skills-it was the receptive side of social navigation.  Mis-identifying a situation can often trigger an emotional response which then leads to words or actions.  Many kids who typically get in "trouble" often misinterpret situations that trigger emotional reactions  without thinking.  (This is one reason why traditional reward and consequence discipline is so ineffective.)  When we started working with self regulation we focused on a few key concept pairs: big deal/little deal; ready/not ready; hard/easy; choice/no choice.  We thought that if kids were better at interpreting social situations they would be better at regulating how they responded to them.

The great thing about this approach was that it wasn't a program; there wasn't anything that a teacher had to learn or implement.  We simply asked teachers that since they had to talk to kids anyway that they "play with" with these pairs when they talked to kids about things happening in school.  For example, before the kids lined up to go to lunch, the teacher would say something like: "sometimes kids get angry if someone budges in line ahead of them-that really is no big deal; it is a little deal because no one is getting hurt.  When that happens here are some things you can do and if you do that it usually turns out ok."  There was no expectation for the kids to use these pairs, but we found that as more and more of our teachers used these pairs to either prepare kids ahead of time for situations or use them afterwards to process a problem, that the kids started to use these pairs also.  We had such great success with this approach, that we started to develop new concept pairs in response to common problems that the teachers said that kids were having.  It was amazing that as we started to look at typical social problems, there was almost always some misunderstanding of the situation that was a root cause of the problem.

The most amazing discovery I recall was dealing with a kindergarten problem of kids not sharing toys or materials.  We typically tell kids they need to share and model and coach them to share.  We try to explain why sharing a good thing.  All of those approaches are fine and work for some kids but not all of them.  What we started doing in analyzing these problems was actually acting out a typical problem situation.  When we acted out a typical "not sharing" situation we made our discovery.  It was so simple that it was too hard to see,  because we as adults often take many social perceptions for granted.

Here is how a typical sharing problem would go:  a student is alone at a table playing with some legos and everything is going fine-all is right with the world; another student comes by and wants to play and attempts to take some legos and a conflict occurs.  When we looked at the situation from the first child's perspective having all the legos presented no problems.  When another student entered the situation that student changed the situation--we said it went from a ME to a WE situation.  A ME situation is when  someone is alone and a WE situation is when there is another person. What we discovered was that the problem wasn't that the first child was selfish but rather he/she didn't realize that when another person enters the situation the meaning of the situation changes.  It seems so simple but to a young child this shift doesn't automatically happen.  All the child sees is that this wonderful ME situation is being ruined by someone else and he/she reacts negatively to any attempt to ruin it.

What we did was demonstrate this typical scenario to kids.  We, as adults, would role play a ME situation turning into a WE situation and we would think out loud about it.  One adult would role play the single child playing and would think out loud, "I am having a good time playing by myself-this is a ME situation.  When it is a ME situation I can use all the toys because I am by myself."  Another adult would enter the situation and the internal talk of the first child would be. "I was by myself so it was a ME situation.  Now someone else is here and when there is someone else it changes to a WE situation. In a WE situation more than one can play with the toys."  Once kids had the words ME and WE to differentiate social situations sharing made more sense to them. They made this mental shift and then their behavior usually followed.

What was most interesting  and telling to me was the rapt attention kids would pay to these scenarios and the excitement many of them would have when they discovered that were "words" they could use to describe social situations. Kids are hungry for making sense out of the world so when we slow down and help them they pay very close attention. (This is my interpretation for why Mr. Rogers was so popular with kids but boring to adults.)  We forget as adults that social situations appear and disappear rapidly therefore they are hard to interpret with words.  Objects are much easier since they can stay visible. Once kids had the right words to understand the situations they often found themselves in, their behavior changed dramatically.  They still  misinterpreted and often acted inappropriately, but we also found that they learned from their mistakes because they had the social language to reflect on what happened to them. 

This basic realization of the value and importance of understanding social situations affected my approach to bullying prevention.  Bullying prevention should be viewed in the greater context of  helping kids understand and respond to the more sophisticated social situations. When kids are caught off guard they tend to either freeze or just go along with what everyone else is doing. Being caught off guard happens more easily when kids don't have the words to interpret the situation they are in.  We take too much for granted when it comes to what and how kids understand and interpret what is happening to them.  We need to think out loud and talk about these social situations with kids before they find themselves in them.  When kids better understand and can more easily interpret what is happening to them, they can then make better decisions based upon their feelings of empathy that are within them. 

No comments: