Whole-Brain Teaching: How to meet ALL students’ needs!

Working with students who come from high-trauma and low-income families and communities adds a different stressor to students, a classroom and teachers. As educators, we can support families by letting them know about resources in their communities. This might include assistance programs, free services for families, and more from public resources like libraries. For students, we can work to make a classroom community where they feel safe to learn. This includes one where students can take space to calm down, get a snack to keep their energy up, talk out their issues, and learn in a quiet, respectful environment. These take time to build, and with each student, which can add an extra responsibility to a teachers’ workload. Without each of these supports, and a child feeling safe, the student cannot take in extra knowledge.

I had a student once come into class, late, and he just was not focusing. He was disrupting the class, being disrespectful to other students, and in general, not being a scholar according to our classroom and school norms. I held him in during recess, and I checked in with him and asked him why he was acting out. He said, “I didn’t sleep because the guys outside were fighting (gangs), then I had to get my sister ready (who is 5), take BART to the city, and take 2 busses to get to school. And I didn’t eat breakfast. So I don’t care about math.” He was 8 years old. And it all made sense.

A child’s brain is stimulated so much by nurture. This doesn’t only mean being held in a loving way by a parent. This means having quality interactions, both emotionally and physically, at home, in school, and in transition. This means knowing that your basic needs for survival are being managed, and that the child is not the sole-provider for those basic needs. Someone once related this to my hand. It’s like looking at your own hand, and making a fist. That fist is your whole brain working. Each finger is a different need that you need to have met before you are able to use your whole brain. If your thumb is out, your whole brain isn’t ready to work. That might be your need for nutrition and safety in being full and not hungry.

As educators, we can work to make sure those basic needs for safety and security are being met, by providing families with food bank information, safe housing options, and nonviolent communication workshops. But in all reality, we don’t have control over their home. We have control over our classroom home, of which we can provide the same basic needs that a student needs to learn, even if only for 6 hours of the day.

Set the foundation for successful whole-class conversations!

Having a whole-class conversation might seem easier than it actually is. I was in a colleague’s 5th grade classroom last year, and I watched her sit at her desk, grading homework assignments, while she instructed her students to talk about the latest CNN Student News that they watched. They walked to the front of the classroom, sat down in a circle and I watched in awe as one student took the floor and spoke, and then other students agreed or disagreed and provided insight to their thoughts. The teacher was not facilitating it at all, but occasionally jumped in to authentically participate in the conversation.

This is an advanced whole-class conversation, and in order to get to this point, there are many foundational aspects that need to be in place. First of all, as the teacher, you need to prepare the students with academic discourse, specifically guidelines and sentence frames. The guidelines are pretty consistent for all circles: one person speaks at a time, everyone’s opinion is valuable, don’t yuck someone’s yum (speak respectfully of and to all opinions), stay on topic, speak from your heart, etc. Possible sentence frames vary with each conversation. I recently had a whole-class conversation where students looked at a map that showed where certain spiders lived and in what populations, and they were prompted to discuss where they would want to live.  Some frames that I used included: I would want to live____ because____. I agree with ____ because _____. On the map it shows_____ so I think______. I disagree with _____ because____.

As you might have noticed, the only time the teacher was involved here was in the preparation. I teach 3rd grade and my students have not mastered having a conversation on their own, but they have become more successful. My part is usually one where I refocus the conversation, or where I add an opposing viewpoint, or change my viewpoint, depending on where I want the conversation to go. The thing about whole-class conversations is that you really never know where the conversation will go, but if you have a teaching goal, you can always end the conversation with that, as a transition into the next lesson.

‘Buddy Classrooms’ — the answer to the suspension cycle?

Students get sent out of classrooms everyday. They are either sent to spend the day in the office, another teacher’s classroom, or sent home if they happen to be suspended. This is a punitive way of dealing with discipline and does not build on the student’s academic or social participation in their classroom community. In fact, students who spend an extended amount of time outside of the classroom, especially on a suspension-type consequence, are 23% more likely to drop out of school, according to a 2006 study in Florida. They are also more apt to being suspended again.

Why do these students who are suspended or sent out of classrooms for extended periods of time have a higher rate of dropping out or getting suspended? There are a number of possibilities. When being sent out of the classroom, the student consequently misses class work. The student then needs to do more work to catch up, and this can be frustrating. The student might act out because of this and then get sent out of the classroom again, further widening the gap between the student and his/her peers.

So what can we do, as educators, to not use punitive measures, like suspensions, while still keeping the classroom safe? A possible solution is what I like to call ‘buddy classrooms’. These classrooms are designated at the beginning of a school year, where two teachers agree to use each other’s classes as either ‘work classrooms’ or as ‘I need a break classrooms’. In this model, the teachers can give a student a pass to just have a different space to get their work done if they are unable to function as their best self in a classroom. There is a time-limit set on each work classroom, as to get the student ready to come back to the community in a safe way. If the student just needs an emotional break, this would function in the same way, with a time limit, and again, the end result having the student back in the classroom within the day, and even within the hour.

The goal is to have the student back in the classroom as soon as he/she is ready. Independence and self-monitoring of behavior can become a classroom norm. When a student needs a break, he or she can choose to take that time without teacher interference. Of course, this procedure has to be explicitly taught, modeled, and monitored (and should be grade appropriate). This gives control to the student while also keeping the classroom and the student on track academically and socially. Everybody wins 🙂

Communicating with parents from day 1!

During my first year of teaching, I made the mistake of making a phone call home to discuss the negative behavior of a student in my classroom. This was within the first few weeks of school, and I received a jarring response, yet one that I learned a lot from. This student was refusing to do work, constantly disrupting the class, and often using disrespectful language to other students and to me. It came to a head one day, and I made a phone call after school to his mom. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Hi, this is Ms. Christine, your child’s teacher.”

Mom: “Oh hi, is everything ok?”

Me: “Well, actually I was calling to talk about your child.”

…I went to on to summarize recent behaviors.

Mom: “Well honestly, this is the first time I am even talking to you this year. I don’t know you, and my son is also probably trying to get to know you. I don’t like that our first contact is about something negative. I would have loved to first learn about how you teach, how you run your classroom, and what your expectations are, that way I could use the same language with my son and he would know that you and I are on the same team.”

The conversation went on, and I completely understood and respected what she was saying. I didn’t reach out to families at the start of the year. I had planned to hold off until Back-to-School night, which was after the first month. That first month is so crucial to building on the rest of the year, and in hindsight, I should have made a positive contact with each family earlier.

After my conversation with that parent, I made sure to check in with each family, and have an initial get-to-know-you conversation. Throughout the year, I referred to students’ families as being on a team with me, where their child is our quarterback. We all need to work together to support the student. Making that initial initial phone call, talking in person, or chatting over ClassDojo Messenger, has made a huge difference in my classroom support system.

Go Team!

I use ClassDojo for both behavioral and academic monitoring. I have multiple teams of students within ClassDojo that I award points to. These teams include partnerships and table groups. Their partnerships originally stemmed from their reading partners, but quickly expanded to desk partners as well. If either partner was off-task, they would not earn the points. It became a way for the students to not only work in teams, but to work together to accomplish a common goal.

The benefit of using ClassDojo instead of other traditional methods, is that the teacher can be mobile. As you walk around the room you are able to award points, giving students both an auditory and visual stimulus. When awarding points to groups, students quickly sharpen up their behavior and display teamwork! They hold each other accountable to make sure their group is behaved and on task. This makes my life much easier.

To get students even more engaged with ClassDojo, I implemented a weekly incentive program. At the end of each week, I would view reports and reward the team that earned the most points with either a technology party (using computers during recess) or a popcorn party. Providing these sorts of rewards kept students excited about ClassDojo, looking forward to the next week and the opportunity to be the winning team. Very excited to continue to use ClassDojo this year!  🙂


Keeping the peace with restorative practices

The first day of school always seems to sneak up on me. Students, parents and teachers alike are focused on getting new school supplies, getting themselves more organized, and planning other details for the school year. Most of these components are controllable. However, there seem to be a number of components that are completely out of our control… or are they?

When school starts, students experience a shift in environment, from home to the classroom. There is a strict schedule, new faces to get used to, academic work that needs to be done, and much more. It can come as a shock to students and they often act out in ways that are outside of their normal behaviors. We cannot control the strong feelings that students have, but we can control how they deal with those feelings.

The first tool that we can give students is the ability to use their words. This looks like a student expressing what they are feeling, if they are calm enough to use their words. This is the first step in restorative practices. You might consider putting up a feelings chart somewhere in your classroom where students can reference how to express themselves.

A second component that can help students deal with strong feelings is a “Peace Center” or a “Peace Corner”. This space is somewhere in the classroom where a student can remove themselves from the trigger that is causing the issue. This trigger, especially in the beginning of the school year, could simply be their desk. The student might just need a different space to be. The “Peace Center” could have tactile “calm down” manipulatives, such as play dough, a fidget, a journal and pencil, an appreciation jar to get the student back to a positive space, and something soft and comforting like a pillow or a blanket. In the beginning of the year each student should have a time in the “Peace Center” to test out the space.

These practices are a great start to restorative practices in the classroom. The goal is for students to build relationships with other students in a classroom where they feel a sense of community and support. In turn, students should gain more independence to self-reflect and make decisions on how to manage themselves in the classroom and further in the world.

At a new school this year? Build a community on day one!

Summer is a time where a lot of teachers are relaxing and enjoying a break in the school year. Other teachers are switching schools and are scrambling to get their new classrooms together. The checklist of things to get accomplished before beginning at a new school is lengthy. It includes all of the HR requirements, tying loose ends at your old school, moving your things from one classroom to the other, learning any new curriculum for your grade or school, and most importantly, thinking about how to build your new classroom community.

Building a new classroom community isn’t just an item to check off a list. I remember moving from a 5th grade classroom at one school to a 3rd grade classroom in another school. I had everything in place, including my behavioral management systems, and started the school year. I did not consider that I had not built relationships with the students yet and I had no trust built between us. At my first encounter with a behavioral issue, I had little to no incentive for the students to follow through and meet my expectations.

After reflecting on the incident, I began to place certain routines in my day to get to know the students in a way that wasn’t through academic instruction. I started to eat lunch with several students a day. Now, I know this involves giving up my personal lunch time for a few weeks, but the effects were remarkable. I began to build individual relationships with the students. They began to see me as a person as well as their teacher. I even began to share personal stories that related to lessons, which allowed students to learn more about me and feel more comfortable with me as their teacher.

By using this strategy — both in and out of the classroom — I was able to connect with my students right away. There was much more accountability, trust, and understanding built between us. Trust can be hard to come by, especially if you work with at-risk youth in high-needs communities, so make sure to continue to foster this in any classroom you may transition into.

Inside, outside, anywhere: ClassDojo works throughout the day!

One of the best parts about having a mobile tool to encourage positive behaviors (or a behavioral management system as many teachers call it!) is that I don’t have to carry post-it notes around 24/7. I can use my phone or iPad to use ClassDojo at recess or in the hallways on the way to PE or in the library. To track behavior during these different activities I have created a variety of “classes”, which include reading, writing, math, science, PE, library, music, recess, and hallway.

Each of these classes have a unique set of behaviors. For example, positive PE behaviors include working hard, helping a teammate, playing safely, listening to directions, and trying your best. Positive music behaviors include trying your best, following along in the song, listening to instructions, and working together. Hallway behaviors include keeping your hands to yourself, walking quietly, and staying in line. Behaviors vary for each class, however, behavioral norms stay consistent.

Students will quickly learn what is expected of them during each activity. Although you will need to take time to go over the different expectations for each activity at the beginning of the year, you will save so much time in the long run. Time spent typically correcting behaviors is now spent learning curriculum! The better your students understand what is expected of them during each activity, the more likely they are to develop positive behaviors.

ClassDojo: Making report cards easier!

ClassDojo has worked wonders for me in terms of keeping track of student behaviors. Parents created accounts to be updated on student activity, students have never been more excited to use a behavior-management system, and I have felt more aware of student behaviors in the classroom. Originally, I had my classroom aligned by periods of the day and by behavioral expectations. This allowed me to use data from ClassDojo to complete the behavior section of report cards. However, many teachers agree that the behavioral section of report cards is the easiest to get through because we are so in-tune with student behavior.

During the second semester of the school-year, I began to use ClassDojo to record more than just student behaviors. I began to monitor students during Reader’s Workshop once a week. I added behaviors into my “Reader’s Workshop” class that included reading, writing, distracted, and talking. This allowed me to see more than just their emotional behaviors; it allowed me to monitor their participation in a much closer way. I began to use the same system for Writer’s Workshop and for math time. The behaviors differed slightly, but it was a great way to monitor students’ progress during these activities.

Checking in with students during these activities was quick and and easy. I could check in without disrupting students simply by observing their behaviors. I was able to keep a running record of their work habits during these activities. This record was something that I could use when writing report cards because it was data-driven and spanned an entire semester of learning. Using ClassDojo for report cards was extremely helpful for me, my students, and for informing parents of what is going on in the classroom in a various number of realms.