Every Classroom (and Congress) Needs a Peace Circle
Grit. Curiosity. Zest. Gratitude. If you walk into any school these days, you’ll likely see banners across the halls or in classrooms listing these traits or others, often referred to as social-emotional or “soft” skills.
Over the past several years, schools across the country have placed an extra emphasis on social-emotional learning in hopes of better preparing their students for successful lives. In 1994, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, began advocating for the inclusion of social-emotional learning, “…with the goal of establishing high-quality, evidence-based social and emotional learning as an essential part of preschool through high school education.” Since then, there has been a rapid increase in social-emotional curricula, and many teachers now have time built into their schedules to explicitly teach these critical skills.
Although these skills are so important for our children to thrive and relate to one another, I argue that the methods by which many schools are attempting to build these skills in students are largely ineffective. In school, we often try to engineer these qualities into children, rather than fostering environments where they can be practiced and applied authentically.
"In school, we often try to engineer these qualities into children, rather than fostering environments where they can be practiced and applied authentically."
In my own Kindergarten classroom, I tried a variety of methods to instill these social-emotional skills in my students. My school adopted a social-emotional curriculum that taught students the different skills or character traits they needed to be successful – imagine Kindergarteners sorting examples and non-examples of kindness, or watching a puppet show on how to be resilient. I had the banners up in my classroom with student-friendly definitions and pictures for students to reference. I even started rewarding students at the end of the day for being kind, or would give points when I saw them persevere through a challenging problem. I tried my hardest to engineer important qualities like grit and empathy into my students, knowing that these skills were critical for children to thrive and relate to one another.
At the end of my first year teaching, my coach came into my classroom to observe a lesson. I found her crouched down speaking to one of my little boys, Rodrigo, who was having an argument with another student. He was in tears when she asked him, “Well, what can you do to solve the problem?” He stopped crying and his face lit up: “I know – I can ask Ms. Hensel!” My heart sunk: despite my lessons on grit or rewards for kindness, my students were not actually competent in using these skills. Sure, they could articulate what it means to be a good friend…but are you actually a good friend? Do you treat others with kindness and respect? Can you recognize when you are not being treated with kindness and respect? Despite all of my intentionality and work, my students still relied on me to solve their problems. What was I missing?
It became clear to me in that moment with Rodrigo that you cannot reverse engineer or “make” humans – you cannot teach a lesson on curiosity and then expect all of your students to come to school curious the next day. However, we like to try and simplify development in that way; especially in education research and policy, we represent human development as an interaction of various inputs and outputs. Inputs: Grit, Curiosity, Self-Control, Test Scores --> Outputs: High School Graduation, College Entrance, Lifetime Earnings. After we figure out the “correct” inputs that lead to future success for students, it’s essentially plug and chug from there, right?
Wrong…so wrong. Because human development is a complex process, more akin to the growth of a tomato than the assembly of a model airplane. And despite our good intentions, by trying to engineer these various inputs into our children, we are forgetting that their individual development depends greatly on their environment, much like a tomato plant (for more riveting gardening metaphors, read my co-founder’s Medium post here). So, if we want students to become curious, we don’t teach a lesson about it – we cultivate environments in which curiosity is practiced and integrated daily.
The problem in my classroom was that I wasn’t fostering environments that allowed students to practice or experience social-emotional skills, which meant Rodrigo wasn’t my only kiddo struggling with problem-solving and peer relationships. So, the following year I made a change: I scrapped the curricula and created something I called the “Peace Circle.”
The Peace Circle was a space in the room, literally a peace circle made out of duct tape stuck on the carpet, where students could go to solve their problems. After much scaffolding and direction on how to properly utilize the Peace Circle, my five- and six-year old students would independently visit this sacred area to work through issues with their peers, or even issues with me! The Peace Circle included resources to support their social-emotional vocabulary and skills, like feelings statements and solutions cards. One of my proudest moments was when one of my monolingual Spanish students, Yareli, was able to take her monolingual English friend, Kayla, to the Peace Circle to address a conflict during recess. They entered the Peace Circle crying, but left hugging and holding hands. (Click the gallery below to see the Peace Circle in action!)
The Peace Circle brought social-emotional learning to life. Without a curriculum, my students learned how to look one another in the eyes and express their truest feelings, without fear of shame or retribution. They learned to work collaboratively to solve the problem at hand so that both parties felt seen and heard. They began to understand how their needs related to the needs of others, practicing first-hand conceptions of justice, empathy, and compassion. Don’t you wish some of our politicians had a Peace Circle of their own?! (Look out for Ms. Hensel’s class running for office in 2040).
This is the point: we cannot engineer kindness, grit, empathy, or any other skill into students. We cannot just teach isolated lessons and expect them to one day know how to use them. As teachers, we must build environments in which these skills are practiced across the school day– because it is only through this authentic practice that students will actually learn the skills we know will help them thrive as individuals and work together as a community.
"This is the point: we cannot engineer kindness, grit, empathy, or any other skill into students. We cannot just teach isolated lessons and expect them to one day know how to use them. As teachers, we must build environments in which these skills are practiced across the school day– because it is only through this authentic practice that students will actually learn the skills we know will help them thrive as individuals and work together as a community."
If we want students to understand justice and fairness, if we want them to be responsible, democratic citizens, then our schooling environments must be designed for those values. If we want students to empathize with others, then the best way to do so is by treating them with empathy and giving them practice in empathizing with others. As educators, parents, and community members we cannot “make” students, but we can foster environments where children can practice the beliefs, characters, and skills that will allow them to thrive in their childhood and adulthood.