During this week, students in Kindergarten and 1st grade at my daughter’s school participate in a special, off campus trip that is unique to their grade level. These trips provide experiential learning opportunities for students tied to the school’s core curriculum. As the students get older, these milestone trips increase in complexity (and days away from home), challenging students in different ways. The classroom teacher reminded us, parents, how this was a special moment for students to experience by themselves. So, I will have to (patiently) wait until she gets home to find out how everything went!
These type of milestone activities are important for children and youth; they mark the end of the academic year with a meaningful experience and offer students an opportunity to use many of the skills they learned during the year. What a great chance for students to practice their social and emotional skills in a new environment! Researchers have found that field trips effectively support student learning and increase student interest and motivation. Unfortunately, financial limitations force schools to make difficult decisions about how to allocate scarce resources and, in many cases, field trips are not prioritized. If that’s the case in your school, don’t worry! There are other things that you can do to create milestone experiences for students, to celebrate their growth and close the school year on a high note.
Creating milestone experiences
A milestone is a significant event in people’s lives, and often marks the start of a new chapter. These meaningful events help us grow or change who we are as a person in some significant way. In the school context, milestone experiences should have these ingredients:
- Engage the whole child. It should be an opportunity for students to use, share and celebrate their unique talents, especially those that they may not use in the classroom. A milestone experience should also provide a space for students to integrate and apply what they know in unique ways.
- Challenge students. The experience should help students move out of their comfort zone, into the stretch zone. Educators can create a safe space that gently pushes students to go beyond comfort and conformity, so meaningful learning can happen.
- Build community. Milestone experiences should offer students an opportunity to connect with their peers and teachers at a deeper level. Remember when we discussed the importance of emotions in learning? Optimal learning integrates feeling and thinking.
Are you getting excited to create milestones experiences for your students? Great! These are a few examples that can be done without leaving school.
- Organize an “awards ceremony” where every student is honored for something positive, both academic and non-academic. Students can recognize and celebrate their own work and accomplishments, and that of others. This event will help students close the year with a sense of accomplishment and a positive perspective on everything that they were able to do as a learning community. Include families and other educators in this event!
- Community service project. Have students identify a need in the community or the school, then plan and support students to execute the project. School-wide yard sale, painting a mural or gardening, there are so many ways for students to contribute their talents and knowledge outside the classroom!
- Student/Teacher unconference. Teachers and students could plan short lessons on things they are interested in outside of school (music, art, dance, woodwork, crafts). Then, create a schedule with all the sessions. Students and teachers, maybe even families, can sign up for those sessions that they are interested in.
Milestone experiences are a meaningful way to mark the end of the school year, gently pushing students outside of their comfort zone and celebrating the learning community educators create with their students. They will also create special memories that you can cherish as you close the year, and start enjoying your well-deserved break!
When I pick up my daughter from school, I often ask her these questions: What made you laugh? Who did you help? Were you brave today? Her answers give me insights into how her day went, what she enjoyed doing and how she felt at school. She doesn’t always want to talk about how school went, but it is important for me as a parent to initiate that conversation and create the time for us to check-in. Sometimes she will ask back, how was your day Mom? And that gives me a chance to tell her about what I do when she is at school. My hope is that I am building a space where she can feel safe talking about the silly moments, and also the challenges that she will inevitably encounter. Since this is her first year in elementary school, I’d like to support her in navigating this new environment. Her teacher is great at communicating any social and emotional challenges, and has given us ideas for things we can do at home based on her observations. We greatly appreciate you Ms. B!
Most educators who value the whole child would like parents to be partners in growing the minds and hearts of their students. They’d like parents to reinforce at home the social and emotional skills they nurture in the classroom. The reality is that most parents want the same thing! But they need a little guidance from teachers about what is being done in the classroom and how they can support their children at home. In an ideal world, schools would have a parent education program where parents would come together and discuss real-life situations, brainstorm best ways to handle them, practice the skills educators are teaching in the classroom, and… the list could go on! Unfortunately, many schools don’t have a fully developed parent education program, but that shouldn’t stop teachers from building a connection with parents.
There are several things you can do to get your parents on board with your SEL program and practices. Here are some ideas:
- Include your SEL focus or standard in your regular communication with parents. For example, if you send a monthly calendar home, include your SEL goals and the competencies you’ll be addressing with students. Include one or two activities well loved by students that they can practice with their parents.
- Highlight students’ use of social and emotional skills when you meet with parents, in addition to providing updates on their academic growth. Having a conversation with families about students’ competencies will show them that this content is part of your classroom. It will also give you an opportunity to learn about parents’ approach and how they talk to their kids about these skills.
- Celebrate students’ social and emotional growth and let parents know about it. Human beings tend to focus on those things that need to be improved, and sometimes we forget that there is so much we have already accomplished! Let parents know when you see their child develop socially and emotionally. Are they better able to handle a conflict with a peer? Have they reduced visits to the office? Can they let somebody else lead a group? Parents love to know that their child is improving!
- Provide parents with resources to help them with challenges typical of their child’s age group. If you have taught the same age group for a while, you can probably anticipate the social and emotional issues that students will need to navigate during the school year. What about supporting parents with these common challenges, so they can be more effective at home? For example, many students pushback when parents try to help them with homework. Is there anything you can provide parents to make it easier (or less painful!)?
- Model and keep an open communication with parents. As we’ve seen in other posts, we need to model the skills we want our students to develop. That is also true for working with parents, even when we have difficult conversations! Use your empathy skills and optimism, enlist parents to help you, and be open to their support.
Having a strong home-school connection yields many benefits for teachers, parents, and students. When it comes to the social and emotional development of students, educators can “take SEL home” by communicating with parents about the classroom’s SEL goals and focus competencies, celebrating and discussing students’ social and emotional growth with families and providing resources, whenever possible, so parents can be more effective. Try these strategies and let me know how it goes! And if you have different ones, please share in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!
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