Whole Child Initiative, Whole Community, Whole Brain... Whole Confusion! As educators, we have read the research on brain science, we have seen that addressing only the academic needs of students isn't enough, and we have attended all the [virtual] conferences on why we need to consider more than simply a child's IQ or test scores when supporting them. But what do we do now?? Educators at all levels are asking for practical applications of what they've heard their students need. Here are a few reactive strategies from my upcoming book "The Whole Child School," an extremely short read that focuses on the application of research, rather than getting lost in the weeds.
1. Motion Potion
Anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes around young people knows that they need to move like we need air to breathe. And this need doesn’t suddenly go away when they are talking to an adult. So look for any way you can to give them the physical space they need in order to move. If possible, when it’s necessary to have a difficult conversation with a student, take a walk with them as you talk. Walking outside can be especially helpful, but ask them what they would prefer first. For some students the additional sights and sounds and feeling the air would be supportive, while others would experience too much stimulation.
Whether inside or outside, it’s important to be aware of where you are headed and have a route in mind, while making it seem nonchalant at each turn. If you come to an intersection and have to pause or interrupt the conversation to decide which way to go, then the walk becomes a hindrance to conversation and connection rather than supporting it. For younger students you can incorporate movement walls, floors, or hallways throughout the school. There are large floor and wall stickers that you can purchase or you can make it a project for students and teachers to work on. Large footprints, lily pads, handprints, hopscotch, sensory walls, wind chimes, walking mazes and finger mazes are some ways you can customize hallways, walls & sidewalks in order to be set up to incorporate them into your walk & talk. For older students, if there is a courtyard or garden area or a hallway in the building where art is displayed, these additional visual stimuli can help them to stay in their thinking brain.
While walking is a terrific method of implementing the motion potion, it is not the only way to incorporate movement. For younger students drawing, coloring, building with blocks, and throwing or kicking a ball or frisbee are all ways to get a student’s body moving. For older students, you can have fidgets out for them to grab, or chairs that swivel or rock. These simple adjustments will pay significant dividends as you reap the numerous benefits of movement throughout the conversation.
Unless you have already established a pattern with a student and have seen it work, it is usually a good idea to stay away from activities that require a significant amount of thinking or focus, such as brain teasers, puzzlers, or strategy games (like chess). These will often create either too much of a distraction for students, or it will cause them additional frustration. It is also usually wise to not engage in activities that will get them too excited or laughing. This is especially trur for young children, who will probably not be able to move past something that excites them or makes them laugh in order to have a conversation. Keep in mind, movement in itself is not the end goal. Rather, the goal is to create an environment in which the student will talk more openly, begin to practice reflective thinking, and build a connection.
2. Connection or correction?
In my experience, as I have been walking or building or drawing, and the conversation starts to move to the topic we really need to discuss (which may take some time, depending on how much trust I’ve established), it has always been a tremendous temptation to begin one of my favorite pastimes: dispensing helpful advice and correction. I can’t help it! I’m a true teacher at heart, and when I have the chance to teach, I want to jump all over it. However, just like adults, students must feel connected to someone before they will be prepared to learn from them. We must build a connection before we give out correction.
One of the best ways to establish a connection with a student is to develop a genuine interest in anything they want to talk about. My fear in suggesting this strategy is that you might have read that last sentence and understood it to mean that you should pretend to be interested in what they want to talk about, or that you should be genuinely interested in some things and try to steer the conversation in that direction. But that isn’t going to cut it, because students have an uncanny ability to detect false interest and they rarely stay engaged in a conversation when they aren’t interested in the topic.
So we must work at it. First of all, when you start to feel the pull to disengage from a conversation, or the temptation rises up to fake interest as a student tells you a story, give yourself some grace. We all struggle to stay interested at times. It’s completely natural. As you are gracing yourself, take a couple seconds to think about why you chose this work. Think about why you care for this particular student, and let that drive your interest in their story. If all else fails, consider why this student might need you to show them individual attention and genuine interest in what they have to say. Hold that in your mind as motivation to keep leaning in to the difficulty and not running from it. As you work to stay focused on what they're saying, ask follow up questions to show interest and share your thoughts about what they say when appropriate. You might be surprised at what you can get interested in when you start asking questions.
Another method for establishing connection as they are opening up is to show empathy. Be careful here not to confuse sympathy with empathy. Sympathy is “I feel sorry for you,” while empathy is “I feel sorry with you.” One way we can do this with a young person is to recognize what they are feeling and saying it out loud to them. “It sounds like you are feeling sad/hurt/frustrated/angry/confused by what happened. Is that right?” This is an especially powerful way to show empathy when coupled with a comment such as “That makes sense to feel that way. It’s hard to know what to do with how we’re feeling sometimes, isn't it?” This may seem too simple, and I want to be clear here that it isn’t a magic bullet. Nonetheless, recognizing what they’re feeling and validating it will display empathy and this will establish or at least begin to establish a connection with them.
Another big part of showing empathy is perspective taking: I see what you are feeling, and I can connect with that same feeling in myself. This will also take the form of comments or statements after they have shared. "Yeah, getting my feelings hurt by a friend is really hard. I hate that feeling." "Oh my gosh, yes. I have been angry like that, too. I get so stuck there sometimes! I have to work really hard not to do or say hurtful things when I feel that way." By taking this step to be vulnerable with your own experience of those emotions (not making the conversation about you, but simply sharing the commonality), you will be showing the student empathy. Through this process, you will be able to establish a connection with students, and ultimately this will enable them to continue to talk openly as difficult conversations or situations arise in the future.