Empower Families: Three Digital Wellness Talking Points

Patrick Green

In the theatrical production of a child’s life, teachers play multiple roles. Sometimes they are orchestrating from their classroom stages, but most often, they are in the wings: savvy coaches, expert facilitators, and wise counsel. At home, parents and caregivers look to teachers not just for academic guidance but for support on the broader journey of nurturing thriving individuals. 

Parent-teacher conferences are one helpful occasion where teachers can extend their role beyond the classroom, offering concrete strategies for support and relationship building. While teachers have the privilege of engaging with a hundred students (or more!) in a year, parents are focused on the most important one in their lives. In the modern era, digital technology adds a layer of complexity to parenting that educators and parents are navigating together. Just as there isn’t a comprehensive manual for parenting, there isn’t one for the ever-evolving landscape of digital devices either. 

These three talking points offer teachers pathways for empowering families to take control of their digital wellness. And in turn, they offer teachers prompts for in-class conversation that reinforce healthy habits from home:

1. Keep Bedrooms Device Free

In the realm of digital wellness, the sanctity of sleep takes center stage. Teachers and caregivers alike understand that adequate sleep forms the foundation of a child’s well-being and academic performance. Quality of sleep impacts mental health, physical health, and brain function (UCLA Center for the Developing Adolescent, 2023).

  • Remove Devices from Bedrooms: Just having a screen nearby can be a disruptor for needed rest. One out of three teens wakes up and checks their phone at least once a night (Common Sense Media, 2019). Switching to an alarm clock is a simple move for deeper sleep and greater health.
  • Set a Device Curfew: At least an hour before sleep, impose a family-wide device curfew. This practice fosters relaxation and signals the brain that it’s time to wind down.
  • Create a Family Charging Station: In a public location in the home, create a centralized charging station to avoid the temptation of late-night scrolling.

2. Bring on the Boundaries

Screen time often means learning time, creating time, and much-needed relaxation time. And, like all activities, it requires a balanced approach. A few boundaries can go a long way in nurturing human connection and healthy development (The US Surgeon General’s Advisory, 2023).

  • Keep Mealtimes Device Free: When all family members set their devices at the charging station during dinner, a doorway is open for connection and community. Replace scrolling with simple check-in routines: What was your win today? Frustration? Learning? 
  • Choose Eye Contact Over Screens: Model setting your screens down to listen, respond, and look people in the eye. It’s all too easy to keep reading the news when asked a question, but every interaction with our children is a bid to connect. Practice connecting eye to eye.
  • Decide Your Family’s When and Wheres: Where are screen-free zones in your home? During movies? Family games? Afternoon snack? Make it clear when phones will be put away. And the why for these boundaries is strong. Adolescents often feel social pressure to be constantly connected (Weinstein & James, 2022, Chapter 3). Boundaries for availability lead to healthier digital device habits and healthier young people. 

3. Look at the Data

In a world where data shapes decisions, screen time tracking emerges as a valuable tool. It’s not just about accountability; it’s about inviting informed conversations that generate reflection, conversation, and healthy shifts.

  • Activate Screen Time Tracking: Involve all family members in using a screen time tracking app. Both iPhones and Android phones have this functionality built-in (look for Screentime on iOS or Digital Wellbeing and parental controls on Android).
  • Foster Collaborative Conversations: Once everyone is tracking their screen time usage, you have fodder for open discussions on how everyone in a home is using their phones. Guess where you think you’re spending the most time and reveal what the numbers say. 
  • Set Goals Together: What story is the data telling you? Where would you like to spend less time or shift time? What do you notice are your biggest time wasters? Tracking apps are inspiration for goals, next steps, and family challenges. They ensure everyone (parents too!) is working on boundaries and is empowered to actively participate in managing their screen time.

Teachers don’t just educate; they guide, support, and coach. In the realm of digital wellness, teachers can play a pivotal role in offering concrete strategies. Parent-teacher conferences are one opportunity for educators to step out of the classroom and into the larger landscape of a child’s life. By addressing the essential talking points of device-free bedrooms, balanced screen habits, and data-driven discussions, caregivers can be equipped with the tools they need to foster a digitally mindful and balanced family environment. 


Robb, M. B. (2019). The New Normal: Parents, Teens, Screens, and Sleep in the United States. Common Sense Media. Retrieved August 31, 2023, from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/research/report/2019-new-normal-parents-teens-screens-and-sleep-united-states-report.pdf

Social Media and Youth Mental Health: The US Surgeon General’s Advisory. (2023, May 23). HHS.gov. Retrieved August 31, 2023, from https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/sg-youth-mental-health-social-media-advisory.pdf

Weinstein, E., & James, C. (2022). Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (and Adults Are Missing). MIT Press.

What the Science Tells Us About Adolescent Sleep | Center for the Developing Adolescent. (n.d.). UCLA Center for the Developing Adolescent. Retrieved August 31, 2023, from https://developingadolescent.semel.ucla.edu/topics/item/science-of-adolescent-sleep

About the Author: Patrick Green is the author of “50 Ways to Use YouTube in the Classroom” and co-author of  “Classroom Management in the Digital Age.” As a  technology leader in schools for over 15 years, Patrick supports countless parents and teachers as they navigate the questions and challenges that come along with digital technologies in school and the home. Patrick regularly speaks with parents about strategies to help their children thrive in our complex digitally-connected world and develop a healthy relationship with technology.  A YouTube Star Teacher, Google Certified Innovator, and Apple Distinguished Educator, you can follow how work, school, parenting, and play blend for Patrick at @pgreensoup on Twitter and Instagram and can visit his website at WinningScreentime.com

There is an “I” in Team 

Jennifer Abrams

Over the last decade my focus in my consulting work has been around adult to adult communication in schools. How do we stretch ourselves at our learning edges to become our best adult selves at school? How do we communicate well with one another in service of our students?  This article series will focus on how we can stretch ourselves around five essential areas of professional behavior: knowing ourselves, suspending certainty, taking responsibility for our interactions, engaging in reciprocity, and building resiliency.

One may notice that stretching ourselves is what we have been doing now for months and actually years. Educators worldwide have dealt with COVID, wars in many different regions and a variety of climate change crises. We fear asking anymore of anyone. It is at this most challenging time that building our adult to adult communication skills is even more critical. Yes, the demands are ever increasing. We still have within ourselves an ability to act in ways that align with the goal of having our schools be humane and respectful places to work.  

Our ability to collaborate and our willingness to engage respectfully with one another matters for the health of the school and the collective well-being of all within it. We can and must intentionally ask ourselves how to live respectfully even in the midst of the challenges we are facing.

Cambridge Dictionary says ‘Reciprocity’ is “behavior in which two people or groups of people give each other help and advantages; a situation in which two groups agree to help each other by behaving in the same way or by giving each other similar advantages.”  We need to think about our work in schools including this type of behavior with the other adults as part of one’s everyday work responsibility. It isn’t just doing one’s tasks or role; it isn’t just doing “one’s job” or going into one’s classroom and working with students; it is also to be a value add to the other adults in the school.
Engaging In Reciprocity

Willingly moving oneself from isolation and separateness to a connection to and concern for community.Honoring individual team members and valuing each person’s gifts and contributions to the community is critical for a workplace that is grounded in a shared future.Demonstrating a belief in the worth and dignity of all individuals with whom one works by modeling supportive and productive team behaviors: active listening, thoughtful questioning, offering supportive suggestions, using verbal and nonverbal behaviors that exhibit respect, and more.

Adapted from Stretching Your Learning Edges: Growing (Up) at Work – Jennifer Abrams, 2021, MiraVia Publishing (www.miravia.education).

Things you can consider as you work to engage more effectively as a collaborative team member:

Do Inner Work To Contribute To The Whole
Being an effective team member requires us to be mindful of our body language and non-verbals, build our skills to do active listening, asking questions that others want to answer, learning how to apologize, and allow space for all voices to be heard. We all must do the inner work and manage emotions and energy and do the outer work of being mindful of our body language and choosing respectful wording.

Learn To Effectively Work With Cognitive Conflict
When we are stressed, we often don’t engage in challenging conversations in the best of ways. As Timothy J. Clark states in The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation (2020), a team needs to work with more intellectual friction and less social friction. Building your ability to discuss issues rather than individuals is key to staying cognitive in your conversations.

Be 100% Responsible For Your Responses
You are 100% responsible for how you respond to others and that includes how you ask questions, how you share disappointments, and how you share concerns. Asking, “How might I communicate my perspective humanely in a kind, supportive, and non-aggressive manner?” is a question we all need to be asking ourselves.

Understand “We Influence I” And “I Influences We”
The old adage often repeated in schools is that there is no “I” in team. That’s a myth. Individuals matter. When recognized and valued, individual points of views and diverse ways of seeing the world contribute greatly to the fabric of the collective and the shared future of a school. And the group as a collective also needs to be seen as a value-add to each team member’s work.

Honor Others’ Dignity
Mutual respect is something we live out loud. Engaging in reciprocity means we show others that we believe in their worth as human beings and we honor one another and what we each bring to the table. We need to create environments in which everyone is acknowledged, feels a sense of belonging, and is treated justly.

As we work on engaging as our best adult selves, we need to consistently focus not just on the content of our meetings with others but also on how we are doing in our interactions. We can ask:

  • Do I know where my strengths and weaknesses as a group member are and do I work to address my weaknesses?
  • Do I monitor my behavior in a team meeting so I am a value add to the meeting and not contributing to any social friction?
  • Recognizing that cognitive conflict and intellectual friction can help a group move forward, do I monitor my behavior so I am not contributing to any unnecessary social friction?
  • Do I understand that group structures, norms, and protocols which support cognitive and psychologically safe discussions, and do I willingly participate in those protocols with awareness and skill?

Our students look to us to see what being an adult looks like. Let’s model for them being our best adult selves.

Abrams, Jennifer. Stretching Your Learning Edges: Growing (Up) at Work. (2021).
Clark, Timothy J. The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation. (2020)

Formerly a high school English teacher and a new teacher coach, Jennifer Abrams is currently a communications consultant who focuses on adult to adult communication in schools. Her publications include Having Hard Conversations, The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicate, Collaborate and Create Community and Hard Conversations Unpacked – the Whos, Whens and What Ifs and Swimming in the Deep End: Four Foundational Skills for Leading Successful School Initiatives. Her newest book is, Stretching Your Learning Edges: Growing (Up) at Work.

Internationally, Jennifer presented at PTC, TTC, EARCOS, NESA, ECIS, AISA, AMISA, CEESA and Tri-Association conferences, and at schools across Asia, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South America, and North America. More about Jennifer’s work can be found at her website, www.jenniferabrams.com. Twitter: @jenniferabrams

This article was previously published on the The International Educator (TIE) website February 2, 2022.

All the World’s a Stage: Using Theater Techniques in the Classroom

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” (As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII, William Shakespeare) 

I was one of those students who wasn’t a top performer in reading or math. Physically, I wasn’t built for sports. So, my trajectory through junior and senior high school was to pursue the arts (music and theater). Going beyond high school, my options were limited to the arts. I am proud to say I achieved a bachelor’s degree in theater, with honors!

After years of suffering for my art, I decided I needed to change directions. I went back to school and earned a post-baccalaureate degree in education. I figured, where else was I going to get a captive audience!

Little did I know I would be relying heavily on my theater training. Theater teaches you how to be focused, solve problems, think critically and creatively, work as a team, and self-regulate to achieve a goal—many of the skills and attitudes we expect our students to develop in today’s classroom.

Using the techniques of theater in your classroom gives kids a safe place to try new things, make mistakes, and learn from others. Along with developing creativity, theatrical tools teach problem-solving, critical reasoning, and collaboration. Kids also learn risk-taking skills, affective resilience, nonverbal responsiveness, and social mindfulness.

Theater activities encourage students to think on their feet without the fear of being wrong, because the number one rule is “there are no mistakes, only opportunities.” Through using movement, pantomime, improvisation, role playing, and group discussion, students develop greater communication skills, social awareness, confidence, problem-solving abilities, and self-concept. The goal is to guide children to a greater sense of self-fulfillment and personal and social acceptance.

Actors have five tools they use to communicate: voice, body, imagination, concentration, and collaboration. Teaching students how to build their own toolbox of strategies can benefit them in learning and communication processes.

Voice: The ability to use your voice to be heard and understood
Articulation is critical in being heard and understood. All actors routinely go through diction practice. Our students must be articulate to project ideas and communicate effectively with others.

Start with simple practices such as: Sally sells seashells south of the seashore or Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Move on to more complex sound reproductions such as tongue twisters (repeated numerous times as fast as possible):

  • Unique New York
  • Red leather, yellow leather
  • She says she shall sew a sheet

And then move to more difficult and longer statements: She stood on the balcony, inexplicably mimicking him hiccuping, and amicably welcoming him home.

While working through these diction activities, have students concentrate on their breathing, being sure to breathe from their diaphragms. Focus on breathing deeply. Also pay attention to lip and tongue movement—really work those muscles.

For more diction strategies, click here.

Body: The ability to use your body to communicate messages
Actors use their bodies to project characters, emotions, and ideas. The use of the body in communication is extremely important—it’s called body language. Poor body language can communicate the wrong messages, whether in verbal or nonverbal interactions. To help students develop this language, start with basic physical stretches. Not only will stretching help your students loosen up, it can also release stress.

If you are into yoga, teach your students the poses. Or ask your physical education teacher to share with you stretches students do in gym class. You can also use the “shake and stretch” method. Starting at the top of the head:

  • Shake and stretch each body part individually.
  • Shake and stretch body parts in pairs (head and arms, shoulders and feet).
  • Shake and stretch up high and down low.
  • Shake and stretch wide and thin.
  • Shake and stretch fast and slow.
  • Shake and stretch without bending your knees or elbows.

Another fun way to warm up your body is to draw the alphabet with different body parts. Ask the students to use their nose to draw the letter B. Now, ask them to use their ear to draw the letter Z. And so on.

For more movement activities, click here.

Imagination: The ability to come up with different ideas
The best ideas are formed through an expansive imagination. Imagination is the ability to come up with novel and unique ideas through different ways of thinking. Creative thinking is one of the most powerful tools of imagination. The strategies of fluency and flexibility are a great place to begin.

Fluency is the ability to come up with a lot of ideas. To develop students’ fluency, start with simple steps such as asking them to list everything they can think of that is green within one minute (you can use any color you wish). Have them share their lists with a partner and compare and contrast the lists. Do it again with another color or shape. Routinely asking kids to do this simple activity can open up their minds to thinking more expansively. Wait for unique ideas to pop up—for example, the kid who writes envy when asked to list things that are green.

You can expand this idea to your content by asking kids to list things that are “independent,” or any other concept you are working on. You can also have your students draw pictures of what the concept looks like. Seeing what kids list or draw gives you an idea of how well they understand the concept.

Flexibility is the ability to think of things in a new way. I used to have a “junk bag” in my classroom full of strange and common objects (like a wooden spoon, an electrical outlet cover, an extension cord). Look around your house or school for those odd-looking objects to put in your junk bag. Using one of the objects, ask kids to think of the item as something that it’s NOT. So, for the wooden spoon, kids may say it’s a microphone, a baton, a sword, a magic wand, and so on. Being a flexible thinker helps in finding unconventional ways to solve problems by using what is available.

For more ideas on building imagination, click here. I also have many more ideas for developing creative thinking in my book Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century.

Concentration: The ability to stay focused
Our students are being raised in a very concentration-challenged environment. With technology, everything is at their fingertips immediately—there is no need to persevere or wait. While technology has made our lives more efficient, its downside is that it has made us want instant gratification and has decreased our ability to concentrate for long periods of time.

Concentration is a learned skill, and you can teach kids to stay focused through engaging activities. To build concentration, find a time during your day for kids to go “off the grid”—no gadgets, tablets, phones, or computers. During this time, go old-school: Use thinking or memory games or crossword or jigsaw puzzles, or have students put a list of words into alphabetical order (use similar words such as adjustments and adjusting so that kids alphabetize beyond the first few letters).

Also have your kids put their heads down on their desks. Tell them to sit up when they think one minute has passed. Monitor your kids, listing when kids sat up and how close they came to one minute. Practice this activity over time to see how close kids can come to the one-minute time.

For more ideas for building concentration, click here.

Collaboration: The ability to work with others to get things done
We are all in this together. The best ideas come when people work together. No actor does it alone—even in a one-person show. Many people contribute to the production. Each person has a role to play in making the show a success. So, too, in the classroom. When students work together with purpose, great things can happen. Working collaboratively takes practice. Just like in a Broadway musical, everyone has a role to play to make the production a success.

One activity that can build collaboration and teamwork is having small groups of students go on a scavenger hunt. Have your students look for things hidden around the classroom or school. Use a list of clues that lead to more clues and ultimately to hidden objects. Consider using information students learned during lessons to help them find the items. (For example, your clue might be, “The date of the Boston Tea Party.” The answer to this is 12/16/1773, which can lead kids to room 1216 or 1773, where the next clue is located.) Group the students based on each having a special talent or a different area of knowledge—so that collectively they can find the objects. Another idea is to give each member of the team a specific job to do—so that collectively they can find the object.

For more ideas on building collaboration and teamwork, click here.

Knowing how actors learn, practice, and apply their skills can be an exceptional way to help students be more confident, self-aware, and productive. Who knows, maybe you will spark the next Viola Davis, Dame Maggie Smith, Sidney Poitier, or Sir Lawrence Olivier!

Dr. Richard M. Cash is an award-winning educator and author best known for his work in differentiation and advanced learners. Over his 3-plus decades in education, his experiences include teaching, curriculum coordination, and program administration. Prior to his education career, Richard was an actor and children’s theater director. Currently, he is a widely respected education consultant with nRich Educational Consulting, Inc. (www.nrichconsulting.com). His consulting work has taken him throughout the United States, and internationally.

His areas of expertise are educational programming, rigorous and challenging curriculum design, differentiated instruction, 21st century skills, brain-compatible classrooms, gifted & talented education, and self-regulated learning. Dr. Cash has authored books on differentiation, gifted learners, and self-regulation for learning.

Dr. Cash may be reached at: www.nrichconsulting.comC:\Users\Dr.RichardM\Desktop\nRich-logo-print.tifrichard@nrichconsulting.com


The Magic of Co-Written Intercultural School Musicals and 10 Tips to make them Impactful

Estelle Baroung Hughes

I have co-written three intercultural plays that were performed by elementary, middle and high school students, teachers, parents, school leaders and board members. Once I started writing the first of these musicals for the connection of a whole school community and the development of intercultural understanding, I had  to continue year after year.

Here is how it happened.

My first international education job was in India. I landed in Mumbai during the Monsoon. Before that, I had only known Cameroon, Congo and France. I saw the Maharashtrian Ghats exploding with green and waterfalls, I became immersed in the then recent Bollywood musicals Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai (yes, it was a while ago!). Serenading my senses with a thousand colorful saris and expertly mixed spices, India entered my life with a bang. A lot of us know how a first visit to India can shake and shape you.

Not too much later into that school year, as I was still feeling mesmerized by the newness of India to me, September 11th happened. The world stood still and contrasted voices of compassion and blame rose from the ashes of the fallen towers. The world was commencing a journey of division. How was I going to speak to that? How was I going to nurture beauty and foster Peace?

One part of me must have remained suspended in 2001, stuck between the magnificence of India and the unshakeable shock of the twin towers downfall. I left India in 2003 and have not yet returned; the India that I carry within me, no longer exists. Only the lessons learned there and the love for the place are still incontestably true. This is  what I have shared in  Ahimsa, a musical, inspired by the story of political non-violence in India and the plight of the exiled Kashmiri Pandits. 

Ahimsa is a co-writing adventure. The play was brought to life together with my husband Conrad and one of our former students Nandita Dinesh , playwright and Peace activist. It is difficult to describe the power of such a pilgrimage into the past, that brings you back to your youth in India through music and dance, that reconnects you with a former student who then becomes your co-creator. In this journey we recognise that art can foster peace, joy and critical thinking.

Ubuntu Letters, the very first play I wrote, is a musical exploring South African History and the concept of third culture kids. We follow Tumi, a South African student attending a European international school. His parents are diplomats whose current mission is ending. So the family will go home soon. Tumi is so anxious at the prospect of leaving Europe that one of his uncles starts writing to him about South Africa, its people, nature and history. Ubuntu Letters is a journey towards self-acceptance and cultural literacy. 

After the first draft of Ubuntu Letters, I allowed students to review my text to make it more relevant to their context, particularly the inside jokes.The play was performed three or four times. I could not get enough of seeing children from all over the globe singing anti-apartheid songs, toyi-toying (dancing defiantly against police brutality) and learning to Perform gumboot dance  under the guidance of a gifted South African artist. In my view, there is no better way to spark curiosity and develop cultural  literacy than to do it through body and movement. 

Return to Gaia, my third musical on America and Africa  explores the consequences of the enslavement of Africans in America, including the identity crisis of the main character Gaia who loses and finds herself again during her post high-school gap year trip in the Americas. For this musical, students helped put together simple but expressive choreographies that made the dances accessible to younger grades. From the energy of ‘Oye como va’ to the calm intensity of classic blues or old spirituals sung a-capella, students were often exploring unfamiliar music in Return to Gaia. This hopefully developed an appreciation for the cultures they were exploring.

I warmly recommend co-writing musicals and performing them as a community, focusing on intercultural themes to allow students to engage with new cultures playfully and lastingly. By intercultural learning I refer to the exploration of the space between cultures that is bridged by our common humanity. Memorising lines, embracing the emotion in the songs and repeating choreographies create new neural pathways where new cultural literacy (knowledge and understanding of other cultures) and intercultural skills can circulate. If well-conceived, intercultural musicals can become portals towards a stronger grasp of world history, world politics and multicultural art.

To conclude, here are 10 ways to work with musicals to support learning and connection in the school community. When you embark on the co-writing of an intercultural musical:

  1. Base your story on powerful personal, cultural and historical experiences that can help unveil the beauty of diversity, the  interconnectedness of humanity and our common human responsibilities.
  2. Integrate stories and perspectives that are relatable to your students and also to other stakeholders of the community. Empathy and relatability can contribute to intercultural understanding. 
  3. Open editing to students or co-write with them from the start. Centering student creativity, humor and register increases engagement and develops literacy and collaborative skills.
  4. Make it a community endeavor: have numerous characters of diverse backgrounds and generations; or work with a big choir and a band. This willnlead to including a bigger range of stakeholders. The audition process, for singing, dancing,  acting, stage crew work and co-directing should be open to students,  teachers, board members,  school leadership, maintanance… This is an opportunity to get the whole community together. This also means that the director needs to be supported by teachers and parents and organise the schedule intelligently.
  5. Turn your musical into an interdisciplinary project integrated in the curriculum. Visual Arts can do the props and backdrops, the music teachers can teach some of the songs (which warrants great moments of community singing during the performances), the PHE department can participate in the dance element. It is beautiful to work separately on a project then come together to see it performed in its entirety like a finished puzzle.
  6. Center the members of the community whose cultures are being featured in the play. Their input will help you avoid cultural blunders and essentialization. Cultural vetting and collaboration allow for safer and deeper incursions into new cultures and diverse mother tongues.
  7. Co-written intercultural plays can also evoke culturally sensitive topics. That is why it is important to be culturally sensitive and flexible enough to modify parts of the script in case of constructive feedback.
  1. Let there be space in the show for professional singers, artists and dancers from the celebrated cultures to show the pure cultural expression that the musical is evoking.The musical will therefore provide students with inspiration and rigorous artistic exemplars. However the professionals should not steal the students’ thunder; and anyone from the outside community working close to students should obviously be vetted and screened for child-protection.
  2. I recommend choosing existing music or musical styles that are representative of the places and times depicted in the musical as opposed to trying to write totally original songs. This is because one of the aims of intercultural musicals could be to discover and honor the musical cannon of the  featured cultures.
  3. An intercultural play can use language to extend the community’s cultural literacy. No need to limit the text to a single language. Involve translators if necessary to allow your performers to speak and sing in multiple relevant languages in the same play.

I am grateful to the International School of Geneva for featuring all my musicals and for giving them a powerful life of their own, in my presence or in absentia. Thank you also to students for their reflections on The Ubuntu Letters, on Ahimsa, may it be before the play or thereafter. For me, co-writing intercultural musicals has been a thing of beauty and a joy forever (John Keates).

A 3 Step Process to Foster Resilience & Empathy (6 minute read)

How does a disagreement that young people inevitably have with their friends relate to losing a basketball game or other sports match? Can they notice a connection from those two situations to a difficult assignment in one of their classes?

Is it too much of a stretch to connect all of those personal experiences to characters in their favorite TV series or literature? How does all of this relate to the lyrics in their favorite songs? Or living things in nature?

A common thread across these situations could be ‘resilience’ in the face of ‘setbacks.’ Imagine if more of our middle school students could independently draw out the lessons of each circumstance and apply those lessons to new situations.

For instance, a disagreement with friends could demonstrate that strong emotions are temporary. Unpleasant feelings will eventually fade. That idea could be comforting after a sports match loss.

And after both making up with their friends and winning a match, they could learn that struggles can make positive moments feel even better. And that the best things in life are worth putting in effort.

Those lessons can be applied to a challenging school assignment. They could then notice these principles in others such as characters in film and other stories. Imagine a young person making this connection while watching squirrels prepare for winter!

The best thing we can do for our students is teach them to become pattern seekers, especially in the area of self-management.

The rapid pace of change in our world today means that our young people will have to continue to learn and adapt long after they’ve left our schools (McGowen, n.d.). They need to be able to see patterns across different situations. They can’t give up easily. And they need to be able to put themselves in other people’s shoes.

We can use an empowering three step process to teach our young people how to become pattern seekers.

Step 1: Acquire understanding of transferable concepts.

Concepts are organizing ideas with distinct attributes that are shared across multiple examples. Put simply, they are words we use to organize and categorize our world. They are like mental file folders. They help our brains organize examples into meaningful groups based on shared attributes.

The beauty of concepts, as shown in the example of resilience and setbacks above, is that they point students and teachers alike to look past the superficial features of a situation and into the deeper structural features.

Step 2: Connect concepts in relationships.

Concepts alone, though, do not suffice to transfer our learning to new situations. The real driver of transfer is the ability to see the patterns of interaction among concepts. For instance, a resilient person must do more than just recognize a setback or a difficulty in a situation. They need to use their understanding of how setbacks make success taste sweeter in order to persevere and not give up. The mental “file folders” — concepts like setbacks and perseverance — need to be organized in relation to one another to create a conceptual framework in the expert’s mind (Donovan & Bransford, 2005).

Every field, hobby, or complex skill can be viewed through the lens of fundamental elements, called concepts, and the predictable ways those elements interact. Concepts and their connections are a critical link between prior learning and new situations.

See Figure 1 for the three simple steps to think about social-emotional learning.

Figure 1: The Learning Transfer Model-Stern, et. al, 2021

The most straightforward way to help students construct webs of meaning is to ask questions that prompt student attention to conceptual relationships. We can plug concepts into the following conceptual question stems to achieve that:

  • How are and _ connected?
  • What is the relationship between _ and _? 
  • How does impact/affect/influence ? 
  • What effect do and have on ? 
  • How do and interact? 
  • What is the role/purpose of  in ? 

We can use a cycle with two main components as a broad way to think about instructional design:

  • Teachers pose abstract questions about how concepts relate in order to call attention to the deeper structures of a situation.
  • Students explore a specific context – e.g. a personal difficult moment, witnessing a difficult moment that others experience, hearing about an injustice in the community, etc. – in which the concepts play a major role.

After students have a chance to explore a specific context and answer the conceptual question, the cycle should continue, allowing students to apply their understanding to increasingly dissimilar contexts. See Figure 2 for a visual of this cycle.

Figure 2: The Learning Transfer Cycle –Stern, Ferraro, & Mohnkern, 2017

Step 3:  Transfer learning to new situations.  

Consider the example in Figure 3 for social-emotional learning. Students are exploring the concepts of empathy and conflict. To begin, of course, teachers help students understand each concept on its own. They give students a quick definition of each concept and have students categorize a series of scenarios and images as representing either empathy or a lack of empathy. Students brainstorm as many types of conflict as they can and create a non-linguistic representation of what conflict means to them. These activities help direct students’ mental effort to the shared characteristics of empathy in new situations, which is essential for learning (McTighe & Willis, 2019).

Once students understand the meaning of each concept, the teacher poses a simple question about the relationship between them: How are empathy and conflict related? Then, students work through the learning transfer cycle to deepen their understanding of the concepts and understand how the concepts relate to each other.

How are empathy and conflict related?

Abstract conceptual questionContext for investigation
How can a lack of empathy lead to conflict?Students read a short story about a younger brother who always feels left out by his older siblings. Then they discuss the role a lack of empathy played in this sibling conflict.
How can conflict make it difficult to empathize with someone else?Students brainstorm instances in which they have had a conflict with someone else and write a journal entry about how the conflict made them feel. Then they discuss how the feelings associated with conflict – anger, frustration, resentment, sadness – can make it difficult to put yourself in another person’s shoes to practice empathy.
How can empathy help resolve a conflict?Students watch a video in which a girl overcomes a feeling of anger during a fight with her best friend by imagining things from her friend’s point of view.
How are empathy and conflict related?Students reflect on their learning through the previous three contexts and respond to the overall question of how empathy and conflict are related.

Notice that with each new book, video, or exercise, students are not only looking beyond the unfamiliar, superficial features to recognize the familiar, organizing concepts, they are using the unique features of the situation to explore the deeper patterns involved in the relationship between empathy and conflict in order to build a complex web of connections between the two ideas in their minds. This aids in both memory retention and in transfer of learning, as strong patterns in relationships allow predictions when confronting a new situation (McTighe & Willis, 2019).

The beauty of this cycle is that each new context also helps students strengthen their understanding of each concept individually. After investigating the relationship between empathy and conflict in these various iterations, students will have many examples of each concept in their respective mental file folders and can draw upon those examples when investigating the relationship between, say, conflict and peace, or empathy and resilience, down the road. And, just as important, each new context provides fertile ground to practice learning transfer.  

When we transfer, we must revisit our existing understanding and interrogate what we believe to be true. This means that we have to practice intellectual humility and admit when our prior understanding was partial or erroneous. Imagine a world where everyone practiced intellectual humility! This simple three-step process is a powerful force in our quest for more resilient and equitable schools and communities.

For further learning on this model, see Julie’s website and online courses. 




Donovan, S., & Bransford, J. (2005). How students learn. National Academies Press. 

McGowan, H. (n.d.). Sample frameworks. Heather E McGowan. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://heathermcgowan.com/sample-frameworks 

McTighe, J., & Willis, J. (2019). Upgrade your teaching: Understanding by design meets neuroscience. ASCD. 

Stern, J. H., Ferraro, K. F., Duncan, K., Aleo, T.,  (2021). Learning that transfers: Designing curriculum for a changing world. Corwin. 

Stern, J. H., Ferraro, K. F., Mohnkern, J. (2017). Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding: Designing lessons & assessments for deeper learning. Corwin. 

Julie Stern has two decades experience facilitating adult learning, and feels lucky to partner with educators to take their practice to the next level. She is passionate about synthesizing the best of education research into practical tools that support educators in breaking free of the industrial model of schooling and moving toward teaching and learning that promotes sustainability, equity, and well-being. She is a four-time, best-selling author of Learning that Transfers, Visible Learning for Social Studies, The On-Your-Feet-Guide to Learning Transfer and Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary and Secondary. She is a certified trainer in Visible Learning Plus and Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction. She is a James Madison Constitutional Fellow and taught social studies for many years before serving as Director of Curriculum Innovation for a network of schools. Julie moves internationally every few years with her husband, a US diplomat, and her two children.

What it Really Takes to Be a Successful Middle School (3 min)

Support, connect, balance. When the ELMLE team selected these words as the theme of the 2023 conference, they certainly had no idea they would also so accurately summarize what we’ve learned from AMLE’s Successful Middle School programming during the 2021-2022 school year.

We’ve facilitated studies of The Successful Middle School: This We Believe to help schools understand middle grade best practices, conducted the Successful Middle School Assessment to help schools gauge their implementation of those practices, supported schools and districts through ongoing coaching and professional development, and recognized twelve schools as our inaugural Schools of Distinction for their robust implementation of those very practices. Although we already knew what makes a middle school “good,” we’ve learned a lot about what it actually takes to get there.

We’ve learned that successful middle schools foster a symbiotic relationship of support, empowerment, and collaboration among staff, students, and the community. When the upper administration trusts a school leader to do their job well, the school leader feels supported and empowered. If that school leader feels supported and empowered, they can trust their staff to do their jobs well, and the staff feel supported and empowered. If school staff feel supported and empowered, they can trust their students to do their job well, and students feel supported and empowered. If students feel supported and empowered, they take the success of a school far beyond the school’s walls, fostering trust and positive relationships between the school and their families and community. When families and the community feel connected to the school, they trust upper administration to do their job well. Support, connection, balance.


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We’ve learned that successful middle schools develop these relationships intentionally and meticulously. Although the following list is by no means exhaustive, it provides a few tangible practices and mindsets that we’ve seen them utilize to create favorable conditions for these relationships to grow.

  • Staff understand and appreciate their students, including a strong foundation of young adolescent development.
  • A clear vision unifies staff and guides every decision.
  • Policies and practices are developed collaboratively and are evaluated transparently to ensure they are unbiased, student-centered, and fairly implemented. Staff and students know they have a voice in the decisions that are made for their school and believe they are listened to.
  • Structures foster meaningful relationships for students and staff, such as small learning communities through interdisciplinary teaming and advocacy for each student through advisory.
  • The empowerment of staff extends beyond administrative and teaching staff to include support staff and those in other roles.
  • Professional development honors the existing expertise of each staff member while working toward goals in line with the school’s vision.
  • Students believe they have a voice–in their academic experiences, in how their school operates, and in their larger community–and they know adults will listen.
  • The school engages with the community so that students’ learning experiences have both real-world relevance and impact.
  • The school views families as equal partners with the school in the best interest of the students and ensures families have authentic opportunities to not just spectate but actually influence the life and work of the school.

We’ve learned that when staff, students, and families feel trusted and empowered as part of a collaborative school community, the vision and mission of The Successful Middle School truly comes to life. We look forward to sharing more of what we’ve learned with you at ELMLE in January! 

Snowploughs, Snow boots, and Supervised Struggle

Martin Griffin

Recently I was reading an interview with a famous UK TV presenter in which she told a story about raising her son. In it she revealed something of her parenting style; something I found quite alarming at the time. If it rained in the afternoon as her boy was due to get out of school, she said, she’d send money to his bank account and text him to get a taxi home so he didn’t get wet.

This was my first encounter with what is now commonly referred to as snowplough parenting. Snowploughing replaces helicoptering – hovering around toddlers in playgrounds – when children reach middle level education. The snowplough parent aims to solve every conceivable problem their child might have ahead of time, ensuring a blissfully effortless existence.

The problem this creates for teachers compounds year-on-year. Why? Well, firstly snowploughing suffocates the development of the characteristics necessary for academic success, and crucially, creates a cultural expectation that is the school’s job to snowplough as well. The parent arranges life in the domestic context – removing issues around money-management, tech and connectivity, even walking through the rain – but it’s expected the school does the same in the educational context; tests shouldn’t be too hard, one-on-one sessions should deal with specific difficulties, lessons should be universally entertaining but also bespoke to each child, an issue was vividly illustrated by a recent GCSE student of mine. Approaching me at the end of a lesson he said, “Sir, I’d like to start revising
soon. So when are you going to put the extra lessons on?”

And we’re also dealing with a second challenge; the seemingly-daily expansion of what parents define as a problem. Helping your child to get started on their homework gradually becomes doing the homework for them, which morphs into complaining to the school that the thought of homework makes your child unhappy.

Which brings us to the question – what can we do? Having been a middle and high school teacher, at Key Stage 3, 4 and 5, for over twenty years, I’d like to make a case for replacing snowploughs with snowboots. Where one sweeps aside potential problems before they emerge, the other helps pupils suit-up and tackle them. I’m not advocating a let-‘em-get-on-with-it-and-turn-a-blind-eye approach; what I’m suggesting is that we create supervised struggle. We can do this as classroom teachers, designing a task that occurs in the middle of a lesson – a task we build-up to and carefully framework, but one that pushes students to operate at the very edge of their ability – or we can take a more holistic approach, leading struggle across a longer period of time and multiple subjects; modelling project-management tools and guiding their use over a fortnight for example.

Whichever approach we choose, we should be explicitly sharing the strategies pupils need for study at and beyond our level, rather than micromanaging every minute of their school experience. We hope to be sharing some of these tools and approaches at ELMLE’s January conference.

Martin Griffin and Steve Oakes

Martin Griffin and Steve Oakes have a combined 40 years’ experience teaching post-16 students as classroom teachers, heads of faculty and senior leaders. They are the authors of The A Level Mindset (Crown House, 2016), The GCSE Mindset (Crown House, 2017) and The Student Mindset (Crown House, 2019). You can learn more about their work with the VESPA model online and on Twitter @VESPAmindset. 

You can join Martin and Steve in three sessions during our main conference. These sessions include: 

  1. Divers and Thrivers: introducing non-cognitive skills in middle level education
  1. ‘Clear is Kind’: coaching students in positive study behaviours 
  1. Teaching middle school students how to revise

Bridging the Executive Function Gap in the Classroom in 47 seconds a Day (8 mins)

Bethany Febus is a Professional Certified Life Coach specializing in ADHD and Executive Function in Seattle, Washington, USA. Bethany is passionate about supporting her clients in understanding the way their unique brain works so they can develop supportive strategies and systems that are interesting and relevant to who they are. Her work with families includes improving skills around academics management, time awareness, planning, collaborative problem solving, emotional regulation, organization, social skills and more. Bethany trains and mentors coaches at the ADD Coach Academy, an internationally recognized coach training program.

If you are a fan of TikTok, and an educator, you may have come across reels of the middle school science teacher Maddie Richardson, or “Miss R.”, teaching her middle school students 8. She teaches science, but she includes a mini Social Emotional Learning (SEL) lesson as a “brain break” in her classes every day. Despite my ambivalent feelings about TikTok, stumbling onto little gems like Miss R. has been revelatory for me. As a certified ADHD coach, I’m inspired by this simple but impactful integration of SEL into the classroom.

As an ADHD and Executive Function Coach, I work with students to help them understand their brains better and to create personalized strategies and structures to meet their personal and academic goals. We focus on building skills in planning, prioritizing, organizing, problem-solving, and time management. This is what we usually mean when we refer to “Executive Function Skills”. However, there are additional executive function skills that I also work on with my clients
that are even more integral to student success, but that are often seen as less important in academics. These include emotional regulation, self-awareness, working memory, self-talk, social skills, self-monitoring, and motivation. The demand for my services has grown tremendously over the last couple of years as the stress of the pandemic has pushed students to the limits of their ability to cope and their ability to mask their challenges.

I sometimes work with my client’s teachers to better support their learning needs, and I often find their teachers at a loss as to how to help them. They often have exhausted their usual repertoire of support systems. I believe that this is partly due to a pervasive misunderstanding of how executive functions develop and impact student’s success. We tend to assume many of these skills are developmentally consistent across children, and we make assumptions about what students “should” be able to do based on their age 12. While a majority of children develop executive functions along a consistent timeline, many children need more support to bridge the gap between expectations and performance1. Worldwide statistics estimate close to 6% of children may have developmental delays of 3-5 years in executive functioning 11, 1. In the US it is estimated to be almost 10% 10, 1 . These numbers do not even include students whose executive functions may be impacted by lack of sleep, anxiety, depression, or a multitude of other life stressors.

For example, here are some factors that might impede a hypothetical 7th grader’s ability to succeed in math class:

A 7th grader walks into class after the bell rings, walks right past the turn-in bin without turning in their math packet, slumps down into their chair loudly, and then proceeds to stare out the window without taking out paper or pencil.

The teacher feels frustrated by what seems like disrespectful behavior and is worried about the pattern that seems to be developing with this student. They hold back their criticism and prompt the student to get out their supplies.

The student looks annoyed and snaps back “I know, I’m getting it!” They slowly pull out their notebook, and then loudly ask their neighbor if they can borrow a pencil. The teacher’s resolve crumbles.

Does this sound familiar? When we peel back the layers of this student’s experience and identify which executive function skills might be lacking, we can see the reasons that they are struggling: 

  • They take an inefficient route through the halls to their locker (planning/working memory/problem solving). 
  • When they get to their locker, it takes three tries to get their password right (focus, working memory, fine motor skill challenges). 
  • When they get their locker open their mind goes blank (working memory, situational awareness). They grab their math book and nothing else (working memory, future thinking, planning) They ignore the bag of pencils that have been sitting in there since the first day of school. 
  • The bell rings which sends a burst of cortisol through their system.  Fearing they will be late again (emotional regulation), they slam their locker shut and tell themselves how stupid they are and how they will never get anything right (emotional regulation, verbal working memory). 
  • When they enter the math class, everyone looks at them, which makes their stomach flop and their face flush (emotional regulation). They are flooded and shut down2. Even without the shutdown, they may not have had the situational awareness required to remember to turn in their homework.
  • They are so stuck in negative thoughts and fears that it feels to them like they have just sat down when the teacher prompts them to get out paper and pencil. The prompt reaches their limbic system like a threat to which they react reflexively. 
  • What does this have to do with Miss R. and her TikTok’s? Miss R. introduces Social Emotional Learning topics to her students that include the effects of lack of sleep on the brain, responsible decision making, making failure a norm, and more. Each lesson is about the length of the average TikTok video, 47 seconds. And from the enthusiastic voices of the students in the background, she has their full attention. I am not suggesting that every teacher start making TikTok videos with their class. What I love about this model is that it shows that it doesn’t take a lot of time to meet the needs of a variety of students. Some teachers are already finding ways to implement executive function education and support9. According to researcher and SLP, Sarah ward, those teachers have seen an increase in self-esteem and autonomy in their students as a result9. I believe this could be done on a large scale without curriculum changes. Teachers could weave this learning into their lessons and the classroom culture regularly.

    Not sure where to start with your own classroom? We know that when students are regulated, they are more able to take in information and learn from it5. If educators could do one thing to support our students with executive function challenges, it would be to see the connection between emotional regulation and execution13. Help them find ways to get out of fight/flight (which many are otherwise trapped in all day long) and back into their learning brain. We can do this in many ways including modeling conscious breathing, mindfulness and considering sensory needs or sensitivities and movement needs. We can model and teach a “pause” before action. Dr. Russell Barkley, a well-respected executive function expert, says that students with executive function challenges need to “repeatedly practice self-monitoring, self-stopping, seeing the future, saying the future, feeling the future, and playing with the future to effectively plan and go toward the future6.” The key to supporting executive functions is to make them explicit and repeated. Your whole class may not need this, but they will all benefit from it, and they will all grow in empathy and self-awareness when they understand the various challenges and skills of their classmates.

    If a student isn’t meeting behavioral or academic expectations in the classroom, ask yourself, “why?”, and “why now?” Peel back the layers and see if there is a way you can include the whole class in the scaffolding. We can help students to understand that their inability to meet expectations in the moment is merely because of a skill they have yet to learn. Rather than telling themselves “I hate writing, I can never think of something to write about”, they might think “I couldn’t pick a topic today because my ‘decider’ was all worn out after picking a book, so I asked Miss Lara if she could narrow down the choices for me or let me have the night to think about it.” Giving language to the challenges they are facing helps students build self-awareness and ultimately independence4

    At the end of each lesson, Miss R. encourages students if they aren’t proficient at the lesson topic yet, “that’s ok, you are in middle school, let’s take a deep breath and let it go…And if you brought any stressors, depressors, or anxieties with you today, I want you to let them know you will be with them later … all you have to worry about right now is science and it’s not going to be that bad” The same message can be said to teachers. Maybe you are already doing all the suggestions I have listed and more. If so, Bravo! But, if you haven’t yet understood the role of executive functions in your student’s ability to access the curriculum, and you have blamed their behavior on something else entirely, or you have given up on a couple of students completely, I want you to take a deep breath and let it go.  As neuroscience changes how we understand the brain, we are all still learning how to effectively support our students, and all you have to think about right now is being the amazing teacher you already are and know it’s not going to be that bad. In fact, it could be pretty amazing!

    1Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D. Dedicated to Education and Research on ADHD (n.d.) The Important Role of Executive Functioning and Self-Regulation in ADHD© Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D. [factsheet] http://www.russellbarkley.org/factsheets/ADHD_EF_and_SR.pdf 

    2Brown, T. (2014). Smart but Stuck: Emotions in Teens and Adults with ADHD. Jossey-Bass.

    3Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (29 Oct. 2020) Activities Guide: Enhancing & Practicing Executive Function Skills. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/activities-guide-enhancing-and-practicing-executive-function-skills-with-children-from-infancy-to-adolescence/. 

    4Jacobson, R. (2021, August 15). Metacognition: How Thinking About Thinking Can Help Kids. Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/article/how-metacognition-can-help-kids/

    5Shanker, S. (2017, July 4). Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life (Reprint). Penguin Books.

    6Barkley, R.A. (2012) Executive Functions: What they are, how they work and why they evolved. New York: Guilford

    7Shaw P, Eckstrand K, Sharp W, Blumenthal J, Lerch JP, Greenstein D, Clasen L, Evans A, Giedd J, Rapoport JL. (2007 Dec 4) Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is characterized by a delay in cortical maturation. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.;104(49):19649-54. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0707741104. 

    8 Richardson, M, [@themissrproject]. (2022, September 2) Day 17 –  #teamwork and #commucation also happy Space day #nasa #artemis1 🚀 (launch on Saturday)  #teacher #sel #leadership #teachersoftiktok #wholebrainteaching [Video].TikTok. https://www.tiktok.com/@themissrproject/video/7138930747238567214?is_copy_url=1&is_from_webapp=v1

    9Ward, S. (2014, July 12) A Clinical Model for Developing Executive Function Skills Sarah Ward   https://www.efpractice.com/_files/ugd/78deb2_0ee2dbd06e384650a209f48d9101ac3d.pdf

    10 Danielson M, Bitsko R, Ghandour R, Holbrook J, Kogan M, Blumberg S (2018 January 24) Prevalence of Parent-Reported ADHD Diagnosis and Associated Treatment Among U.S. Children and Adolescents, 2016. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 47:2, 199-212, DOI: 10.1080/15374416.2017.1417860. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5834391/pdf/nihms937906.pdf

    11 Willcutt EG (2012) The prevalence of DSM-IV attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: a meta-analytic review. Neurotherapeutics. 2012;9:490–499. doi: 10.1007/s13311-012-0135-8.

    12 Sippl A (nd) Executive Function Skills By Age: What to Look For Life Skills Advocate [blog] accessed 2022 08 13 https://lifeskillsadvocate.com/blog/executive-function-skills-by-age/

    13 Barkley R (2012) Self-Regulation and Executive Functioning Theory Burnett Lecture Part 2 ADHD

    How can we protect kids? By knowing that sex education and grooming are not the same.

    By Justine Ang Fonte, sexuality education teacher and Leah Carey, sex and intimacy coach and host of the podcast “Good Girls Talk About Sex”

    As sex educators, we are deeply concerned about the recent effort to paint our work as “grooming” or “sexualizing” children. In fact, our goal is the exact opposite: to make sure children have the skills needed to repel the tactics used by predators. 

    In May 2021, conservative commentator Candace Owens accused one of us of being a pedophile. “[S]he should have to register as a sex offender,” Owens tweeted to her 3 million followers. 

    The crime? Acknowledging to first-graders that it’s normal to be curious about their genitals.

    In today’s fractious political climate, critics argue that in giving children accurate, scientifically based information about their bodies, we are either preparing them to be molested or are predators ourselves.

    In March, Tucker Carlson called it “common sense“ to not talk to children younger than third grade about their genitals because it is “disgusting and probably illegal.” 

    This line of reasoning is gaining traction every day, whether in Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, which critics have called the “Don’t Say Gay“ law, or a New Jersey school district announcing it would limit sex ed instruction to a single 35-minute period on the last day of school in grades 2, 5 and 8.

    That is hardly enough time to cover basic anatomy, let alone the other things we believe young students need: an understanding of appropriate boundaries and how their body communicates danger signals to them.

    The rhetoric has grown so fevered in recent weeks that we wanted to get perspective from someone on the front lines: Rahel Bayar, a former sex crimes and child abuse prosecutor.

    She is the founder and CEO of The Bayar Group, an organization that works with schools to prevent sexual misconduct and child abuse.

    “What I saw as a prosecutor was kids who didn’t come forward, or when they did come forward, they would say things like ‘My tummy hurts’ or ‘My tummy itches,’” Bayar said. “What they really meant was their vulva, not their tummy.”

    Without the correct language for their anatomy, adults don’t understand what children are trying to say.

    “One of the biggest pieces of abuse prevention is to teach your children the correct anatomical names for their body parts and not attach any type of shame or embarrassment to them,” Bayar said.

    When kids learn that anything “down there” is shameful, they are less likely to come forward because they’re afraid of getting in trouble for admitting that someone touched them. 

    So the question of the moment is: How is sex education different from grooming?

    “My God! Why is that even a question?” Bayar laughed. “Grooming typically involves secrecy … which is one of the reasons why we teach the difference between secrets and surprises. Secrets have no ending and surprises do. We start teaching kids that at a very, very early age because secrets are what people who groom children use to silence them.”

    Grooming preys on fear, shame and silence. Sex education seeks to dispel them through transparency. 

    Lessons for young children include correct anatomical terms for body parts including genitals and having control over their “body bubble,” or zone of privacy.

    The goal is to help children recognize and repel predatory behavior by understanding their body’s warning signs of danger: things like sweating when it’s not hot, trembling when it’s not cold, a racing heart when you haven’t moved, or feeling like you have to urinate when you just went to the bathroom. Then they practice different ways of saying “no” and “I don’t keep secrets with adults.”

    Children don’t need to hear the words “sex” or “predator” to learn basic safety skills that can repel groomers.

    While children may not yet be able to verbalize why these lessons are important, there is no scarcity of adults with stories to tell about how lack of appropriate education harmed them as children.

    On the podcast “Good Girls Talk About Sex,” everyday women discuss their sex lives, including their earliest introduction to their own body. In over 100 interviews conducted since 2019, more than 25 percent of interviewees report that they began exploring their own genitals by age 5. But for many, this exploration was shrouded in the type of secrecy and shame we’re seeking to eliminate.

    Lynn, age 49 at the time she was interviewed, had no access to information about her body at home or school. “I was so uninformed about it that I reached down between my legs … and my fingers sort of fell into my vagina,” Lynn recounted. “I thought that I wasn’t finished at the bottom. I thought I had a birth defect.” For over a year she believed she was dying. This fear of her own body, coupled with lack of accurate information, left her susceptible as a teenager to grooming by men 20 years her senior.

    As uncomfortable as it may be to think about, skilled predators have an especially insidious tool: manipulating the child’s body so the abuse brings the child a sense of physical gratification. As Bayar noted, “We have to acknowledge the fact that our bodies have physiological reactions to touch and at different ages, that means our bodies respond in different ways.”

    Cathy, 52 at the time she was interviewed, was molested from age 6 to 11. 

    “My first memory of sexual pleasure was very confused because I was having pleasure but it was during abuse … There wasn’t sex ed and I felt ashamed. I wasn’t sure why my body was responding the way it did.” For decades, it was hard for her to decouple the concepts of sexuality and abuse, so even masturbation was fraught. “I had associated sexuality with abuse or power struggles, and not having control over my body.”

    Both of these women — and so many more — would have been well served by basic education about their bodies as children. Although we hear the most about disclosures of assault from women and girls, sexual abuse occurs across all genders. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys in the U.S. experience child sexual abuse. Because there is a social prohibition on boys appearing “weak,” their abuse experiences are even less likely to be reported. 

    Melissa Pintor Carnagey, founder of Sex Positive Families, said in a conversation with us that “informed kids grow into empowered and prepared adults who are better able to have healthy relationships, know their bodies and to be safer along their journey. Sexuality education is the resource that helps them get there.”

    In the current climate, how can you make sure that all children receive the education they need and deserve? 


    Too often we vote for the national races at the top of the ticket, then gloss over elections happening closer to home. Decisions about sex ed are being made at your local school board and on the city, county and state level. 

    Before going to the voting booth, learn how candidates view the need for dedicated time to teach children about consent and anatomy, and vote accordingly.

    Whether or not your school embraces sex education for all students, you can also help kids get the information they need at home. Work with your school’s PTA to offer parents workshops from sex educators who can provide tools to communicate with children about sex with less anxiety.

    There is a #MeToo generation of adults who struggle to have effective conversations about these life-saving topics, but this can stop with Gen Z. We, as their trustees and caregivers, can equip our children with at least one tool that has been proven to protect them: sex education.

    Originally posted on NBC’s THINK: Opinion, Analysis, Essays

    How Educators can Help Middle Schoolers Thrive in Turbulent and Calm Times

    Phyllis Fagell-Key Note Speaker at ELMLE Connect (Porto)

    In a conversation last spring with Cindy Conley, a principal at Irving Middle School in Springfield, Va., she told me that yet again, she was surprised by something her post-lockdown students were doing. At an end-of-year celebration for eighth-graders, a group of boys began playing duck, duck, goose. Soon, more than 50 boys were playing the game, one that is usually enjoyed by much younger children. “That never happened pre-pandemic,” she told me. “But some of these kids left in sixth grade and came back as instant eighth-graders, and I don’t think I anticipated how much the elementary part was still in them.”

    Throughout the pandemic, I’ve written articles about how educators, coaches, parents and other adults can preserve middle schoolers’ well-being as they navigate a vulnerable phase and growing up in turbulent times. It’s a double whammy, but I think we’re entering a new phase. While educators initially were caught off guard by some of the trickle-down effects they saw on children when they returned to in-person schooling, they now have more realistic expectations and a better understanding of what children need to be successful. The last few years have upended conventional notions about what students can or should be able to do by a certain age or grade, and that’s a good thing. I’ve yet to meet a middle schooler who performs better because they think they’re “behind” or lacking in some way. 

    While it may be particularly important to meet middle schoolers “where they are” when they’re contending with uncertainty and disruption, that’s always been true for tweens. And the best way to help a child do well is to help them do well – in other words, to set them up for success. In a recent article for The Washington Post, I talked about how adults can set kids up for a “better year,” but many of the tips I included are timeless. Here are some “evergreen” ways that educators can help middle-school students learn, connect with others and maintain a strong sense of self, regardless of what’s happening in the world.

    Let go of the notion of ‘normal

    Middle schoolers are sensitive to criticism and peer approval, and they can feel blindsided if they struggle in unexpected ways, whether they don’t complete an assignment or panic when they need to present in class. To help kids stay positive when things go awry, “interrupt the concept of normal,” said Christopher Emdin, a professor of education at the University of Southern California and the author of “Ratchetdemic.” When we spoke, he encouraged adults to let kids start each year fresh, to dream about how they want things to be. Ask, “‘When you went through school before, did you like it all?’” he said. “No. Based on what things were before, how do you want it to be now?’”

    Even subtle changes to students’ physical spaces “can radically change the learning experience,” Emdin told me. When he was scholar-in-residence at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 2021, he partnered with students to build prototype post-pandemic classrooms. “I wanted them to feel like it can’t look like what it looked like before.” They swapped out fluorescent lights for blue bulbs, brought in planters of grass and piped in music. The idea is to ensure they see school as special, comfortable, and beautiful, “so that you start training the mind to see the educational work as fun,” Emdin explained. “When you bring in flowers and grasses, change the lighting, the sounds, the seating, it invokes relaxation and helps kids associate reading or homework as, ‘This is when I’m chilling.’” 

    Take their emotional pulse

    Check in regularly with students. Ask questions such as, “What were your highs and lows this week?”  “In an ideal world, how would you adjust the workload or the way you demonstrate your learning?” and “How can I best support you?” Explicitly acknowledge that the past few years have been tough, added Jason Ablin, a former principal, school consultant in Los Angeles and the author of “The Gender Equation in Schools.” “Say, ‘We want you to feel great about going to school every day, and if you feel like things are going off the rails, we’re here for you.’ 

    It’s helpful to know a child’s baseline stress level, said Michelle Hoffman, a licensed counselor at Granite Academy, a therapeutic school in Braintree, Mass. If a student tells you they’re worried about a test or a fight with a friend, ask them to rate the stress on a scale of one to five. The number itself is less important than what it tells you about their perception of the situation and their capacity to cope with it, Hoffman explained. “Once you have a basis for comparison, you can have a conversation about what might lower their stress,” she said. Validate their concerns, even if they seem overblown. You might feel the pandemic is over and students should be able to handle more pressure, but “stress is additive. Kids are resilient, but they’ve used up their reserves,” she said.

    When you know what’s troubling a student, you can help them reframe the situation and think about next steps. Emily Kircher-Morris, a counselor in Missouri and the author of “Raising Twice-Exceptional Children,” recommends walking children through the best-case, worst-case and most-likely scenarios, then devising a plan. If they’re worried about missing an assignment, for instance, Kircher-Morris might ask: “Who can you go to for help? How can you communicate with them?” If the issue relates to social anxiety, she might suggest they talk to the teacher about a way to ease into giving a presentation. For instance, maybe they first present to the teacher and a classmate, or perhaps they pre-record their presentation. 

    Students often feel powerless because they have little control over things such as when they eat lunch at school or whether they take math in sixth grade. You can give them back a sense of agency by having them set and work toward personal goals. Encourage them to commit their goals to paper, because research shows that people are 42 percent more likely to reach their goals if they write them down and monitor their progress regularly. Every year, Larry Haynes, the principal of Oak Mountain Middle School in Birmingham, Ala., recruits 35 professionals from the community to mentor eighth-graders. At the end of each grading period, the mentors meet with their mentees to discuss their report cards, their progress and their goals. Afterward, the students write their goals on a reflection sheet.

    “I tell them to display their goals in a prominent place where they will see it, because that keeps it fresh in their mind and serves as a motivator,” Haynes told me, adding that he always tells the students about Thomas Holloway, a former student who stated in middle school that his goal was to play football at West Point. “Thomas graduated from West Point in 2014,” he tells them. Setting goals also can ease students’ anxiety related to events in the news. To help them, shift the focus away from the state of the world and back to their own lives. “If you zoom out to space and everything on Earth looks tiny, then it can seem like there’s no meaning to any of it, and that can feel really overwhelming,” Kircher-Morris told me. “But if you zoom back in, you get to decide what your meaning and purpose is.” That could be a goal such as doing better in a class or sitting with a new friend at lunch.

    Offer structured fun, directed social time

    After the turmoil of the past few years, many children are focused on friendships, but their skills are rusty. Research shows that connecting with others can improve mental health, and middle schoolers need the practice, but they may need an assist. If they’re too anxious to socialize, do structured icebreakers and other get-to-know-you activities in class. Suggest they participate in structured activities, such as an after-school club that reflects their interests. The idea is to find low-pressure opportunities where kids can practice making eye contact and resolving conflict. Haynes offers alternate activities for kids at school dances, for example. He might have board games in the cafeteria or a kickball tournament outside.

    Affirm that they’ll be fine

    “We talk about kids almost in monthly terms: Academically they should be here, their social-emotional development should be here,” Ablin told me. “But when things are as disrupted as they have been, we need to see kids where they actually are; be calm, loving and thoughtful about that; and really believe that, eventually, the child will be just fine.” That means letting go of the idea that students have “fallen behind.” As Ablin noted: “It diminishes children and kills the joy in learning. When we say, ‘You’re not where you’re supposed to be,’ we’re also saying, ‘You’re not who you’re supposed to be.’” 

    If you adopt that attitude, it takes the pressure off of you, too. When educators set reasonable, attainable goals, students tend to do the same. Plus, emotions are contagious. If you dial down the pressure you put on yourself, your students are likely to “catch your calm.”

    *Tips drawn from an article I wrote that ran in the August 18, 2022 issue of The Washington Post