Here in Boston, the Neighborhood Network Center of United Housing Management runs a Freedom School after school and summer program. Freedom Schools run on a program model with roots in an effort to promote literacy among the black community of Mississippi in order to exercise their right to vote in 1964. That summer became about much more than voting, leading the program to adopt the belief that “I can and must make a difference in myself, my family, my community, my country, and my world.” Since then the Children’s Defense Fund has implemented Freedom Schools all over the country. They use the Integrated Reading Curriculum with students K-8, take field trips, and engage parents in educational opportunities as well.

Key Takeaways

  • Staff must be supported, trained, and engaged first if your desire is to foster self-regulation in students. Staff can’t teach what they don’t know.

  • Remember that students who typically “act up” in school, and their families, are bringing a narrative about themselves that has been repeatedly reinforced. Disrupt the narrative whenever possible by celebrating students and working to keep them in the classroom.

  • Start the end in mind. Consider what type of student you hope your participants will be once they’ve been through your program. Is your current programming meeting that goal?

If there are issues with behavior or problems the students are having, do the students have a role in remediation for that, and if so, what’s the scope of that?

We have a Community Contract that we all sign and agree to during our first harambee (community gathering) on the first morning of the program. Students will create another one in their classroom, which is guided by us but it’s their voice. We can put to this as something we all agreed to if we have to address student behavior. We take a CARE approach to behavior issues, which is Consistent, Age Appropriate, Restorative, and Empathetic. We will redirect behavior three times before giving a parent a call. Students know that this is the Consistent expectation so it’s very clear to them that they have two opportunities to make a different choice. First, we assess what we can control and change. Can we change something about the way we are handling the situation? Maybe the behavior is Age Appropriate and they just need help to refocus. Probably 60% of the time, it is something that could easily be fixed. The second redirection is student-centered. We’re mindful and clear with our scholars that they’re making choices in this moment. How far this is going to go depends on them.  “This is the second time you walked out of the classroom. It’s dangerous. You need to stay in the room. Let’s go look at the schedule to see how many minutes until lunch. If you do this again, you know I will have to call your mom the next time. Are we good? Okay, let me walk you back to class.” We are always looking to get them back to their group quickly, which is the Restorative practice. We’re also being Empathetic there because we do want to comfort our scholars. That is why the third time is hard when we have to give a parent a phone call. If you make a distinction because you love this student and you’re already planning his graduation at Harvard, it is not equitable for all students. This is where the student plays a big role in remediation as they talk to their adult on the phone.

How do you model self-regulation for students?

This really starts on the back end. We have to train staff and ensure staff are secure.  I know we’re afforded a lot of things because we have a partnership with the private company of United Housing, along with the Neighborhood Network Center, our 501c3. We have some unrestricted funds, so I would be remiss if I didn’t say that there is a privilege that comes with finding support like that. When you can demonstrate good stewardship of your funds, you can foster public-private partnerships. When you get a good public-private partnership, they understand salary. That’s a big part of being able to allow for self-regulation among our scholars because we, on the back end, do the work for that environment. If you found a way to find the necessary funding, you won’t have to act a certain way when the donor comes through the door. You’re not forcing a set of behaviors that are not age appropriate or up to the level of skill you hope your staff have. How are you going to expect a six year old to sit there for 45 minutes while you put on this show because you’re assuming that this donor wants to see this? Human development takes time. When students act up, we run through the mental checklist. We check ourselves first and staff push back on that sometimes. Did I hear that student correctly? It’s early. He didn’t get here in time for breakfast. Could he be hungry? Every age has that thing they may need. Is it something we can change? Did they get enough sleep last night? Yes, we’re highly trained and capable, and this is our passion. There’s something very powerful when you start to see staff and the community being able to do this. It’s all those things we say we want. It’s organic. It’s responsive. Something happens to you when you realize it has roots and it’s breathing. I want to believe that every program strives to be able to be responsive to the community.

How does your programming teach students to recognize and manage their own emotions?

We are clear and consistent with students. We recognize that when children are coming from vulnerable situations, and many have been labelled as the problem in the classroom. Sometimes even the parents have bought into that. We’ll be clear and consistent with parents because they’re used to a different narrative about their student from the school environment. If we’re effective on the phone with mom, she’s part of the team now. If we’ve been consistent about our approach, then those calls go okay. We don’t get this right 100% of the time. but we still do it because now we realize we’re working with the family on this issue. This is not a bad child. We tell them exactly why we’re calling, remind them it’s our policy, and let them know the message we need from them to their student in this moment. We’re also managing, for lack of a better term, parental guilt. They think that this is reflective upon them. It’s not them! It’s often age appropriate behavior. We don’t talk enough about age appropriate behavior. At six, he’s going to run around like a bat out of hell! This is normal. There’s a range to what your child is doing and it’s okay that they are exploring that range. You have to train your staff because people bring their own narrative going about what age appropriate behavior looks like. There are biases about what people think children of color need from behavior intervention. That’s the practical part of the redirections. Are they managing themselves? How can I help them do that? We name behaviors really clearly. If a student is out of control, even then, you still have to find something to name. We need to know what “bad” means for you. They’re very talkative. She didn’t want to stay in her seat today. That’s something I can go to a parent about. That’s something that we can address. If we blanket everything, those solutions can’t happen. This is the microcosm of self-regulation for the scholars: we’re in dialogue together this entire time so they have the awareness and vocabulary to talk about feelings and behaviors in that age appropriate way.

What is the biggest piece of advice you have for programs trying to foster self-regulation in elementary students?

It all starts on the back end. Be confident in your program model. Be confident if you’ve done the work to outline your desired outcome for students and put practices in place from there. You have to have data and dialogue. You all do an excellent job giving us our data while also saying, “We can’t articulate this FOR your program.” The data has to help us be responsive to our community. We also partner well with amazing places like Boston Scores and Fresh Truck. When you have partners that match your own philosophies, it allows your students to see that you’ve created that environment for them. Ms. Cathy, who looks like me, is telling me I can make a difference, and I also have Mr. Brian over here that doesn’t look like me, who came from Newton, and he’s telling me I can make a difference too. They see themselves through multiple vantage points. They see everyone here truly believes that their world could be different. When we have people who truly see us, we are emboldened to be our best selves. Support your staff in believing in their own ability. Build them up and invest in staff training, which should be a core part of your budget. When hiring, consider a person’s background and desires.  It helps when they’re able to be empathetic to that young person that they’re working with. They can say, “I’ve been there too.” It’s not just diversity, it’s intentional representation. What have they accomplished? What have they overcome? What makes someone able to relate to a child of color? Maybe they are a person of color, but they also really want to do youth development work. We should seek out the best possible representation for the children.