Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC) is a student advisory council similar to a student government, but at a district level. The program has representatives from every Boston high schools. The whole council is convened on a weekly basis, and a leadership team of ten students also meets an additional time each week. The students work on education reform efforts, policies, projects that they prioritize. They are also the advisory board to the district, so they will meet with district officials, they will receive requests throughout the school year to provide student feedback to different policy initiatives within the district.
One of the most important aspects of developing good Social Awareness and Relationships is the ability to listen, so creating norms and spaces for students to actively listen to each other is critical.
If a student is having a difficult day or moment, it is necessary to have norms in place such that they feel comfortable not only sharing that, but removing themselves from a situation if need be
Staff need to be primary models on how to open up and share themselves with others, so that students are then able to do the same.
Students need to be given time to engage in pairs and small groups so that they are able to build individual relationships with one another as well as with the group as a whole.
Is there a specific focus you have with the students for preparing or training for developing close interpersonal relationships and skills?
For us it’s really important to be able to build up that skillset in young people, and a big part of that is developing their listening skills. We do activities that are about really listening to each other. We talk about code-switching or shifting, and we talk about managing your emotions as part of that as well. Whenever you’re trying to create any kind of change, you’re asking others that may be set in their ways to do something different, that they might not be ready for. So it’s important to be able to listen, and to be able to stay close, and be able to be respectful and acknowledge those feelings. So we really stress the importance of the feelings, and what comes up and what’s connected to that, because the work at the end of the day, even if it just looks like policy written on a piece of paper, it impacts people. It is really about people, so we try to keep that at the center of every conversation. We ask, “How does this affect who, and what are the concerns and the challenges?” And we think about counter arguments, and acknowledge them. The important part for us is acknowledging why those concerns exist, and being able to have conversations about that instead of just fighting it. So it’s all about relationships for us at the end of the day.
Within the student body, are there ever conflicts of interest or differing points of view? How do you manage and facilitate the relationships within the students?
Our leadership team actually participates in what we call a peer counselling group, where they meet outside of this space, in a comfortable safe space, with sofas, and they get to pick a topic and discuss whatever they’d like. There’s a training that goes with that which is really focused on listening. We say counselling very loosely because it’s really about creating a space for equal listening time. So the student has three minutes, and there’s actually a timer, and they get to talk about whatever they’d like, and the other student is a very active listener in that process. Then they switch roles. So students have someone who’s actually taking the time to be there with them in that space and listen to them. I think because of those tools, the young people are really able to deal with conflict. And we’ll see young people really applying that practice even here, when someone’s just having a hard day and they’ll say, “Oh do you need some time? We can go grab a corner and I can give you some time, I can listen to you.” Sometimes that’s all they need. They just need a sounding board. Somewhere to be able to vent, somewhere they can let it out.
We also encourage young people, when they need space, to be able to walk out of the room. That’s okay. It’s okay to go take a walk, it’s okay to let us know that you are having a really really bad day and today it doesn’t make sense for you to be here, or you need to go, or whatever it is. That safety and transparency piece is built into the conversation. A lot of the young people will utilize that. We’ve had students that will just sit in the back, and tell us, “I’m here, but I’m really not. I’m really just not in a good space today.” And we let others know. To start, we’ll go around with an activity: ‘where’s your heart where’s your mind today?’ That sets the tone and people will understand where each other are in the space. So when they’re interacting, they’ll know, so-and-so is having a really hard time, so maybe we should pull them in, or maybe let them be, or stay close to them, or just sit next to them and acknowledge they’re having a hard day. When conflicts come up, we will witness many of those tools and skill sets being implemented. A young person might reach to another young person because they might notice something wrong, or a staff might pull someone out, and say, “I noticed you were being a little snappy,” or “You and so-and-so usually sit together, today you’re not talking, is something going on? Let’s have a conversation.”
What strategies do you use as a staff member to gain the perspective to be able to tell if a student is not having a good day, or a student needs to be drawn in, or let be?
I try to model what I’d like for them to practice. So I share as well. If I’m having a bad day, I’m having a bad day. I probably share more than most adults will, or are comfortable with, because I also am human. It doesn’t necessarily take away from my leadership, or the fact that I’m responsible, they understand that. It’s not an ‘or’ in my opinion it’s an ‘and’. So the modeling is really important.
Whenever we’re hiring someone, we look for that quality. We need someone to be able to come in, and be able to stay close to a young person, and not take offense when they don’t want that. Sometimes they don’t want us here. We’ve had moments where they’ve kicked us out of their conference room, saying, “We need you guys to leave. Today we need space to just be young people and work at our own pace and do our own thing,” and you can’t take that personally. You can’t be offended. But also how do you fight and stay close? They might want you out of the room but at that moment you may know you need to stay close, because there are some really serious things that we need to get through. Sometimes someone for who is in a classroom, this can be really challenging work for them because this isn’t a classroom. So being flexible is really important. Being able to show yourself is really important. You have to be able to show yourself, in a way that may not be comfortable for you as an adult. And if you don’t come from this work in the same way, that feels really risky, because it feels vulnerable, and it feels like you’re maybe setting yourself up for them to be able to use something against you at some point. But understand that these are not young people that are going to do that. You’re building relationships with them, you’re empowering them, and they’re not going to abuse that. Relationships make a huge difference, and it is the reason that we’re successful with this work.