Another school year has begun – however, this year feels different. It is as though a shift in history has occurred and schools are no longer the havens of safety and security for students or staff.
“At least 10 states allow staff members to possess or have access to a firearm on school grounds.” (Education Commission of the States, New York Times)
“A Florida state legislative committee approved a $67 million ‘school marshal’ program this week to train and arm teachers.” (New York Times)
52 new security cameras were installed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida before students returned to school this fall after the Parkland shooting. (USA Today)
We have entered an era in which school violence and mental health awareness are taking an unprecedented presence in our classrooms. In light of this, I find myself asking a lot of questions. How can I teach my students to be self-aware and value their feelings? How can I help students see the importance in advocating for their needs? How can I help children develop self-sustaining habits rather than self-destructive? How can I overwhelm our youth with positive influences to balance the influence of any current or future negativity?
I teach second grade – which may seem a little early to be talking about these issues. Most frequently when we hear about student gun violence or youth suicide rates, the faces that come to mind are teenagers. That said, I cannot help but wonder what opportunities existed earlier in their lives to help the students we’ve lost. Was someone there to teach them that feelings matter, needs should be acknowledged, and positive habits help to regulate hurtful feelings? There are children who walk through our doors every day who are experiencing strong emotions: they are scared to be starting a new school, mad about their parents getting divorced, or hurt by their peers who were cruel. Many times our students don’t know what to do with these feelings and so the emotions build up and/or morph into destructive behaviors.
With this in mind, I integrated the practice of morning meetings into my classroom with the hopes of encouraging students to feel empowered by their emotions rather than controlled by them. These meetings are a small step on my part to feel proactive, rather than reactive, in this era of violence.
The process can look different from teacher to teacher. These are the components I chose to incorporate into my morning meetings:
Naming Our Feelings
This is as simple as it sounds. We, myself included, go around the circle and share one word to describe how we are feeling. At the beginning of the year this sounds a lot like mad, sad, happy, and scared. As the year develops, we try to get more specific with our feeling words, integrating in words like disappointed, excited, content, and nervous. Outside of morning meeting time, I had a volunteer create a picture of each of my students showing a different emotion and we labeled them. This provided a reference for students on days when they had trouble describing their emotions.
During this time students do not elaborate as to why they are feeling a particular emotion. After we have all shared our word, I ask the students to think about what they heard. Is there a friend they need to connect with today? Is there someone who shares the same emotion as them? Is there someone you can help feel better in small ways throughout the day? These are questions we think about in our heads but do not share answers outloud. I do this for several reasons, mainly privacy. Some students carry around big problems that are not always appropriate to share with one another. Other students do not like to share in front of a group. If either of those students are able to have a meaningful connection with a peer later on in the day because someone heard they were feeling sad, that is impactful.
As the teacher, I am listening to my students say their words and am contemplating different questions. Who do I need to connect with later today? Is there a pattern of negative feelings for any of my students or for my class as a whole? Which students are having trouble naming their feelings? This reflection time allows me to be purposeful with my student interactions throughout the rest of the day.
Compliment and Connect
Next is time for students to provide peer compliments. We use the sentence starter, “I would like to compliment (name) on (specific compliment).” Significant discussion and training on my part goes into using a student’s name, making eye contact, and creating specific compliments. We also talk about being fair with our compliments – not always complimenting the same people over and over and instead noticing all people in need of a compliment.
My goal is for the students to be genuine and on the lookout throughout the day for complement opportunities that might otherwise go unnoticed. The awesome outcome of this compliment time is that the behaviors receiving positive attention always multiply. For example, one student complimented another on lining up quietly the day before when it was time to go home. The next time we had to line up, it was amazing how quiet the line was! The other students wanted to be recognized by their peers as having behavior worth complimenting.
Practicing New Skills
This is when I squeeze in a super quick social lesson based on previous class behaviors. At the beginning of the year it could also be teaching morning meeting routine – how to compliment or share feelings for example. Here are a few other of my favorites:
- Paper Charlie
- Bugs and Wishes
- Kelso’s Choice Wheel (role playing familiar scenarios)
- Tattling vs. Telling (sorting scenarios and practicing “I statements”)
- De-escalation Strategies (deep breaths, quiet spaces, and counting down)
My main goal with these lessons is to provide a skill or information that connects to students’ current needs. If I notice recess issues, I structure a quick lesson on that. If there is an increase in the amount of “reporting” minor behaviors, my lesson moves in that direction. The lessons are always quick (approximately 5 minutes) and geared towards the students practicing a strategy they can employ immediately.
Setting a Goal
Finally, we end the morning meeting by setting a goal. Students self-reflect on what action they could take to help them be successful throughout the rest of the day. These goals range from the simple (“I am going to remember to write my name on my paper every time”) to complex (“I am going to find someone new to play with at recess because I feel like I don’t have any friends”). Our next step is to make an action plan for meeting our goal which students think about quietly by themselves. At the end, we turn to our “accountability partners” – the student sitting next to us – and share the goal/plan. Our accountability partner is there throughout the day to help us and compliment our progress towards this goal. One outcome I notice most from this routine is that I don’t have to issue as many reminders. The kids are helping each other to be better students and are connecting with each other in the process.
Overall, morning meetings take about 20 minutes yet leave me with a wealth of information. At the end, I know exactly who I need to check in with throughout the day for further attention and I know what behavior goals my students are working toward. I empower my students to name their emotions and find value in what they are feeling. In doing so, I hope they recognize that they have strategies for coping with negative feelings. Sometimes that strategy is asking for help from others, other times it could be practicing a strategy they learned from our morning meeting time.
I received a letter from one of my students at the end of year. I had asked my class to write down 2-3 things that I should keep doing next year with my new class. I expected answered like our swimming field trip to the YMCA and our dam building inquiry science – those were the typical responses. One student surprised me, though. He wrote, “You should keep morning meetings. I earned 21 compliments this year. It made me feel love. I feel important.” My hope is that if enough classrooms begin teaching their students to name and address their emotional needs, that headlines like the ones above will no longer exist. We will not need armed teachers and school marshals. More importantly, student lives would be saved because they too feel important. This is my small way, in this new era, of bringing safety and security to each of my students.