Small VT School Uses Debriefs to Foster Classroom Wellbeing

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Article on Bullying and Communication

Thanks to Laura Jean Whitcomb, publisher of Kid Stuff for letting us reprint this article about a ground-breaking move by a small school in central Vermont,  The Willow School. One look at the their website almost has me rethinking our departure for New Zealand this fall, and instead,  having our young son attend the school!

Outward Bound mandatory for all young people?

Like legendary Headmaster Dave Fowler at  Proctor Academy in Andover, NH where he pioneered incorporating Outward Bound principles of experiential education and community building into the school’s fabric in 1971,  it sure looks like the founders of the Willow School are doing the same thing for younger students. The article below covers what will hopefully be incorporated in many schools across the U.S. and abroad.   In New Zealand as well, (where we’ve been living), bullying appears to be a problem.

Proctor’s experiential model

I’m reprinting this article in hopes that it will fall into the right hands of school teachers and administrators.  During my 15-plus teaching years at Outward Bound, the debrief and reflection were key to a successful outcome for the students, and helped insure some strong “takeaways” that they could use as life skills.  In fact, Outward Bound Professional Development courses also incorporate these basic techniques illustrated below. We incorporate them in our marriage, and of course in all we do at Mountain Spirit Institute.
Congrats to Kid Stuff, publisher Laura Jean Whitcomb,  and writer Andi Diehn for reporting on this. “LJ” tells me an article is in the works which will  focus on teens and high school-specific issues on bullying and debriefs. Stop by their  website, to find  out more about that article.

Recess Chat at the Willow School
By Andi Diehn
Kid’s Stuff, April/May 2012
Reprinted with permission

Students at the Willow School sit down to resolve any problems that arose during recess.

When my boys begged to ride the bus to school I waffled and wavered. When I was a kid, the bus was where bullies ruled. But school buses, which used to be such a hotbed of peer- to-peer verbal combat, are traveling flower shows compared to the myriad of venues that are even more conducive to bullying behavior: the Internet, cell phones and recess. When you think of all the ways there are for our children to hurt each other’s feelings, it’s shocking any of our children emerge from high school with ego intact.

But, as the recent online phenomenon tells us, It Gets Better.

One of the places where it gets better is at Willow School in Wilder, Vt. “Social and emotional development goes hand in hand with academics,” says Riley O’Connor, teacher and co-founder of Willow School. “Some people say, ‘Aren’t you micromanaging their friendships? ‘ I see it as we’re giving them the skills they need to manage themselves.”

On the daily schedule at Willow School you’ll see the usual list of academic subjects and lunchtime. You’ll also see recess chat. Recess chat is when the students have a chance to discuss any behavior they encounter on the playground that doesn’t feel fair, or nice. “It’s not just a tattletale fest,” O’Connor explains. “There’s a process.” Students first tell the person who hurt their feelings, then they tell a teacher, and if they still feel the issue isn’t resolved, they bring it up at recess chat.

Ada Acker is the facilitator of the day’s discussion.

O’Connor used to have a form of recess chat in her classroom in public school. She remembers why:  “It was 1996 and I was teaching first grade. I had worked hard setting up a science project for them while they were at recess. The bell rang, I went out to get them, and one little girl was trying to tell me what had happened on the playground. I told her, ‘I’m sure recess will be better tomorrow’ In her mind I had completely dismissed her.”

Because the children were so focused on what had happened at recess, they found it impossible to do the science project. O’Connor scrapped the plan and sat everyone down for a classroom meeting. They saved science for the next day. “People ask me how do I have time to do recess chats, and I have to ask, how do you have time not to?”

“Exclusion, body language, harsh tones,” lists a second-grade girl when asked what sorts of behavior might come up at recess chat. Then she and a few of her friends demonstrate what hurtful body language might look like, complete with crossed arms, pouting mouths and rolling eyes. These kids know what hurtful behavior looks like and they don’t tolerate it.

“That thing where the teacher takes the student out into the hallway to talk about their bad behavior we’ve flipped that on its head,” says Willow School’s other founder, Terri Ashley. “When they’re embarrassed by their behavior, that’s when they change. Being told what you did wrong in the quiet hallway is very different from hearing the collective gasp of your classmates when they hear it and ask, ‘How could you do that?’

Recess chats may work well in a private school with only 18 children who represent grades kindergarten through fourth. But what about in the overcrowded classrooms of a public school? “Definitely,” says O’Connor. “It might have to be called something less cute. But it would work. My son teaches seventh, eighth and ninth grade music and he came to me and asked, ‘How do I get them to settle down and be ready for music?’ I  said, ‘Recess chat!’ He takes five or ten minutes before every class now.”

Layne Kull makes a point during the discussion.

Norwich mom Mary Bender sent two of her four children to Willow School “They’re really ahead of the curve in terms of preventing bullying,” she says. “The whole group works with the child to change the behavior. The child’s peers are asking, ‘Why would you do that? “lt’s much more powerful than if it was just coming from a teacher.” Bender also points out that every child in the school learns to be comfortable confronting the person who made them feel badly.

We may worry more  about bullying at the high school level, when pimples, income levels and social systems can cause rifts between people who used to be friends and know just what buttons to press to cause devastating reactions. But the seeds for bullying behavior are planted in the elementary years. This is when children learn how to act, how to respond, how to talk, and how to value themselves. If all elementary• schools had daily meetings to discuss behaviors and feelings, we might see fewer victims, perpetrators and bystanders in the later grades. “You can’t fix everything,” says O’Connor. “But some things, you can fix.”

PARENT TIP: Bullying tends to happen out of sight of parents and other adults. But there are things we can do to prepare our children. By talking about bullying, we make it less likely it will become a taboo, secretive subject. We make it less likely they will suffer through it alone. Here are a few tips on how to get the conversation started.

Play the “what if” game Ask your child what they would do if they saw someone teasing someone else. What would they do if someone called them names” Who would they tell if they saw a child excluding another child from a game? Be specific about who they can go to with problems – teachers, guidance counselors, parents of friends and, of course, you. Teach compassion and acceptance. Talk about bullying scenes from movies and books and discuss how different behavior could have been used to avoid unhealthy confrontations. Highlight moments of compassion and acceptance you witness as a family. Don’t let anyone’s mean behavior go unnoticed. When bullies can’t be avoided , keep a written log of incidents. Encourage your child to write down their experiences, too. Report incidents to the school and police. Help your child find buddies for the playground, school bus, classroom, wherever they’re being mistreated. Talk to the parent’s of other victims and share strategies for eliminating the bullying behavior.

Editor’s Note: We would love to hear any feedback or news about how this article is making a difference. Let us know what you think, and we’ll pass on what we hear to the Kid Stuff team.

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