Kids today are wired differently: Ask any veteran teacher who has been around for over twenty years, they will all say the same. “Teaching today is much more demanding than ever; kids today present a challenge like we have never seen before”. This change could present stress within the classroom. In fact, according to the NEA, the largest teacher union in America, “93 percent of elementary school teachers report that they are experiencing a high stress level” due to the demands associated with teaching. The study was recently published in the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions [NEA, May 2018]. Yes, children are much different today. So is the world we live in. As a result, today’s classroom needs to also reflect something much different as well.
As a Behavior Specialist, working in K-8th grade classrooms, we tend to see patterns related to the challenges and demands our teachers face every day. It’s intense. However, there are strategies which minimize the frequency and the duration of the challenging behaviors:
On one hand, we know that certain practices tend to support higher levels of self-regulation, engagement, and achievement, and lower disciplinary referrals compared to traditional methods. Simply stated, classrooms which feature the following strategies at the core, the Four Rs: Relationship, Regulation, Relevance, and Resilience, enhance student engagement.
Relationship: Due to the nature of the human condition, the need to belong is hard-wired within each one of us. However, within the context of trauma, emotional instability, drug use, stress across all social demographic groups, and a wide range of other factors creating intensive “fight, flight, or freeze” responses among our youth, many of our 21st century students present social-emotional needs at the core where the need to feel connected takes precedent over learning first and foremost. From my perspective, classrooms which every day reflect relationship as the number one component of the student-teacher experience, also demonstrate the highest levels of task engagement, work completion, and collaborative behaviors. Activities such as daily “Check & Connect”, warm greetings at the door, class meetings, and the act of being present, by prioritizing relationship over task, are examples of relationship-building which make a huge difference.
Regulation: In addition to the relationship platform, 21st century students respond well to regulation, structure, and thrive within the context of predictability and order. Sometimes people misinterpret this need. It’s not about “control” or “managing” our students through classroom routines and organization. It’s more about creating a calming learning environment based upon well understood rules, consequences, organization, and structures which allow our students to know where they stand within our classrooms. Due to the speed by which life accelerates, many children have no sense of a regulated lifestyle, especially, when bedtimes, dinner times, and family structures in general are in a constant state of disarray with a constant rotation of the moving parts. Imagine how impossible it may be for our students to develop self-regulation skills when life resembles a three-ring circus. So the most effective classrooms I visit are those where I see consistently enforced rules, clear consequences, mindfully cared for organization, and a general sense of calm due to order.
Relevance: Furthermore, as the classroom presents self-regulation, the most engaging classrooms offer their students novelty within the tasks, interest-based activities, and project-based learning. Relevance rules the roost when it comes to maximizing student participation. Since students today have technology at their fingertips and have been re-wired toward high interest activities, our classrooms need to shift from a compliance format of yesteryear to a meaning-centered approach to learning. If there is no connection to the task-at-hand, then, a high percentage of students will demonstrate disengagement. The most engaging classrooms today are founded upon creative lessons, innovative ideas, and project a sense that learning is fun and should be meaningful. This is not easy for all teachers for some are still working with the notion that our role is not to “entertain the students but we are here to teach”. I am not proposing turning our classrooms into Disneyland; however, I do believe our society is seeing a transformation toward a purpose-centered approach in all areas of learning including the importance of capturing the audience through their interests, passions, social connections, and project-based approaches. We see this through marketing strategies in advertising, within the employment sector, and throughout higher education career-oriented programming.
Resilience: Finally, our intention is to teach students through the resilience model. Ideally, as life continues to reflect change and transformation at lightening speed, those who are most resilient toward the ups and downs of their experience, will be most successful later on along this path. For the ability to handle adversity, as it presents itself in the modern world, will likely serve as the foundation for strength and perseverance. As a result, our classrooms need to reflect two critical components within this context:
- MODELING: Our students watch us carefully. And respond to our emotions. So it’s critical that our teachers work from the perspective of “response” rather than “reaction” for the responsive self presents a much better version of ourselves in contrast to the reactive self. As a result, since our students are influenced by our behaviors, actions, and emotional responses, its in everyone’s best interest for our teachers to work from a resilience – mindfulness model. Most notably, as our students bring to the classroom the struggles and challenges associated with modern living in the 21st century, our ability to respond with compassion, kindness, love, and understanding will yield the best results in all situations. For these critical attributes will serve as the by-product of our own personal resilience.
- SOCIAL EMOTIONAL LEARNING CURRICULUM: Due to the complexity of life, many of our students have been impacted by stress in all of its forms; frequently, we call these events traumatic. Some of our children have lived every day of their life on the “amygdala hijack”, where every moment is a matter of “flight, flight, or freeze”. So it’s imperative that our classrooms not only reflect calm and peace, but we also would serve our students best by teaching Social Emotional skills so important in today’s world. By almost every leading source reflecting a vision of tomorrow and future employment, each says the same thing: “The soft skills of today [social emotional learning] will be the hard skills of tomorrow”.
- DE-ESCALATION versus ESCALATION: As FIRST RESPONDERS, our ability to handle life’s challenges and struggles, which come through our classroom doors, is a major part of the teaching experience. Most notably, we are called upon to serve as FIRST RESPONDERS, not instructional teachers alone for the needs of our students, especially through the lens of trauma sensitivity and the need for belonging, has reached epidemic proportions. It’s intense. So our own resilience, our ability to handle whatever our students present everyday, serves as our platform. And by seeing ourselves from this lens, we are able to shift from ESCALATION to DEESCALATION. Whether it be ourselves or our students.
On the other hand …
Overall, we do observe higher levels of disreguation among students everywhere and it is not specific to certain schools, social – demographics, or regions; it’s epidemic! As stress levels increase throughout our society, we see this impact upon our schools. However, classrooms, which are guided by teaching methods, relying on compliance and punitive disciplinary practices, are prone to experience this impact at a much higher level of discourse. In these settings, we often see higher numbers of disciplinary referrals as well as lower levels of engagement and achievement. Often these classrooms are founded upon traditional set of values and beliefs including: a curriculum-first priority (“We are here to teach the standards”), a punitive approach toward discipline (cause and effect)), and a compliance based approach toward learning and class management.
So the work I do as a Behavior Specialist highlights guiding teachers toward the Four Rs mindset through training, observation, reinforcement, and affirmation. This can be easier when working with teachers who are already on this path; even though our students are never easy. Then again, I spend hours assuring those who are working from the compliance-based model, that their jobs would be so much easier when they make the shift to the “Four Rs”; founded upon Relationship, Regulation, Relevance, and Resilience. However, change is a complex process. And within the context of the human condition, sometimes, the notion of change presents one of life’s greatest hurdles: As we transform the educational system toward a 21st century framework, understanding is essential.
The intent of this writing is to help. That’ s why I see this as a “must read” for we are all in this together. For teachers and parents need to work in partnership for we all are faced with the same challenge: Supporting our children through this transition as society shifts from outdated 20th century models to new approaches of the 21st century: Life is moving fast. So by calling out “what works”, I don’t see the point in watching schools struggle with a lack of clarity and focus moving forward when things are moving so quickly. Honestly, I envision this partnership unfolding as we all transform our lives toward better relationships and more meaningful connections. I can assure you: The Four Rs make a difference!
Best to you all on this path. And if this resonates, please feel to stay in touch!
Happy New Year!