Schools across the country are finding that they have fewer discipline problems with responsive learning techniques used to diffuse conflict and difficult situations.
Four months after Stewartsville Elementary Principal Susan Mele started at the school in 2010, a student came to her after being hit by another child.
She asked who it was, but the child didn’t know the other student’s name.
“As other children were referred to me for various things, I was asking that question over and over again. ‘Who is it? Do you know the names of all the boys and girls in your class?’ The answer was generally ‘no,’ ” Mele said.
Those incidents accumulated into many of the 164 discipline referrals and 40 suspensions throughout the 2010-11 school year, leaving Mele little time to be an instructional leader as she had intended.
After attending a week-long seminar that summer, she found a solution — responsive learning. The method melds traditional academic learning with a more social classroom setting that, she and the guidance counselor learned, fosters better relationships between classmates.
“Research will tell you that if you don’t know somebody you are more likely to bully them. … I just thought, ‘we need to get these kids to know one another.’ ”
The school implemented an in-class, 20-minute morning meeting every day at the start of the next school year. During the meeting, students greet each other and share whatever is on their minds.
“Kids will share about their grandma’s died or that their cat has died, or they got a new cat or they’re moving, or dad’s gone to Afghanistan. … Then the other children in the group get to ask questions or make comments,” she said.
Following the meeting, the students participate in an activity related to their schoolwork.
For example, one teacher passed out blue index cards with a present tense verb on it and red index cards with a past tense verb. The students had to find their match.
“In doing that, they had to talk to one another and they had to interact, which again builds that relationship with kids,” Mele said.
Following the activity, the teacher gives a morning message, which could be talking about a day-specific topic, like Groundhog Day, or an issue, such as a problem on the playground and how to fix it.
For the 2011-12 school year, discipline referrals dropped by more than half to 76, and suspensions to 22.
The next step, initiated in 2012, focuses on the teachers’ language, “the power of our words,” along with a method called interactive modeling that shows students how to accomplish a task by giving detailed instructions.
“We really looked at the way we talked to kids and how we could get them to do things,” Mele said.
She said the goal has been to teach them how to form a community.
“When we say we’re dependable, what does that look like. When we say we’re responsible, what does that look like,” Mele said. “We’re not coming to school just to read and to write and to learn to do math, we’re learning all these other things. We’re learning how to treat people, and we’re learning how to respond when we’re upset.”
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