by Tony Gleason, MA LCPC
The Ancona School
As the school counselor I have the opportunity to visit and work with all of the classrooms here at Ancona. Recently, when walking through a primary school classroom, I saw this script written at the top of one of the chalkboards:
We all know that both children and adults will experience the ups and downs of learning and life. Through my relationships with teachers and students I get to be involved in the social realm of our children across the board. The successes are often easy to recognize and encouraged, but conversely it’s harder to see mistakes as an opportunity for change. It is the opportunity to safely navigate these mistakes that allow us to truly grow.
One of the many awesome aspects of an Ancona education is the freedom our students have to take risks and challenge themselves during the school day. Now this may seem easier to understand when talking about how students engage with curriculum, as we commonly celebrate making mistakes in the academic world. Teachers encourage students to find creative, challenging outlets for their ideas, and students sometimes fail. Here at Ancona, this same idea is applied to the development of social skills and the building of friendships and relationships. We teach children that there is a general understanding that all people make mistakes and that they don’t have to define you.
We have all had the joy of watching our children experience their first social interactions. Watching them navigate the world as 5 year olds, hogging all the toys in the sand box, cutting in line at the slide, and occasionally shoving to express displeasure. As parents we might look on in horror, apologize on behalf of our children, and in some cases we pack all of our things and call it day. We worry about our children, we find people to confide in, spouses, friends, family, or sometime we just keep it to ourselves. Some people feel that we experience this reaction because we are concerned that our child’s behavior is somehow the reflection of us as parents. However, it is safe to say that all parents experience these feelings often throughout our lives. So how does this relate to what is happening at Ancona?
The social and emotional development of our students is the primary focus of my work. This varies for students at different grade levels and ages. Ancona classrooms and structure respond directly to what is developmentally appropriate. For example, 3rd grade students are expected to share classroom materials, stand in line appropriately, and not respond with physical aggression when expressing displeasure. However, it is expected that 3rd and 4th grade students would be working on the skills of navigating multiple close friendships and group play. Students have a reasonable expectation of exploring peer groups of more than just 1 or 2 close friends. When students begin engaging in these more complex group situations mistakes and struggles will be expected. Students will disagree about the rules of the game, sometimes students will quit the activity, and almost definitely feelings will get hurt, and that’s okay. It isn’t assumed that students will have these skills fully developed or figured out, the adults are nearby and know when to intervene. Many life skills, like the example above, are part of a long process of learning and development.
From a social standpoint, it’s expected that 3rd and 4th graders are developing their skills of self-advocation. Students are encouraged to seek the assistance of a teacher, adult, or school counselor when conflict arises, however situations may come up when the appropriate response may be for the teacher or counselor to talk over the issue with the student separately and practice how they can safely navigate the conflict without the teacher being directly involved or directly mediating. This is an example of an invisible intervention, where the teacher or staff member is interacting in manner that is not impinging directly on the situation and it may not appear obvious to everyone that the teacher is involved. Other ways that this happens is proactively in group practice.
Currently, I run a number of pro-social groups for students in every grade level. Some groups are by sign-up only about specific topics, such as friendships, families, or coping with stress, and other groups are put together with teacher input with the purpose of cultivating social interactions. These teacher input pro-social groups are designed for students to complete a project that will be for the betterment of their entire grade, such as a playground safety video. The process of this group is equally as important as the final product, as during the creation the students are able to explore a variety of social skills, like leading, following, creating, all within the structure of rigid deadline, with the final product ultimately being up to them to present and not guaranteed to be flawless.
“Ancona is a safe place.” I’ve heard this quoted many times, I’ve taken to adding a bit, as “Ancona is a safe place to fall”. Cultivating an environment where our children feel that they can take risks and grow in all areas of their life is vital. It is both my belief and the belief of Ancona that all children deserve to be a part of such a place. As we observe and support our children through the ups and downs of life find comfort in the fact that your child has a safe place to fall and to rise.