When I was teaching grade 2 I was taught a really powerful lesson about student choice, empowerment and motivation. My class that year was a challenging one. I had every mix of needs available all in one class; OCD, ADD, Tourette's, learning disabilities, ESL learners, you name it. My approach to teaching was very much a constructivist project approach, allowing student interest to lead the curriculum content. I figured if I could do it with that wonderful bunch then I could do it anywhere. I discovered that giving choice not only worked to significantly reduce negative behaviors, but also increased on task focus and student motivation. My shining moment of validation for this approach came to me via a young girl named Beth.
Beth was a wonderful girl from a wonderful family but she had significant struggles with anxiety and OCD. It was essential for her to feel like she had some control over her environment in order to thrive. My Language Arts curriculum that year was taught using free choice centers. There were a number of choices from research or story writing to alphabetizing or drama. Almost the entire LA curriculum was contained in these free choice, work at your own pace centers. The students worked on projects either on their own or with groups. When they were done we would present and evaluate together. There were a number of times that I wanted to jump in and control, organize, 'make it more efficient', etc. But I found that sometimes magic happened when I waited and watched with support.
Beth decided she wanted to work on creating a play from a book. There were two other girls that were finished their projects around the same time so they decided to work together. I was interested to see how things would play out as the other two girls had very strong personalities. They both liked to be in charge and have control. Beth needed to feel like she had some control in order to manage her anxiety. The added challenge was that the book they chose to work from was very difficult to transform into a script as there was very little dialogue and the concept was abstract. I decided not to jump in and manage but observe with support and let things unfold.
Because they needed a little more space to work, they set up to work in the hallway, just outside the door. I would leave them to work for a while and check on them periodically. Every time I checked on them they were busy working but there was definitely some competition for who was in charge. They were struggling a little with each person wanting their idea used but it was still productive and I could see that they were starting to recognize that problem themselves.
At one point the girls surprised me by coming and asking if John could be part of their group. Now John was full of energy and highly distractible. He was capable but very difficult to keep focused. At times he could be quite disagreeable and enjoyed creating a challenge. I was interested to understand why they were requesting him as it was not a usual request. They explained that he looked most like the character in the book. John was very excited to be asked into a group and jumped at the chance to join.
Now I was even more curious as to how this would play out. Knowing that John was now with them and they were in the hallway, I made checking on them a more regular occurrence. It wasn't long before I was surprised to find them all focused and working and Beth was now the director. I was amazed that John was on task and the two girls who liked to be in charge were deferring to Beth as the leader. I wanted to know how this all happened so I asked them.
I started with the two other girls. I pointed out that Beth seemed to be the director and I was wondering how that came to be. They both told me that they realized that she had the most experience in doing plays because she had done some in grade 1. They saw her experience and in their determination to do a good job they recognized her leadership as a way to get there. What amazing learning. These to girls who are natural leaders understood the value of deferring to someone who knows more or has more experience. They learned that it is ok not to lead all the time, and developed strong collaboration skills. At that point, I was wishing that some of my adult colleagues could have that insight.
The more powerful insight came when talking to Beth. I asked her how, as the director, she was managing to keep John on task. She told me that she had figured some things out. She realized that John was off task most when he either didn't know what to do or didn't know how to do it. She told me how she just makes sure he is always busy, and makes sure he always knows exactly how to do something, even if she needed to explain it in different ways. She told me that it also helps if he can feel proud of himself, so he makes sure he does.
I had shivers after that response. I took a look at some of the children that were challenging me at the time and asked myself: Do they really know what to do? Do they understand how to do it? Do they feel valued? I made some small changes to great effect.
Those three little questions have become my mantra now when working with highly distractible children and it works.