It would be an oversimplification to point fingers at any one issue for being the cause of gun violence infiltrating our schools.
At the heart of the issues, we have failed our children as a society. From government level all the way to our schools, students have slipped through the cracks. Their safety, both physically and emotionally, has taken a backseat, and people are getting hurt. In part 3 of It’s Time for Change, we will be focusing on the schools and community, and how we can better support our students.
As I spend time speaking with school teachers, counselors, behavior specialists, and administrators, I keep hearing the same word comes up: “silos”. Within our schools, there exists a series of “silos” that make up each classroom and office. In these silos, amazing and important work is being done, but they operate largely independent of one another. When a single silo sees issues or red flags, even if they report the problem to others, the burden often lands on that reporting individual to fix it, or in the case of student behavior issues, send their student into someone else’s silo as a punishment (in my next article, we will be re-examining punishment within schools).
The main problem with the silo approach is clear: there is far too much space between the silos.
Of course, I am not referring to the physical space between each silo, but instead, the fact that lessons learned in one silo don’t impact a student’s experience in the next. These silos are run uniquely independently, leaving little room to evolve for the student’s needs. Imagine if you went to a different doctor each year for your medical check-up, and the only information your latest doctor received from the last doctor was information telling them that you were in relatively good health, saying nothing of your health history or past issues. This would be unacceptable, and quite frankly, lead to much more sickness and death. Instead, doctors gather extensive information from all previous doctors on your medical history, to make the best plan moving forward. Schools need to begin to operate in a similar fashion.
I recommend a significant change, where we demolish these silos and replace them with a web of support. This, of course, will require the change and support of many individuals. Below I’ve proposed what each of those roles could look like.
Leaders (namely principals and supervisors) work tirelessly to form the direction that a school will move towards. They create a vision for the future, while simultaneously implementing plans for the present to deal with the ever-rising issues at a school. Leaders also, whether they like it or not, set the tone for what the climate of a school is going to be like. Leaders that support, listen to, and educate their staff, will create a staff that support, listen to, and educate their students. Leaders who greet students with a smile each morning, and sit next to them at lunch each day, will create student body who recognizes that not all adults are scary, thus softening the power-differential that exists between a student and principal.
Leaders also need the possess the willingness to attempt big change. As we recognize that things are not working, there may significant changes that need to occur. This can be changing the schedule of the day, adding specific furniture or even rooms to the buildings, purchasing supporting staff or even supporting animals. None of these things can happen overnight, but there is significant need to restructure some of their vision for the future, to begin implementing new and innovative ways to reach students down the line. The one clear truth is that continuing down the current path is not getting us anywhere.
Some of the best education a teacher can receive is the experiences of the other teachers in the building. Teachers are among the most creative people on this planet – from creating lesson plans and bulletin boards to creating behavioral responses and class expectations, they are working with some of the most challenging humans and finding ways to engage them. More often than not, the answer to the difficult scenario you find yourself in can be discovered by the teacher next door. The obstacle for the teachers to connect this way is, of course, time. Are we making a priority of allowing time for teachers to speak to one another, observe one another, and learn from one another? Suddenly, you might notice that this web now connects back to the Leadership, who have the power to make such time a priority and a reality.
Beyond having time to share ideas and lesson plans, time should be dedicated to discussing specific students and behaviors they are struggling with. Typically, students have at least one teacher in the school who they are connected to, and through that teacher, you too may learn the necessary tricks to help a student feel connected. When a student feels safe and connected at school, not only will they be more likely to come to school, their desire to be successful there will be strengthened. The more people who play that role, the more likely a child will have a positive perspective towards school, their classmates, and their future.
One of my favorite activities is to name every student on a post-it note in the staff lounge (or anywhere that the staff have access to, and the students do not) and over the course of the week, have staff remove the names of students they feel they have a positive relationship with. At the end of the week, take a look at the names still remaining on the wall, and recognize that they likely are not connected to any adult in the building. Then, you can begin to make a plan for staff to connect with those students.
One of the things I try and stress over and over when working with teachers is that it is NOT their job to become counselors. At the end of the day, a teacher role and expertise are to help students to learn. They do not need to know every detail of a child’s toxic home life or traumatic life experiences. With that said, it is important for students to have someone to discuss those things with. That is where counselors and social workers come in.
As teachers hear things of concern, a conversation that the student didn’t realize the teacher could hear, a disturbing doodle, or an alarming disclosure in an assignment, the teacher should have a clinical team to pass that information forward to, thus creating a chain reaction that provides opportunity for the child to connect and work with a counselor. If they already have a counselor, the teachers are able to communicate information to the counselor for the student’s continued progress.
What is key in the web of support, is that communication is not a one-way-road.
The teacher does not send the child to a counselor for a “quick fix” expecting the child to come back, issue permanently resolved and all ready to learn. Instead, while the counselor is working with the child they should be able to make recommendations to the teacher for how to best support the child in the classroom environment. This plan may include leaving the class for brief walks down the hall, brain breaks, manipulatives, mindfulness exercises, etc. Once again, the teacher does not have to know the specifics of what is going on in the child’s life, but they can work with the clinical professional to determine the best course of action to empower that student to be successful in the classroom.
It may seem odd to add students to the web of support that is intended to support students, but the truth is, they play a significant role in the culture of a school. Too often, schools operate in an “my way or the highway” mentality, without ever explaining the rationale for “my way.”
When students don’t feel supported or heard, they draw their own conclusions and make their own plans to survive within a school.
Instead, I recommend very open communication in schools with students. Give them a space to voice their perspectives on how to handle issues within their school. Provide them education on why bullying is dangerous, and why positivity can be so life-giving, and model those things as a staff. Teach them about their brains and how our life experiences directly impact our brains (check back in a few weeks for our classroom curriculum on this topic). One of the things that often comes up when adding new strategies for students, is the fear that other students will start an uprising. For instance, if a counselor tells a teacher that providing a student with a fidget will help keep them calm in class, the teacher fears that then every student will want one, so the teacher often refuses to allow the student to use one.
In this web, I would recommend helping all students to understand that every child is uniquely different and needs different things to feel supported.
What I have seen time and time again, is that students will rise far above our expectations if we give them a chance. Students understand basic principles of taking care of themselves, and given the opportunity, can advocate for themselves and their peers for what they need. The biggest question for us is, will we listen? Are we connected with enough support to actually do something about this?
Can this be done?
Yes! I see this modeled every day in the schools operated by Lakeside. I am working with schools in cities, suburbs, and rural areas, that are making significant strides in the direction of becoming a supportive web for their students.
It is not simple or fast, but it can be done, and I would argue, needs to be done if we want to truly begin supporting our students.
It’s not hard to look at the list above and call it too tall of an order. You can probably find 100 reasons why it wouldn’t work at your school, but I urge you to flip the script and begin asking instead, “What would it take to get there?”
I do not for a moment pretend that change is easy, but I think we can all agree that it is necessary.
I have seen and believe that in time, we can transform schools from being a breeding ground of fear to a web of support that every student will want to experience. We work hard at Neurologic to help schools transform in the ways described above, in hopes that we can make a better tomorrow for our children.
If you are interested in learning how to transform your school into a “web of support” for your students. Check out the NeuroLogic page at lakesidelink.com or email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to partnering with you!
Josh MacNeill, Director of NeuroLogic Initiative