Helping Students Become Their Courageous Selves

If your school is one that actively teaches character traits or values we hope courage is on your list. Yet, talking about courage or even reading stories about courage doesn’t always help students be able to use their own courage. Instead of focusing on heroism or bravery, we suggest framing courage as becoming your best self. You can share stories the stories that heroes tell after the event. It is common for them to tell their audience that it “was just the right thing to do.” Ian Grillot, who interrupted the shooting in Kansas City in 2017 is one of those heroes. From his hospital bed he said, “I was just doing what anyone should have done for another human being. It’s not about where he was from or his ethnicity. We’re all humans. I just felt I did what was naturally right to do.”

Children face tough situations every day including: making new friends, giving a presentation in class, deciding how to stay connected with friends when they don’t want to join in an activity, as bystanders when other people are being hurt or for some, just getting to school. For some students, just showing up to school is courageous.   Here are some ideas to nurture courageous attitudes in the classroom:

  • Talk about courage using the frame that it is about being your best self, even when it isn’t easy to do that.
  • Write courage stories. Have your students write about what it means to be their best self and about a time where they were able to be themselves even if it wasn’t easy, or they were anxious or afraid.teacher girl notebook
  • Model noticing courage. You can write post it notes or quiet comments that start, “It took courage to _____ (ask for help, tell your friend to be more respectful, make a special effort to welcome our new student.) When you start noticing it, they will notice it with each other as well.
  • Help them see courage in their own lives. Invite a discussion about the courage it takes to say, “no” when the majority (or their friends) are saying “yes.”
  • Lift out acts of courage in the stories you and your students read. Examples are everywhere because that is part of what makes a good story. Biographies and memoirs are particularly rich, though they tend to elevate the idea of a “hero” which separates them a little from your students. Think of Simone Biles, Ruby Bridges, Helen Keller, Abraham Lincoln.
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Helping our Children Grow Courage

Examples of courage are all around us.  We tend to notice only the big events though: a parent lifts a car off the leg of a child, a stranger who jumps into a river to save a drowning person, a teenager who steers a bus to safety when the busdriver passes out at the wheel.  At Sound Discipline we notice that people who do courageous things often don’t feel courageous in the moment. When interviewed they often make comments like, “I just did what I had to do” or, “Anyone would have done the same thing.”  We think courage is the movement someone makes in the direction of becoming his/her best self. When we look at it that way we can see that courage shows up every day in common circumstances. Making new friends, helping a stranger, looking for a different solution to a problem, having hard conversations or just trying something new are all courageous. Having courage leads to success and happiness. Here are some ideas so can you inspire courage in your children:

  • Teach your children that courage is not the absence of fear, but doing something in spite of it. From the outside, courage may look impressive and powerful to our children, but from the inside it can feel uncomfortable or like anxiety, fear or self-doubt.
  • Encourage your children to try new things. This might be activities that “stretch” them, provide a challenge or something new that might be scary or hard: music, sports, drama, or joining a club. Children have a natural desire to master skills. This can grow their sense of comforts boy
  • Give them courage of thought. Help them ask questions, be creative in problem solving or think of new ways of doing things.
  • Notice and comment when they demonstrate courage. For example, “It took a lot of courage for you to ask to join that group of kids,” or “I noticed you helped Mrs. Smith carry her groceries.”
  • Be the example. Model trying new things, solving difficult problems and taking appropriate risks. Talk to your children about how it felt on the inside as you tried something new. It helps them to know that adults also feel afraid or nervous and keep trying.
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Empowering Students – Growing Citizens

At Sound Discipline we often begin workshops by asking teachers to imagine a student returning to visit as a young adult. We ask them to think of what gifts or qualities they hope that student will have acquired. The list is long. It often includes things like compassion, empathy, confidence, problem solving skills, healthy relationships, respect for themselves and others, communication skills, integrity, passion for something, and perserverence.  When we ask them how easy it would be to teach a young person with those skills, they smile and tell us it would be easy. Educators have a responsibility to teach academic content and pressure to have their students meet certain standards. Sometimes under all that stress it seems hard to help students develop the very skills that will make it easier for them to learn.

When schools are able to empower students with social skills learning communities thrive. It doesn’t happen all at once. Just like academic skills, social skills require explicit instruction and opportunities to practice. Here are some places to start:

  • Teach self-regulation. Brains work best when they are not stressed. Using brain breaks and short mindfulness practices throughout the day helps students stay regulate. Then they are more likely to respond appropriately.
  • Model that mistakes are opportunities to learn. No one can learn math without being comfortable making and fixing mistakes. The same is true for relationships with peers. They won’t be successful with friendships until they can learn to recognize and repair mistakes. Teachers can model making and repairing their own mistakes as one way of teaching their students. Offer students plenty of opportunities to fix their mistakes without shame or blame.
  • Use encouragement rather than praise. Saying, “I notice that you are excited (or upset) today,” “Thank you for your help” allows students to feel felt or seen.
  • building communityUse Positive Discipline Class Meetings. These are structured gatherings that start with compliments followed by problem solving. The routine of working together to solve problems in a manner that is always helpful not hurtful teaches students much more than problem solving. They learn to listen, respect differences, have empathy, practice kindness, share their ideas, be patient, be creative – and most importantly know that they are part of a community. They develop a deep sense that they are capable of making their school or community a better place. For specific lessons on how to teach class meetings you can take a workshop or get a copy of the Teachers’ Guide.
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Growing Capable Kids

Capable children see themselves as competent and powerful.  They are able to handle challenges and age-appropriate tasks at each stage of development.  They can manage their own emotions and can get along with others. How can parents help their children develop this sense of capability?

  • Let your child try to do things on his own from a very young age. Don’t be too quick to jump in and fix. Step back and watch for a minute and be ready to support if needed.
  • Encourage rather than praise. “You worked hard on that,” or “Tell me about your project,” is more effective a more effective practice than praise.iStock_000010613159Small_2
  • Help your child learn that mistakes are opportunities to learn. As Ms. Frizzle of the Magic Schoolbus said, “Get messy. Take chances.”  Children can be encouraged to figure out what happened, how it happened and what to do differently next time.
  • Be curious and listen. Asking “What?” and “How” questions helps children begin to think things through.
  • Affirm your child’s ability to impact the world. This helps her see herself as powerful. All children will learn reasonable limits to their power (e.g. I can’t make the sun come out and neither can Mommy). The more opportunities your child has to influence their world, the more she will see herself as capable. (e.g. If I stand on this stool, I can turn flip the switch and light up the room)
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Creating Family Connections

Children develop an internal sense of who they are from birth. Relationships with others play a pivotal role in building their identity and sense of belonging.  This begins, of course, with primary caregivers and other family members, and then expands to include friends, school and community.

Giving children messages of love, respect, and encouragement empowers them to feel that they belong and that they matter.   They then have confidence to voice their views and opinions, to make decisions and to develop the skills they will need in life.

  • Know and support your infant’s natural rhythms (eating, sleeping) and respond to their needs consistently, and with congruency. That means feeding when they are hungry, changing when soiled, and soothing when upset.
  • Spend one-on-one time with toddlers, following their lead, allowing opportunity for interaction and affirmation. Invite them to talk about experiences and feelings.
  • Support preschoolers in thinking about themselves, who they are, their abilities, and interests. Create opportunities for them to talk, listen and be heard.
  • Involve elementary age children in their community. Encourage them to understand and take part in customs or celebrations that reflect their culture and to experience the diversity of the wider community.iStock_000005516589Small
  • Encourage adolescents to talk with you about friends and developing relationships. What qualities are important to them in friends, teachers or teammates? How do they see themselves as a part of the groups to which they belong?

For all ages:

  • It is important to contribute to the family in useful ways. Brainstorm a list of family work. Invite your children to decide which tasks each child can do on a regular (daily) basis.
  • Clear guidelines and expectations also help children belong. One of the common mistakes is thinking that children only belong when they are happy. As parents it is not our job to keep our children happy. Connecting, setting limits, teaching appropriate behavior and having family customs and routines are all part of the job of being a parent.
  • Connect before correct. When your child misbehaves, it is helpful to remember to connect first. “I can tell you are mad, and in our family we don’t hit other people.”
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Building Belonging in a Community of Learners

Research tells us that in schools, students who feel a positive connection – a sense of belonging – with both peers and adults, are in general, more caring and ethical, less prone to behavior problems, and more academically motivated.  Children who feel a sense of identity within the group tend to be well-adjusted and successful.  How do we encourage that sense of belonging in our schools and classrooms?

  • First impressions are important. Create an inviting, welcoming entrance to your classroom.  Personalize with students’ names or photos in elementary school.
  • Be present. Meet your students at the door and briefly connect with each one.classmtgstill
  • Be culturally aware. We all live in the bubble of our own culture and often don’t know what we don’t know. Get to know the students and families who come from a culture that is not yours. Begin to notice your own unconscious biases. (We all have them). When all children are welcomed they develop a sense of belonging, feel secure, and know they have a place.
  • Vary groupings. Create opportunities for students to connect with students they would not usually seek out. They will learn things about each other when they are collaborating and engaging around meaningful learning.
  • Involve students in creating class guidelines. The process of agreeing on what a learning community can be gives children ownership and a deep sense of belonging. Revisiting and re-evaluating the guidelines regularly reminds them that they have a voice and helps increase awareness of the shared vision.
  • Have class meetings on a regular basis to build connection, develop communication skills and have experiences solving their own and their peers’ real problems.


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Joy in the Classroom

Can learning be fun and joyful? Amidst the increased rigor, additional high stakes testing, and required pacing guides it is harder to find joy in everyday teaching. Research by Taina Rantala (an elementary school principal) and Kaarina Maatta (a professor of psychology) indicates that joy is an important factor in learning. Here are a few things you might try:

  • Be willing to be in the moment. There are lots of goofy things that happen during the day. Sometimes they are annoying but almost as often you can stop and appreciate your student’s creativity.
  • Keep learning relevant to your students. How does the learning intersect with their lives? What stories can they tell that connect to the learning?
  • Scaffold the learning so that each student can experience some success.iStock_000006627044Small
  • Use encouragement instead of praise. Try saying, “I notice you finished your work” instead of, “Good job.”
  • Invite time for self-reflection and group reflection. “Look what we’ve learned together.”
  • Model and leave room for mistakes. Being able to learn from mistakes invites students to be able to take more and appropriate academic risks.
  • Play and be playful. Reconnect to why you like to teach what you teach. When you share your joy of discovery and wonder your students will join you in the fun of learning.
  • Grant students as much freedom as possible within classroom guidelines. It probably makes no difference to you if the assignment is done on blue or green paper, but allowing students to have options, creates joy in the air.
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