Are children becoming more aggressive?

aggression

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When I first began teaching, we had to talk to our students about not playing “Power Rangers” on the playground, because they children were acting out the ninja-style fight scenes. In general, once they’d been talked to, they found other things to play. Fast forward to today: a group of grade 2 students are playing at lunch. The game is “Family” and each child has chosen a character, mom, dad, stepmom, baby, sister, brother. The “baby” lies on the ground, pretending to sleep. “Mom” says, “What are you, a dead baby? Get up, dead baby” and gives his legs a kick. He doesn’t respond. The “mom” grabs the baby by the legs and starts dragging him to his “room” along the ground. “Baby” gets mad, stands up and yells that he likes the “other mom” better. “Mom” hits him on the arm – he runs over to a supervisor to tell on her.

This game is not just about family – these students play many versions, whether it’s “cats” or “knights” or what have you. But each day it’s the same – grabbing, pulling, capturing, anger, hitting, tears.  These students have worked with the classroom teacher, with the child care worker, and with the principal to understand school rules, to work on using words to resolve their conflicts, and to choose games without such physical aggression. Still the same drama plays out on a regular basis.

Elsewhere on the playground some intermediate boys are playing tag – but it’s zombie tag. The one who’s “it” jumps on the back of another, making him fall to the ground. The zombie mimes twisting the boy’s head and breaking his neck. The “victim” grabs a handful of sand and throws it at the zombie – he’s actually angry now.

These observations lead me to wonder: are children getting more aggressive? We know that since the incursion of TV into our homes, it’s been suggested that violent media are affecting our kids. But there’s more to it than that, as a number of recent articles explain.

  1. Biological factors: Pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom suggests that children have a lower level of development of proprioceptive sense (our body’s ability to recognize and understand our bodies’ orientation in space and how it interacts with other objects) due to less time engaged in physical play and work. Children who do not go outside and play, lift, push, climb, run and jump have muscles and joints that don’t recognize how hard they are contacting other objects (or people).
  2. Lower verbal and/or cognitive and executive function ability: One of my personal frustrations is seeing young children essentially ignored by parents and caregivers who are involved on their phones or tablets while in the presence of their kids – pushing a stroller with headphones in their ears, or sitting at a bus stop texting while the toddler stares into space. Are kids getting less exposure to vocabulary and language learning experiences? If so, they won’t develop the language to negotiate, express feelings and resolve conflict without physical aggression. (Rick Nauert – Penn State University)
  3. Lower ability to manage physiological responses to stress – we know that kids have more stress in their lives, as a result of the higher levels of parental stress, highly structured and scheduled extra-curricular lives, social stress from social media and other reasons. If children are in a chronically stressed state their ability to use reason and logic to solve problems is reduced, and the likelihood of the fight or flight response to situations is elevated. (Rick Nauert – Penn State University)  Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s work on attachment and the maturation process ties in to this: “We need safe places to feel sad about the things in life we can not change. Without that our emotions turn to aggression.” When children don’t have a safe emotional space, with a secure attachment to a caring, mature adult, they harden to protect themselves.
  4. Media violence – as mentioned before, for over 50 years we have wondered about the link between violence on tv, in movies, music, and video games and children’s behaviour. Since most studies have been short-term, results are still inconclusive – there is a definite correlation but not clear causation. Douglas Gentile, associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University explains why he believes that video games in particular influence children’s behaviour.

“You practice being vigilant for enemies, practice thinking that it’s acceptable to respond aggressively to provocation, and practice becoming desensitized to the consequences of violence…Researchers found that over time children start to think more aggressively. And when provoked at home, school or in other situations, children will react much like they do when playing a violent video game. Repeated practice of aggressive ways of thinking appears to drive the long-term effect of violent games on aggression. “

And if you think that this only affects high school students, a study from Princeton found that  about 70 percent of children as young as nine years old report playing “Mature”-rated games (suitable for those seventeen and older), which contain the most graphic violence of all.

5. Parental separation and divorce – the Canadian Department of Justice has compiled a significant body of research that children who experience parental separation and divorce are at greater risk of depression and behavioural problems including aggression into adulthood, exacerbated by parents having a high level of conflict after the divorce.

Our children currently have access to the highest levels of instruction and intervention in social-emotional skills, self-regulation, conflict resolution, and other skills that should provide them with the tools to counter aggression. We need to continue to place a high emphasis on these skills and understandings in order to prevent our young children from carrying their aggression into adulthood.

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Like us on Facebook?

As a school principal I am frequently frustrated by the apparent difficulty in maintaining effective communication with our families. I even tackled the subject in my Master’s thesis, exploring the effectiveness of email versus traditional paper messages between school and home. I am an avid technology user so I maintain a complete and up to date school website, and expanded to using Twitter for short updates and features for our families. We also have an extensive email list for our newsletters.

With all that, we were still finding at the school that parents just didn’t get the information we were putting out. The volume of phone calls asking repetitive questions (which we’d often refer back to the website) was baffling. Why weren’t people getting the info they wanted when we knew it was available for them?

Over the summer I debated starting a Facebook page for the school. I waffled for a while, thinking “it’s one more social media channel to manage….do I really have time to do this?” The I read a headline that 71% of online adults use Facebook (from the Pew Research Centre). And while that’s an American statistic, another from 2013 is that Canada has the highest proportion of Facebook users. I decided to try it.

Is it effective? Let me tell you I am absolutely amazed by the response. Here’s one example. At 6:48 pm on a Friday evening I made a post with a photo of our fresh shiny hallways ready for opening day on Monday, with 2 sentences about where students should go that morning. By 8:30 am the next morning, 235 people had been reached by that post. In context – I have 316 students registered at the school. To me, that scope of reach and speed at which those people were engaged is nothing short of magic. 

“Like us on Facebook”? You bet!!

How do you engage with your school community? Do you have innovative ways to harness social media to bring families closer to the school?

Gratitude

This morning I am filling in for an absent teacher. The students have a weekly gratitude journal time, and so I am participating as well. It’s hard to decide where to begin…big or small. I have a hundred big things that I am grateful for in my life, and to begin to list them would be easy. Maybe it’s the more challenging task to think about the small things…I always like a challenge. Here we go.

This morning when I was driving to work I saw a squirrel that seemed to be racing my car. It made me smile and I’m grateful for that. On that same drive, I often see Mount Baker in various ways – lit up by pink morning sun, shrouded in wisps of cloud, brilliant snow shining at the peak.  I’m grateful for the funny texts my daughter sends me before I’m awake. I’m grateful for a song on the radio that keeps me singing snippets of it as I walk into school.

I’m grateful for the time this morning to reflect on my gratitude. 

Moving a Graveyard – Changing School Culture

I remember seeing a cartoon, during my early teaching career, that said, “Moving a graveyard is easier than changing a school.”  As we are in the midst of a period of rapid change in many aspects of society including schools, I’ve been thinking lately about that quote and how it applies to my school in particular.

The quote is originally from President Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century, and it related to school curriculum change. The idea behind it was that, “You never know how many friends the dead have until you try to move a cemetery.” In the educational context, I have seen this with a particular process, structure, tool or teaching strategy; regardless of how loudly people complain about it, they are highly resistant to letting it go and moving to something new and different.  Clunky report card template – hate it! Want to design your own format or try this one that someone else has designed? No thanks! Huh?

This thinking can be frustrating to a teacher or administrator who has the desire for change but feels like the culture of the school discourages innovation. How do you start the move and deal with the “friends of the dead”? The book School Culture Rewired by Todd Whitaker and Steve Gruenert (ASCD) has practical suggestions. Reading over Spring Break, I grabbed on to one particular idea. 

“Nurture the positive subcultures in the school.” 

There is always a subculture, however small or quiet it may be. Maybe there are two people who volunteer for every workshop or learning opportunity. Maybe there are two teachers who want to have some time to observe each other or plan together. Maybe someone’s mentioned the desire to have a book study group, but doesn’t think anyone else would be interested. There’s a subculture! A principal or vice-principal can nurture that sprout by offering time, resources, or connections to others who share that passion. Talk about it in informal conversations, show enthusiasm for what they are doing, learn alongside, fan that flame.  A subtle shift will start to occur, where those who are having their passion validated will begin to feel confident and supported in their innovation. This will be felt by others in the school, and can create a ripple effect. They may think, “Maybe we are a school that is moving forward. Maybe it’s more invigorating than scary!”

  

What about those “friends of the dead”? There will always be resistors to any change. Unanimous agreement is not necessary in moving forward. There does need to be opportunity for consultation and shared learning around change, and have their concerns heard. We can discuss the success and advantages of the new, and hold it up in comparison to the old, and with time grow support so that a tipping point is reached. Patience, diligence, optimism and a dose of courage are required. 

What subcultures do you see in your school? What can you do to nurture them and start cultural change?

Image courtesy of http://cbens.deviantart.com/art/Buckminster-Fuller-Quote-Change-Something-425490392

The struggle

I’m struggling. No, this isn’t one of those confession blog posts, or a cry for help. I have just had something of an epiphany, however, that I am struggling. This is my first post in a while, and it’s a bit long, but I’ll explain why this is a big deal for me.

First, my role. I am a school principal. If you’re not specifically knowledgable about the role, at this point I’ll just say it’s complicated, multi-faceted, and has a high level of responsibility attached. As with most professions, we are guided by a set of Standards developed by our professional organization, which describe an ideal, if you will, or a set of skills and competencies to strive towards. Great, right? The standards serve as the basis for our performance reviews, and help us set goals for improvement. Professional Growth is obviously an integral part of a career such as mine. In fact, I am the professional development chair for my local chapter of the BCPVPA, so I place great value on professional learning.

Now about me. I am a pretty driven person. I work hard, I am passionate about many aspects of my role, I love to learn new things, I embrace change, I am energized by working with people and solving complex problems, and I think on top of that I’m a pretty positive person. I consider myself to have been very successful as a teacher, and I hold high standards for myself in ethics, relationships, collaboration, and empathy. So far so good.

So here’s the thing.

One of the topics in education that I’m fascinated with currently is the idea of growth vs fixed mindset as studied and described by Carol Dweck. Her research illuminates some extremely powerful effects of feedback and praise, and provides excellent strategies for building resilience, risk taking, and persistence in our students and ourselves. She talks about how some feedback and praise actually shut down a person’s willingness to do difficult tasks, and can create fear of failure and low self-confidence. I am planning on bringing more awareness and practice along these lines into my school. I try to be aware of how I support a growth mindset in my work with teachers and students. I write about it in my school newsletters. Like I said, I’m pretty into it.

But.
I was the kid who could have been an example from the fixed mindset stories in Dweck’s book. I was told I was smart, just naturally good at things, and they were easy for me, especially school. I don’t remember trying hard and still got the same type of comments. I don’t remember most of elementary or high school, to be honest, but I remember very specifically the instances where I hit a failure: my grade 2 math test on greater than and less than. My first physics class. My first university class entirely in French. Guess what? My dirty little secret? I quit them all. I didn’t struggle. I quit them because they were hard. Huh.

Fast forward through two decades of successful teaching, having fun, taking on new grades, new school systems, getting great evaluations, and into administration. The work is messy. It’s complex. It’s constantly shifting. It’s spontaneous. It’s affected by dozens of factors completely out of my control. It’s hard to pin down. It’s guided by ideals that seem unreachable. It is fraught with moments that make you grin ear to ear with joy and make you want to shut the door and weep. It gives you tremendous energy and sucks it right back out. I judge myself based on the Leadership Standards, which describe what the job should be if you’re doing it well. self doubt creeps in. I’m not meeting all those standards. I’m not good at this. How can a person be “good at” a job like this? And wouldn’t it feel easy once you figured out how to do it?

I said this wasn’t a confession post, but maybe I do need one to tell the story right. A couple of years ago things were tough in my school. I felt like I was a “good” principal, a good leader, had good relationships, but I was also frustrated and feeling ineffective because things weren’t progressing towards that ideal as I’d expected. I decided that a change of school was what I needed to be able to be good at my job, the way I felt I should be. Basically, I quit because it was really hard.

I am sure you can guess that the work did not magically get easier at a different school. I am still struggling. And here’s where it all comes together. While I believe in the power of the growth mindset, I grew up in the fixed mindset, and I still live there sometimes. My epiphany has been that the struggle is not bad. That’s not to say that it feels particularly good while you’re in the middle of it either. It just is. I am learning that the struggle is not a definition of my success or failure. It’s learning. And it’s never going to end. Being an effective principal is never going to “come naturally” or be something I’m just good at, but i am going to keep learning how to do it. I can’t compare myself to other who seem to be “better” at it, or for whom it seems easier. I would never promote that thinking in a student! I should also not cut myself, or my school, down because it’s hard.

It’s a hard job, Carol, I remind myself, let it be hard.

Over the past few years, I have not been looking at my work as a work in progress, only at the product. The leadership standards should be, for me, not a destination to achieve or a list to check off. They are descriptions of the role, and it’s the process of learning how to do them that should be the goal rather than giving myself gold stars for already knowing how. I have been holding s double standard – that being a work in progress is great for others, but not for me. I’m working to be aware of how that old spectre of the fixed mindset still affects my thoughts and impulses, and to change that mindset.

But it’s a struggle.

5 things I am grateful for

Ok. I know I’m not only a couple of weeks late for a thankfulness post (at least here in Canada) but I’m also a couple of weeks behind in the #bcedbloggers challenge. I don’t know why it’s been hard for me to focus my thoughts lately but I figure reflecting on a few things that are wonderful in my life is a good thing to focus on.

1. My Family. I know this seems like an obvious one, but I often feel like the luckiest person on earth to have my husband and daughter in my life. For more than half of my existence on this planet, my husband Todd and then my daughter Hayley have brought love, fun, laughter and joy to my life. Every. Single. Day.

2. Canada. It’s hard not to take a place for granted, or even complain from time to time, when you’ve lived there all your life. My family and I took a 6 year hiatus from Canada in the early 2000s and have been back for 7 years now. Being Canadian is a true gift, not only in the way of life that we enjoy but also in the values we hold and the respect our citizens have earned around the world. I try to appreciate this wonderful country, flaws and all, every day.

3. Books. I can’t imagine a day without a good book. I start and end my day, eat most of my meals, and spend a lot of my free time wrapped up in a book. They provide my mind with nourishment. They are a necessity.

4. My work. As a principal I have so many things to be thankful for. I have the chance to be inspired and energized by the curiosity and enthusiasm of children every day. I get to learn from and with a group of wildly different yet commonly dedicated educators. I receive the trust and support of the families of our students, and of our district’s senior management team. I have opportunities to follow my own interests and passions as well. And whenever I have a bad day I will reread this paragraph and remember why I am thankful for it!

5. Trees. The forest is my happy place. I am so lucky to live in a city and a province so rich with green spaces, BIG green spaces, and where they are valued and protected. Whether it’s on a walk with my dogs, or out for a run, or hiking with Todd up a new (to us) trail on an adventure, the forest restores something in my soul every time I breathe in.

Thanks to the other members of the blogging challenge for keeping my efforts going. I am grateful to you too!

A leap of faith

Coming back to a new school year after a long and difficult teachers’ strike, I was wary of launching the plans I’d formulated to try a new learner Support Team (LST) model in the school. I was worried that the teachers, having been through so much emotional turmoil for so many weeks, might be looking for familiarity and a comfort zone on their return. At the same time I worried about the danger of losing another year of opportunity to provide more timely and targeted interventions for our students. If we didn’t start the year under the new model, it would be darn near impossible to change later. I needed to take a leap of faith in the idea and in my teachers’ resilience.

With the help of the dream LST team at the school, we assessed our new and at-risk students from the spring. Using the data we created targeted, skill and strategy based groups of students from across classes and grades. We delayed building our prep and gym schedules until we got the LST schedule in place to protect the intervention time. And we talked with the classroom teachers to clarify the philosophy behind and anticipated outcomes of the new model.

The teachers have taken a leap of faith in me. Having been principal of the school for one year, I am so appreciative of their trust to undertake a pretty massive shift in our system at a difficult time. I know that there will be bugs to iron out, but I am very eager to see the progress our students have made at our first checkpoint in 8-9 weeks. We will reassess the students and change the groupings and focus as needed.

Change is never easy for everyone, but as the saying goes,

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It’s not personal

“Carol, Don’t you ever get upset about anything? You never seem to get mad even when people are mad at you!” This comment came one day from a teacher during a particularly difficult time in my 2nd year as a principal. At the time I laughed, because of course I get upset like everyone else when situations are stressful, fraught with negative emotions, or seem personal. But there are a few core principles that, upon reflection, I hold that led to this teacher’s observation. I thought I’d share some of them with you.

Mindfulness
The concept of mindfulness was something I practiced before really knowing of it explicitly, through my interest in yoga as a fitness activity. Later, learning about mindfulness in the context of education (for example with the MindUp program for students) led me to a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, mindfulness as a technique and way of being that helps me manage my own reactions (what I can control) to stressful or difficult situations (that I can’t control). I love following and sharing the tweets from @mindfuleveryday to keep myself on track.

The Four Agreements
I was first introduced to this book by Don Miguel Ruiz through a short video from Aboriginal artist Roy Henry Vickers. The book summarizes ancient teachings of the Toltec people that lead to a happy life. One of the agreements is “don’t take things personally”. In essence, this means that each of us sees a situation through our own lenses and it is real to us. If someone else is upset with a situation and thinks that you are the cause, that is their reality but it does not need to be yours. If you believe in you own reality, and believe that you are doing your best and being honest and acting with integrity, that is enough. They are upset – that is their reality. You are fine and confident in yourself – that is your reality. This is honestly one of the most powerful things I have ever read and I come back to it often when I find myself in a situation of conflict.

Getting mad doesn’t get us moving forward
This one is just a part of my personality. I’ve never gone in for arguments, never had the need to prove I am right or try to change someone else’s mind. I don’t see the point of getting angry and making a big fuss. It doesn’t help solve the problem or move us forward; it may actually just make the situation worse by leading to words or actions that we soon regret.

So with all of that being said, of course I still sometimes get upset. I am human, after all! But I use these principles and techniques to work through it in private or with a trusted friend, or my husband or my daughter, all of whom know me well and allow me to talk myself around to a state of acceptance and calm. Like all skills, the more they are practiced the more easily they are used and the more effective they can be. In a human and relationship-based profession, conflict or disagreement is inevitable. I just don’t take it personally.

How do you deal with conflict? What strategies do you practice to maintain relationships and your own serenity in difficult times?

I am not a teacher

A few days ago it hit me like a 100 watt lightbulb going on.  I am not a teacher.  

Since the age of about 6 this is all I have ever seen myself being.  OK, maybe there were those few months in the late 80s that I thought I could be a lawyer.  But I didn’t.  I became a teacher.  I became a damn good teacher.

I started rough like most of us, fumbling my way through the first couple of years, learning about the difference between teacher education and really teaching.  I made mistakes, I learned, I developed, I grew. I started to mentor.

I moved to a new country and felt like I was starting learning all over again.  Everything was new, but I was a good teacher so I kept on growing, and learning, and trying new things and stopping old things and getting better. I blended what I knew and did before with this new knowledge and experience. I still made mistakes and worked from there.  I mentored some more.  I took a Master’s degree in administration.

I moved back to Canada and became a VP.  I still had a classroom, still made mistakes in both jobs, but I kept on learning about a new province, new students and their needs, new communities, new curriculum, new strategies, new best practices.  I felt like the strongest teacher I’d ever been.  I felt inspired by the leadership role that I’d added to being a teacher.

I became a principal.  I still took opportunities to get in classrooms and teach “guest units”, do projects, model, demonstrate, do my thing.  Show that I was good at my thing.  At the same time I was adapting to the role of principal, figuring out (like a new teacher) the difference between administrator education and the real job.  There were great, invigorating challenges and heartbreaks.  There were uplifting successes and frustrations.  There was still a lot of growth and still a good deal of failure.  I could see where I needed to develop skills as a leader.  I could see areas where my teachers could learn, grow and develop and I continued to learn as much as I could.

But last week it hit me.  I am not a teacher anymore.  I am a principal.  One of the roles of a principal is to be an instructional leader, and I thought for a long time that meant continuing to be a master teacher.  But it doesn’t.  It means helping others to be their best, not being the best.  Light goes on.

It’s just like a great hockey player who becomes a coach.  That player could be the best on the ice, but once they move into the coaching role, it’s not their job to be the best player on the ice anymore. Any great coach is obviously still invested in the success of the team and their players’ growth. They will get to know their players, study strategy and new techniques not only in their sport but in leadership, and coaching.  They will work hard to bring out the best in others.

So am I no less committed to learning all that I can about research into how kids learn as I was when I was a teacher.  But now I get to dig more into how adults learn, how change occurs, how to bring out the best in staff and students.  But I don’t need to KNOW it all or DO it all in a classroom.  I will support, motivate, encourage, point in the right direction, connect, provide perspective, ask questions, listen, resource, advocate, facilitate and participate.  I will ask those I work with for feedback and and listen to them so that I can keep on learning and growing.

I am not the best teacher.  But I will continue learning to be the best principal I can be.

Intentions and Expectations

Ask any educator about kids and anxiety and you’ll probably hear a pretty common refrain: more and more young children and adolescents are experiencing anxiety. We also know that when children feel frightened or anxious, they don’t learn as well. For some children, school is the cause of their worries. They are afraid of making mistakes, of losing status with their peers, of feeling or looking “dumb”, or of not living up to their own or someone else’s expectations. Students with learning disabilities may fall into this category as things that seem to come easily to their classmates are a daily struggle for them.

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When teachers discuss these students with me, one option usually presented is to “buffer” the student from the anxiety-inducing situation (usually grade-level instruction in one or more subjects) until adaptations or supports are in place. The student may work on some individualized activities with an LST teacher, child care worker, or education assistant. As you can imagine, we have done this with the best of intentions – reduce the child’s stress, let them know that we care about what they’re going through, and demonstrate flexibility in our system. We would not add any pressure, and wait for them to be more “ready” to get back to their regular grade-level curriculum. Up until a few weeks ago, I thought that was a pretty good thing to do.

What changed a few weeks ago was that I attended a three-day seminar on response to intervention. Not only did I realize during those three days that my knowledge of what RTI is was very superficial, I had a few of those moments where a real internal debate was going on. One of the core premises of RTI is that ALL students are guaranteed access to essential grade-level instruction. If we regularly remove students (especially students who are below grade-level or struggling to keep up), then we are in effect lowering our expectations of those students. We are setting them on a road to ALWAYS being behind and being at risk of all the negative effects of not completing secondary school (poorer adult health, lower income, higher likelihood of criminal activity, to name a few).

What right to I have to set that child on that road while they are still in elementary school? Knowing that a child has struggles, be they academic, social, emotional, or physical, should never make us set the bar lower for that child. We need to not just say “All children can learn” while adding “to their own level”. That’s an abrogation of our responsibility. We need to say “All children can learn….whatever it takes”.
20140601-184723-67643547.jpgImage Courtesy of blog.edmentum.com
After bringing some of my epiphanies back to my school, we are making our interventions a priority for next year. We will explore ways to identify what the ESSENTIAL curriculum is (a great opportunity with the new curricular frameworks here in BC), and how to ensure that ALL students are guaranteed access to that AS WELL AS the interventions that they need to catch up and keep up.

We need to blend our good intentions with our high expectations for all learners. It’s a big responsibility, but why else are we here? <br /