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You've Got to Reach Before You Teach

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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"Whether at the start of the school year, the re-start of school after the New Year, or at any time when we want to strengthen our students' engagement in school and learning, it is valuable to have tools at our disposal that help us effectively reach students."

This is a quote from Paula Prentis, Chris Parrott, and Amy Smith's collection of marvelous activities to enable teachers to do exactly that collection of marvelous activities. Here are two of my favorites, including one particularly relevant to the holiday season.

Giving Back, Giving Thanks

Particularly when students are going to have a long break from school, it's useful to ask them what they are going to do during that time. You will hear about ways they plan to enjoy themselves, maybe time they will spend with family or friends they don't usually see, and maybe what they expect to "get" over the holidays. You are also likely to hear that they are looking forward to doing some variation of "nothing." One theme of "reaching" is to appeal to the best part of students' nature. So, ask the question, "What are you going to do for others?"

You might be greeted with incredulous responses, or simply gawking stares. Don't be deterred. Repeat the question. And then, as needed, begin to clarify.

You can propose the following to students: One way to use your time well is to do something that others will appreciate, especially if they have done something for you. Who are people in your family or in your neighborhood who have done things for you that you may have taken for granted? Who knows what it means to 'take something for granted'?

Children at any age can understand the idea that people do things for you that you don't even think about. This includes letter carriers who bring the mail, firefighters who help put out and prevent fires, workers who keep food stores stocked with food, and of course, people in our families who help with homework, put things away for us, clean our rooms or clothes, etc.

Close with this simple request: During the time you have off from school, pick someone who has done something for you and do something for them, either to help them or simply to say thank you. You will not only make them feel better, you will feel proud of yourself.

Pose Moral Dilemmas to Your Students

Our students face moral dilemmas every day. Some are small, should I turn in the pen I found? Some are more serious, should I look at my neighbor's answers on the test paper? And some are very serious, should I tell someone about the bullying I have been seeing?

Developing students' moral sensibilities is like developing any other muscle or skill: It requires guidance and practice. Starting early makes it easier for students to grapple with ever-more serious dilemmas with greater capacity for insight and reflection. In this way, we reach our students' moral core, and let them know that how they conduct themselves at school, as well as in all areas of their lives, matters.

Thanks to Prentis et al., I learned of a new resource to help students address moral dilemmas. A wonderful example describes a first grader who watches a classmate repeatedly bully a girl without anyone else saying anything to the bully or to an adult. The web site contains a number of moral dilemmas, guidelines for thinking about the various facets of them, and discussion questions to use with students. This particular dilemma is designed to use with students at any age, as a retroactive reflection for older students as well as a contemporary issue for younger ones.

Here is a modified version of the questions that accompany the dilemma, which can be used in discussion, debate, small groups, or writing assignments:

  1. What would you do if you were in the observer's shoes? Have you ever been there? Do you regret or are you proud of your decision now?
  2. Has someone ever told on you because you were doing something wrong? What was your immediate reaction? What do you remember about how you felt about your behavior at the time?
  3. Have you ever told on someone just to watch them get into trouble, or to add to the drama? What did it feel like? How is that choice different from telling on someone in order to put a halt to something you think is bad?
  4. Do you think the code of silence around telling on someone changes as one gets older? Is it the same in first grade as it is in middle school? High school?

As our students know that we are willing to reach them intellectually, morally, socially, and emotionally, they will be more open to deeper learning. They will know that we don't just want them to be better students; we want them to grow to be better people.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

Completely agree. Building good relationships with our students is the foundation for rich learning opportunities.

Sue J's picture

Awesome reminder that we are teaching *so much more* than content, and should do so consciously.

Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

Great reminder...year-round not just by teachers, but any adult that has the chance to impact a child.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

This is terrific for teachers and parents. I think we have to model and engage kids in empathy as often as possible, so it becomes part of their built in value set. Teaching them that they can make choices that effect the outcome for themselves and others is powerful, but so is using what Rick LaVoie calls a social autopsy- after a bad situation occurs, walking a kid or kids through the situation again, and asking them where they could have made a different choice, and let them predict a different outcome. That can be incredibly useful as well, and has worked wonders with our kids.

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