Wow! Ed: Newsletter from the Center for Educational Improvment
Upping Student Well-Being and Achievement: Increasing Empathy, Improving Preschools
September 2017
In This Issue

CEI Road Show: Heart Centered Learning



Dear Educators,   
September, one of the difficult months for schools. There is always the sense of excitement and sometimes some foreboding, especially if something went awry in the first few weeks. The natural disasters of August and September are already impacting schools. Children and families are facing the trauma of these emergencies, and the uncertainty of not knowing what will come next.

We are saddened to see so many families whose lives have been changed forever by the storms of this season. At the same time, we have families that are facing deportation -- creating more anxiety. And other natural disasters continue to unfold - fires in the West, more hurricanes, and devastation in the Caribbean.

What can schools do? What message might be helpful right now? The three articles this month focus on three important factors for increasing a sense of safety and security, giving students a more stable foundation, reducing anxiety, helping children heal, and increasing the potential that students will meet academic goals for 2017-2018.
The Way Forward: Early Childhood Education
By Christine Mason and Jillayne Flanders, MEd, CAGS, Consultant for Early Education, Leadership, Social-Emotional Learning 
In 2013, President Barak Obama announced plans to expand access to preschool programs. However, Congress did not act to provide funding. As of 2014-015, a Civil Rights snapshot reported that only 60% of America's elementary schools had early childhood programs for preschoolers; only about 50% of those schools provided universal access to preschool in their schools; and 39% targeted children with disabilities. According to a 2015 EdWeek Early Childhood Analysis, 37% of children ages 3-6 are not in school, 52% of 3-4 year-olds are not in school, and children in lower socio-economic areas are less likely to attend a preschool.

Are Principals Ready to Supervise Preschool Teachers? 

Elementary principals, you may have significant experience and background in Early Childhood Education. You may have been a teacher of 3-8 year-olds before moving into administration. You may have taken the initiative to study child development, neurophysiology and brain growth, and worked with colleagues to integrate best practices in play, social-emotional learning, and language integration. Or, you may be like thousands of your principal peers who have suddenly found a pre-school program added to your elementary school. You are not alone.

We are concerned not only that a considerable number of elementary schools still are not offering preschool programs, but also that many elementary school principals are not prepared to take on this responsibility. Only four states require elementary principals to have preparation in early language and literacy development: Minnesota, Illinois, Tennessee, and Idaho. Of those four states, when it comes to principal licensure, Illinois is the only state requiring coursework in early childhood.

Guidance from the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). A survey of NAESP principals in 2015 found that many new principals have little knowledge of instructional methods for teaching young children. Unfortunately, principals have also responded to the pressure for high academic achievement by moving weaker teachers to teach younger children in the non-testing grades. This is hardly the best way to create quality early childhood programs. To establish strong early childhood programs, we must find and hire teachers who have the experience and qualifications needed to be effective early childhood instructors.

Also from NAESP: Leading Prek-3 Learning Communities: Competencies for Effective Principal Practice (NAESP, 2014). That guide includes six competencies for principals who supervise early childhood programs:
  • Embrace the Pre-K-3 Early Learning Continuum
  • Ensure Developmentally Appropriate Teaching
  • Provide Personalized Learning Environments
  • Use Multiple Measures of Assessment to Guide Student Learning Growth
  • Build Professional Capacity Across the Learning Community
  • Make Schools a Hub of Pre-K-3 Learning for Families and Communities
Three of the steps that NAESP laid out in its plan in 2014 to improve early childhood programs were to:
  • Provide universal access to high-quality Pre-K programs and full-day kindergarten.
  • Recognize the authority and leadership roles of principals serving children from Pre-K through the elementary years.
  • Adopt standards of practice for principals working in Pre-K- 3 learning systems. States and districts must incorporate and align existing leadership standards, such as ISLLC, to the competencies that principals must demonstrate to lead effective Pre-K-3 learning communities.
A State Level Resource for Supervisors. There are many state level resources also available to provide guidance regarding early childhood programs. North Carolina, for example, has developed a resource manual for early childhood teacher supervisors. Key principles found in that manual:
  • Early childhood must consider the needs of the whole child
  • Play matters
  • Children need close personal relationships with caring adults
  • Families are first teachers and partnerships with families are critical.
Principles of Early Childhood Instruction

Principals will become more effective supervisors of early childhood programs as they gain a fuller understanding of the standards and competencies for early childhood teachers. The National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has developed 12 principles for child development and learning. These principles stress the importance of personalizing instruction, establishing trust, challenging children, and using developmentally appropriate procedures. They also reinforce the importance of play in "developing self-regulation and promoting language, cognition, and social competence."

Some Trending Practices: Incorporating Nature, Play, and Music 

What do schools do when they open programs for preschoolers? Too often they push academics down to the early levels, with a focus on math and reading. However, according to Yale researcher, Erika Cristakis, preschoolers need to play. In her book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups, Cristakis stresses the importance of play. In an article in the Huffington Post, she says, "An academic focus is not necessarily a cognitively rich focus. . .We know that speaking, listening and talking through play is really heavily linked to strong academic and social emotional outcomes later in life."

Results for Development is one of many voices that is advancing an emphasis on more play and less work at the preschool level. Following the Reggio Emilia model from Italy, Nicholas Burnett, a Senior Fellow at Results for Development describes the huge need and the barriers today to arranging environments for playful learning. As Burnett says,

"Parents want preschool for their children so that they will succeed later in school - so their measures of the worth of such programs include such things as whether there is homework and testing, whether instruction is in English or French or another metropolitan language and whether children are disciplined. Moreover, governments increasingly alert to the learning crisis at the primary level - in which far too few children can master basic literacy and numeracy - may tend to respond to this parental demand by essentially offering the primary curriculum at an earlier age. Private schools may well do the same."

Some Concluding Thoughts

We believe there is much to be gained by examining best practices in early education, and that the current trends in integrated play as an established component of the academic curriculum with intentional social-emotional learning activities intertwined are critical beyond the early years. If integrating the curriculum so that math, science, literature, art and music reinforce each other in pre-school and kindergarten, why shouldn't we make the same connections for our high school students? We are currently observing the gaps that have emerged from an over-focus on academic achievement measured through standardized assessments. We lost the balance necessary for the development of the whole child. Pre-school pedagogy and the advances in brain neuroscience have much to offer in advancing educational practices in this century.

What is your state doing about Preschool Education? The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education(DESE) identified a need for principals to partner with Early Education Directors. One aim is for children and families to move seamlessly from early care to public school. Massachusetts is in the process of updating its Quality Rating and Improvement Standards and is asking for comments through a series of public hearings. In 2016 the Early Learning Team invited principals with PK programs to meet and determine priorities for early learning support for administrators throughout the state. This year, based on the information collected,  DESE is organizing specific topics of study for principals: social-emotional learning/play/developmentally appropriate practice; retention in the early grades; and alternative disciplinary practices. Regional meetings and instruction will be launched in November, 2017.

A Principal's Perspective. In reflecting back on the early work that Jill conducted in Massachusetts many years ago as an early childhood principal, Jill concludes: "We were committed to developmentally appropriate practice, and whereever possible, worked to integrate our curriculum strands and infuse music, art and physical development. We understood that with young children every moment is a teachable moment: using strategies as we walked in the halls to lunch or recess that incorporated song, rhyming chant, body language and facial expressions. Without knowing that the current trends in social-emotional learning, play, STEAM and natural science connections were inherently crucial, we were actually doing it all!


NAEYC (2009). Developmentally appropriate practices in early childhood. Includes CD with videos of developmentally appropriate practices in action.

NAEYC (2013). Developmentally appropriate practices: Focus on preschoolers. Includes FAQs and examples of developmentally appropriate practices with contrasting practices that are less likely to serve children well.
Innovations in School Counseling
By Morgan Grant, CEI Intern and Christine Mason
Research is beginning to show us what schools have known for a while - the school counselor is an important addition, and some might even say an integral component, to the school system. But why are school counselors so important? An elementary school in the Tooele County School District found that by hiring an additional school counselor their disciplinary referrals dropped by 17% in the first year and then another 45% the next. 

Recent research has found that school counseling programs can help to
  • Reduce discipline problems and increase prosocial behavior
  • Increase self-esteem and confidence in students
  • Teach effective conflict resolution and peer mediation skills
  • Improve academic results
  • Encourage diversity and acceptance
(American School Counselor Association, 2014; Good Therapy, 2015).

Strengths-Based School Counseling is an example of an innovative approach that goes beyond the traditional model for either spending more time with youth who are at-risk or in need of school or career counseling. It is designed to "advocate for positive youth development for all students and for environments that enhance and sustain that development" (Galassi, 2017). Such programs foster bonding, youth resilience, pro-social norms, and self-determination.

Schoolwide Programs 

One of the reasons why school counseling programs are successful is because they impact the entire school. But how do school counselors interact with the school as a whole? 
By using schoolwide programs the school counselor is able to engage with all students, promote school pride and encourage community. School counselors use their knowledge of child development and prevention and intervention methods to create these schoolwide programs. They serve as a catalyst and a resource to teachers for implementation of both ongoing and special in-school initiatives. The Elementary School Counseling website has a links to several innovative programs with lesson plan suggestions, such as a Random Acts of Kindness week, programs for peer support, bully-free awareness week, and Students of Character Club. You most likely know of some of the classics, such as the Red Ribbon Week campaign for drug free America and Student Recognition Week (Elementary School Counseling, 2012).
  • The Random Acts of Kindness (RAK) Week includes recommendations for a staff production of a RAK video, classroom lessons, and a message from Tim (a timberwolf puppet).
  • The RAK lesson plan includes not only recommended easy to implement activities but also questions such as "did the RAK cost money?" "were the RAK easy or hard to do?" and "did anyone every help you with a RAK"?
Some school wide programs have opened many doors for both the school and the community.
  • Promoting College readiness with AVID. The central district in California's elementary school and middle schools' counseling program has introduced new learning opportunities to its students. The counseling programs have developed a district wide college readiness program known as AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination). AVID allows students to attend various career fairs, visit college campuses and take the practice SAT. They also have another program known as JUMP (Junior Upcoming Medical Professionals) which shows students what's it like to work in the healthcare field through fairs and school visits from professionals.
  • Middle School 88 in Brooklyn, New York to reduce anxiety has a pilot counseling program called the Comfort Dog Program. The program uses rescue dogs to help ease students' anxieties and reform behavior. The goal is for students to learn life lessons in compassion and conflict resolution. The school has noticed that the rescue dog has been a wonderful addition especially for students with learning and physical disabilities.
  • Strengths-Based School Counseling is designed to "advocate for positive youth development for all students and for environments that enhance and sustain that development" (Galassi, 2017). Such programs foster bonding, youth resilience, pro-social norms, and self-determination.
School Budgeting Efforts 

The national average ratio of students to school counselor is 491 to 1, rather than the recommended ratio by the American School Counselor Association of 250 to 1 (American School Counselor Association, 2014). With a tight budget it can be hard for some school districts to afford more counselors and some are stretched to their limits.

For example, at Paducah Tilghman High School in Paducah, Kentucky there are two school counselors for approximately 800 students. Schools with a large number of students need more counselors, but what can be done if it's not in the budget? 

Some schools are taking the data to heart and are determined to hire more counselors. They've seen the benefits of having counseling programs and are striving to continue the trend. 

For instance, schools in Salt Lake City, Utah are working to increase grant funding to further support the school counseling program. Lillian Tsosie-Jensen, a school educational coordinator from the Utah State Board of Education, explains why the state is so committed, "We know that with our youth, ages 10-17, the leading cause of death is suicide. So as we look at the data, we definitely know our students are in crisis and ask how can we best support them so that they can be not only life ready but also academically ready."


American School Counselor Association. (2014). School counselors & members: Careers/roles.

Elementary School Counseling. (2012). School-Wide programs.

Galassi, J. (2017). Strengths-based school counseling: Promoting student development and achievement. New York, NY:Routledge.

Good Therapy. (2015). School Counseling.
Behavioral Challenges, the Urgency, and a New Way of Disciplining Students

By Mahnaz Ahrary, CEI Intern
"The children at risk of falling into the school-to-prison pipeline include not only the 5.2 million with ADHD, the 5 million with a learning disability, and the 2.2 million with anxiety disorders, but also the 16 million who have experienced repeated trauma or abuse, the 1.4 million with depression, the 1.2 million on the autism spectrum, and the 1.2 million who are homeless.

Behaviorally challenging kids are still poorly understood and are still being treated in ways that are adversarial, reactive, punitive, unilateral, ineffective, counterproductive. Not only are we not helping, we are going about doing things that in ways make things worse. Then what you have to show for it is a whole lot of alienated, hopeless, sometimes aggressive, sometimes violent kids." - Ross Greene, Ph.D.

Some beginning of the year considerations. As we approach the new school year, it is inevitable that teachers' heightened anxiety may be worsened by the potential variety of challenges some students bring to the classroom. How to juggle the needs of all students becomes even more counterproductive, when applying the same redundant methods of discipline: negative consequences, timeouts, and punishments, that make bad behavior worse. These methods contribute to habitual bad behavior, especially when the behavior is caused by developmental delays or emotional trauma-related outbursts. One might compare it to having a preexisting medical condition that is only diagnosed and treated with prescription drugs, neglecting the cause or lifestyle contributions to the diagnoses. Kids who are behaviorally challenged are acting out for numerous reasons, and without understanding their reasons, disciplining them with negative consequences can create more negative consequences.

What's wrong with the discipline we dish out? Outdated systems of reward and punishment-- including color systems, behavior charts, prizes, suspensions and expulsions-- are not solving the behavioral epidemic, the acting out, disruptive behaviors, and violence in schools. During the 2011-2012 school year, the U.S. Department of Education had a record of 130,000 expulsions and about 7 million suspensions, out of a total of 49 million K-12 students (School Climate and Discipline, 2016). The facts are disheartening. Sadly, children with learning and behavior disabilities are suspended at twice the rate of their peers and incarcerated at nearly three times the rate of the overall youth population. African-American students with disabilities have a suspension rate of 25%, and students who have been suspended or expelled have a higher chance of coming into contact with the juvenile justice system (Owen, Wettach & Hoffman, 2015). Normally, teachers attempt to control students' behavior rather than help students' control it themselves, which is unfortunate. When teachers control, rather than helping kids learn self-control, it can lead to unintended abandonment of potential positive behavior(s) that students can learn. It also makes it less likely that students will learn skills needed to increase their autonomy when practiced over time. 

Ross Greene, a clinical psychologist, and the author of The Explosive Child, founded Lives in the Balance, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting newer methods for children with behavioral challenges. In his latest book, which provides advice on parenting, Raising Humans, Greene states "We have the capacity for characteristics such as empathy, honesty, collaboration, cooperation, appreciating how one's actions are affecting others, perspective taking, and resolving disagreements in ways that do not cause conflict. Those are characteristics that the Real World is going to demand. But they need to be cultivated and encouraged. If we don't use 'em, we lose 'em." CEI believes that this cultivation can occur at home and school.

In the Explosive Child, Greene reveals a cold and hard truth, that as educators, we need to address with urgency. Greene refers to a population of kids that are "over-corrected, over-directed, and over-punished." He describes how children with behavioral challenges eventually become habituated to punishment. However, instead of creating more adversarial relationships with these children, educators can nurture strong relationships by focusing more on meeting the child's needs and solving the actual problems. However, this will take time and effort.

The Root of the Problem

Is punishment the answer? Greene was influenced by neuroscientists' recent discoveries about the brain. Using powerful fMRI machines, neuroscientists have affirmed that the prefrontal cortex of the brain is instrumental in managing executive function such as the capacity to control impulses, prioritize tasks, and to organize and plan (Executive Function, 2017). Interestingly, related research has suggested that the prefrontal cortices of aggressive children are either underdeveloped, or developing more slowly, resulting in difficulty regulating their own behavior (Aggression & The Brain, 2008). Ross explains that some children, with diagnosed behavioral disorders, including those impacted by trauma, are unable to relate to others and are the most likely to be disciplined. Yet, time and time again, children who are the most behaviorally challenged still receive the harshest punishments. 

Teachers may believe that children who are disruptive deserve negative consequences such as more homework, missing recess, or loss of a privilege at school. However, Katherine Lewis, a journalist, in describing Green's approach, questions the efficacy of these standard practices. In an article entitled What if Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?, Lewis asks: "Are we treating children who are chronically misbehaving as though they don't want to behave, when in many cases they are not capable?"

Not all students with behavioral challenges will ever be diagnosed with learning disabilities or specific behavioral diagnoses, whether such diagnoses have been initiated by parent, or school advocates. This increases the chances of receiving little help to support children with their underlying problems. On the other hand, Lewis refers to evidence on the neuroplasticity of the brain that shows that learning and repeated experiences can alter the physical structure of the brain to create new neuronal pathways.

The Collaborative and Proactive Solutions Model

Conversations. Greene believes that rather than punish a kid for yelling out or jumping out of his seat, that a conversation needs to take place. One would figure out the reasons for the outburst and brainstorm alternative strategies, getting to the goal of the problem and not discipline a child for the way his/her brain is wired. His model, the Collaborative & Proactive Solutions Model, is a non-punitive, non-adversarial, trauma-informed method based on the premise that challenging behavior occurs when the expectations being placed on a kid exceed the kid's capacity to respond adaptively:
  • The model does not focus on any psychiatric diagnoses, but rather identifying the skills the kid is lacking and expectations he/she is having difficulty meeting. In the CPS model those expectations are called "unsolved problems."
  • The goal under this model is to foster a collaborative partnership between adults and kids and to engage kids in solving problems that affect their lives.
  • Children and adults learn and display positive skills like empathy, appreciating how one's behavior is affecting others, resolving conflicts without conflict, considering all perspectives and honesty.
Lagging Skills not Lagging Motivation. Greene believes that challenging behavior is often set in motion by lagging skills, not lagging motivation, which is why rewarding and punishing a child does not improve challenging behavior. Problems need to be solved collaboratively so a children are fully invested in solving their own problems, and over time learn skills that they were lacking. 

Greene's collaborative approach entails three components: 
  1. Empathy: Adults gather information to achieve a clear understanding of the child's concern or perspective regarding the unsolved problem (challenging behavior that was displayed rather than expected behavior)
  2. Defining the Problem: Adults consider the unsolved problem from the adult's perspective(s).
  3. Invitation Step: Adults and children brainstorm together for solutions to arrive at an action plan that is realistic and satisfactory, addressing both concerns that both parties can do.
Greene's CPS model has been implemented at various schools, inpatient psychiatry units, group homes and correctional facilities.
  • Mountain View, a juvenile detention facility in Charleston, Maine, saw incidents resulting in injury or restraint decrease by two thirds between April 2004 and April 2008 after CPS was implemented.
  • The Central School in South Berwick, Maine also adopted Greene's model. Before the program, between 2009-2010, students were referred to the principal for discipline 146 times, with two suspensions. Two years after the implementation, those referrals were down to 45 and no suspensions. Building improvement funds were diverted to divide one classroom into two spaces, one being the "Learning Center," which was a quiet spot for students to take a break, eat a snack and solve any problems before returning to class. Teachers also received 20 weeks of training, along with an hour of coaching from Greene's trainer via Skype.
A related resource that can be very useful is th e Bill of Rights for Behaviorally Challenging Kids available on the Lives in the Balance website. Ultimately, we have children who are falling through the cracks, due to behavior and special needs that may never be recognized and Greene believes that 6 hours a day can make a valuable difference in these kids' lives.

Lewis, K. R. (July/August 2015). What if everything you knew about disciplining kids was wrong? MotherJones.
Owen, J., Wettach, J., & Hoffman, K. C. (2015). Instead of suspension: Alternative strategies for effective school discipline.
Be Proactive

What is needed at your school this year? Principals, perhaps you have acquired a preschool and you yourself need to learn more about early childhood education. Perhaps you are relying on ineffective and outdated approaches to discipline. Perhaps you have many children who need help from a counselor. Where do these fall on our lists of priorities? What can you do right now as you lay out your plan for 2017-2018?  

Christine Mason
Center for Educational Improvement