Increasing SEL and Engagement, Decreasing Dropout

Developmental Designs Approach Builds Healthy Adolescent School Communities

12/18/2013  |  Linda Crawford

You know the old saying, “Life is like a box of chocolates?” Well, middle school can be like that. Kids come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, cultures and tastes. A middle school can be filled with cliques and clans, but there is a time each day when we all melt together and form a united community. CPR (Circle of Power and Respect advisory meeting) is a time when everyone can all blend together and leave negative perspectives behind. (Middle-level student, Minneapolis, Minnesota)

Middle school can be the kind of community this student describes. A wide diversity of students shifting from class to class all day can connect with one another and adults as a community if their school experience is carefully structured to support healthy relationships. A study of middle school students disengaging and eventually dropping out of school found that student social-emotional skills were the most significant factor in determining their school success.

The research-based Developmental Designs™ approach is designed to integrate social, emotional, and academic learning for adolescents and to create a climate that optimally supports connection to school and learning. Ellen Fisher, like many teachers, started her Developmental Designs practice with the Circle of Power and Respect advisory meeting:

“I was concerned that my new sixth graders were going to start out divided, based on the various elementary feeder schools they came from, the divisions between townships, and the socio-economic divisions that are so apparent in our school community. But because my school’s teachers worked as a team to develop a community-building Circle of Power and Respect (CPR) — a daily meeting with greetings, interesting sharing conversations, and high-energy activities — students have jelled into a cohesive and supportive community, leaving the divisions that characterize the community at large far behind. Here are some of my reflections on the impact of our work.”

All in This Together

“I’ve noticed in our advisory that no one is consciously excluded. When implemented properly, CPR makes it hard to exclude anyone. Greetings, shares, and games are for everyone. The circle itself is also conducive to inclusion. No one can hide off to the side or in a corner, as they can with the traditional classroom arrangement of desks in rows. And since we’re all seated in chairs, everyone, including the leader, is at the same level.”

Improved Teacher-Student Relationships

“Exchanging greetings, playing games, and asking and responding to questions during CPR have helped students feel more comfortable around me. Consequently, our teacher-student relationships are much better. This improvement has spilled over into academics as well. Whereas previously student may have floundered rather than ask questions for clarification, they now request my assistance with confidence. Also, in the interactive portion of the daily news chart or during sharing, I’ve taken mental notes of some of the responses. Having a few tidbits of information about the students has helped me draw out our more quiet students.”

Helping Those Who Need Help Most

“Benjamin began the year as a shy, defensive, and withdrawn young man. He had been diagnosed as emotionally disturbed, and there was a history of abuse in his home. On the first day of school, he wore a hooded sweatshirt. The hood was pulled up over his head so we couldn’t see his face. He sat slumped at the edge of our circle like a turtle withdrawn into its shell. In our advisory, Benjamin rarely participated, never smiled, and seldom made eye contact with anyone. During the first month, Benjamin’s behavior didn’t improve. Gradually, however, he began to emerge from his shell. Our advisory’s daily greetings and consistent routines offered him a safe environment, conducive to his establishing trust, perhaps for the first time, with adults. Slowly, his body language changed; sometimes he would swing into class with a twinkle in his eye and joke with me. Finally, the hood disappeared. He participated in the greetings, shares, and games of CPR. He opened up to our student teacher and completed a personal learning plan with her. I felt a quiet leap of joy when Benjamin volunteered to raise and lower the flag, one of the responsibilities of the sixth grade advisory.

“Developmental Designs strategies have been particularly successful with students like Benjamin, who come from homes where violence, fear and neglect prevail. Benjamin’s ability to build positive connections with peers and adults and develop self-confidence has been an important factor in his growth.)”

— Ellen Fisher teaches sixth through eighth graders at Rivendell Middle School in Orford, New Hampshire

Sample Community-Building Advisory Meeting

The CPR format supports any number of topics and themes, including building social skills, careers, health and fitness, academic content, and increasing trust. These and many other themes are explored in “The Advisory Book: Building a Community of Learners Grades 5-92” —over 200 meetings complete with descriptions of greetings, share topics, activities, and sample daily news messages, are detailed. Here is an example on the theme of building social skills.

Daily news message: Good day, students! Today we’ll start talking about, practicing, and implementing social skills. Initial below under “Not,” “Sometimes,” or “Very” to indicate how important you think social skills are to success in life. Cooperatively yours, Ms. Young (The underlined word is a vocabulary-builder: students define it, in writing or verbally with a partner, based on its context in the sentence and their prior knowledge.)

Snake Greeting: A student stands up, greets a neighbor, gets greeted in return, moves on to greet the next person, and so on. As the leader moves on, the student she greeted stands and follows her, greeting the same people she greeted, in the same order. A constantly growing “snake” of students forms behind her. Once the leader has greeted everyone, she sits — she’s the first to return to her seat — and others follow in order, shrinking the size of the snake, until everyone has sat down.

Partner Share: Tell about a time in your life when teamwork was important, in or out of school. A couple of volunteers share with whole group.

Activity: Helium Hoop

A hula hoop for each group of five to eight players

Groups of five to eight students gather around a hula hoop (a lightweight stick can also be used). Each student places both index fingers under the hoop’s edge, which is held at waist level and parallel to the ground. They work together to lower the hoop to the floor while keeping their fingers on the hoop. The results are “uplifting!”

Conversations about Culture in Advisory

Another collection focuses on cultural understanding and bias reduction. The activities and discussions provide a structure for getting to know each other across cultures, creating awareness of the role that culture plays in our lives and an open-minded interest in cultural diversity. The advisories progress to motivating students to create a school and a world in which everyone is valued. At the vulnerable transition time of ninth grade, these meetings provide teens the guidance and reassurance they need to better understand social interactions in high school and to stay connected.

Sample Advisory Meeting About Culture

Daily news message: Aloha, avian associates, [“avian” refers to the activity for the meeting, Rare Birds]

We’ll have a guest tomorrow! Ms. Amina Sharmarki will share about her Somali heritage with us, and will tell about some unique aspects of Somali culture. DO NOW: Write on a card a question you might ask Ms. Sharmarki about her culture. Your advisor, Mr. Robinson

Color-coded Greeting: Each student randomly receives either a blue or red piece of paper and pins or tapes it to him/herself so it is visible. Distribute an equal number of the two colors. The basic greeting, Good morning, _[name]_, goes around the circle, but reds greet only reds and blues greet only blues. Reflect on the greeting by asking students how it felt to skip or be skipped.

Rare Birds Share: Write on an index card or small piece of paper about a way or ways that you are different from most of the people you know.

Have the class guess the identity of as many of the rare bird descriptions as you have time to read. Save the others for another time.

“I have to say [CPR] is pretty fun, because you get to know your classmates better and you get to play games that are fun and also funny, and you can tell your plans and other things you like to do. It makes a difference. It wakes you up because you get to feel the joy in the room. “

— Middle level student, Red Lake, Minnesota

Strengthening SEL beyond Advisory

The CPR advisory is one of 15 practices in the Developmental Designs approach. Other practices include creating and abiding by a student-generated Social Contract designed to support student goals; an approach to behavior management that builds responsible independence; and strategies to fully engage adolescents in learning. For more information, see

Linda Crawford founded The Origins Program and is now Lead Program Developer there. For more information, visit
Comments & Ratings