Navigation of social circles is never more complicated than it is during the early teen years.
As students grow in their academic careers, they are also put, sometimes unwittingly, into social cliques. The brains, the jocks, the popular kids, the nerds, are all just a sampling of the labels put on kids as they walk the halls of their schools. But at Reed-Custer, the district has found a way to use the natural division of students to learn a little more about their behavior, and give the students themselves a voice in how their school experience shakes out.
This month, 115 students from grades 4 through 12 participated in a two-day, comprehensive training program to become Safe School Ambassadors. The program, sponsored by the California-based group Community Matters, brings together students from all social circles to brainstorm and engage in frank, open discussions abut school culture, and how to shape that culture to create a good experience for nearly all students and staff. The Ambassadors were chosen by their peers and staff not as "popular" leaders but as true peer leaders within their own circle of friends.
On Feb. 5, students at the high school level used part of their day to engage in an intense activity about listening and opening up.
"It's really important for us to practice being active listeners," explained Sarah Behm, a trainer with Community Matters. "It seems like common sense, but what we know is it's not always common behavior to be active listeners."
Behm encouraged the students to listen not just with their ears, but with their emotions.
"Knowledge speaks and wisdom listens," Behm said. "You're really trying to connect with that person, really trying to understand what it might be like to be in that position. You can never know what it's like to be there, but you can try to put yourself in their shoes and think, how would I feel if that happened to me. And really show that personal connection. And that is where the magic starts happening with active listening, when the person honestly feels that you're engaging with them in mind, body and heart."
The students engaged in an eye-opening exercise where they were encouraged to share about their lives, both the difficult and the easy times. Not only did the exercise encourage the kids to open up and share, but it helped them engage with one another by actively listening and participating in the conversation, teaching them how to be better ambassadors for their peers.
The exercise was called "just by looking," where the students were encouraged to share certain parts of themselves that are not obvious just by looking at them, such as things that make them proud, hardships that they endure, and times when they were a target of bad behavior or engaged in bad behavior.
The thoughts expressed were strictly confidential, however, the students said what they learned can be used nearly every day. The students said the exercise helped open their eyes.
Some knowledge students said they gained from the process include:
Sharing can help to realize it is good to reach out and listen.
Sharing and listening helps encourage connections between people who may not otherwise have any social connection.
People who feel like others are listening feel that they are cared for by others as well.
Students also noted that active listening has the power to bring people together, by showing how much they have in common. The students said that engaging in something as easy as listening could open up the door to better communication, understanding and friendships across social circles.
The students also said the exercise helped opened their eyes to understanding and being less judgmental of others.
"A community is built by bridges," Behm said, speaking of the emotional bridges that are extended when students and teachers reach out to one another. "The more bridges you can build, the stronger the community can be."
The "just by looking" exercise was only one small part of the intensive training, which school officials hope can help with overall issues regarding bullying and general school safety.
"It really helps to curb behavior issues before they start," Reed-Custer Superintendent Dr. John Butts noted during the January meeting of the School Board, where the board was filled in on the process. "The research is incredible. Schools that have implemented this and stuck with it over the years there's real strong [evidence] about improved behavior, reduced suspensions. It's very solid."
Dr. Butts noted that in many instances, students are the first to know when something is amiss with other students, and the first to witness budding bullying or other issues. In that capacity, students armed with strategies and knowledge to deal with that situation can help stop a minor incident from evolving into something worse.
The students also spent much of the training session participating in a groupwide dialogue where they talked about what they learned and how they hopefully can bring that into their everyday lives at school.
The Safe School Ambassadors are a different type of student coalition. The gathering wasn't the more popular kids, but rather, it was leaders within most of the specific cliques of the school. Ambassadors use the power of the relationships which they develop to help avoid conflict and work out issues among students. They do this not by making and enforcing rules, but by connecting, stating facts without judgment, talking about what is and is not acceptable and lobbying for change in the attitudes and culture that prompted the disagreement. In short, they learn to use their own words to be honest, genuine and natural in the conflict-resolution process.
The Ambassadors engage in good, meaningful conversations with their teacher ambassadors as well, where social status is not part of the equation, only peers working together to find solutions for a better school.
The students and teachers will continue to meet twice a month to come up with solutions for a happy and healthy school environment.
Community Matters was founded in 1996, and provides programs and services for educational, youth-serving and governmental entities. Members have worked with more than 1,000 schools, agencies and organizations throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, Guam and Canada. The Safe School Ambassadors program was developed in 2000 as a bystander education program which empowers students to help shape the social norms that govern other students' behavior.
Information on the Safe School Ambassador program can be found online at www.community-matters.org.