WORDS: Dr. Kirstina Ordetx
When students go to school each day, they are surrounded by experiences, emotions, opinions, and knowledge of current events and issues in our world. News stories and social media can have a direct impact on the school climate. While discussions are transpiring over the best way to keep schools safe, there lies a persistent obligation to consider the emotional well-being of students in schools each day.
As educators and parents, we are wondering what else can be done to eliminate the barriers of communication. Could we be more aware of indicators or warning signs of threats to our students’ safety? Can we do anything to prevent violence in schools? What can we do right now?
Today and every day, we can support our students and continue to acknowledge the importance of their need for a social-emotional education that compliments their academic learning. In the classroom, at home, and in the community, we can instill resilience to help our children to develop determination and perseverance to tackle problems and cope with the social and emotional challenges of school and life.
Students spend most of their waking hours in school, which provides an excellent opportunity to assemble an environment where they can feel confident, secure, and develop skills that may one day, lead to societal change.
Schools are also in a distinctive position to identify violent behavior and teach prevention strategies that can improve outcomes for all students. As the more obvious security measures are currently being enhanced in our schools, there are several key areas that may serve as valuable resources to promote student safety from within.
Character education is the shared responsibility of parents, teachers, and the community. Schools that incorporate character education as an integral part of the day are helping students to make ethical choices to guide their daily decisions and prepare for the future.
The Character Counts program focuses on Six Pillars of Character including trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. Research has demonstrated the impact that programs like this can have on students and the climate in their schools, adding a strong compliment to the academic curriculum while improving social relationships, engagement, and effective decision making.
Character education programs can be particularly beneficial during the middle school years, as students need encouragement and a sense of connectedness while they navigate social adjustment and embark on new transitions.
Create a Sense of Community
Research confirms the benefits of building a strong sense of community in schools. Positive school climates have been correlated with a decrease in absenteeism, suspensions, and bullying. Students who feel positively about school are more likely to demonstrate increased academic motivation, engagement in the classroom, develop positive social relationships, and avoid behavior problems that involve violence.
An atmosphere of caring and gratitude encourages everyone to work together and feel part of something greater than themselves. Specific projects such as tending to a school garden, community giving, or peer mentoring gives students a strong sense of ownership and investment in their school. In addition, teachers come to connect with students and are put in a better position to recognize when a student needs additional attention or help.
Schools that provide regular opportunities for service, extracurricular activities, and cooperative learning provide safe and healthy options to motivate students to connect with one another in ways that foster healthy relationships, promote successful futures, and reduce violence. Schools that strive to create a positive community environment will hear students say:
My school/class is like family.
My classmates work together and help one another.
My teachers are approachable and make time for students.
At a minimum, schools can foster an escalation of kindness. Cultivating kindness does not require a budget or a vote to implement and the effects can be immediate, contagious, and lasting. Acts of kindness and gratitude help students to develop compassion and empathy. These efforts have other positive effects, too. Acts like these release dopamine (the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter in the brain) and are shown to increase focus and memory, buffer the effects of stress or negativity, and lead to an improved sense of well-being.
Teachers have a unique opportunity to be at the forefront of fostering a safe environment where students feel comfortable sharing their ideas and discussing issues. Even a brief block of time dedicated to community circle, class meetings, or advisory can provide quality time for the teacher to model affective listening and encourage students to speak and listen to each other in a respectful and supportive atmosphere at any age.
Constructive discussions can also equip students with the tools they need to practice effective conflict resolution. Comprehensive conflict resolution programs are available to foster team-building, problem-solving, self-control, assertiveness, and leadership skills.
Teaching students how to peacefully resolve their conflicts encourages non-violence and fosters positive relationships among students. Some schools have also found peer mediation programs to be a valuable resource to prevent violence and encourage higher social skills between peers. Feedback from these programs indicates a correlation with safer and more productive learning environments.
Classroom meetings can play an important role in the development of students’ social, emotional, moral, and intellectual development. This approach to effective communication can be easily incorporated into the classroom and offers students consistent opportunities to solve problems and practice skills in a supportive structure. This format is student-led and strengthens interpersonal skills and a sense of community in the classroom.
Now more than ever, schools need to make community-building a priority. The research supports the benefits of programs that build character, teach peaceful conflict resolution, and inspire effective communication in our schools. Inspiring a school-wide culture of connectedness through kindness, caring, and respect, is certainly not the answer to all our concerns – but it sure is a great place to start.