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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Develop a Welcoming Culture

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Have you ever noticed that the worst behaving children are never absent? I was tempted many times, when teaching seventh grade, to breath on certain students when I was sick. I wondered if the reason that these students never missed school was because their parents didn't want them at home. Of course, it was never that simple. Some parents worked and had no one to watch their children. Other students lived in dangerous home environments, and school was safer than staying home. Regardless of the reason, I wonder how many children feel unwanted wherever they are; home, school, the corner store, with their peers or on the streets.

Discussions

I was never spanked. My father died before I was five. My mother, a very gentle, loving woman told me, "Hitting is wrong, I will never hit you and you will never hit anyone." We had discussions when I behaved inappropriately. When my friends bragged about hard they got spanked, "My dad hit me so hard, I couldn't sit down for a week," I asked, "Does feeling guilty count?" (Yes, kids brag about taking a hard spanking. Think of the number of athletes who brag about getting whooped.) I would ask my mother to spank me, because it was far easier than a discussion. I learned it was harder to change my behavior than it was to take a punishment.

Being Part of Something Bigger than Oneself

I also learned that being part of a family made me feel part of something bigger than myself. This was a major key in my development. My mother gave me unconditional love and I was part of something that really mattered to me. So much of the good in life comes from that kind of belonging: to a family, a religion, a country, a favorite sports team or a group of friends.

A school that welcomes those who no one wants significantly changes those kids' attitudes, behavior and feelings of security. But welcoming is more than a strategy or intervention. It's a culture based on vales that the school community believes in.

There are many ways to develop a culture of welcoming, and I would like to discuss one of the most important.

Inclusion

No basketball coach would ever say to a player, "You missed too many foul shots in the last game. You can't practice until you show me you can do better." No reading teacher would say, "You are the worst reader in the school. No more reading for you until you improve." These examples sound ridiculous because everyone knows the only way to get better at something is to do it, regardless of what that "it" is. Even those who believe in positive imaging still know that no one gets better without doing it. One stipulation is that it, whatever the "it" happens to be, it must be done right. So why do educators say, "You can't go on a field trip until you prove you can do it right," or "You are off the playground until you show me you know how to behave." These examples are just as ridiculous as the earlier ones.

Schools are currently set up for the students who have good social skills to be given more opportunity to use and refine them, while those with poor social skills are left behind, only to get worse than others in their age group. Opportunity for winners -- and exclusion for losers -- is a recipe for disaster. This is not a theoretical concern. Look at any school in America that plays this game and the results are obvious.

More Inclusion for Those Who Need It the Most

The students with the lowest social skills need the most field trips, playground time, eating in the lunchroom and, most importantly, staying in class. Needing a break from a child is often necessary; routine, continual referrals are not. We can accomplish keeping students included by teaching social skills in class. Secondly, we must provide safety, so that these students won't steal, fight or embarrass the school, both on and off campus. There are at least two ways to do this: facilitating relationships with elders and what I call the "Altruism Consequence" -- both of which I discuss in my book, linked above.

Golden Years: Golden Relationships

One way is to make use of elderly people who are lonely in their special needs homes. Many are fully physically capable of going on a field trip, to a school cafeteria or playground, or sitting next to the target student as a partner. Ask anyone who seen a troubled youth with an elderly person. The change is almost a miracle. Both parties love it. This love, like grandparent love, differs from relationships with teachers and parents. It comes from a long, natural tradition of the status of Elders in tribal behavior. We see it in Native Americans, Canadian Indians, and tribes in Africa, Australia and the Middle East. This strategy works even better for kids without grandparents or whose grandparents are acting in the role of parents.

The Altruism Consequence

Another way to solve the safety issue may sound a little weird to those who have never tried it, but many readers who have tried the altruism consequence will attest to a high percentage of success. Although nothing works all the time, altruism has a greater chance than most of working. Essentially, the altruism consequence is for children at risk to help other younger at-risk children. Sometimes logistics matter, but most of the time they don't when we design this pairing within a school or when two schools share the same land space.

Some fear that hooking up an at-risk student with a younger at-risk child can only lead to disaster. But think about this for a moment. When we tell students we can help them, who feels helpless? When we tell students we need their help, who feels empowered? Which of these scenarios leads to a greater feeling of inclusion, being part of something bigger than oneself? I once heard a seventh grade gang member say to a first grader, "Don't you join no gang. Once in, you never get out. If you do, you'll have to answer to me!" Partnering older students to take care of younger ones helps both unwelcome children. Some coaching is necessary for the helper, and some kids don't want an older mentor. But by and large, regardless of which rule is broken, this is the best consequence I know because of its welcoming qualities. With the aid of the elderly and those who have never experienced altruism, there is no reason not to level the playing field and include those without social skills in all school activities.

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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