Numerous educational theorists have contributed to our understanding of the importance of students’ needs being met in the classroom environment in order for them to have the best educational and developmental opportunity. Meeting student needs and building resilience are particularly significant today, when the world is more socially complex for adolescents than for past generations (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018). The classroom is an incredibly social place, and “a strength-based approach identifies the resourcefulness and resilience that exists in all students” (McDonald, 2013, p.2). Accordingly, McDonald’s Positive Learning Framework (2013) adopts ideas from the Circle of Courage (Brendtro, Brokenleg & Van Bockern, 2002), focusing on the universal needs of Belonging, Generosity, Independence and Mastery. A child’s Circle can be developed by building on these universal needs through a strength-based approach to teaching in the management of the learning environment. Below, I will outline some strategies of the Positive Learning Framework (PLF) that can be used to develop a child’s Circle in order to foster resilience.
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Holding classroom meetings is a teaching strategy that can offer students choices in building and maintaining a learning environment where they can develop the areas of Independence, Belonging and Generosity within their individual Circles. Classroom meetings are informal meetings where the teacher leads a discussion and students are able to freely express their feelings and student needs and expectations for the learning environment are set. The meeting is concluded with an understanding of guidelines determined for creating a positive learning environment. This should include measures to help students learn and engage in the classroom, guidelines for respectful interactions, and understanding of reasonable consequences when the agreed upon guidelines are not followed. The teacher must act as “leader” and facilitate these sessions so that they are structured with a clear time limit and that the discussion is respectful with no student able to “insult or offend others” (LeCureux, 1991, p. 36). Building the guidelines as a class should happen regularly, but with enough time for students to be in the environment they helped create so they are aware of any changes they would like. The teacher should allow students enough opportunity in these meetings to make the agreed upon environment work. I believe teachers should aim to have these meetings at the start of each term, with a follow-up mid-term to check in on any updates to the classroom guidelines that students and the teacher feel would enhance the environment.
If students are given the opportunity to set the rules and expectations for their ideal learning environments they can feel respected, and trust is built between students and teachers, which nurtures a child’s sense of safety and belonging. Mutual respect for each other’s wants and needs, and communicating freely about these, builds relationships (Gordon, 1974). The building of these relationships and trusting connections allows students opportunities to increase their sense of belonging within the learning environment. When guidelines for the environment are developed with the students, and expectations are made clear, in conjunction with Glasser’s Choice Theory (1998), students are able to further build their independence through the understanding that they are responsible for their actions, and the awareness of the power they have over their own choices. It is observed that the “emerging adult exhibits a heightened desire for autonomy” (McDonald, 2013, p. 9), so when offered opportunities to make responsible choices, students are able to experience a freedom that enhances their sense of independence. Classroom meetings also develop generosity, an important aspect of the Circle of Courage, because students are inherently made aware of their “connectedness to the broader social environment” (Stanley, Richardson & Prior, 2005, p.19). When teachers opt to have classroom meetings they are able to demonstrate respect and concern for students, modelling generosity. The collaborative nature of the meetings allows students to show the same generosity towards their classmates which is an essential aspect of a strengths-based approach to resilience.
Classroom meetings as a strategy are particularly useful in helping build the Circles of reluctant learners. They are able to feel a sense of power over their existence in the learning environment by having input into the way the classroom operates, developing their independence. They experience the opportunity to be treated with respect and be shown generosity from others through participation in the meetings, and reciprocate and build their generosity during this participation and furthermore through following the determined guidelines. Meetings also assist in creating an environment where reluctant learners can build on their need to belong, as they are allowed the opportunity to have input into the environment so they can potentially help to construct an environment that they can be more engaged in and connected with.
Students’ growth needs can also be developed through questioning strategies. “Active participation framing” of questions, as well as “think time,” or “wait time” (McDonald, 2013, p. 166) are two strategies that teachers can implement which offer potential improvement of independence. Active participation framing involves teachers framing questions in a strategic way, so that they more students are engaged in learning. It suggests that teachers move away from questions such as “Can anyone tell me…?” and “Does anyone know…?”, and instead ask questions that promote active participation more inclusively. For example, “Yesterday we explored the instruments of the orchestra. Discuss the instrument groups with your partners for a minute and then I will ask some students to share their discussions.” When all students can participate in responding to questions the reluctant and motivated learners are more engaged in the learning environment, and there will be an opportunity for more students to solve problems and experience mastery.
In regard to “wait time,” it is typical for teachers ask students questions and wait less than one second for answers, but there are many benefits to waiting for students to have time to think before responding (Rowe, 1986). Wait time helps students to employ higher lever thinking, automatically allowing a much wider range of development around mastery, and for multiple students at a time. The levels of voluntary participation are raised and increased numbers of students engage in responses, including those from cultural minorities. Some of these students could be seen as reluctant learners but given the opportunity to have more time to think and respond, resulting in higher participation, students can gain motivation to engage and have better opportunities develop mastery. By using these daily strategies in classroom instruction, I believe it is possible for teachers to build a stronger sense of resilience in students.
A further strategy to develop each student’s Circle of Courage is to employ cooperative learning, which is where students collaborate on groups when working on assignments and tasks. Through this they are able to support each other by discussing, assisting and problem solving together, in a way where the learning is enhanced through social interaction, sharing of ideas and group problem solving. Essential elements of effective collaboration for students working in groups include being able to have positive interdependence and group processing, utilising interpersonal and social skills, being individually accountable (meaning the group does not have a central group member resulting in others being able to hide) and being allowed face-to-face interaction during class time so students have opportunities to support and encourage each other (Johnson & Johnson, 1999). Some of these will only be possible where students have some sense of belonging and safety in the learning environment, but all of the elements of effective collaboration in cooperative learning give students the opportunities to further develop their sense of belonging and grow in the area of generosity, positively contributing to each student’s circle.
Responding to Students
The ways in which teachers respond to their students can also help to nurture sections of a child’s circle, and engagement of a student can be retained, increased or decreased from these responses. It is important for a child to receive unconditional support, but when praise such as “good job!” is given it is conditional, which can decrease the motivation and engagement of students (Kohn, 2001). Following this, Kohn (2001) argues that there is a significant difference between the effects of Evaluative Praise and Behaviour Descriptive Praise. Comments such as “good job!” or “you’re clever” are examples of evaluative praise, and these sorts of statements were encouraged in the last few decades and were seen as a strategy to boost student self-esteem, increasing their motivation. Because evaluative praise is a judgement on student achievement, “When a child is labelled as being good at something, they can become fearful that the adults in their lives may see them fail and disapprove of the child’s failures” (McCormack, 2018, p. 29). This creates a situation where students have fewer opportunities to develop mastery as a result of increased extrinsic motivation but lowered intrinsic motivation in the learning environment, and lowered independence. Another effect of being fearful of failure is the loss of motivation for students to challenge themselves by attempting to try, and eventually build mastery in, new things in the learning environment. Students operating at a lower level, and reluctant learners are also negatively impacted here, as the authenticity of evaluative praise perceived by them is questionable.
Behaviour descriptive praise is descriptive positive feedback without the use of evaluation. Examples include “you’re listening, you’re ready” and “wow, you focussed on your work for the whole hour!” Descriptive praise, when done consistently, not only motivates the student receiving the feedback but also shows other students the expectations of the teacher, and helps develop a positive learning environment. The classroom becomes a place where students feel motivated to try and work hard as opposed to only having motivation if they feel they are capable of achieving at a certain standard. Using behaviour descriptive praise rather than evaluative praise creates a learning environment with opportunities for all students to increase their level of motivation and build on belonging (all students have equal opportunities to receive praise), generosity (modelled to students), and especially independence (intrinsic motivation) and mastery (motivation to challenge themselves in unfamiliar areas).
De-escalation of Conflict
A teacher’s chosen strategies for the de-escalation of conflicts can also prospectively help to develop areas of a child’s circle. De-escalating has to be done carefully otherwise students, and reluctant learners in particular, can experience negative impact on their sense of belonging and generosity. Using strategies such as proximity and eye contact are effective low-level responses that can allow for students to maintain their dignity, as they are not singled out in front of their peers. This de-escalation strategy allows students involved in low-level disruptions to build their independence through the opportunity to build self-control and responsibility. Where a classroom has implemented Choice Theory (Glasser, 1998), in situations where moderate levels of disruption are occurring the students can be reminded of the responsibility and power they have over their choices and actions, and these reminders can minimise the disruptions effectively. Reminding students of their ability to choose their actions and power over themselves allows opportunities for independence, belonging and generosity to be built on. The student-teacher relationship can be maintained, and opportunities for building generosity and belonging can arise even in situations where there is a high-level disruption if students can be spoken to in private so they are not embarrassed in front of their peers, maintain their dignity, and do not feel isolated in the learning environment (Curwin, 1992).
the Circle of Courage is important in a strengths-based approach to teaching because…
many teaching strategies can be used to enhance student strengths according to their needs of belonging, generosity, etc…
in this essay I have outlined five specific strategies: classroom meetings, questioning strategies, cooperative learning, responding to students and de-escalation of conflict.
by constantly revising my approach to teaching in light of the Circle of Courage principles, I aim to ….
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Kohn, A. (2001). Five reasons to stop saying ‘Good Job”, Accessed 5 February, https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/five-reasons-stop-saying-good-job/
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