The First Weeks of School

classroom_communitySchool is back in session and all of our students are here and having a great time with their teachers and all of our support staff. Classrooms are getting up and running and this is a subject that parents often ask a lot of questions about. What happens during the first few weeks of school? It would be easy to just say “Magic!” But that is surely an oversimplification of what is an incredibly complex process.

Community Building

 Community building is arguably one of the most critical tasks that teachers undertake during the first six weeks of school. The extent to which students engage in teaching and learning is a function of the healthy learning environment that teachers and students create together in the first few days and weeks of the school year.

Effective learning communities are founded on a few basic principles. These include:

  1. Shared Vision: A common and shared vision of why we are here, what we are here to do and how the classroom will operate in order to achieve those ends.

  2. Rules and Routines: A common and shared understanding of the rules and routines that will govern classroom operation. These rules and routines are developed collaboratively. Teachers lead the process and students participate in their development.

  3. Strong Relationships: Teachers and students develop strong individual relationships founded on mutual understanding and respect.

  4. Ownership: In coming to respect the classroom environment and understand the people they share the classroom with, children develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for the learning environment.

 It is important for parents and families to understand that this is an incredibly important time of year and the focus is on building a classroom climate that is highly conducive to learning and growth. To do so teachers focus the majority of their time during the first few weeks on community building, routine setting, and expectations. Over time this creates a situation in which teachers spend less and less time on management of the classroom and more and more time on teaching and learning.


Expectations and routines are the tools that teachers use to operationalize the community described above.Behavioral expectations are what we think of as rules. These positive statements govern how we interact with the other members of our classroom and school community.

Behavioral expectations in classrooms are meant to provide students with general operating procedures that give guidance in the many settings and interactions students encounter throughout the day. This is why many classroom behavioral expectations include some formulation of the golden rule, “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” These types of open ended behavioral expectations are most beneficial to children because they require consideration, choice, and reflection on the part of the child.

Consideration, choice, and reflection operate in the cycle of developing and refining human behavior. The open ended behavioral expectations that we described above provide the opportunities that children need to continue the process of internalizing this orientation to their behavior.

 When making choices, the child must consider how they would want to be treated before acting (most of our youngsters are just in the beginning stages of developing this skill). The consideration of self in thinking about others is key to developing empathy and a sense of responsibility. As we have all seen with young children, the ability to control impulses is a skill that takes thousands of hours of practice (and an ocean of parent’s patience) to develop. Consideration is one of the underlying skills that supports the child’s ability to inhibit their impulses and make positive choices.

The notion of choice is key. Children (and adults) make thousands of choices every day and they are responsible for those choices. The concept of choice is often a difficult one for children to begin to grasp early on in their lives. You will often hear pre-school and primary age students say things like, “She made me do it.” Obviously this is not the case and supporting children in developing internal responsibility for the choices they make is an exercise that takes many years. Broad, open ended behavioral expectations provide opportunities for practice and learning.

Reflection is an integral element of the behavioral development and learning process. Helping children to reflect upon and consider the impact rather than the behavior is where the real learning lives. Asking a child to reflect on a poor choice is so important. Instead of demanding that a child share a toy, ask them “How would you feel if ______ chose not to share with you? How do you think you are making ______ feel when you choose not to share with them?”  Few children will intentionally choose to continue a behavior that is hurting another person. Having these discussions on the good side of the behavioral continuum is equally important as this builds confidence and engenders future success. “You chose to share your toy today! How does that make you feel? How do you think ________ feels because you shared?”


Establishing routines takes time, practice, and skill. For children to feel safe and secure, it is important that they experience a certain level of “order” and structure in their routine. It is equally important that these routines are consistent so that children know what to expect.  Many of our children already have some routines established at home; from brushing their teeth before bed or going to sleep at a set time, routines help our children develop important executive functioning skills that foster independence.

Developing independence builds confidence in children, and when children are confident in themselves, they are highly motivated to learn.  Teachers often involve children in the development of these routines and spend a significant portion of the early school days, helping children learn the routines for these reasons.

From learning how to enter school, going from their classroom to Specials, entering the cafeteria, exiting the cafeteria, going out to recess, discovering how to ask for the nurse or the bathroom, to learning silent signals and how to participate in class, or how to exit the building, children have so many routines to learn during the first few weeks of school!  Just think of how difficult it was to adjust to the new morning routine, to waking up early, getting ready and having breakfast.  Now they have more adjustments and more routines to learn!

During these first few weeks of school, these adjustments can be tiring for children.  The good news, however, is that when practiced over time, they benefit our children immensely.

Just how complicated is it for kids to follow directions?

In our last post we talked at length about reading and interpreting the Report on Student Progress (ROSP). In this week’s post we turn our attention to look at tools and strategies that families can use to develop strong work habits in their children. Our goal is to support families in their efforts to teach and support these skills proactively throughout their child’s life.

The ROSP relies on an observation based rating scale when it comes to rating a child’s development of articulated work habits. The rating system focuses on the frequency with which the teacher observes a given behavior. These observations are captured in  the ratings: Rarely (R), Sometimes (S), and Usually (U). No matter the rating, it is critical that parents reach out to teachers and educational professionals if they have concerns about the development of these skills.

One of the  complexities in supporting and learning effective work habits is that they each represent a series of embedded and related skills. Because of this, it can be hard to know how best to support children in practicing and developing those skills. To support families in this endeavor we are going to take the next few posts and explore the prerequisite skills  for each work habit and easy to use strategies that families can employ to support them. This week we are going to focus on following written and oral directions.

Follows directions accurately (written and oral)

Embedded Skills

  1. Focused, sustained attention: Child attends to the source of directions until directions have been communicated.
  2. Language: Child is able to read and/or hear the directions.
  3. Comprehension: Child fully understands the given directions.
  4. Self-Monitoring: Child monitors comprehension for understanding.
  5. Self-advocacy: Child has strategies to ensure that they understand the given direction.  This includes, but is not limited to, asking for help when needed.


  1. Focused, sustained attention: Always be sure that you have your child’s attention before giving directions. Their bodies should be facing you and you should require eye contact before giving directions. If the child breaks eye contact or turns away while the direction is being given, discontinue the direction until they provide you with full attention.
  2. Language/Comprehension: Have the child restate the direction in their own words. Family members can simply ask, “What did I just ask you to do?” or “What is the homework assignment asking you to do?” Asking this simple question is a sure fire way to tell if the child understands the given directive.
  3. Self-Monitoring: Presuming that the child misunderstood your direction or the homework assignment, it is most important not to do the clarifying for them. Instead, ask guiding questions. “That’s not what I asked you to do. Think about it for a minute and see if you can remember.” or “When you don’t remember a direction, what could you to make sure you know what to do?” Doing so puts the child in the position of having to do the “heavy lifting” and develop the self-monitoring and self-help skills that they truly need.
  4. Self-Advocacy: In the off chance that you give a direction and the child does not follow through in the way that you intended (sarcasm), use this as an opportunity for learning and growth. “Hmmm. I see that you put your plate on the counter which is really helpful. What I asked you to do was place it in the dishwasher. It seems like you may not have understood my directions, what could you do in the future to make sure you understand me?” If the child truly can’t come up with an idea you might suggest that they ask what they were supposed to do again or think about what the situation and what action is appropriate to that situation.

by Ian Kelly, Principal Ben-Hem and Heather Smith, Principal Lilja

Executive Function and Socialization

by Ian Kelly, M.Ed. and Heather Smith, M.Ed.

In our last post we gave a basic description of executive function and the ways in which families can generally support its development at home and in life. Children who experience challenges with executive functioning skills often have difficulties that cross all parts of their lives. In this post we will dive into the social/interpersonal implications of executive function deficits and discuss how families can support their children in these specific situations.


There are two primary areas of executive function that impact socialization and interpersonal skills, self-regulation and cognitive flexibility. Self-regulation is the ability to control emotion, behavior, and desire in an effort to achieve a goal. Cognitive flexibility supports people in thinking about two or more concepts or tasks simultaneously as well as a person’s ability to go back and forth between tasks easily. In the realm of social interactions and relationships there are many goals that rely on these skills. Self-regulation and cognitive flexibility both take time and energy to develop. Making friends, participating as a member of a team, playing games, solving problems, compromising, etc. These are all great examples of learned skill sets that have a lasting impact on successful socialization. The trick is understanding that the ability to make friends actually relies on a broad range of skills that are all governed by executive function.

Let’s take a quick look at the basic (not exhaustive) set of skills that one needs to make friends and how self-regulation and cognitive flexibility can impact them.


Impact of Self-Regulation and Cognitive Flexibility

Engage in conversation

Distractability (Self-Regulation): Sounds, objects, and other environmental stimuli grab my attention and I can’t focus on and sustain conversations effectively.

Remember important details about people

Distractability (Self-Regulation): Moving too quickly and missing details means that I don’t remember things about people.

Reading and interpreting non-verbal cues

Distractability (Self-Regulation): I miss important clues about how people are feeling (facial expressions, body language) because I often get distracted by noises or other things around me.


Finding a Middle Ground (Cognitive Flexibility): Finding a middle ground with a friend can be hard because I have a hard time letting go of my expectations.

Problem Solving

Empathy (Cognitive Flexibility): Understanding the perspective of others can be challenging because it is hard to go back and forth between my perspective and their perspective.


Sticking with it (Self-Regulation): When I encounter a problem with a friend, I have a hard time working it out because I want to move on to the next thing.

This table represents just a few of the many skills that go into establishing and maintaining peer relationships. The development of effective executive functioning skills is critical in ensuring the long term social well being of children. The question that we hear from many families is, “What can we do to support our kids in developing these skills?” The simple answer is, “Lots.”

The most effective strategies that we recommend are well articulated by Bonnie Goldsmith who wrote a piece for The National Center for Learning Disabilities titled Social Skills Tips: Help with Executive Dysfunction. In this piece Goldsmith lays out a simple problem solving process to support children in developing the executive skills they will need to be successful.

  1. Get to the root of the problem.

    • Watch the child carefully in many different social situations. This will help you to get a sense of what kinds of struggles exist, in what situations they exist, and how complicated they are.
  2. Develop a good sense of strengths and struggles.

    • When observing, note both. Where are the child’s strengths and where are their struggles. It is important that caregivers be able to refer to and leverage each child’s strengths as they work to improve areas that are challenging.
  3. Engage the child in a conversation.

    • Don’t do the heavy lifting for them. Engage them in a conversation about the problematic behaviors. Ask questions that will guide them in developing strategies and possible solutions.
  4. Partner with the child to develop alternatives.

    • Work together to develop alternative strategies and plans for using those strategies in real social situations.
  5. Practice alternative behaviors with the child.

    • Take time to provide safe, structured opportunities to practice the alternative skills or strategies. Set up role plays and scenarios to work through before expecting the child to apply the skill independently.
  6. Follow up with the child.

    • After the child has an opportunity to practice the alternative skill or strategy on their own, debrief with them. Ask them how it went? What worked? What didn’t work? How can we adjust for next time? How can you support them?

Beyond problem solving, Goldsmith emphasizes the importance of refraining from judgement and being there for your child. Kids look to their caretakers for guidance and support. Judgement can be detrimental especially when a child is struggling with a specific skill or set of skills. Doing our best to refrain from the inclination to value or evaluate a child’s behavior is challenging. We have been taught to say things like, “Good job”, “Way to go”, or “That was not right.” The problem with these statements is that they are value judgements that are vague and often leave the child wondering what they could have done differently and that perhaps there is something wrong with them. Engaging them in a positive, problem solving conversation will help them develop important social skills while fostering a caring and supportive relationship with parents and caregivers.

In our next post we will focus on the topic of feedback before returning to executive function and their place in academic skill development and performance.

Failure: An Old Adage for Success

Post by Ian Kelly & Heather L. Brennan Smith (Principal at Lilja School)

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might has well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.” – J. K. Rowling

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm” – Winston Churchill

Chances are that when you grew up, someone in your life encouraged you to find your own success.  It is also very likely that someone encouraged you to persist.  Think back to your childhood and ponder for a moment the very first time when someone told you, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!”  Yet, somewhere along the way, we form our own beliefs about success and failure.  In theory, many of us believe that failure is a fundamental driver in the process of learning and growth so why is it so hard to accept, especially when it comes to our children?

Our well-intentioned friends and family give us mixed messages when it comes to failure.  Avoid failure. Focus on success.  We avoid it at all costs.

Even more unfortunate than our personal associations with failure are those we draw for our children. Beyond teaching them that failure is to be avoided, we do all that we can to protect them from it. These tendencies are perfectly natural and they go far beyond the realm of parenting. In Seth Godin’s (2010) piece Redefining Failure he captures our current concept of and stance towards failure, “We think that failure is the opposite of success, and we optimize our organizations to avoid it. We install layers and layers of management to eliminate risk and prevent catastrophes.”


Photo courtesy of

 In spite of our altruistic tendencies to protect our children from failure, we deprive them of critical “learning” experiences when we don’t accept the missteps that children take along the way.  Children need opportunities to fail. Their growth and development rely on these rich contexts for learning. Our job, as parents and as educators, is to provide structured, developmentally appropriate opportunities to fail or, in other words, to learn. When we consider this notion, there are two important questions: what do children learn when we allow them to fail and how do we structure opportunities that are appropriate and productive?

Before we consider these questions though, let’s re-imagine our own paradigms for failure. This is a critical first step because consciously and unconsciously we communicate important and influential messages to children that form their perceptions of failure.

First, consider failure first as a positive thing. Failure is great! Without it we would be perfect and there would be nothing to learn. Secondarily, think of  failure not as a shortcoming but as an opportunity, a guidepost on the path towards learning. Failure bothe presents us with and leads is toward opportunities for  for success. If we are patient and learn to embrace failure as a positive and integral part of the learning process, then we are well on our way to supporting our children.

 What do children learn from failure?

Angela Lee Duckworth calls it “grit.” Grit is what children learn from failure. They learn to persevere and persist in the face of challenge and novel tasks that force them to apply known information to solve new problems. Children come to understand the limits of their current knowledge and ability and how to grow and stretch to tackle the next challenge they face. They learn to identify their strengths and their weaknesses. Students come to understand how to leverage strengths and improve weaknesses. Most importantly, they learn that challenge is to be expected in life and that it is their effort and their hard work that determine the outcome of that challenge. Carol Dweck at Stanford University calls this mentality the “growth mindset.”

How do we structure appropriate and productive opportunities for failure?

Providing children with opportunities to fail, struggle, and learn cannot happen in a vacuum. We can’t just toss them to the wolves and expect them to figure things out. We must remember that children develop perseverance and persistence over time. If we put them into situations in which they are unable to find success we hinder their development. So, what is the context in which kids can really benefit from failure? When do we let them struggle? When do we intervene? These questions rely heavily upon a social context for learning, an understanding of our children and an evolving understanding of ourselves.

A child’s social context for learning, or failure, is critical.  Young children are keen observers, especially of adults.  They watch and listen, taking cues from us as they attempt to make sense of their world.  If a child is supported in an environment where adults behave and speak in way that communicates positive messages about failure and embrace it as a learning opportunity then we are well on our way to creating a context that is ripe for learning.

The second part of this  context is our ability as parents and educators to take a step back from the situation and make  rational, balanced decisions about when to intervene and when to let them figure it out. This can be challenging because it is in our nature to protect and support.

 A few years back Mr. Kelly was spending time with a good friend and they were playing with their young children. As always they liked (and continue to like) to do, they were analyzing the play of their children and the situations that arose as they interacted.  Sawyer (Mr. Kelly’s son) was about two years old at the time and was moving backwards without looking where he was going. There was a block on the carpet that he would obviously trip on and fall. As is usually the case, there were a few seconds available to consider options and make a decision about how to manage the situation.

The first analysis was safety. Is he going to really hurt himself if he is allowed to fall. At the time, he was on the carpet so he had a soft spot to land and there were no other objects  around that he would hit on the way down and hurt himself. Safety, wasn’t an issue. The second analysis was the potential for learning and the importance of the lesson. In that split second Ian decided that this was an important lesson. Walking backward without checking your surrounding is inherently dangerous. This is a concept that a two year old could begin to grasp. So as it turns out, Sawyer tripped on the block and landed on his bum. He looked confused and then  fussed for a minute. When asked what happened and he said, “Fell.” When asked why  he replied, “Block.”  After a little clarification and a simple, “Walking backwards is dangerous.” He moved on and was right back to playing with his pals. We are not suggesting for a second that this incident ended the walking backward phenomenon but we will suggest that it is the accumulation of these experiences that eventually teaches him (and therefore ceases the behavior) that walking backwards is dangerous.

Learning to watch where you are going and, in all possible circumstances, walk forward is a product of cumulative experience. It is not a function of  the words we use in warning of or response to the “failures” that children encounter. If we don’t take the time to step back, analyze the situation, and ensure that we provide those structured opportunities for failure, our children will only have our words. Unfortunately that’s not enough. Experience is the true teacher.

Acknowledging our own anxieties about failure is not easy.  What’s more is that we sometimes hold our children to a different standard than we do ourselves.  After all, they represent our hopes, our dreams.  We don’t want them to make the same mistakes that we did and we sometimes doubt their ability to see how their actions just might affect their future.  But success is about risk-taking and risk-taking is. . . risky!  Conventional wisdom in the world of business tells us that the the greater the risk, the greater the reward.  In the United States, the biggest risk-takers are also some of our greatest entrepreneurs.    But children aren’t going to succeed with every risk they take, nor do we.  When we take a risk, the threat of failure becomes palpable.  What’s important is that we capitalize on these opportunities by carving out time for personal reflection and self-monitoring.  When we make mistakes, we ask:  What is it that I was trying to achieve?  What stood in the way of achieving my goals?  What could I have done differently to achieve a different outcome and what action steps must I take in order to achieve my goal?  Once we can answer these questions, we begin the process of building a brighter vision for ourselves, of self-acceptance, and even more importantly, self-reliance.  After all, in the words of Sumner Redstone,  “Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes its built on catastrophe”