Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Choices We Make

As teachers and parents we are concerned that our students and children are making good choices in their lives and for their future. Unfortunately so many children and teens don't recognize that they make hundreds of decisions each day which affect themselves and those around them. You may hear a child say something like, "My teacher gave me a low grade on that test," or "My mom made me stay in my room all afternoon." This shows exactly the perspective of the child who doesn't recognize that the choices he or she made dictated the consequences being faced. As the adult we understand that the choice of not studying for a test can lead to the consequence of a low grade and the choice of disobeying a parent can result in restrictions. Our children don't make these direct connections. In fact, the part of the brain that identifies consequences for actions and uses that information to plan ahead does not fully mature until the age of 25. However, we can help this part of the brain grow and develop strength by taking time to teach our children and teens to recognize the decisions or choices they make each and every day.

One way we can do this is by pointing out the choices facing the child or teen and describing the consequences (both positive and negative) for each choice. For example, when a test is scheduled for Friday we may tell the child/teen, "If you choose to study every day this week for at least fifteen minutes, you won't have to study as long or as hard on Thursday AND the information will be so familiar to you by Friday that the test should be easy. However, if you choose to wait until Thursday, you'll have to spend more time studying that night and you may not remember it all on Friday for the test. The choice is yours." Then allow the child to make the choice. As a parent and a teacher this is never easy. However, by stepping back you are accomplishing two things. First, you are empowering the child/teen which helps them develop into a mature adult. Second, you are allowing the child/teen to learn from the choices made. It is very important that you then use the results (either positive or negative) to illustrate how the choice made determined the consequences. For example, "You chose to wait until Thursday to start studying. As a result you didn't perform as well on the test. This caused you to earn a lower grade. That grade is a result of your choice."

    Testing situations are not the only choices children make. They also make choices with regards to behavior and attitudes. When you see a student or your child making a choice that will lead to a negative consequence, take the time to point this out. "You are choosing to _______ (be specific in describing the action or attitude). This choice will lead to _______ (be specific in describing the consequences)." Then offer a different choice that will lead to a more positive result. For example, "You are choosing to ignore my instructions. If you continue to choose to ignore my instructions, you will not be able to complete the assignment correctly and you will make a low grade. However, you can choose to follow my instructions and you will have a much better chance of making a higher grade." Another example might be, "You are choosing to disobey me when I asked you to clean your room. If you continue to disobey me by not cleaning your room, I will be forced to take away all electronics (TV, computer, video games) for a week. The other option is to choose to obey me and clean your room as I have asked. The sooner you complete this task, the sooner you will be able to watch your favorite show on TV."

Another way we can help children understand the importance of the choices they make each day is to point out both positive and negative results of choices made by ourselves and others. Every moment is a teachable moment. When at the market, watching TV or a movie, or listening to the news, take time to talk to your child about the things you see and hear. What choices did people make? What were the results or consequences of those choices? Ask the child whether he or she thinks the choice was worth the consequence. Is that something they would want to happen to them? What kind of choice would they have made in that same situation? Then share the choice you would have made if it had been you. This type of discussion models good thinking and decision-making skills. Additionally, talking about these kinds of situations with children and teens offers them a chance to learn from the behavior, attitudes, and choices of others without walking down the same perilous path. Also, don't just focus on the negative. Take some time to point out good choices that are being made and the positive results of those as well.

Taking time to identify the different choices facing a child during the day, whether at home or at school, offers a valuable teaching tool to parents and teachers. It provides an opportunity to show how each decision we make is followed by a consequence of some sort, either positive or negative. It opens up discussion about how choices can lead us down different paths in life. It also helps develop the part of the brain that uses forethought, thinking through a situation before acting on it. This is a vital skill that will help your child and your students lead a successful life.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Laying the Groundwork

The first day of school is absolutely one of the most important days of the year. It is the day when you set the tone for your classroom. We all want to have a smoothly running classroom, but it is difficult when you don't know where to start. You may be feeling that you are groping around half blindfolded with only bits and pieces of information rather than the whole. What you need is a vision of what you want your classroom to look like as a positive learning environment. Then take that vision and use the first day of school to lay the groundwork towards making the vision become a reality. How?

First, before school starts, take some time to sit down and brainstorm all of your expectations. This includes how you want students to behave towards you and each other, how you want the day-to-day activities and transitions to be performed, and how you want your classroom to feel. Within each of these categories, think about different scenarios from your own days as a student and plan out how you would deal with each one. Some questions you might ask yourself include how will students enter the classroom, leave the classroom, turn in homework, work in team situations, work as individuals? Picture in your head what you would like to see happening and then write it down as a statement.

When you've mapped out this information, create a poster of basic classroom expectations for everyone to follow. Your poster won't include every single expectation you have, but the ones that guide student behavior. You'll also want to create some procedures posters for various activities during the day such as entering and leaving the classroom. Write them in a very basic step-by-step method with no more than five steps in each. Post these where all students can easily read them. Once you have a clear idea of how you expect students to behave and what you expect them to do from the moment they enter the classroom until the moment they leave the classroom, then you are prepared to explain these expectations to your students.

Now we lay the groundwork. When planning out your first day of school, be sure to alternate between fun ice-breaker and get-to-know activities, which build a positive classroom community, and discussing your expectations and procedures. You need a mixture of both through the first several days as students can only absorb so much information at once. By alternating fun activities with the practical and serious you give students time to internalize the information. When transitioning from a fun activity into another lesson of expectations or procedures, be sure to review previous information before moving on to the new. For example, you might ask students to show you the quiet signal and explain what it means before moving forward to discuss your classroom procedures.

When discussing your classroom expectations and procedures with students, be sure to speak slowly, get eye contact with each student one-on-one, and pause significantly after each expectation. This reinforces the impression that the information is important and also gives students time to listen, understand, and internalize what you are saying. You also want to practice procedures, such as the quiet signal, entering the classroom, and leaving the classroom, with your students. Continue to practice these throughout the next two weeks. By practicing your procedures and expectations with students during the first day and weeks of school, you are laying the groundwork for your vision and building good habits that will last all year long.

Reprinted with permission from Emma McDonald "New Teacher Advisor" column on Education World.