Therapeutic Learning Environments

At school, even a small reprimand from a teacher or perceived insult from a fellow student can trigger explosions of rage, expletives, and other inappropriate behavior.

. . . At Lincoln, the teachers and staff follow a few deceptively simple rules: Don’t take anything the student says personally and don’t mirror their behavior with an outburst of your own. The teachers give students time to calm down, often in the principal’s office or a special “quiet room.” Later, they inquire about what might be bothering them and ask if they want to talk about it.

. . . As the Lincoln staff discovered, helping teachers de-escalate their reactions to student misbehavior is critical to building trusting relationships. “Things like language [and] tone of voice can really trigger or re-trigger some kids, especially kids who have known trauma.

–James Redford and Karen Pritzker, “Teaching Traumatized Kids” on The Atlantic

Odds and Ends and Weekend Reading Recommendations

First off, I would like to celebrate the fact that since Will and I first opened this blog up to the public on February 5th (after our introductory post on GothamSchools), we’ve posted a grand total of 22 posts within that month alone. Not bad for a couple of busy and harried public school special education teachers. Finger snaps.

I’d like to invite all visitors to our blog to post a comment and subscribe to our news feed. We’ll be doing our darndest to keep posting and struggling to advance and develop our model. We welcome any and all constructive feedback and support along the way.

To get you through the weekend, here’s a few articles worth investing the time to read.

The first I discovered thanks to a tweet from the ever insightful Annie Murphy Paul (if you don’t yet follow her, do). The article discusses a study on the factors that contribute to black male success in college. These factors are salient to our model of schools as ecosystems:

[Prof. Shaun Harper’s] report, published Monday, explores what characteristics and conditions nurture success among black male college students. However, what separates Harper’s report from many others of its kind is its positivity: rather than identifying problems that limit black men’s potential, which Harper coins a “deficit model,” he aimed to identify positive influences using an “anti-deficient achievement framework.” [Emphasis added]

An unsurprising parallel to Martin Seligman’s PERMA model here. If we focus on the strengths of our students rather than their deficits (such as in our current monomaniacal pursuit of academic achievement and value added accountability), we can cultivate greater positive outcomes and greater achievement, most especially for students at a disadvantage.

. . . But perhaps the strongest driver for success among young black students was finding support from like-minded others. According to the report, many respondents found support in “same-race peers,” mostly older students attending the same college or university. . . [Emphasis added]

This speaks to my last post on the ecological principle of redundancy and interconnectedness, as well as to similar findings by the Posse Foundation. Strong relationships are critical to the resiliency and sustainability of any ecosystem. If we want to cultivate the long-term success of all students, then we will take the time to foster niches that establish lasting relationships.

“Nearly every student we interviewed said it was the first time that someone had sat him down and asked how he had successfully navigated to and through higher education, what compelled him to be engaged and what he learned that could help improve achievement and engagement among black male collegians,” wrote Harper. 

Well, and this last bit is just sad. Our political leaders and punditry quote statistics and research ad nauseam, but it is rare that anyone takes the time to speak to the ones everyone is talking about: students. I’m a big proponent of the importance of student surveys in teacher evaluations. If we want to say students first, then by all means, let’s talk to the students. Ask them the right questions, and they will speak the truth. I administer Google Doc student surveys based on Ron Ferguson’s Tripod Survey (pg. 12-13) to my students twice a year now, solely for my own professional growth and learning.

The next article I discovered from a link by @openculture, and which is on the always enlightening site Brain Pickings. Entitled What is Character? Debunking the Myth of Fixed Personality, Maria Popova provides a series of quotations that demonstrate the importance of contexts in the ever evolving formation of character. The consideration of contexts is critical to our model of schools as ecosystems.

Finally, the last article is entitled What Jay-Z Can Teach Us About the Future of Education. In this article, Nathaniel Whittemore discusses the critical importance of an understanding of the values and vision that underlie public education:

A question is being drowned out: Why are we educating our children? 

There are so many obvious answers to the question that it hardly seems worth asking. We educate our children so they get into college, understand how to think, and are able to get good jobs and have a successful life (whatever that means). 

Yet each of these answers is slightly different. Each answer is a statement of values and has the power to reshape the entire trajectory of any conceivable education system. An education system designed to maximize employability is different, ultimately, than a system designed to maximize capacity for critical thinking, and so on. How we chose to define the “why” shapes what we do and how we do it.

. . . if we fail to attempt to understand the big, inextricable “why” at the core of the system, we limit our capacity for change and do a disservice to the future.  

 So very true. As I said in one of my recent posts, “only when we ask the right questions and frame the problems appropriately will we be able to target our policies and actions to best improve the quality of our public schools.”

Three Steps to Transform Our Classrooms and Schools

In my last post on the conference I attended on What Works in Urban Education, I discussed the insights on positive psychology and teaching well-being that I gained from Martin Seligman and how a focus on character strengths and positive thinking is fundamental to nurturing a sustainable community in schools. But in KIPP’s Dave Levin’s words, the question remains, how do we “operationalize” these things?

The steps I’ve outlined below are not direct lessons I obtained from the conference, but grew out of pieces of insights I began to put together on further reflection. In more posts to follow, I’ll continue to bring forth some of the direct lessons and insights I gained from that conference.

1) Knowledge of self through self-reflection

This probably sounds circuitous, but the fact remains that unless a teacher is able to authentically model and communicate what she is to teach, her teaching will remain ineffective. One of the great crimes of the teaching profession in the United States is that space and time for professional planning, collaboration, and reflection is nearly completely neglected, and a general afterthought when it is implemented.

Through reflection, one gains an awareness of one’s strengths and values. The most direct way to get started is to take a survey that will spit out your character strengths, like the one I mentioned in my last post on authentichappiness.com. Surveys like this are also used in the business world. When I was a manager at Trader Joe’s, part of our leadership training was to take a survey that identified our particular styles of leadership. It’s no doubt superficial to gain knowledge of self in such a manner, but even these measures have value in promoting reflection and building self-awareness. Other methods are journaling, blogging, supping on a good whiskey, or just good ol’ conversatin’ and meditatin’. Whatever floats your boat–suffice it to say, however, that it needs be done. And it needs to be done continuously.

2) Knowledge of others through active listening

It is the primary role of a leader and a teacher to listen, and to listen well. As a special education teacher who deals with children in crisis frequently, I can tell you that how you listen and speak to a child can often be far more important than what you actually say. Teachers have some notion that they have to tell a kid what to do at every step of the way. Most of the time, kids just need someone to hear them out and nudge them towards their own insight.

But it’s not only kids who need this. After moving to NYC from California and without a job, I volunteered at the GMHC downtown and underwent training as a crisis hotline counselor. I was just about to enter the stage of taking live calls with support from an experienced counselor, when I suddenly got the job at TJ’s. This took away every last scrap of free time I had, so I was unable to continue. But the leadership training I received at Trader Joe’s eerily–and wonderfully–paralleled the crisis counseling training I had just been undergoing. Adults, whether customers or employees, need leaders who can listen and empathize.

And the training I subsequently underwent as a NYC Teaching Fellow in a self-contained classroom in the South Bronx eerily–and terribly–and wonderfully–paralleled all the training I had had up to that point.

Ever worked in a high needs public school? Everyone–adults and children, leaders and staff–desperately requires a warm listening ear.

Being an effective teacher, leader, and counselor are all rooted in the same fundamental necessity for active listening. Body language, reflective statements (repeating back what the speaker said), summarizing what the speaker has said, and guiding the speaker through their own problem-solving process are all critically important components in achieving positive communication, building productive relationships, and establishing motivation.

3) Finally, the transformative leap is to render content and contexts personally meaningful to all involved

In order for the content and contexts of schools to be personally meaningful, they must build upon the personal strengths and interests of those who inhabit them. Finding out about these strengths and interests, of course, must first be achieved through the steps outlined above.

When the community and ecosystem of a school is personally meaningful, and the content is personally meaningful, then there is nothing left to hold back the achievement of the students nor the adults.

Operationalizing positive and meaningful thinking, communication, and relationships is the real work of education.

John Dewey on Schools as Social Institutions

The much lamented separation in the schools of intellectual and moral training, of acquiring information and growing in character, is simply one expression of the failure to conceive and construct the school as a social institution, having social life and value within itself. Except so far as the school is an embryonic typical community life, moral training must be partly pathological and partly formal. Training is pathological when stress is laid upon correcting wrong-doing instead of upon forming habits of positive service. Too often the teacher’s concern with the moral life of pupils takes the form of alertness for failures to conform to school rules and routine. . . Any conditions that compel the teacher to take note of failures rather than of healthy growth give false standards and result in distortion and perversion. Attending to wrong-doing ought to be an incident rather than a principle. The child ought to have a positive consciousness of what he is about . . . [Bold added]

John Dewey, Moral Principles in Education

It’s startling how John Dewey continues to sound so current. Notice how Dewey’s conception of the school as a social institution and the necessity for a focus on positive and healthy growth parallels our model of schools as ecosystems and the PERMA idea of positive psychology that I discussed earlier.

In our crazed school culture of high stakes testing, our focus is primarily on a child’s–and teacher’s–deficiencies, and we can see the effect that this has on schools: distortion and perversion. Environments of backstabbing and bullying.

Teachers relate well to the reality that all too often we are largely alert only to “failures to conform to school rules and routine,” and that this is the majority of the character education that we would purport to deliver. This lack of true guidance and modeling of character by the adults that children spend the majority of their time with serves only to widen achievement gaps. I have called this failure to provide explicit guidance and nurturing on matters of values and social needs the inevitable result of our “hidden curriculum.”

What should we focus on in schools? On what children are interested in and do well. On what adults are interested and do well. And celebrate those strengths and interests, while tackling the greatest of challenges with those strengths. It is only through the strength of a community that healthy growth is promoted.

How Positive Psychology and Teaching Well-Being Can Change a School

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference here in NYC entitled What Works in Urban Education, with keynote speakers Martin Seligman, David Coleman, and Dave Levin. There were tons of great ideas and inspiration I obtained from that day, but I’m going to focus this post on Seligman first, as I feel his ideas have great bearing on viewing schools as ecosystems.


Martin Seligman is a champion of positive psychology, which is just about what it sounds like. He notes that schools traditionally focus on deficiencies and solely on academic achievement, but that we mostly leave out a critically important component of any human existence: well-being.

Seligman’s definition of well-being is summed up by the acronym PERMA, which stands for: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and purpose, and Accomplishment. I immediately took to this acronym, even if only for the entirely irrelevant sharing of the first 5 letters of the word ‘permaculture‘. (Much more on permaculture in posts to come.)


PERMA, or well-being, is something that is teachable and scalable, as demonstrated by research and active application. In viewing a school as an ecosystem, Seligman also points to a key idea: teaching PERMA isn’t really all that effective when it’s confined to a classroom–it is only when applied by the whole school that effects are seen. It is the strength of a positive school community that confers the greatest educational benefit.

As Seligman delineated each of the components of PERMA, there were a couple of key points that really stood out to me, especially as a teacher of special education.

1) Cultivating our strengths is just as important as working on our weaknesses
2) Use your greatest strengths to tackle your greatest challenges

Students with disabilities face great challenges, and all too often in their school life they are made to feel inadequate. And all students, with the high stakes of annual tests, are made abundantly aware of their deficiencies.

Any teacher who has worked with students undergoing acute or chronic stress in their lives will understand immediately how important this stuff is. Students living in stress desperately need a positive, nurturing environment and coaching in developing resiliency. And as a teacher of special education, I know that when writing goals for my student’s IEPs, it is important for me to bear in mind that child’s strengths and future outcomes, rather than solely focusing on their weaknesses.

Do you know what your character strengths are? Seligman conveniently has created a questionnaire that can help you and your students pinpoint them. Over on his website, www.authentichappiness.com, register and then take the questionnaire entitled ‘VIA Survey of Character Strengths.’ You might be surprised; I was!


My top 5 character strengths are:

  1. Love of learning
  2. Curiosity and interest in the world
  3. Industry, diligence, and perseverance
  4. Creativity, ingenuity, and originality
  5. Hope, optimism, and future-mindedness
What are yours?

Another key takeway I got from Seligman was the advice to develop gratefulness by writing down 3 things that went well, and why they went well, at the end of every day. I’ve begun doing this with my wife each night, and we then share our results with each other. This not only provides an opportunity for us to communicate about our day with each other, but furthermore to share and reflect on positive things. I’ve also begun assigning this activity to my students for their writing homework each night.

Simple shifts like this in our behavior and attitudes can have a tremendous impact. Teaching and promoting well-being (PERMA) is fundamental to education and lies at the heart of why I advocate for viewing a school as an ecosystem. A school’s function is not merely to promote academic achievement, but to promote life-long learning, emotional health, and the individual strengths of character that come together to create a community.