Tag Archives: school connections

Education is Complex and It’s Simple

 

First Day of School

 

 

 

 

cc licensed by Flickr Photo shared by  Dave Parker

In my first few weeks as Principal of Forest Green School and Connections For Learning, I have been doing a lot of learning.  And most of it has been around getting to know “who is who in the zoo” so to speak.  Between the three sites for which I am responsible, there are approximately 350 students in a dozen classrooms and within these sites are six education programs that are each unique.  There have been many new faces to get to know!

Here are some of the people that I have met:

  • Students!  Of course they come first! I love the young children.  They are so lively and enthusiastic.  Their excitement at starting school has been pure joy for most.  Some of the students in our special programs though find that school is a challenge and they are bringing a brave face to start the school year.
  • Many many parents too who are excited for their children’s new school year. The Kindergarten parents are a special bunch as they have a combo of excitement, anxiety, and reflection upon their nest being slightly emptier. Other parents are struggling with really tough decisions about placement. And others are just waiting to get in the doors of the school to help make their child’s learning environment a better place.
  • The teachers have been here for a few weeks now.  They are excited to begin their new initiatives and projects as we strive to be continuous learners ourselves.  But with the wisdom of experience are also careful to establish solid routines to create the structures kids need to be successful.
  • The school support staff – secretaries, education assistants, support workers, and custodians. They keep the rest of us moving forward by providing the information we need, supporting our students who need a little more help, and keeping our work spaces functioning. They are passionate about making our schools as great a place as they can be for kids.
  • Staff from the Center for Education have been visiting.  They too want to help support however they can.  They also want to ensure that Parkland schools are providing a place for all children to reach their dreams by encouraging educators to continue to learn, innovate, and grow in our practice.
  • Social workers and group care staff have been coming for meetings. These professionals know the children in their care require extra compassion and supports and are great advocates for these students.
  • And the bus drivers.  Now there’s a smiling group of people that work on amazing deadlines, minute by minute in fact.  They are the connectors between home and school for so many of our children.
  • A newspaper reporter.  She like so many of us in the education is delighted at the prospect of a new school year and wants to share the story of school start-up with our entire community.
  • Our ATA Local Council Representatives who care so much about the working lives of our teachers and offer support to them in many ways – contracts, professional development, and camaraderie – have already started meeting to get 2014-2015 underway.
  • Personnel from the Town of Stony Plain adjusted their morning schedules on the first day of school to come greet our students.  And different folks later in the week who came to spray a wasp nest near the school.
  • Fellows from our Facilities department who were doing pick ups and deliveries as well as coming to repair the swings before school even started so we had what we needed and the kids were ready for fun on day one.
  • The ladies from our Human Resources Department who assisted in hiring a new teacher at Forest Green.  I truly appreciated her advice at one point where she said something like we don’t want a good teacher, we want a great teacher!
  • And I think if I referenced my recent calendar appointments, I would even remember a few more people that I met!

So it would appear that the life of a school is complex.  There are so many different people with so many different interests. I believe a significant part of my role is to meld this complex group together to create caring and vibrant learning environments for our students.  How does that happen? That’s the simple part. It’s comes from not just respecting the roles that each of these people but honoring them. Each and everyone of these people contributes and is part of our community.  We all make school a better place!

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Parents as Partners. No Really… Parents as Partners

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Much of what I am doing in my current role at the school division level is supporting families that are working through a difficult situation involving their child’s behavior at school. Sometimes it’s a specific incident that has led to a violence/threat risk assessment or it might be helping to place a student in a different program more suited to accommodate his/her current behavioral/learning needs. The ease that parents move through these events has a tremendous amount to do with the relationship that has been developed with the teachers and administrators at  the child’s school before it gets to the division level. The more collaborative and honest the relationship is, the better the outcome is for all involved, particularly the student. It’s great to see parents, teachers, and administrators working alongside each other with open hearts and minds to come up with ideas and strategies to meet student needs and create success.

Working with parents, just like students, is all about relationship.  However, working with parents regarding their children has the potential to feel more ‘high stakes’ given that most parents are highly invested in their children and bring the adult perspective of advocate.  In these circumstances, it more important than ever to create a welcoming environment that encourages meaningful participation for the parents in their child’s education.  Parents are going to ask hard questions and expect high levels of service and it’s important to be as honest and forthright as possible while maintaining a positive perspective. It’s a tough place to be when you realize that your child is in the position of requiring a significant degree of intervention. It’s important to “walk a mile in the parent’s moccasins.”  And when taking their perspective, it’s important to not make assumptions or judgments, particularly when there might be issues within a family.

Here are some considerations that have served me well working effectively with parents in these challenging situations.

What’s Your Story?  – The one thing that you bring to each parent and student interaction is you. Human nature and our upbringing will cause us all to have personal bias. We need to be careful that we are not making decisions or projecting concerns from our own experience into the situation. Consider your own history.  Do you have expectations, opinions, personal hurt, or personal joy that might influence how you respond in certain situations? Consider the students that you have worked with over time.  Have the experiences of those students and their families added to your personal bias?  What are your thoughts about families in regard to addiction, poverty/wealth, education levels, personality traits, wellness, culture, actual personal history with a parent, etc.? We spend much time learning about policy, instructional strategies, medical disorders, etc. to prepare for parent meetings and student programming, we need to be equally aware of ourselves and how our biases and interpretations could potentially affect our interactions and outcomes with a family.

Declaring Intention – It is important that as you begin working with a family that you clarify the relationship and set a strong foundation. You can never be too explicit and it is worth stating that we are all here to work for the best possible outcomes for their child. It is important to validate the role of each parent to advocate for their child and to teach and advise the school team about their son/daughter. Following this ‘big picture’ declaration, each subsequent meeting should start with the intent of the ‘smaller picture’ interaction. Start each meeting with a stated objective and the intended positive outcome.

Family Voice and Choice – I’m stealing this directly from Alberta Education’s Approach to Collaborative Practices… Based on Wraparound Principles. “Family voice and choice ensures child or youth and family perspectives are intentionally elicited, prioritized and actioned as part of a collaborative wraparound practice. Planning is grounded in family membersʼ perspectives. The individuals involved in the process strive to provide options and choices that reflect the family values and preferences.”

Accuracy Is the Best Policy – It is important that parents have a clear understanding of how their child is behaving at school so they can participate as full team members with the same understanding as the rest of the team.  Avoid euphemisms. A mom won’t know the extent of the concern if she is advised that her child used a bad word.  That could be the f-word or that could be stupidhead.  Both are bad words.  Do your data collection. Stating that a child is difficult to manage is much less understandable than specific descriptions of the frequency and intensity of behaviors over a specified period of time. The spirit of accuracy is to bring the parent onto the team as a fully informed member, not to paint their child in a negative light.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know – One of the difficulties in managing students who are demonstrating difficult behaviors is to pin down the specifics of what makes the child tick. What are the triggers? What are the most effective de-escalation strategies? How does the student develop strategies self-regulation? Is mental illness setting in and if so, what does this mean? In these situations there is a tremendous role for parents. If you don’t know the way forward with a child, be up front with the parents and say that. Then immediately follow up with, “We need your help to understand your daughter, so that we can get her on a path to success.  Tell us about what works for you at home.” This sets the stage for authentic relationships and collaborative problem solving.

The Mistake Multiplier – It’s the nature of working with people. Sometimes mistakes are made, the wrong decision is implemented or you just don’t know what  you don’t know (and then you find out). Courtesy, ethics, and integrity tell us that these situations need to be addressed sooner rather than later. Take people’s dignity into account as you move forward, take ownership, be up front, and do your best to make amends. Avoiding these situations often will make the situation worse as people are left thinking they’ve been wronged and sharing their thoughts with others.

The Needs of the Many and The Needs of the Few – Another thing that we bring to our work with parents and their children is context. As the people who work within the school we are very well aware of things like class composition, limited resources, teacher experience levels, etc. While these are certainly considerations for the educators involved in managing the larger classroom or school environment, these types of limitations are not necessarily of prime concern to parents.  In fact, it’s not appropriate to get into those details anyway. Parents will just expect schools to work around them and provide a quality experience for their child.

Keep On Keepin’ On – You might find yourself walking a fine line in terms of being open in the relationship and protecting privacy. In these situations, it pays to be as honest as possible, “I can’t get into specifics due to FOIP requirements, but these are the things I can tell you.” Some parents might see that as stonewalling and you need to continue walking the fine line to earn their trust. Share as much information as you can that is relevant to their child. Things may seem off to parents if in a previous grade a teacher’s capacity or the classroom environment was more conducive to addressing their child’s needs. In these situations, it will likely be necessary to provide additional supports like mentoring, creative scheduling, PD, specialist expertise or more. Parents will usually keep working with you if  you show that you are making appropriate decisions and taking  concrete actions to benefit their child while keeping the lines of communication open.

Education About School – Sometimes parents cannot understand why their child who is happy and manageable at home struggles at school. It is important to paint a realistic picture for parents about the different expectations at school.  Help parents see through their child’s eyes. School is a much more complex place than home that can be very difficult to navigate from a child’s perspective. There are different skills required to be part of a school community working with peers, routines, and different adults and their child is likely having difficulty acquiring these skills. All of this can become even harder for a child who struggles with learning and isn’t feeling good about their place in school. Following this conversation, be prepared to outline what the school is doing to help and how the school-parent team need to work together to support the child.

Talking About the Elephants – There are times when what is happening in the family is negatively impacting a child’s learning. Divorce, death, moves, addiction, poverty and much more are struggles for children that come through the school door with them. Talking about issues like this is delicate territory. However, strengthening a child’s family is in the best interest of the child and is likely to improve learning. This is certainly an example of a courageous conversation. Conversations like this should be planned. Who is the best person to broach the subject? When and how? What words are most impactful and least threatening? What’s the plan for parents who want to address family concerns? What’s the plan if parents become adversarial? Remember though, relationship is key for both the student and for parents. This is not a reason to duck the conversation, this is your guiding principle as you plan how to approach these personal issues. 

Support With Real Support – When you encounter a family who is struggling with significant issues and is willing to seek help, you need to break down as many barriers as possible.  You can’t do it for them, but do make it as easy as possible. Strong inter-agency connections are important.  If you can provide the name of a contact person who is expecting their phone call rather than just a number, that paves the way and makes it easier. Free up a staff member to support them as they make the phone call.  That can be a tough emotional experience and doing it alone can be a very demoralizing and lonely experience. I have seen great benefit for families when a school support person actually attends agency appointments with the family to advocate and bridge communication gaps. Sometimes the school staff member needs to encourage a parent to commit to specific assistance at specific times and follow through with specific tasks. Monitoring and follow up is essential for some families.

Documentation Is Multi-Purpose – Documentation is not just for accountability – to prove something happened or to meet system requirements. Keeping and copying meeting notes to all participants serves as reminders for who has agreed to do what.  Documentation is an organizer. Anecdotal notes are useful for parents and other professionals to more fully understand the child at school.  Documentation is a window into the school life of a child. Expect that anecdotal notes will be copied and shared as you write them. 

Working with parents is important as they are key in maintaining students’ relationships with their teachers and the school. If parents are only paying lip service to the teacher or school, kids will know it.  This will make it much more difficult to be able to reach and teach our students.  Kids know when their parents truly back the school and are working together and it will more often than not cause children to feel more comfortable in the school and try harder to do well.

Parent relationships can be hard work. If there are situations of conflict, this can also cause educators to be emotional as they usually care a great deal about the child and the school.  Be sure to engage with your school team through these situations.  No educator is expected go it alone any longer.  Seek support, work together, and support each other. 

This Is Why

PLACE Grads 2013

Photos printed with permission of the graduate’s parents. 

In June I had the privilege of attending the year end celebration for the PLACE (Practical Living and Community Education) students at Memorial Composite.  I get the pleasure of attending special events like these by playing a supporting role for several schools in Parkland.  This was my first time attending a PLACE Grad.  I didn’t know what to expect but thought it would be a very scaled back version of a typical graduation ceremony to celebrate the achievements of some of the special students in our school community in a way that would be appropriate, not too loud and active, but happy and fun.  And for the most part, that’s exactly what it was.  There were parents and decorations and laughter and certificates. However, this celebration also contained one of the most moving moments of my 20+ years working with diverse learners.

Things started slowly.  It’s an exercise in logistics for the PLACE class to move within the school as a large group.  Gradually, the EA’s brought the students with wheelchairs into the music room and parked them in the front row.  Other students trickled into the room with varying degrees of assistance.  Jeanette, the PLACE teacher, MC’ed the ceremony starting with the usual pleasantries welcoming parents and acknowledging guests.  And she shed a few tears of both pride and sadness at the thought of some of her students moving on.

We (the audience) were pleased as we discovered that we were going to be treated to a musical performance. Once again, we waited for a moment while most of the students were positioned up front where they waited patiently to begin their performance. Just as they were about to begin, on cue, about fifteen staff members who work throughout MCHS joined around the students to begin singing We Shall Overcome. Oh, that was a treat!  The PLACE students were so proud to be up front performing. Many of them knew the words. Those students who were non-verbal were keeping the beat, mostly. And all of them had eyes that were sparkling with joy.  By the way, several of the teachers had sparkling eyes too and were singing through their tears.  This is why.

Now just when you think that this little tale is a story of how teachers do love their special students, there was a bridge in the song as the chorus of We Shall Overcome ended and segued to Lean on Me.  It was at that moment that about thirty or forty students from the Memorial Choir poured out of a side door of the classroom and surrounded the PLACE students and staff members.  It was an awesome sight!

They rocked it out!  The PLACE students were absolutely beaming at being part of a choir and they knew their stuff.  They had stage presence, most knew some or all of the words, and most could clap on beat.  The MCHS Choir students just love to sing and were sharing their gift of music with their peers.  And to add a little context, this was the last day of classes.  There had been a carnival in the school that morning, students were receiving their timetables for next year, and it was just a little chaotic to say the least.  But these students showed up and were committed to their school mates!  This is why.

I tell you there was not a dry eye in the house.  Parents were overjoyed with the performance.  Three boxes of tissue were being passed around the audience.  This was such a big deal for them too!  Their kids have not usually been the ones at center stage.  Of course there was a standing O! This is why.

There has been much debate over Inclusive Education in Alberta since it was formally adopted in 2010. Let’s be real. It is not appropriate for the PLACE students to be enrolled in a high school math, social studies, PE class, etc.  It is not designed for them and would not provide them with the education that they need.  Nor is it appropriate to only have our PLACE students learn entirely in a segregated classroom.  However, there are ways, as so beautifully demonstrated by the staff and students at MCHS where our diverse learners can be fully included.  They are members of our community and because of that should be part of our public education system. This is why!

If the measure of a society is by how they treat their weakest members (quoted by many – Churchill, Pope John Paul II, and more), then the community of Memorial Composite is a great place to be! And Alberta Education is firmly planted on the right track for all of our citizens.

I came to realize, after the fact, that the performance at the PLACE Grad was actually a reprise from a performance earlier in the month where the PLACE students joined the Memorial Choir for their year end performance at the Arden Theater.  Please enjoy.

This is why!

Alternative Ed – One Way, Many Ways

CFL Logo - ColorConnections For Learning (CFL) is the alternative education site for Parkland School Division offering programming in grades 1 – 12.  We have just launched an updated web site which provides a great opportunity to write this post and share our great ideas and model for alternative education. It’s important to note that while CFL is the only alternative program site, Parkland does offer a variety of unique programs within various school settings.

CFL is actually a collection of programs.  The Adapted Learning and Living Skills (ALLS), Brightbank Academy, and High School Outreach programs are ‘directed placement’ programs that provide specialized support for students with identified learning needs, both academic and social/emotional. The Elementary Parent Partnership, High School Parent Partnership, Stony Creek, and Traditional Home Education  programs are ‘programs of choice’ which allow parents to become directly involved in their children’s education through three different models of home based programming. At times, CFL has also created individualized 1:1 programs for students with highly unique needs or circumstances. Where there are good fits, student programs have been developed offering counselling support, literacy support, and student leadership opportunities across the different programs.  As we know, students need to be proficient in their use of technology and CFL offers opportunities for students to learn and develop their technology skills to support their learning.

The common thread through all of CFL’s programming is to provide flexible and individualized programs for all students. This occurs in a variety of ways.  Academically, several of the programs use modules-based learning, and we have amassed a collection of supplementary materials and strategies to assist with differentiation when needed. While the modules system does offer much flexibility and allows for independent completion, there are limitations with engagement and instructional variation. CFL also partners with the Alberta Distance Learning Center to contract courses, typically high school option courses, to broaden course offerings for students. In part-time programs, the academic component is directed by teachers who differentiate for students as needed given the nature of the students in the classroom.  And for home programs, parents are supported in tailoring their instruction to meet their children’s academic levels.

The individualization continues. CFL’s directed placement programs primarily serve students with behavioral concerns and the flexible and well supported classroom environments allow for the creation of routines and processes that address situations where students are behaving inappropriately.  Staff members respond positively and consistently to allow students to learn to shape their own behavior and at times provide direct instruction for students to reflect on their behavior and develop strategies for self-regulation.  Additionally, a number of families have elected to enroll their children in home school programs as a means of supporting their emotional or behavioral struggles, like anxiety or ADHD.  By providing a nurturing learning environment, where they are loved unconditionally, children are able to make great academic gains in their homes when they were struggling with the social and environmental pressures in the school setting.

One opportunity that home education provides is the freedom for differentiation in regard to values based instruction. CFL’s home education programs have different structures regarding which subjects parents instruct and how they are supported. In some programs parents have the freedom to select resources and learning activities that are outside of Alberta curriculum and are values based. In all of CFL’s home based programs parents deliver the health curriculum and are very involved in option programming. This provides a beautiful opportunity for families to spend time together discussing and learning what is truly important for them in regard to their worldview and values. Each family does it differently but it’s powerful learning for their children.  It is common for families to develop projects to teach the children about key family activities. As an example, an outfitter family created wildlife projects for their children. Other examples include using scripture verses for handwriting practice, Bible study, service projects – both locally and internationally, cultural activities, joining community activities (sports, theater, Scouts, etc.), church activities, travel, learning activities together (technology, photography, scrapbooking, etc.), family history projects, and more.

One of the elements that contributes significantly to the relaxed, casual, and welcoming environment at CFL is the actual building itself. The building originally housed a health club but has since been renovated. There are nine classrooms that are on either end of the building allowing for some separation between programs which works quite well as there are differences in operations and the nature of the students. The one ancillary classroom does not have a smartboard, but the other eight do.  One of the squash courts from the health club was saved to create a mini-gym which is handy for our small elementary classes and some small group activities for older students. A kitchen was built about a year ago which allows for some option programming and job/life skills development. The Outreach classroom is located where the locker rooms used to be so there are several small breakout rooms and a conference room which easily allow students to isolate themselves when they are out of sorts or provide a location for small group instruction.

Now I am sure that you realize that there are a pretty special group of people working at CFL. The CFL staff are experts at forming relationships with students and parents, even the most difficult ones.  Each of them has the ability to intuitively read their students to know when something is different and has a gentle and authentic way of interacting with students to get to the root of an issue. The nature of alternative ed. requires adaptability as the structure of most of the programming has a basis in flexible delivery. As well, the nature of alternative ed. families who are seeking something inherently different and at-risk students who’s stories can sometimes change on a daily basis need people who can be accommodating and inventive in their approach to education. The teachers in our home based programs have particular skill in relating with parents and usually play more of a coaching role when assisting parents in developing and delivering their children’s programs. Finally, organizational and data management skills are critical given the wide variety of small details that are different between student programs and the individualized pace at which students work. It’s a tracking nightmare sometimes.

Connections For Learning is also set up as a service provider to the rest of the schools in Parkland School Division.  When school personnel realize that they have a student who is unable to be successful in the school setting or can no longer be served within the building, an administrator will contact CFL to discuss programming options. Some examples of the students that have been served include students going on extended holidays, students struggling with health concerns and can no longer attend school, those suffering from toxic social relationships, etc. Some of the ways that CFL will support schools are to fully take over programming for the student and actually transfer registration, offering temporary programming for a portion of the school year, lending our modules materials for the school to use temporarily to cover a particular situation, or just brainstorming regarding possible solutions for the student. Other than the brainstorming option, CFL charges a fee to the sending school for any services provided after September 30 registrations are finalized. These ‘transfer of funds’ are determined on a pro-rated basis and then submitted to division office for the transfer to occur and are part of the budgeted money that keeps CFL operational.

While life at CFL is pretty darn good most of the time, it`s not always rainbows and roses.  There are challenges. One of the first is the inconsistency in budgeting which is directly tied to transiency in enrollment. Conservative budgeting is required, as with many alternative sites, but there is a strong commitment to the need for the existence of CFL by Parkland School Division which has subsidized particular programs or projects on occasion.  Along with transient enrollment sometimes comes skewed enrollment with some programs bursting some years and others being under subscribed. Several of our teachers are part-time teachers who will sometimes have their FTE increased during the year to support additional enrollment. Professional development is interesting in that CFL is expected to participate in all of the division initiatives, like AISI. As these initiatives are designed for the regular classroom, CFL staff members have become accustomed to having ‘the meeting after the meeting’ to discuss how the ideas presented at a PD session can be tailored for part-time and or modules-based programming. That said, there is plenty of specific PD out there to support alternative programs.  Engagement is an issue for the programs that rely on modules-based programming as it is dry and boring to say the least. Over the years we have added workshops to support students with some face to face assistance and learning activities. Currently, we are looking toward online resources as a means of engaging those who attend both on-site and off. It is also important that CFL operates as a respectful place across all of our programs because we have a great spectrum of families/students in our programs, from those with quite liberal values to those with very conservative values.  When there have been incidents where behaviors, values, and judgments have clashed, that foundation of respect for all has brought clarity to all involved.

So if you think your school community needs a version of CFL, here are some suggestions.  Try to gather together a combination of forward thinking leaders at the division level with grassroots people committed to alternative education. It’s important to have honest reflective conversations regarding the students who are not being well served, what they would need to be successful and how to tap into the unique talents that exist among your educators along with innovation opportunities. As well, there is a thriving network of home educators out there, both formal and informal, some of whom are fully committed to remaining apart from the school system and some of whom are looking for innovative partnerships. Tapping into this group of parent educators would be most helpful. Alberta Education is supportive of school choice and with some research and a willingness to be innovative and responsive, program development will happen. Both the Alternative Programs Handbook and Outreach Program Handbook contain checklists for decision making and program development which are great starting points. This is truly hopeful education and I wish you well on your journey should you choose to take it.

Strength-Based Practice

Strong Kids

cc licensed (BY) Flickr photo shared by Mr Phil Price

Eureka!  In my last post, Resiliency = Relationships, I posted a link to a handout from the Alberta Mentoring Partnership illustrating strength-based vs. deficit-based concepts .  Timing is an interesting thing sometimes.  In my email last week, I received the February 2012 issue of In The Loop, a newsletter from Alberta Education.  It was highlighting a new resource Strength Based Classrooms and Schools, also produced by the Alberta Mentoring Partnership.  This little 24 page document is a must read for all educators!

This is a clear concise resource that gets to the heart of what education should be about, developing young people in a positive way that empowers them to use their gifts in ways that are meaningful to them.  Here is a shift in thinking away from fixing problems to discovering talents, from curing vulnerabilities to maximizing personal resources.  The principles of strength-based practice are discussed leading to an examination of how this will impact school culture and the importance of a holistic view of students.  There are also strategies for building staff capacity included.  This document is great to share with educators who might need a nudge to regain their student-centered focus.  And it’s equally good for those who are ‘already there’ as it brings coherence to many of the positive things that educators are already doing to build relationships with kids.  It’s short and sweet and an easy read for all.

I have always believed that teachers do not become teachers unless they have a deep personal belief that they wish to positively impact their students.  Lord knows we don’t get into this business for the money and the easy ride!  Strength-based practice is a framework for thinking that can reach into a teacher’s belief that they can make a difference for each student.  It’s simple… look for the positive in each student and make that the starting point to address learning. Match those positives to the topic of the day, the issue to be addressed, and/or the classroom context with which you are working and you’ll create the circumstances to develop stronger relationships with students and have a greater influence on their learning and personal growth. At the same time, the student is gaining a repertoire of skills and developing character traits which are a natural fit with who they already are.

Reviewing this document again today reminded me of a young lad that was posing some issues in one of our behavior programs last year.  This boy had a tough life, to say the least, leading him to the point where he was  in the permanent care of Children & Family Services.  The staff was at their wits end.  I offered some ideas and strategies that didn’t go anywhere.  He just was not engaged, his learning was regressing, he was negatively impacting his peers, and seemed to be actively sabotaging the support strategies we were putting in place.  Our collective bag of tricks was empty. I dug deep and remembered being in this position before and that there was a way to reach the seemingly unreachable kid.

I advised the teacher and the EA to set this boy up for success in everything.  For the next week until we met again, he was to be successful in every lesson, to be put in group situations where he would be successful each time which meant carefully selecting the peers and the activities and closely supervising so adult intervention was just seconds away, and he was to be praised and encouraged every step of the way.  As well, I needed them observe his responses and take note of his positives.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived the following week was that the relationship had deepened in both directions, the school staff had renewed their commitment to this boy and he was now viewed from a positive perspective rather than the child that they were failing.  And for the boy, who had a litany of failed relationships in his life, he had found positive connections based upon his authentic positive contributions to the classroom and he knew it.  Following that, the staff continually shared with that boy the specific instances of positive learning and behavior that he had demonstrated to help him see his strengths and personal resources. To finish the story, the boy did a fairly quick turnaround due to the team approach from home and school and was placed in less intensive environment in a matter of months and from what we hear is continuing to be positive and successful.

So what’s my lesson?  Strength-based practice!  It’s about seeing the students for who they are and building upon what they have already brought to the table.  My professional work is not about me digging into my education and my experience to use my judgement to come up with my plan.  My professional work is to see students’ strengths and potential and figure out a way to add to that in meaningful and relevant ways so they develop greater competency academically and personally. Sometimes, in extreme cases, you have to engineer the opportunity to see the positive.  But finding the student’s positive should be the starting point.

On a related note, it’s been interesting to watch how special education has been morphing in Alberta over the past several years.  What initially started as a review of special education, Setting The Direction, became the Action On Inclusion project which has now been dropped as a project to just become the work that we do as educators in Alberta.  We are now focusing on inclusion with the broader view of supporting all forms of diversity as an inclusive education system.  So it’s no surprise that Alberta Education would be advising us about strength-based practice as pedagogical tool that would support all students.

Resiliency = Relationships

parent and teen team building

cc licensed by Flickr photo shared by mighty mighty big mac

Since my last post, my students have continued with their struggles.  While, thankfully, a number of students continue on at a steady pace, I had to call Children and Family Services twice last week. And I’ve come to the sad realization that despite much bravado and attempts at disguise from our high school outreach students, they have a basic inability to look into their future and envision goals for themselves.  So I made a promise in my last post, which obviously remains timely, to look into the notion of resiliency… here is some information and some thoughts.

Resiliency is the ability to recover readily from adversity.  Students that have the potential for low levels of resiliency in general terms are those with a trauma and/or abuse history, those from homes that struggle with addiction or mental health issues, those who have had multiple moves in their history, those in foster care. and those who have low self-esteem.  Adolescence is the time when many lifelong attitudes are developed, so helping these students form a basis of resiliency from which to work will serve them well throughout their lives.

That last insight about my students is particularly alarming as some of the articles that I’ve read recently indicate that the ability to set goals for oneself is a key factor in recognizing resiliency in youth. Feeling safe at school was another significant factor.  As well, liking school and having a caring adult in the family were other identified important factors that contribute to youth resiliency.  In one study I read, Building Resilience In Vulnerable Youth, school connectedness was the top factor that best protects vulnerable youth in 9 of 12 areas investigated to either reduce risk or increase positive behaviors related to resiliency.  All of these factors are related to students having the circumstances to be able to find relationships where they can seek support when they need it and have the opportunity to form positive relationships with their peers.

Initially I was a bit surprised that school connectedness was so significant.  With a little thought, though, it makes good sense for a couple of reasons.  Students at risk for lower levels of resiliency are quite likely to come from homes that don’t have a strong degree of support as families struggle with their own adversity, so the school needs to fill the gaps for support when families can’t.  Also, adolescents are at a place developmentally where they are attempting to find their independence in the world so may not seek out family members in times of trouble, but look toward peers whom they most often find at school.

So what is it about school connectedness?  For me the ‘safe at school’ thought was critical. Students need to feel safe with their teachers and other staff members so they can have the comfort to risk self-disclosure and seek support from a trusted adult when faced with difficulties.  Students need to feel safe in their school environment knowing that they will be treated with respect and keep their dignity in tact when dealing with both adults and their peers.  Navigating through the world of relationships is difficult for adolescents so having a safe environment to experience success and to bounce back from messed up attempts at forming and maintaining relationships is critical.  Teens need feel that they are in a place where they can pick themselves up, get a little guidance, and keep trying to connect to others in their lives. School connectedness also relates to students liking school which happens much more readily when students are feeling successful in their work and see relevance in what they are doing at school as it relates to their own lives.

This is a tall order, but I’m convinced even more now that for schools to be effective in fostering resiliency in students, we need to provide the whole package for them.

  • We must make sure that each and every student has a positive relationship with at least one adult in the building because we often don’t truly know the resiliency levels of our students and someday even the most cool, calm, and collected student may need someone to lean on.
  • We must make sure that our school environment is safe for students to interact with their peers to form relationships.  When things go well, the positive relationships that have developed should be nurtured.  And when students struggle with relationships, supports need to be in place to help them along.
  • We must educate and encourage our students to think critically about risky behaviors so that they are equipped to make positive choices in the moment and avoid personal hazards which will chip away at the resiliency they do have.
  • We must pay attention to pedagogy and practice to ensure our students are learning and feel successful and competent as they complete curricular activities.
  • Similarly we must help students to find their place in the school on a social level by creating opportunities for them to get involved and create positive relationships with peers and adults.
  • We must look through the eyes of our students to ensure that the curriculum we provide is meaningful to them so that they will feel like they have the tools they need, both academically and personally, to move successfully through school and beyond.
  • We must help families when we become aware of a need for support by helping connect them to the appropriate services.  Parenting is a hard business at the best of times nowadays.
  • Using a strength based approach in implementing all of these strategies will go a long way toward helping students and families feel that the experiences provided are a good fit with who they are and where they are at as well as fostering sustainability for them as they will already have existing personal resources that should be tailored to the experiences provided.

I found a handout contrasting strength based vs deficit based concepts from the Alberta Mentoring Partnership awhile ago that really helped me solidify in my mind what the strength based approach involves.

I am confident that we are doing many things at CFL to contribute positively to student resiliency, but given recent developments with several of our students, it’s a topic worth re-examination.  Having identified the area of student goal development, we have discussed the need to show the students that they have the foundation to work from to develop goals.  Students need to have self-esteem to be able to look forward and take the risk to create goals, so that’s what we’re working on both and instructional and personal level.  This will be followed up next year with the implementation of the Leader In Me program with some adaptations for older students.  We’ve recently completed a review of all of our students and have set up parent meetings that will be the start of bi-monthly case conference meetings where we will work with families to ensure that the students and parents have needed support services among other things.  With Christmas and exams, we haven’t had any spirit activities recently, so we need to have some fun again.  A fund raising opportunity has landed on our doorstep so we will create leadership opportunities for students to offer activities for the students to engage with each other.

It’s a start.  We need to remain focused keeping resiliency in the forefront.  This means giving students authentic opportunities to successfully access and create positive relationships.