Focusing on the positive!

It seems that every year my teaching partner and I introduce the DWS Hierarchy a bit differently from the year before.  As we’ve become more familiar with the bigger picture of using DWS throughout the course of an full school year, we worry less and less about the initial introduction.  Over the years, we’ve experienced that the beginning lesson is not something we need to view as a “make or break” situation.  Our young students in grade one need many many “introductions” to the Hierarchy in order for all of them to really understand it, so we know that the the first lesson will simply be one of many to come.

This year though, our introduction of the Hierarchy came about completely without prior planning. That was a surprise even for us! In the past we’ve planned a formal lesson to explain the levels and sometimes had the kids draw pictures. We’ve also read Tanis’ book over the space of several days and so concluded with a review of the four levels in pleasant storybook format.

This year however, Darlene saw an “everyday opportunity” to discuss the levels and how they related to something that had actually happened in the classroom.  She just went for it – much like we would do during all the rest of the year.  And it turned out well!  When I returned to teaching in our shared position just a few days later, the kids were easily talking about the levels. I simply carried on from there, discussing the Hierarchy in various situations throughout the day.  Tomorrow, at the start of our fifth week in school, Tanis’ book will arrive in our “classroom mailbox” and we’ll read the story over the space of two or three days.

We’re enjoying a very nice class this year but the kids are not without their individual quirks of course!  Several are quite stubborn and a few more seem to have fairly serious emotional/anxiety issues.  One morning, just over a week ago, the day started off on a very bad note.  Four kids arrived at school in various states of upset and all were crying loudly in the line-up outside the classroom.  The boisterous crying continued right into the cloakroom!  Darlene, my teaching partner, had quite a difficult time helping any of the four, simply because all were upset about something that had happened at home and over which she had no control, or even any real information to help her figure it all out.  One was mad at Grandma for some reason and the others were mad/sad/angry at Mom and Dad, each for their own reasons too, of course!  It wasn’t within Darlene’s power to help any of them with their actual “problems,” simply because they weren’t school related.

Although we have 17 other kids in our class, her attention had to go that morning, entirely to the four who were out of control as they entered the room. Eventually, about 15-20 minutes later, she did manage to get each one settled down; into their indoor shoes, out of their sweaters, a drink at the water fountain and into their desks.  And then the day went on, more or less as usual!  That’s a primary classroom for younever a dull moment!

A couple of hours later, just before lunch playtime, she got out the DWS Hierarchy chart.  She asked the class to remember back to the early morning and what had happened when the teacher was in the cloakroom helping various kids with some problems.  She asked each one to think about what they had chosen to do while the teacher was very busy.  She explained that she had noticed that all those who didn’t have a serious problem themselves, had simply done all their cloakroom chores independently and then gone to their own seats and found something to do, leaving the teacher to deal with those who really needed help.

She said that she had noticed that some students had taken out their chalkboards or doodle books from their desks and begun to draw.  Some had taken books from the carpet area and had spent their time looking at them, while others took out bags of pattern blocks and had built beautiful patterns on their desks.  She explained that what she had seen could be described as Level D on a certain special magnetic chart that we always have hanging on our front chalkboard.  She brought the chart over to hang front and center on the board in front of the children.

She told them that Level D is the level where you can look after yourself – you don’t even need a teacher to be right there to make sure that you’re doing the right thing that you should be doing. She then explained the difference between Level C and D; that Level C was lower on the chart because that was the level where you needed an adult around to make sure that you were doing the right thing.  She again described the events of the morning, but focused on all the positive aspects of the (rather horrendous!) start to the day; the fact that many people had chosen to do the right thing – the grown up and mature thing – despite the fact that the teacher really wasn’t even available to help them or supervise them right at that moment.

Then she asked them to imagine in their own minds, times when they might have been on Level D in other situations – situations in which they had done something without being asked by an adult, something that was very grown-up.  One girl, new to our school, (who is basically an only child in a family with several adult siblings and nieces and nephews older than herself!) put up her hand to say that she thought that she might have been on Level D the very night before.  At that point, a wonderful and outgoing little boy in our room, spontaneously took over the teacher’s role!  He turned around to her and in very teacher-like way asked,

“What did you do?”

She answered, “I did the dishes and then I went into my bedroom and made my bed.”

In an effort to confirm that this was truly Level D motivation–and not something lower–Jeremy questioned her, “Did you do this ALL BY YOURSELF or did someone ASK you to do it?”

Emily answered, “I did it all by myself.”

To which Jeremy, seriously replied, “Well, then that was Level D.”

With a smile, Darlene went on to briefly explain the lower two levels herself!


(Darlene is an amazing person!  She can turn almost anything into a positive event!)

Two DWS points:

1.  Find the positive in a situation – even if it’s hard to see right at the moment.  After a cool-down period of time has elapsed, focus your teaching energy into describing that (what you’d like to see more of!)  In this situation, the kids who were stubbornly at a lower level early in the morning, did receive the help and discussion they needed at that moment to get them operating at Level C, but later in the day they received no attention for their lower-level behavior. It wasn’t discussed at all, even though everyone had witnessed it and knew it was at the root of the whole situation developing as it did.

Instead the kids at the higher level received attention later in the day (without being named,) by virtue of the fact that Darlene used their behavior as an example of Level D.  In addition, the four stubborn kids were subtly given information about what it looks like to be well behaved and mature.  Without discussing their immature behavior in front of the class, they were given a comparison model in their mind about what it means to act maturely in grade one.  With the new understandings about Level D that were given to the class as a whole, they too will start to aspire more often to be on THAT level, rather than on the immature level that they know disrupted the class in the first place that morning.  Kids WANT to think of themselves as more, rather than less, mature.  As teachers we can benefit from that natural desire!

2.  Procedures are very important.  The 17 kids already had a very good understanding of what choices they have in free choice times and they all chose to fill their unexpected “free time” with an appropriate choice.  When their teacher was busy with the (stubborn and immature) criers in the cloakroom, they simply read the situation as free time for themselves and already knew what they could do with that sort of pleasant time.

“What to do when you find yourself with a bit of free time” is something we review quite a bit in the first weeks of school.  We certainly can’t take all the credit ourselves either!  Most of these kids came from a Kindergarten teacher who is the best “procedures teacher” I have ever seen, so these particular students are very used to following procedures at Level C.  We are benefitting greatly from her diligence last year, which is a wonderful thing about having colleagues who try very hard to be on the same page with each other!