Sitting down to write this blog today, I find myself wanting to express thoughts about my passion for educating students with learning disabilities, the joy of teaching, and being part of those “aha” moments when a student finally breaks through and is able to not only understand a concept but to synthesize understanding and even transfer their knowledge to other meaningful moments of discovery. I yearn for our discourse to reflect the values, purpose, and mission of The Craig School and our conversation filled to the brim with the excitement of a new school year and the rich possibility that accompanies new beginnings.
Nonetheless, at the forefront of my thoughts this week is an article I recently read comparing the national current educational climate as a see-saw of balance between Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Bloom’s Taxonomy, an educational theory on the hierarchy of learning that begins by first remembering, then understanding, followed by applying, analyzing, and evaluating information, finally culminating in the production of new or original work, called the creative stage of learning.
Teachers are busy polishing lesson plans, writing learning targets, and creating engaging and meaningful learning opportunities while also fully cognizant that a student’s basic needs must first be met to allow for learning to happen, to prime the pump, if you will, for the most optimal learning experiences moving a student to the realization of their full potential. On a very basic physiological level, our students need food, water, and shelter. In this basic level Maslow includes safety. According to Maslow, safety is the experience of order, predictability, and a sense of control of one’s own life. It is at this crossroads where I, along with countless educators find myself as we prepare for a new year full of learning and growth. We are balancing the real-life issues of the present unknown with our plans for bringing out the best in all of our students.
Planning for our school opening on September 3rd, we are remembering “Maslow before Bloom.” At The Craig School, this is evident through the preparation of our classrooms and play spaces for healthy and safe learning environments that address not only the present need for sanitization, disinfection, and appropriate health measures for the mitigation of COVID 19, but it is also through the intentional work and focus of our team of Social Clinicians who, partnering with our faculty, foster key tenets of social and emotional health leading to safe spaces for students and safe spaces for learning. These social-emotional aptitudes and skills, such as self-awareness and self-confidence, emotional regulation and stress management, respect for others and empathy, social engagement and relationship building, and finally, ethical responsibility and reflection, create what researcher Amy Edmondson calls “psychological safety” and are necessary to cultivate so that our students’ strengths, capabilities, and intellect can shine. Providing for Maslow before Bloom provides a path to fulfill The Craig School’s mission to address the academic, social, emotional, and moral growth of students with language-based learning disabilities.
This week, I have had a few conversations with parents regarding play in a socially-distanced world. Whether your child is learning remotely or attending school in-person, in second grade, or 12th grade, we acknowledge that times for unstructured movement and peer interactions, commonly called recess or break in a traditional school setting, are essential parts of the school day. This notion is also detailed in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which states, young people have the "right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child." Not only is there a body of evidence indicating cognitive performance and attention increases with play, learning components such as memory and retrieval, attention, dexterity, reading, verbal fluency, semantic fluency, and enhanced student motivation and morale are potential outcomes from incorporating play in a school day. Furthermore, studies show the power of play as a tool in the development of important prosocial behaviors; behaviors such as sharing, helping, cooperating, and comforting others. In younger students, recess develops socialization skills that lead to friendships, and for our older students, these socialization skills continue and become more peer-based as adolescents forge a sense of belonging and identity. Throughout the school years, these unstructured times for socialization are one strategy to help students cope with emotions during stressful times; in our current climate, play remains essential to healthy child and adolescent development.
This week we join our fellow New Jersey schools for the Week of Respect, a week dedicated to bringing awareness to the importance of cultivating a healthy, supportive, safe, and positive school climate through character development and social-emotional learning, all with the goal of sustaining a school void of harassment, intimidation, and bullying. At The Craig School, this work is done by creating a physically, emotionally, and socially safe learning environment that values each person as a contributor, is respectful of our community members, promotes collaboration and communication among families, students, and school staff, and most importantly is modeled by our adult community for students. Students with language-based learning disabilities may struggle with receptive language, which is the ability to understand and comprehend spoken language, as well as expressive language, one’s ability to use words to express themselves. These variables alone may impact a student’s risk of victimization. Additionally, students with learning disabilities who also have secondary or comorbid conditions, such as ADHD, may experience increased social skill challenges, creating a need for focused and intentional social-emotional learning opportunities. We recognize that a school’s work to this end is one of progress, rather than a finished, perfect endeavor. At The Craig School, we are committed to continuing this work.
As you get to know my work as an educator, you will find that my approach is rooted in strengths-based learning and assessment wrapped in whole child development. What I have experienced both through academic research and practical boots on the groundwork in the field of learning disabilities is that even though our main objective is to teach our students to read, to write, and to more fully express their intelligence, there are opportunities for tuning into values and characteristics that will serve our students well both now and in the future. As our September 3rd school opening gets closer, conversations with teachers and parents alike have reminded me of the importance of nurturing resilience in ourselves and in our students. If ever we needed to bolster our collective resilience, now is the time.
The resilience movement in education began as a way to better understand why children reach different levels of success when faced with the same challenges and environments as other children. Resilience is a quality our students already possess. Our job is to nurture it. When we help our students recognize and build upon their strengths, abilities, and competencies, their confidence grows stronger and their resilience is fortified. As you have conversations with your children about school reopening, one way that you can draw out or strengthen resilience in your child is to take new and unfamiliar processes and procedures and make them known. This can be done through (a) modeling, learning by imitation, (b) role play, learning what to do and how to do it, (c) constructive feedback or positive reinforcement, and (d) generalization, that is, taking these skills from practice into real-life settings. Resilience is strengthened when children develop positive coping strategies to overcome stressors and challenges. We will be working on resilience in our community so we can all develop positive coping strategies to overcome stressors and challenges together.
The Craig School is uniquely positioned to provide an academically rich environment that is designed for the educational needs of students with language-based learning disabilities. We couple that specific and structured learning with “soft skills” or social-emotional learning (SEL) skills necessary for future success in college, career, and life. The nurturing of social and emotional growth is a core value of The Craig School.
According to the Collaboration for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social-emotional learning is “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” What we know through evidence-based research as well as our experiences as educators is that social and emotional competencies open a pathway for increased academic success and improved student attitude toward school, thus reducing some of the educational barriers a student may face in a classroom setting. Additionally, schools that emphasize the social and emotional growth of their students whether in the classroom or while at play, increase student agency, voice, and self-awareness, and decrease student stress, anxiety, and social withdrawal.
Community, in its purest form, is a feeling of fellowship with others that springs from shared attitudes, interests, and goals. We, at The Craig School, are such a community. We unite under our common purpose of providing an evidence-based, challenging academic program coupled with nurturing the social-emotional and moral health of our students all in the environment most suited to their needs, with the end goal of a student who is self-aware, self-confident, and able to reach their greatest expectations.
Community is built in the trenches and on the front lines; it is built in our hallways and classrooms. The relationships teachers form with and among their students, with other teachers and staff members, and with their students’ parents and guardians, forge this fellowship. Schools can serve to strengthen a student’s sense of community, their sense of belongingness, through actively cultivating respectful and inclusive relationships—and these relationships begin in the classroom. Dr. Caparulo, Director of our high school, has a signature quote on this email that reads, “No significant learning happens outside of a significant relationship” (James Comer, Professor at the Yale Child Student Center). How true this statement rings. The keys to creating a positive climate and a community of belonging are relationships, and it is through these relationships students blossom and are primed for optimal learning.
Rita Pierson, the late teacher most known for the TedTalk, Every Kid Deserves a Champion once said, “How powerful would our world be if we had kids who were not afraid to take risks, who were not afraid to think and who had a champion? Every child deserves a champion: an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connections, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.” This is the type of community I value and I believe it is the one that you value as well. My hope is for each and every student at The Craig School to experience a strong sense of belonging, of community, and to experience what it is to have a champion. When we foster a positive school community, we remove another barrier to learning, allowing our students to truly shine.
Recently, I was reminded of a blog post from years past sharing lessons learned from the classic children’s story, The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper, such as courage, strength, and a can-do attitude. The oft-recited words, “I think I can, I think I can…” to me, illustrate something even greater, self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief in one’s ability to meet the challenges ahead and complete a task successfully. You may recall that as a result of an engine break down, a group of toys and dolls were left looking for a way to get up and over a mountain to reach the children on the other side. Many engines came and went, but alas, the Little Blue Engine, not as big nor as strong as other engines, came along and offered to help. At first, the Little Blue Engine wasn’t completely sure it would be able to do something that it had never done before. However, quickly this doubt changed and the Little Blue Engine started to think it really could climb the mountain. But it wasn’t only the Little Blue Engine’s belief in its ability that allowed it to get up and over the mountain to deliver the dolls and toys. The thought led to specific actions, “puff, puff, chug, chug;” actions that ultimately resulted in achieving the desired goal. Despite never making it up and over the mountain before, the Little Blue Engine began chanting, “I think I can,” until the task was accomplished. Through perseverance and resilience, the Little Blue Engine turned “I think I can” into “I thought I could.”
There is strong empirical support for the direct effects of self-efficacy and academic achievement. Just like The Little Blue Engine, students with learning disabilities may struggle with this construct. Many have experienced frustrations at school and for some these frustrations lead to the erroneous belief that they can not or will not find success in school. At The Craig School, I am continually awed by our faculty, who understand the strong, positive associations between efficacy, both individual and collective, and each student’s ability to achieve. This understanding is made evident daily in our classrooms as our teachers engage in instructional practices that foster self-efficacy among our students. While not exhaustive, these research-driven strategies include metacognitive awareness so that our students understand how they learn best, self-regulation, to enhance our students’ ability to set goals, make plans, and manage emotions to reach their desired outcome, and self-determination, so that our students learn how to make informed choices and manage their lives. A best practice in the field of special education is to equip students with the skills, attitudes, and opportunities to play an active, prominent role in their own learning. Fostering our students’ self-efficacy lays out a path to this end.
The Little Engine That Could presents an illustration of the belief in one’s ability to achieve. However, the story doesn’t end there. Look again at the toys and dolls in the broken engine. Together, they joined the Little Blue Engine in believing it could get over the mountain and deliver the toys to the children. This shared belief among the Little Blue Engine and the toys and dolls manifested into the action steps required to find success. At The Craig School, not only do we seek authentic opportunities to grow our students’ self-efficacy, we recognize that we must be active partners who also believe wholeheartedly in the ability of each and every one of our students to succeed and reach their full potential.