When working in a high-needs school (or, I’d guess, any school, for that matter), educators are trained to help students connect actions to consequences: “Well, you chose to make that rude comment in the middle of class to your classmate, and, as you know, the consequence of that action is a detention, so I will see you right after school.”
It is indeed valuable to help students learn to connect their actions with the negative outcomes that will result from those actions. However, in the schools I’ve worked in, this connection between negative actions and negative consequences is much more emphasized than the parallel connection between positive actions and positive consequences.
Many 6th-8th graders at my school simply do not realize that they are able to do things that will positively impact themselves and those around them. Many 6th-8th graders at my school do not realize that they are able to do anything that has any impact on anything (except maybe getting themselves in trouble).
During the course of the school day, students are not permitted to make any decisions about themselves or their environment. Upon getting off the bus, they are escorted directly to various holding areas around the school where they are picked up by their teachers and led in single file lines to their classrooms. During each class, they are told precisely what they need to be doing at each moment to avoid getting in trouble: where they should be looking, what they should be writing, who they should be talking to (usually no one). At lunch they are escorted to the cafeteria and told what table to sit at, then they are called up table by table and told what lunch line to get in. They are provided certain times during the day when they are escorted to the restroom. At the end of the day, they are escorted back onto the buses.
One of my goals in my current role as a City Year team leader is to help students understand that they have the ability to make decisions which can positively impact their own lives and the lives of other people.
One way we do this is through our 50 Acts of Leadership program. Students are selected for this program based on their teachers observing that they have significant leadership potential (which the students may sometimes choose to channel in counter-productive ways–such as disrupting class). The students meet biweekly with City Year corps members during lunch to learn about leadership and, most importantly, to review the “acts of leadership” they have completed since the previous meeting.
These acts can be small (holding doors open, assisting a classmate) or large (organizing a service project). By the end of the year, the goal is for students to have completed at least 50 Acts of Leadership, enough so that they can start to see the good that they are capable of doing and the positive impact they can have on those around them and hopefully enough so that this starts to become a habit for them!
Who are we, if not measured by our impact on others? That’s who we are! We’re not who we say we are, we’re not who we want to be – we are the sum of the influence and impact that we have, in our lives, on others. –Carl Sagan