Dr. Jonathan Cohen Responds to Administrator Questions about Returning to School and School Climate

Last week, the Illinois Civics Hub at the DuPage Regional Office of Education was delighted to host a webinar, Sorting Facts from Fiction- What Districts Can Do to Combat Misinformation in the Current Culture Wars.  The webinar featured national experts in school climate, civics, news literacy, and social-emotional learning exploring the proactive measures administrators can take to create a supportive school climate for all stakeholders.  

Post webinar, we asked participants to reflect on what they had learned and share any lingering questions. Each of our experts has graciously composed a follow-up blog to respond to these questions. Peter Adams responded to questions about misinformation, disinformation, and news literacy in a previous blog post. Today, Dr. Jonathan Cohen, Ph.D. of the International Observatory for School Climate and Violence Prevention and Teachers College at Columbia University responds to questions about school climate.

How do we get district leaders to buy into the urgency of teaching civics, especially in grades 6-12?

JC: There are several points and ‘pathways’ that I would consider:

  1. Pointing to the extraordinary divide within the U.S. today and underscoring that our being able to talk together about difficult and controversial issues is – literally – a foundation for our democracy. Our children NEED to learn to listen and talk about difficult topics. This is a social, emotional, civic and character development informed set of skills, understandings, and dispositions!
  2. Educators and parents are ALWAYS teaching social, emotional, and civic as well as academic “lessons”. The only question is whether we are doing so intentionally, systemically, and helpfully or not!
  3. Civics education can focus on knowledge (e.g., what is the electoral college?) and/or skills and dispositions. Civics education that includes a focus on the skills and dispositions that provide the foundation for an engaged citizenry overlaps a GREAT deal with social-emotional learning. And, there is very compelling, empirical research that underscores the short and long-term benefits of SEL (e.g., classroom behavior, student learning and long term economic benefits). Here is one fairly recent (2017) summary of the research that confirms this: https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/Documents/FOC-Spring-Vol27-No1-Compiled-Future-of-Children-spring-2017.pdf

What are specific tangible ways administrators can support/proactively talk with the community about Dr. Cohen’s research? 

JC: The Thriving Schools Guide for K-12 School Leaders: Promoting Social-Emotional, Civic and Academic Development, Healthy School Climates, and Violence Prevention is a recent (2021) summary of practical school improvement suggestions that is a free resource on the website of the International Observatory for School Climate and Violence Prevention. This guide includes a range of practical suggestions and resources that will support this goal. In addition, please do feel free to contact me, Jonathan Cohen, directly (jc273@tc.columbia.edu) for other resources, I would be happy to talk with you.

The Guide also includes information (and links) about a number of other, overlapping ‘road maps’ that support these kinds of conversations and social, emotional, and civic school/district improvement efforts.

I would love to know more about starting morning classroom conversations discussed in the webinar.

JC: Maurice Elias has a new book that is focused on this question titled, Morning Classroom Conversations. In addition, the Responsive Classroom has developed a series of thoughtful and practical resources in this area, including their book Morning Meeting. 

What can we as administrators do to alleviate anxiety for students and families about returning to school after potentially being at home for the past year and a half?

JC: We can begin by acknowledging and normalizing anxiety about returning to school this fall. School leaders can also be very clear about how they are following CDC-based guidelines to ensure that students and school personnel are safe.

We all feel anxious. We can, and I would suggest need, to think about how to use these feelings as teachable moments. 

  • What triggers anxiety for you?
  • What is the range of ways that you react to anxiety? And, what seems most and least helpful about these reactions?
  • Have we begun to learn about being mindful as a research-based strategy that is often very helpful?
  • How we recognize and manage (or mismanage) anxiety is one of the foundationally important questions that shape all of our lives.

Using a backward design model of curriculum development, these kinds of questions can be raised in morning meetings as well as in language arts (talking about literature), history/social studies, and health/physical education very easily.

How can we navigate or have conversations with the school board and community?

JC: In my experience, it is very helpful to be able to summarize and/or point to empirical research that supports civics education, character education, SEL, and school climate improvement efforts. These four educational traditions have somewhat different meanings conceptually. And, they grow out of somewhat different educational traditions. However, today they are very, very similar and terribly overlapping when we focus on effective and sustainable school improvement efforts: an intentional, strategic, data-driven, fundamentally collaborative effort designed to create even safer, more supportive, and engaging climates for social, emotional, civic and academic learning that promote school and life success.

In addition to the Wallace Foundation link noted above and here (https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/Documents/FOC-Spring-Vol27-No1-Compiled-Future-of-Children-spring-2017.pdf), CASEL has a number of excellent research summaries here: https://casel.org/research/

How to respond to community members who are insisting we are telling all white students they are racist?

JC: I would be curious as to why they think this. In addition, I would consider the following:

We all have ‘blind spots’ and make pre-judgments! In fact, we need to make pre-judgments to simply survive and function! (If we had to question everything we do and experience, we would be overwhelmed and not able to ‘get out of bed’ in the morning.) For all of us, we are vulnerable to making pre-judgments (prejudice) that are unfair. It is always helpful for students (and adults!) to learn about what our pre-judgments are and to what extent, we think they are and/or are not fair and ‘ok’?

What are some of the best words to use to redirect anger (exacerbated through culture wars) into common cause problem-solving?

JC: I think it is often helpful to – explicitly or implicitly – let others know that anger is virtually always a secondary emotion. In other words, there is virtually always one of the following underlying emotions that ‘fuel’ anger: frustration, fear, and/or hurt.  And, there is always an unmet need ‘underneath’ anger. Think about the last time you became angry with a partner or co-worker. What triggered your anger? 

Practically, we can ask and/or infer what the underlying emotion was (e.g., I see you are angry at ‘x’. What is he or she doing that is so frustrating right now? What is your most urgent need now?). These kinds of questions and an appreciation of the underlying emotions and unmet needs can – literally – change the conversation in more helpful ways.

How do we convince others to take time to “get back to normal” when they feel the urgency to follow the common curriculum and exams?

JC: I would underscore that we are all doing our best to figure out what the ‘new normal’ is! 

Depending on who your educational colleagues are, I might work to create a PLC where different classroom leaders share their goals and plans in an open and collaborative manner. Again, I would underscore that this is – in some ways –a ‘new world’ for all of us. Let’s learn together in ways that we – as educators – can support each other.

We can teach our students civil discourse, but how do we educate our stakeholders (parents, etc.)?

JC: Ideally, parents are always our partners. I realize that this ‘good idea’ is often not practiced or possible for many reasons!

Ideally, we need to have conversations with our parents/guardians and parent (PTA) leaders about what they most want their children to understand and be able to do. 

Most parents appreciate that all adults have the need to have difficult or controversial conversations sometimes. This is more or less difficult for all of us!  In fact, our inability to do this undermines marriages and being able to be a good neighbor! Educational leaders can ask parents how important they think it is to be able to have civil discourse and/or to be able to have a difficult conversation (e.g., with their mate, their children, their good friends). Most will affirm that this is a foundationally important ability. If this is established, it is relatively easy to say.. we can and need to support our children/students learning this too. Ideally, this is a school/educator and parent partnership effort!

Improving the academic bottom line – the gateway to learning and intention is empathy and students taking action together. We are so pressed for time as teachers, I don’t know how to take time for this.

JC: Intentionally being a social and emotional, as well as an academic, teacher will improve the academic ‘bottom line’. And, the simple truth is that we are always teaching social, emotional, and civic (as well as cognitive or academic) lessons. The only question is whether we are teaching ‘lessons’ in helpful, systemic, and intentional ways or not.

It is also true that classroom leaders/teachers need to learn about how they can intentionally integrate social, emotional, and civic learning on the one hand with academic learning on the other hand. There are a range of important methods that professional development efforts, PLC informed efforts, teacher study groups, and individual learning/self-study can support, including the following:

  • Learning more about how to be the most helpful role model or living example.
  • Learning about classroom management strategies in dignified and democratically informed ways that focus on student engagement, co-leadership, and restorative practices, rather than classroom management strategies that are based on punishment.
  • Learning about a range of SEL/civics and character educational pedagogic strategies that provide personally relevant learning experiences that have authentic opportunities to contribute meaningfully,  including morning meetings, cooperative learning, conflict resolution/mediation to moral dilemma discussions as well as social, emotional, and civically informed curriculum (both evidence-based and via backward design models of curriculum development).

Mindful moments and stress relief should be built into the school day.  Schools have to create a bridge with Social-Emotional character development. What are the best ways to create the bridge? Meditations? How will the community view this?

JC: If it is at all possible, it is always helpful to have a series of conversations with students and their parents, as well as our educational colleagues, about the following overlapping questions: What kind of school do we want our school to be? Why? What do we want our students/ children to understand and be able to do when they graduate? The answers to these questions always are grounded in social, emotional, and civic, as well as academic, learning: Being able to be a good friend; being able to get into college and/or to get a job; being able to be a lifelong learner; being able to be a responsible and contributing member of the community. 

When this kind of ‘shared vision’ is established, it then ‘positions’ school leaders to create plans (ideally with parents!) about how we can, and need to, work and teach our children together. There are sets of social, emotional and civic as well as academic skills and knowledge that provide the foundation for being a good friend, a lifelong learner, etc. 

Jonathan Cohen, Ph.D.

  • Co-president, International Observatory for School Climate and Violence Prevention;  
  • Adjunct Professor in Psychology and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University;                          
  • President Emeritus, National School Climate Center; 
  • Practicing child & adult clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst.

August 5, 2021