|According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, safety is a foundational need that must be met before ascending to higher levels of performance. This is especially true in schools. Students and staff must feel safe before they can focus their energy on learning. As we seek to improve the academic performance of struggling schools, we must make sure we are providing a physically and emotionally safe environment for students – and for staff.
We must begin our task of providing a safe environment by addressing the physical safety of all the people within the school building.
A recent national report cited about 25% of schools do not have a written safety plan (the national report is attached to this post). Creating a written plan for fire, bad weather and lock down drills is a good place to begin the plan. An aspiring administrator can begin this task, getting a map of the building, planning exit routes, and scheduling drills. Part of any evacuation or lock down plan should include a way to account for missing or extra students. Gather an emergency response team that includes the front office staff, counselors, school nurse, administrators, and any security personnel. Review the plan with them and revise. This plan should be revised after each drill. It should also be expanded to include responses to suicides, bullying, bomb threats, fights, and any other emergencies. Scripts for phone messages to parents can be included.
When an emergency happens is not the time to realize that no one has read the emergency plan. Practicing drills helps provide a reassurance to staff and students that they are prepared for an emergency. A schedule for drills should be set before school starts, making sure that drills occur at different times of the day so students know various routines and routes for safety. As the drills become more routine, try blocking an exit so students must be re-routed. Another twist on the drill is to remove a student from the drill and see if he is listed as missing.
Look at your discipline data, where do most of the more serious infractions occur? Cafeteria? Bathrooms? Hallways? Post extra personnel in those places or assign an administrator to stand in that area during passing periods. Make it a school expectation that teachers stand in their doorways during passing periods and those that have the following period off, stand a bit longer as classes begin. Classrooms that generate more referrals should be examined for assistance with classroom management or relationship building.
Look at which children are having the most discipline issues. Create counselor groups to support social skill development. Recruit mentors for struggling students. Rearrange schedules so students are not in classes where they have conflicts with another student. Invite parents to shadow a student for a day. Hall security should be aware and monitor these children during passing periods. Administrators should do random checks in classes to get a understanding of how the student interacts with teachers and peers. Does the student have issues in one class or many – in the morning or afternoon? Dig deep into the individual data to try to find the underlying issue for the discipline problem.
Eric Jensen (Teaching with Poverty in Mind, 2009) tells us that children naturally have only 5 emotions – the remainder are learned from their environment. As we encounter our struggling students, it is apparent that many of them lack the social skills to interact with others and participate in society in an acceptable manner. It is crucial that school personnel realize that they must teach the behaviors they want to see in their students. An advisory or seminar period during the day, even for half an hour can provide a venue to teaching character traits and other social skills. There needs to be a backwards design of these skills in our schools, just as we do for math, science, and reading skills. What do we believe a graduating senior must demonstrate? We must decide when we will teach these skills – when will they be introduced? mastered? reinforced? – a curriculum map for social, emotional, and behavior skills must be created.
Procedures must be created to deal with social conflict, including bullying, threats, and suicide. These procedures should be published and staff must be educated in how to identify, report, and handle student social issues.
There is a saying: “It takes three positives to counteract one negative.” When dealing with struggling students, it is important that the entire school community adopt a “growth mindset” regarding student behavior. They must believe that each student can learn and grow in their social emotional skills, just as they grow in their academic achievement. They must be intentional in their approach to staying positive with challenging students and work to establish caring relationships with all students – even the “hard to love.”
The traditional, reactive discipline model does not work in poverty schools or with struggling students. Removing a student from the educational environment through expulsion or suspension only works to remove the student from their opportunity to learn – placing them farther behind their peers (which may lead to further discipline issues). It can be a vicious circle as struggling students who lag academic skills act out in classes to avoid revealing their discrepancies and are then excluded from classes causing them to fall further behind. Identifying students who struggle and providing them with the skills they need socially and academically for success in the mainstream classroom is a first step. Finding a way to provide after school tutoring time or study hall in lieu of a suspension may provide the consequence for behavior and also help close the achievement gap.
Middle School is Critical
As students move from the one teacher school day in elementary school toward the anonymity of large high schools, the middle school period provides a critical time to develop the necessary social, emotional, and behavior skills required for success in mainstream classrooms.
Leaders must assure the physical safety of their students and staff by creating policies and practicing drills with fidelity. They must also pay attention to the social-emotional safety of their school community. They must identify the skills needed for success and make sure their school provides a venue to develop these skills in each of their students.