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When I was 16 years old, I had the opportunity to teach gymnastics to children under the guidance of Roy, a director with a great philosophy toward teaching. Roy believed that all staff, students, and parents should feel welcome every time they walked in the gym door. He taught all of his employees about finding the strengths in every student, having a positive outlook on their jobs, and the power of smiling and genuinely welcoming each student as they arrived to class. Without defining or labeling what he was teaching, Roy was showing his staff how to create a positive climate in his gym. And it showed. His business was highly successful because people felt good when they were there: students, parents, and also his employees. We felt appreciated and part of a community. I ended up working at Roy’s gym through my high school years and every summer during my years in college. This was a life changing experience for me. I had never really thought about how important it was for students to feel comfortable so they were able to learn. Roy’s philosophy became the basis for my personal style of teaching as I moved into education.
A New Job
In 2006 I completed a graduate program in counseling psychology and began working in a rural high school in a small town in New Hampshire. (I still work there today as their mental health clinician.) When I first started at the high school I enjoyed my work tremendously. But, I didn’t have a lot of opportunity to work in the mainstream. I mostly worked with individual students and small groups in my office. Even so, I met many students who came to school in the morning before classes started and went home at the end of the day after school ended, but these kids weren’t involved in any of our school programs. I wanted to find a way to get them involved. Maybe a club would help them feel connected, respected, and included. As a result, perhaps they’d invest in their education a little bit more, learn a little bit more about their school community, and begin preparing for their future. It was worth some serious thought.
In 2012, I attended my first Social Thinking® conference in Boston. I had been using cognitive behavioral techniques and solution-focused therapy with my students for years but Social Thinking just had a common sense to it. In fact, I remember sitting in the audience and thinking “Wow, this is just what I need to use with my students! Everyone needs to know about this!” Our district Special Education Director was very supportive of my newfound enthusiasm, approving my request to order any books I wanted. Many Sundays were spent learning about Social Thinking and creating lessons that I could use in a high school setting.
Sharing Social Thinking in the Mainstream
Once I got a handle on Social Thinking concepts and vocabulary, I still felt an urgency to get the core ideas that make up the Social Thinking methodology into the mainstream. The more I learned about Social Thinking, the more I realized that it could benefit all our students, not just those with social learning challenges. But how could I do that? Then I thought about Roy again and realized that one of the gems in Social Thinking is that it reinforces the idea that we all need to think about the people we’re interacting with and work together so everyone feels comfortable. I wanted a way to use Social Thinking in creating a more welcoming climate for our students and our school. Luckily, I found just that avenue when I attended a conference on PBIS, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (see sidebar). It was there that I was able to envision how Social Thinking and PBIS could be used together to help change the climate of our school.
A New Opportunity
Around that same time I helped with an anti-bullying week with the theme, “Be An Upstander.” That event became the springboard for forming the club I envisioned. One student in particular, Tessa, really wanted to be involved. We agreed the first step was to survey the perspectives of our students and staff about their feelings about our school climate. Were we kind to each other? Did we respect each other’s differences? Did our students and staff interact in a positive manner? Did we support each other when someone was having a tough time in their lives? Did our students know where to get help if they needed emotional support? I felt that if we continuously worked on creating a caring community, everyone involved would feel good about going to school each day. Tessa and I spent many hours discussing the issues, talking about and relating them to Social Thinking and PBIS, and designing the club. We chose the club name SPEAK: Students Promoting Equality and Kindness. Then we went to work recruiting other students and staff to be involved. We found 10 students who wanted to meet during the summer to prepare for the following 2013-2014 school year.
The Importance of School Climate
A caring school and a welcoming school climate are important for all students and staff. When students know there are adults who care about them, they will feel more connected to their school and their sense of self-worth will improve. School staff need to feel appreciated and respected as well. Social Thinking talks about this from the social standpoint of “thinking about you thinking about me.” Adults who work together collaboratively and supportively become a great role model for students to learn how they can work with their peers. Effective collaboration can become contagious and has a positive effect on everyone.
Yet, thinking about interpersonal interactions is not a strength for everyone. In fact, it is incredibly challenging at times. But the effort is definitely worthwhile. If ignored, a school community can quickly become a negative environment. It takes persistence in teaching and a mindful effort from staff and students to create a healthy and supportive climate. It needs to be taught, modeled, reinforced, and continuously nurtured.
A New School Year
One of SPEAK’s first goals was to set a welcoming tone as students returned to school. To do this the individuals in SPEAK created ways to make our students and staff feel included and respected. They constructed “Welcome Back to School” banners for each class and for the staff, with every student and staff member’s name written on a banner. Each banner was hung up in the hallway for everyone to see as they returned to school in the fall.
SPEAK members got involved with the freshman orientation, working with the school council to host a club activities fair and help new freshman get acclimated. Personal invitations to our first lunch meeting were delivered to freshmen who had expressed an interest in a club. It was interesting how that simple gesture sparked the curiosity of other students in the school.
On the first day of school, SPEAK members welcomed everyone back to school. They created little cards with positive comments and candy attached, which they handed out as students picked up their class schedules.
SPEAK Makes a Difference
SPEAK began meeting every Tuesday after school from 3:00-5:00 p.m. and every Wednesday during our three lunch periods. This provided flexible times for students who took the bus home and couldn’t stay for an after-school program. There were no attendance requirements nor consequences if a student couldn’t make a meeting. Some students attended every meeting and some came whenever they had the time. The flexibility seemed a plus for this club.
Tessa created a private Facebook page for the club. At first we just used it for announcements and information about SPEAK. But it quickly became more, an example of how social media could be used in a very positive and productive manner. By November we had 50 members on the Facebook page. We created rules about what could be posted and students were invited to share information that would benefit our club and our school. Students began posting ideas and sending positive messages to each other. The climate was changing.
We wanted to learn more about how our students felt about their school, so we created an 18 question pre-survey. We discovered that the biggest issue affecting students was receiving mean text messages or negative comments posted on social media.
The results prompted me to start incorporating Social Thinking Vocabulary and lessons into our after school meetings. I taught students about concepts such as thinking with their eyes, expected and unexpected behaviors, and using their brain filters. As students became more familiar with the Social Thinking Vocabulary they became Social Thinking messengers, offering mini Social Thinking lessons as they shared survey results with others! This took a lot of courage and for most members in SPEAK it was an experience that took them out of their comfort zone. Each time they stopped by a classroom to share information, they would deliver little note cards with messages like: “Don’t Be Mean Behind the Screen” or “Think Before You Speak. Words Can Hurt Feelings.” Each card had a piece of candy attached.
Social Thinking Moves into the Classrooms
One of the teachers asked if I would be willing to come and talk more about Social Thinking in her classroom. I was thrilled! I created a few interactive lessons on expected and unexpected behavior, thinking with your eyes, and using your brain filter. I invited SPEAK members to come and observe the classes so they would continue to learn more about Social Thinking and how it can be shared in school. The students who observed the lessons commented on how helpful it was to hear the information applied within the classroom setting and that it now started to really make sense to them.
My favorite classroom experience occurred while I was teaching a class on expected and unexpected behaviors. I wanted to make the lesson interactive and was able to find a very socially connected student to help me illustrate the ways we react when someone exhibits unexpected behavior. The class and I were brainstorming our lists of expected behaviors and then unexpected behaviors. I casually asked my “acting” student to get something for me from another classroom. When he returned a few minutes later, he interrupted the class with every unexpected behavior he could muster. He brought a lot of attention to himself opening the door and announcing his return, saying hi to certain students, giving high fives, ignoring others, and finally sitting at his desk and asking loudly what we were doing. The students were so surprised at his behavior—and actually became upset with him. They were concerned for me as the teacher and didn’t understand why he was behaving the way he was. So we stopped what we were doing and decided to make a list of all his unexpected behaviors. The class came up with more than I even noticed! When I confessed that the experience was pre-planned they all thought it was very funny and we had lively conversation about it and the thoughts and emotions we have when faced with unexpected behavior. This was Social Thinking “in action” and a way to help students appreciate the thought-behavior-feelings connections that are part of our daily experiences.
Resolution For Change
Whenever the students in SPEAK are creating a project, I’m always thinking about ways we can intertwine Social Thinking concepts and methodology. Changing a school climate through PBIS goes hand-in-hand with Social Thinking. I’m not sure how we could be truly effective with PBIS without the Social Thinking connection since behavior and thinking are so intertwined. One of my favorite SPEAK projects was “Our Resolution for Change.” Tessa came to see me one day in December with a wish to have everyone in the school think about a change they would like to make in their lives. We focused on Social Thinking messages, our thoughts about each other, and what we could all do to make our lives a little bit better and happier. We created a large mural, Our Resolution For Change Begins Here. The students in SPEAK visited each classroom during advisory periods with colored strips of paper, inviting each student and staff member to write down something they would like to change in their lives to feel more positive about themselves. Most everyone wrote something down. We pasted these, starting on the mural, in a long line down and around our four hallways. It was an inspiring demonstration of working together toward positive change.
We were excited to do more. We asked all staff and students to send in a photo of themselves doing something they loved to do, to create a sense of community within the school. We received about 80 photos. Thanks to my son, Andrew, who works at an advertising agency in Boston, he and one of his colleagues created large posters adding the photos and overlaying them with pictures of inspiring historical figures, such as Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela. Tessa’s mother created other posters using some of the photos, each with a caption: What Do You Love To Do? or Find What You Love To Do. They became part of the mural.
We also created our own Social Thinking posters to illustrate key concepts in action. One poster showed SPEAK students in a classroom exhibiting expected behaviors and another poster showed them exhibiting unexpected behaviors. The message was “Unexpected behaviors cause tension and stress. Expected behaviors create a happier classroom with supportive learning.” We also created posters about personal space and bystander/upstander behavior.
Our hallways became covered with Social Thinking messages and resolutions for positive change. SPEAK members continued visiting classrooms during advisory periods, talking about different Social Thinking concepts, and more and more teachers started requesting me to teach their students about Social Thinking. It was a lot of work, a lot of fun, and the efforts continued to steer the school climate toward positive supports and initiatives.
The Keys to Success
In hindsight I noticed that certain things contributed to the overall success SPEAK had at our school. Identifying people who are sincere about helping is one. Another is remaining flexible and open-minded to exploring many ideas. Over the past years, SPEAK has had many students involved who have committed most of their free time to the club and many who had so many commitments that their time with us was very limited. Some of our staff would come and have lunch with us when they had the time or join us after school to help with some of our projects. It is a club that is open to all students and they can join at any time throughout the year.
It is also extremely important to have a supportive administration. Our principal and associate principal were 100% on board with SPEAK doing this work and have been extremely encouraging. Our school board with the help of a community member funded a trip to California so myself, two colleagues and three of our SPEAK students, Tessa, Mhairi, and Jordynn, could present at the 2014 Social Thinking Annual Providers’ Conference. Their active support keeps us motivated and facilitates our efforts!
We have a mascot named Maggie, a precious little pug who makes a surprise visit to the club from time to time. We have pizza parties and we recognize club members for the wonderful work they are doing in our school. We also recognize students in the school who exhibit positive character traits, presenting them with certificates when they demonstrate kindness, empathy, compassion, dedication, and generosity.
The students in SPEAK have learned so much about Social Thinking and have become stronger social problem solvers. They were, and are, courageous individuals with a vested interest in improving our school’s climate. As a result, students in all our classes are more cognizant of themselves as social learners, and are actively demonstrating a more positive approach to how they interact with each other. Through the marriage of PBIS strategies with Social Thinking, our school as a whole is much more supportive, caring, and respectful.
I can’t wait to see what else we accomplish together.
Julie Hogue is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor who works at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in Canaan, NH. Originally from California, where she started her teaching career, she relocated with her family to NH in 2000, receiving her master’s degree in counseling psychology from Antioch University New England. She currently works with students in grades 9–12 and is the Advisor of SPEAK.
Note: this article was originally written in fall 2014 and Julie updates us that SPEAK has continued to grow since then with new ideas and new projects. The students mentioned in the article have graduated and gone on to their adult lives, carrying with them the social awareness and sensitivity they learned about through SPEAK. Julie welcomes email from anyone interested in learning how to create a caring culture in schools. Contact her at email@example.com.
References & Resources
For more information about the roles of bystander/upstander visit: www.bullybust.org
Breaking the Bully-Victim-Bystander Cycle Tool Kit. The National School Climate Center offers a free resource designed to help school leadership teams and school community members prevent bully-victim behavior and promote upstander behavior in K-12 schools.
More on PBIS
“PBIS” is short for Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports, and is language that comes directly from the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It is the only approach to addressing behavior that is specifically mentioned in the law, and remains in the current version of the law as amended in 2004.
What is PBIS?
PBIS is a framework or approach for assisting school personnel in adopting and organizing evidence-based behavioral interventions into an integrated continuum that enhances academic and social behavior outcomes for all students. PBIS is based on principles of applied behavior analysis and the prevention approach and values of positive behavior support.
PBIS supports the success of ALL students. Most students will succeed when a positive school culture is promoted, informative corrective feedback is provided, academic success is maximized, and use of prosocial skills is acknowledged.
How is PBIS related to Response-to-Intervention (RTI)?
The logic, tenets, and principles of PBIS are the same as those represented in RtI (e.g., universal screening, continuous progress monitoring, data-based decision making, implementation fidelity, evidence-based interventions). Literacy and numeracy implementation frameworks are examples of the application of RtI for academic behavior, and PBIS is an example of the application of RtI for social behavior.
What is School-wide PBIS?
PBIS is used interchangeably with SWPBS, which is short for “School-wide Positive Behavior Supports.”
One of the foremost advances in school-wide discipline is the emphasis on school-wide systems of support that include proactive strategies for defining, teaching, and supporting appropriate student behaviors to create positive school environments. Instead of using a piecemeal approach of individual behavioral management plans, a continuum of positive behavior support for all students within a school is implemented in areas including the classroom and non-classroom settings (such as hallways, buses, and restrooms).
Why is it so important to focus on teaching positive social behaviors?
In the past, school-wide discipline has focused mainly on reacting to specific student misbehavior by implementing punishment-based strategies including reprimands, loss of privileges, office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions. Research has shown that the implementation of punishment, especially when it is used inconsistently and in the absence of other positive strategies, is ineffective. Introducing, modeling, and reinforcing positive social behavior is an important step of a student's educational experience. Teaching behavioral expectations and rewarding students for following them is a much more positive approach than waiting for misbehavior to occur before responding. The purpose of school-wide PBIS is to establish a climate in which appropriate behavior is the norm.
Source: Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports, OSEP Technical Assistance Center website.