by Allen Mendler

The Power of Involvement in Education

Old man hands holding a green young plant. Symbol of spring and ecology concept

Fifteen-year-old Juan was referred to me with hopes of teaching him better self-control.  He was regularly in trouble at school for all kinds of impulse control problems such as staying seated, making inappropriate noises, blurting out and otherwise bothering classmates and teachers.  He was quick to anger, leading to more than an occasional fight at school and an arrest outside.  Juan was in the lowest level classes and could barely read or write.  When I first met him, it became clear that communication was going to be a problem.  He almost exclusively spoke Spanish and while he could understand more than express in English, both were limited.  I was the only school psychologist at the school, and beyond knowing the names of basic colors, letters, numbers and a few greetings, was non-fluent in his native language.  So were my colleagues.   After a few visits of doing little other than looking at and trying to understand each other, I tried to ascertain his goals.  To my surprise he told me that he wanted to learn how to play the piano.  Seizing on that opening, I arranged for our sessions to be in a little used music room with an old beaten-up piano.  Although far from proficient, having taken the customary six months of lessons required by most parents of middle class kids while growing up, I embarked upon trying to teach him the basics.  Interestingly, this extremely impulsive young man quickly realized that striking the correct note required thinking before acting, the same formula needed for success at school.  These ‘piano lessons’ led to his gradual turnaround.

For six hours every day, students are told where they have to be, what time they have to be there, how they are expected to behave and who is in charge of them.  Some successful students struggle with the many choices that confront them after leaving home, having had little prior experience making decisions.  Most difficult students hate being told what to do even when they don’t disagree.  Too often, we do things FOR and TO our students rather than WITH them.  A special education teacher recently told me that he and a team of teachers met several times to formulate and modify a behavior plan for one of his particularly challenging students.  They were all exasperated at having tried “everything” to no avail.  When asked if the student had ever been involved in the planning to include his thoughts and suggestions, it became clear that he had not.

Involving students in the decisions that affect their lives can be an extremely effective way to build relationships, show respect, teach responsibility, influence better behavior and motivate learning.  There are many ways every day that we can include our students.   Here are some possibilities:

Identify and use their interests when developing lessonsI recently read a half-page article in the main section of my local newspaper about a “radical” new approach to motivating kids and getting them to learn: ask students what they want to learn and create lessons related to their interests.  It is pretty amazing and sad to think that because most schools are so focused on getting kids to pass high-stakes tests, we too often fail to take into account their thoughts and interests when structuring lessons. Linking curricula content to student interests without sacrificing standards can be done.   If possible, begin by interviewing students who aren’t as connected to the class as you’d like.  Ask them what they like to do inside and outside school, and what they’d like to learn.  Another option is to give some or all of your students a Get to Know You Better inventory.

Group of Elementary Pupils In ClassroomFor example,

Concerning this class, I am a person who:

likes__________________________________.

doesn’t like__________________________.

wants to learn______________.

learns best when____________________.

wishes we could____________________.

wishes we didn’t have to__________.

Outside of this class, I am a person who:

likes to do_______________________________.

is good at_________________________.

spends lots of time_______________.

never misses the TV show________.

is happy when______________________.

wishes_______________________________.

In addition to creating more involving lessons by using this information, make a goal to remember at least one or two things about each student and briefly share your knowledge informally.  Most students feel empowered when their teacher remembers something personal they consider important.

Encourage students to develop rulesWhen students collaborate with teachers in developing rules, they feel more ownership and are more likely to both follow and enforce them.  Let your students know what values are most important to learning and behaving (i.e. Take care of yourself; Take care of each other; Take care of this place).  Give them some examples of what you mean by each and then let them offer specific rules that are compatible with these values.  You can add any they may have neglected.

Keep the door open to student consequencesLet students know that if they break rules, there are consequences and that you will decide what the proper consequence(s) will be.  Invite them to offer an alternative if they believe something will work better to fix their behavior.  For example, “I plan to let your parent(s) know unless you can think of a way to fix this yourself.” Unless the student’s solution seems entirely unrealistic, go with it and see if it works.   If it does, tell the student how proud you are that his solution is working: “I notice that your solution is working and you should feel proud.”

Have a ‘conference’ timeProvide students with opportunities to share their concerns with you or about you.  One way to do this is to provide a scheduled time during which students are welcome to share their ideas about how you can be a better teacher for them.   Identify a day and time when your students can sign up to talk to you.  Listen to their concerns during this time and after you reflect, let them know as a class what you learned and what you plan to do differently.  For example:

A few of you told me that I haven’t been getting feedback and grades back to you quickly enough.  I think you are right about that.  While I can’t promise that it can always happen, I will do my best to get things back to you within three days after you turn your work in.

Give choices within assignments & behaviorsYou can often get more productivity from students by giving choices.  For example, if you want them to do five problems, give ten and allow students to choose whichever five that they believe will best show their understanding of the material.  This will get many to do all of them in search of the easiest.

Other examples:

  • You can answer questions one to three in writing or create a rap that includes at least three of the main facts.
  • You can do your assignment now or during recess.
  • You can borrow a pencil or buy one from me.
  • When people call you names, you can tell them you don’t like it, walk away or ask me for a suggestion.

Put students in charge of classroom responsibilitiesSome elementary schools I work with have created a “student ambassador” program.  Among other things, ambassadors welcome new students to the school, give them a tour and fill them in on procedures and rules.  Some of the best ambassadors are difficult students, who are expected to display a high standard of performance and behavior, although not perfection.  Our local high school has a mentoring program that assigns each incoming freshman to an upperclassman who performs a similar function.

A few ways of putting students in charge are:

  • Being a noise monitor
  • Greeting visitors when they come into the room
  • Supplying materials to students if they forget to bring their own
  • Passing back ungraded papers
  • Asking students to provide questions for tests or quizzes
  • Looking out for bullying in different parts of the school by being on “bully patrol

Solve classroom problems with the leadersAn effective strategy for dealing with group misbehavior in which students “feed off” each other is to meet with two or three of the leading troublemakers away from the class, invite them to come up with solutions and then hold them accountable.

For example,

“Josh and Ally, there’s way too much talking going on during class.  You guys are clearly among the most respected by your classmates, which is why I expect you to help solve this problem.  I’d like to know what you think would work, what you plan to do to make things work and what you think are fair consequences in case the problem continues.

A final word

I find that most approaches that work with adults also work with kids.  While they may lack the maturity and cognitive capacity of adults, kids grow the most and do best when important adults show trust in partnering with them when it comes to decisions and choices that affect their daily lives.  Just as teachers are most apt to respect a school leader who listens to and values their ideas, students appreciate and are more likely to cooperate with teachers who give them a voice in deciding on matters that affect them.

Boy with magical book

About the author:

Allen Mendler, Ph.D. is an educator, school psychologist and the author or co-author of numerous articles and several books including When Teaching Gets Tough, Power Struggles, Motivating Students Who Don’t Care and Connecting with Students. As one of the internationally acclaimed authors of the original and revised editions of Discipline with Dignity, Dr. Mendler is a highly acclaimed motivational speaker with a wealth of practical strategies on what it takes to successfully motivate and manage difficult students.