ENGINEERING A SAFE & SUPPORTIVE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT

01/24/2016
SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL LEARNING
Charles E. Mendez III

Thomas Edison said, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” With encouragement and support, students are willing to take healthy risks. They are eager to try and learn. As educators, we can provide such an environment for our students first and foremost by setting high expectations for ourselves and for our students. We must have a clear design for a healthy school climate, which begins with serving as positive role models and promoting meaningful participation in the classroom.

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Setting High Expectations

Children thrive on the attention from and connection with the adults in their lives. They model every adult action and reaction as they look to adult behavior as a guide. Indeed, when an adult casually breaks a rule, the child may interpret the infraction as a permission to do the same. The relationship between student and teacher is no different. Educators positively influence students by establishing and reinforcing healthy norms in their classrooms and setting high expectations for their students.

Cultivating an environment that sets higher expectations for achievement prepares students to set reachable goals for themselves. Educators can help students raise their own expectations of themselves by encouraging them to set achievable goals. Students with a goal in mind develop a stronger moral compass ready to make decisions that will keep them on track toward reaching their goals. Goal-centered social environments lift the burdens of stress so students can focus more easefully on learning. With this comfort level, students are emboldened to try and learn without fear of failure.

Setting guidelines and high standards for performance challenges students but gives them the opportunity to shine. When students don’t meet the challenge, encouraging them to continue to try and try again sets a pattern and habit of effort and hard work. Once guidelines and norms are set, they must be effectively communicated to students so they will understand what is expected and then strive to meet those expectations.

Promoting Meaningful Participation

Like anything in life, it is more fun and rewarding to be part of the action than to spectate. Without an opportunity to participate in their learning, students lose interest and disconnect. Recognizing the wide spectrum of learning styles — auditory, visual, and kinesthetic — and accommodating these styles appropriately work effectively to meet the needs of all students to keep them engaged.

No matter the learning style, students benefit from an environment that promotes active engagement, cooperation and bonding. Hands-on experience reinforces what students have learned and gives them a chance to apply their skills. Participation in games, role-plays, and skits gives students the opportunity to stake a claim in their learning as learned concepts become less theoretical and more practical. Participatory learning encourages students to interact, experiment and to aim to meet their goals, reinforcing their comfort level for taking healthy risks.

Effective Praise

In an environment that promotes healthy risk-taking, the acknowledgement of success serves as a healthy reward. Acknowledgement promotes a sense of recognition, which fosters confidence. Students need to be reminded that they matter and that their teachers have expectations for them. Meaningful praise is immediate, specific and sincere. When delivering praise, educators must make sure it is specific to the student’s accomplishment and delivered in time to reinforce the behavior. Sincerity is integral to effective praise, as most students can pick up on disingenuousness, and unearned praise can be as demoralizing as no praise at all. Together, these attributes motivate students to strive in their work and explore new challenges.

Celebrating student success should be the capstone to a reached goal. When educators celebrate students’ successes, students feel good about learning and will be ready to repeat the feeling of success. Celebrating gives students a reason to aim for still more success in the future. This is an area where educators can get creative. Success offered in the form of applause or imaginative bulletin boards to post accomplishments can bring the whole class or school into the celebration. Taking snapshots of students and hanging them alongside printouts of their successes works to personalize the reward for a job well done.

Sustaining a Healthy School Climate

We have done a great deal to model and set high expectations for students. But how can we sustain a healthy school climate? In the same way we set expectations for students, we need to set standards and expectations for ourselves as educators and for the school as a unified entity. The school itself must be stewarded with the same social emotional intelligence championed in students. Building resiliency in students begins with developing a supportive environment that fosters social emotional growth. Tailoring a clear vision and an executable design for school wide social competency builds resiliency and school connectedness. Cultivating school connectedness within the classroom facilitates discussions and participation, as well as making it clear to students they are valued. Students who feel they are surrounded by a caring culture are more likely to bond with their school, promoting a sense of comfort that invites students to try and learn.

But the mission of the school extends beyond brick and mortar. An ideal learning model involves collaboration between not only educators and support staff but also family and community. Building a sense of ownership by keeping students and parents informed maintains effective communication with families and encourages students to take part in their communities. Communities influence students, but the students can in turn carry what they have learned back into their communities through service work, volunteering and mentoring opportunities. Such ties allow a twofold reciprocity of learning and contributing back.

Maintaining this three-pronged approach to learning requires a balancing act. Tracking progress aids educators in their efforts to understand how to proceed, and regularly reviewing the mission furthers the overall design. Of course, a good design will continue to evolve, but keeping a timetable and organized direction will keep educators and support staff moving forward together. Collecting feedback from families and communities can help in reviewing progress and tailoring any changes that need to be made to the design. Pursuing professional development nurtures and establishes the positive norms modeled for students. Educators need to further their own social emotional intelligence and self- awareness in order to facilitate that same growth in students.

Just as educators and administrators celebrate student successes, it is essential for them to effectively praise and to celebrate successes as a team and as a school. Maintain momentum and enthusiasm by rewarding forward movement. In this way, educators serve to model for students effective goal-setting skills, motivation, and teamwork.

Students provided with a safe and stable environment are emboldened to take healthy risks. School, families, and communities need to work together to provide such an environment. Educators must do their best to appeal to a wide spectrum of learning styles, to offer praise for a job well done and to celebrate the successes of students. With these methods in place, the tone of the school is sustained by fostering a clear vision and an enthusiasm for executing a comprehensive design.

And finally we can reflect. As we encourage students to reflect on the paths that led them to their successes, we should reflect on our own accomplishments. For it is in our reflection that we can trace our origins, our progress. Together we celebrate our successes as a unified team of educators, administrators, and students with a design for a safe and supportive environment for all.

Charles E Mendez, III is the managing director of the C.E. Mendez Foundation. For more information, visit www.mendezfoundation.org.
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