Posts Tagged school climate

Always Model Kindness, Especially to Children

Published by — The kindest response to unwanted behavior is to ask good questions.

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

The trim, tall elementary teacher, whom we’ll call Ms. Larch, paused before answering the question that had been posed to everyone in the circle.  Larch was among a group of teachers from all levels in a Restorative Practices (RP) training.  RP, in super brief, are interpersonal techniques that promote healing and connecting instead of disciplining by hurtful punishment.  The question at hand was: Since our work together last week, what have you been thinking about Restorative Practices?  Just a thought, a take-away, something you’ve noticed.

The mood of the group was bubbly.  Taking turns, answers came quickly – and then the pace came to a halt with Larch.  After a deep breath, she said,  “I noticed the hallways.”  The group fell silent, waiting to find out what on earth she meant.

A 14-year veteran, Larch has mainly taught 4th grade.  After working in a suburban school, she chose to take a position in a diverse, more challenged school.  She’d been there nine years now and was no stranger to their bustling hallways.  But in the prior week, for the first time, she found herself standing still and listening.  Through the new RP lens, the hallway noise had a harsh, barky quality, driven by edgy adult voices.  The kids paid little attention to the adults, which only increased the volume of the bark.  Suddenly the hallways seemed hard on the kids.  How does one person change such a thing?

During my many years of writing about education, I’ve observed hundreds of schools, though not hers.  I’ve been in many such hallways, flowing with negative, military-style commands:  “Don’t run.”  “Be quiet.”  “Stop it!”  I get that teachers juggle many pressures and get frazzled.  And harsh hallways are by no means exclusive to low-income public schools.  Communities, of every stripe, might insist on zero-tolerance orderliness.  In the name of order, all sorts of kids get steeped in adult anger, frustration and impatience.

But does command-and-control discipline teach social skills?

A recent Atlantic Magazine piece, Teaching Traumatized Kids, focused on Lincoln High in Washington state, an alternative school designed to help kids whose troubled behavior was known to be driven by trauma.  But why need a diagnosis?  Every school should just assume the presence of trauma, among kids and adults alike, and be prepared to prevent and respond well to misbehavior triggered by trauma.  Interestingly, every single one of Lincoln’s techniques were what we’d call Restorative Practices.  They call them “kindness,” which is fine by me.  A rose by any other name smells just as sweet.  I’m totally down with kindness.

Restorative Practices promote good relationships and strong, supportive communities.  They prevent and de-escalate conflict.  Lincoln’s “teachers and staff follow a few deceptively simple rules: Don’t take anything the student says personally and don’t mirror their behavior with an outburst of your own. The teachers give students time to calm down, often in the principal’s office or a special ‘quiet room.’ Later, they inquire about what might be bothering them and ask if they want to talk about it.”

Yes, ask questions.  Lately I’ve been thinking that the kindest response to unwanted behavior is to ask a whole bunch of good questions.  Not “Whadya do that for?”  But something like:  “You seem off.  What’s up today?”  And even that’s not completely kind unless delivered in a low register of your voice, calmly and with good eye contact.  Be careful not to sound like you already know the answer.  No, kind questions don’t defuse tension every time.  But they give everyone, adult or kid, traumatized or merely upset, the chance to recover by thinking through what’s going on with them and whatever upset them.  Good questions can provide gentleness.

Years ago I visited an urban elementary school that used music for their hallway transitions.  When the public address system played soothing, upbeat classical music — instead of those maddening bells — kids finished up and moved on to lunch, art class or wherever.  The music set a tone.  The teachers, while watchful, trusted the kids to be self-regulated.  The hallway bustled, but sweetly.

Kids take their cue from the adults. 

Children of all ages learn far more from adult modeling than they do from formal instruction.  Too often we forget that children are organic, living beings.  They need human forms of sunlight, shade, nourishing soil and proper amounts of water.  A harsh hallway is not a good medium to grow thriving, self-regulating kids.

We could actually sooth our fearful, angry culture if each of us were more mindful of being kind.  Kindness is not easy.  It takes thought and a commitment to watching how we treat each other.  Kids who have a positive experience in school hallways, not to mention school itself, will grow and learn differently than those who do not.

 (Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI school department and the RIDataHUBFor more, see or contact her at The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

, , , ,

Leave a comment

Graduating From High School With Great Work Habits

Published by — At this school students take ownership of their behavior as well as their learning.

“Aaaaah, someone let the chickens out.”

Melissa Hall, Vice Principal of Greene Charter School in W. Greenwich, RI, has been keeping an eye out the window behind her desk while she and others were answering my questions.  A staff member looks up from her work in the school’s cramped administrative office and offers to deal with it.  Pausing a moment, Hall says, “No… Not yet.  There are kids out there.  Let’s wait to see if they handle it.”

Clearly, the 9-graders responsible for tending to the school’s chickens got distracted and had an oops.  Chickens, compost and a garden are integral to Greene’s focus on the environment.  Each staff member heads up a “crew” of 15 students who meet daily, at least, and together they steward their local eco-system while learning to be a team.

After a bit, Hall turns her back to the window, pleased to report that the escaped poultry were back in their coop.  At no point were the adults particularly fussed about the problem.  They were on it, if need be, but far better to let the kids have a minor panic about their carelessness.  Natural consequences are great teachers.  Adults do kids no favor by jumping up to fix things for them before they have had a chance to make things right themselves.

This is huge.  And, as Head of School Deanna Duncan points out, it takes patience and gobs of attention to cultivate an atmosphere of accepting responsibility.  Many parents and teachers struggle mightily with just getting the kids to do their school work, never mind doing service in the community or turning compost.  But the Expeditionary Learning (EL) approach that Greene has adopted believes that “We are crew, not passengers.”  Adults and students alike are “strengthened by acts of consequential service to others.”  They have jobs and obligations for their mutual benefit.  They’re in it together, and they’re not passive.

But what’s even huger, to my mind, is that Greene and their EL design consultants have not only brought back from the near-dead, but enhanced one of my all-time favorite educational innovations: “advisories.”  Back in the late 1980s, the seminal work Turning Points insisted that public schools “personalize” education.  That horribly impersonal word referred to having small groups of students regularly hang with an adult to ensure that every kid was known well by at least one adult in the building.  Advisories were designed to counter the lack of attention kids were getting at home and in their communities.  So-called “factory-model” schools just replicated kids’ starvation for healthy attention, and in many ways made it worse.  Private schools have always had some form of advisory to make good on their promise to give “personal attention” to the student.

Advisories seem like a well-duh of education.

Sadly, these days, many schools that still schedule advisory time allow teachers to waste the time by letting the kids do their homework, talk or text.  At Greene “Crew” has a curriculum of its own designed to teach students Habits of Work (HOW), including giving them tasks they have to figure with their team.  The Crews stay together for 4 years, so if you’re not getting along, you’d better learn how to.  These behavioral expectations, the HOW, are spelled out in detail.  Students learn both the sort of chore-related reliability and good ‘tude habits that everyone needs to keep a job.  But math and literacy are also woven throughout.  One goal states:  “I can demonstrate basic financial math to promote my understanding of our economic system.”

The over-arching questions of Crew are:

* Who am I?

* How am I doing?

* Who do I want to be?

The habits are graded according to two big categories.  Students can get straight “A”s in their academic subjects, but if they blow their performance on HOW, privileges and choices are reduced.  If students fail either of the HOW grades, they’ll need to do 30 hours of community service over the summer.

So, for example, Jamiel, a senior from Johnston, says, “I had big trouble with the math.  Math is everywhere; it’s part of everyday life.  If you can’t do math, you can’t do much.  So I had to have tutoring over the summer.  But here at Greene, we have this “yet” thing.  I can’t do this YET.  You can’t say ‘I can’t,’ but you can say ‘I can’t do that yet.’  So I work with being in the moment with the work.  I’m growing a positive mindset.”

Crews explore colleges together and help one another with the applications.  They act as a peer-accountability system that helps emerging adults mature into habits of self-control and self-maintenance that are at least as important as academics when starting out post-high-school.

Duncan says, “Our students know what it means to learn the good habits that will help them be successful out in the world.  We intentionally spend as much time focused on climate and culture as on academics.  Students need to take ownership of their behavior as well as their learning.  We all have to be responsible to our community.”

Including those wanton chickens.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.


, , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment