Early Cues: Keeping Them Engaged

“You know, Mary.  Crying in a baby is a late cue,”  said my sister as I held my adorable (but quivering) niece.  “We missed the early cues that she was hungry:  smacking lips, rooting, hand and leg movement.”   My sister’s insight caused me to pause (this would not be the first, or last time-I am sure of that)!

I know that behavior is communication.  This was framing what I knew in a unique way:  the tantrums and acting out we see in schools so often are  just that:   a late cue.  We missed the early messages, or failed to respond in ways that were effective at the school.

Children who repeatedly find themselves in the office for disciplinary issues, often, are trying to communicate something to the adults in their environment:  the work is too hard; my life is too chaotic; I’ve not a trusting relationship in any environment that urges me to stay engaged in the classroom.  There are limits to our ability to impact this, but we must never stop trying.

Essentially, this is an issue related to engagement.  We want them to be meaningfully engaged with

  • their learning
  • their teachers
  • their peers
  • their school

Catching the cues early and providing protective supports is vital .   We know the early warning signs.  We know the protective factors.  Most vital are the relationships.

That means us.

“I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings
Coming down is the hardest thing”

Tom Petty





The Parent Engagement Room

As a parent, I attempted to get involved in my children’s school many times.  The problem for me is that it never felt authentic.  It seemed I was the token parent on the committee because having a token parent was the right thing to do.  I am not sure I really had a voice.  My participation waned.

A session at the National Dropout Prevention Center Network conference in Orlando discussed parent engagement.  This tip was suggested to allow authentic engagement for parents: create a PLACE just for parents in every school.  This place could be co-created with parents and might serve as a cozy meeting place.

The parent room could include two whiteboards.  One for teachers to write NEEDS.  The other for parents to write STRENGTHS.  Needs would include any kind of assistance teachers might need in their classroom.  Strengths would include skills and interests parents are interested in donating to the school.  This would allow parents to help create a cooperative environment within the school.  Benefits?

  1. parents self-select how they donate time and resources
  2. parents offer their services (carpentry, gardening, painting, etc) in meaningful ways
  3. teachers  get help they need
  4. parents and teachers build relationships
  5. adults model collaboration for kids

Giving parents a place is a smart way to build relationships with them in meaningful ways.  Parent participation that is authentic and real and needed will go a long way in keeping parents invested in their children’s school. There is a direct line between parent engagement and student investment in school.

Thinking Unconventionally: Globally

A possibly fictitious letter from a college professor circulating the web.  This delightful story highlights the conundrum many students face going through our system.  These students are the global thinkers; the unconventional learners.  They are the synthesizers, the multidisciplinary researchers, the systems thinkers, the ones who see the connections no one else sees. They can be truly outstanding students if they survive the educational process

They resist traditional methods of teaching that are linear, sequential and convergent.  Given space to think and learn, their gifts will be revealed.  Read on……………..

“Thinking Unconventionally
A Letter from a College Professor

Some time ago I received a call from a colleague, who asked if I would be the referee on the grading of an examination question. He was about to give a student a zero for his answer to a physics question, while

 the student claimed he should receive a perfect score and would if the system were not set up against the student.

The instructor and the student agreed to an impartial arbiter, and I was selected. I went to my colleague’s office and read the examination question: “Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer.”

The student had answered: “Take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower it to the street, and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.”

I pointed out that the student really had a strong case for full credit since he had really answered the question completely and correctly. On the other hand, if full credit were given, it could well contribute to a high grade in his physics course. A high grade is supposed to certify competence in physics, but the answer did not confirm this. I suggested that the student have another try at answering the question. I was not surprised that my colleague agreed, but I was surprised when the student did.

I gave the student six minutes to answer the question with the warning that the answer should show some knowledge of physics. At the end of five minutes, he had not written anything. I asked if he wished to give up, but he said no. He had many answers to this problem; he was just thinking of the best one. I excused myself for interrupting him and asked him to please go on. In the next minute, he dashed off his answer which read:

“Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge of the roof. Drop the barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then, using the formula x=3D0.5*a*t^2, calculate the height of the building.”

At this point, I asked my colleague if he would give up. He conceded, and gave the student almost full credit. In leaving my colleague’s office, I recalled that the student had said that he had other answers to the problem, so I asked him what they were.

“Well,” said the student. “there are many ways of getting the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer, the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building, and by the use of simple proportion, determine the height of the building.”

“Fine,” I said, “and others?”

“Yes,” said the student.” There is a very basic measurement method you will like. In this method, you take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units.

“A very direct method.”

“Of course. If you want a more sophisticated method, you can tie the barometer to the end of a string, swing it as a pendulum, and determine the value of g at the street level and at the top of the building. From the difference between the two values of g, the height of the building, in principle, can be calculated.”

“On this same tack, you could take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower it to just above the street, and then swing it as a pendulum. You could then calculate the height of the building by the period of the precession”.

“Finally,” he concluded, “there are many other ways of solving the problem. Probably the best,” he said, “is to take the barometer to the basement and knock on the superintendent’s door. When the superintendent answers, you speak to him as follows: ‘Mr. Superintendent, here is a fine barometer. If you will tell me the height of the building, I will give you this barometer.'”

At this point, I asked the student if he really did know the conventional answer to this question. He admitted that he did, but said that he was fed up with high school and college instructors trying to “teach him to think”.”


Recognizing “Panache”

I was a non-fiction kid. Encyclopedias and Time-Life books were my favorite. I knew how babies were born and what fungus looked like magnified x4000 before I had my first Golden Book at the grocery check-out. At four my mother bought me a three-inch thick animal encyclopedia that I carried with me everywhere. I still have it and hope to see the marsupials in Madagascar up close some day.

Then kindergarten introduced me to Dr. Seuss’ dog party. THAT page was intriguing and I could hear the music each time I turned to that page.   Spending much time in trees as a kid, I really didn’t come down much to read fiction other than Dr. Seuss and a few Judy Blume books.  My head was mostly in non-fiction because I had questions to answer.

I was diverted  when I went off to college and met Dr. Greta Lipson at the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s College of Education. Kiddie Lit was mandatory and she was perfect for the job. Her big eyes came alive and her passion engulfed you. Nobody left her class without falling madly in love with children’s  literature.

With the inspiration came the relationship. She taught. I learned. Her enthusiasm kept me in the game. This worked well years later during  my days as a preschool and first grade teacher.  I spent more than I had on books for the children, loving my time with them and the stories.  Then my babies came and books were part of every day.  I was  trying to inspire them as Greta did me.

On my KiddieLit final exam (do they still have “blue books”?) were the words I read in my head last night, 24 years later:

“I recognize in you a panache, a spark, that I hope you never lose.

It makes you a joy to be around.”

Those words, in the context of our relationship, have carried me for decades now.  First Greta inspired me.  Now she is part of  the voice in my head, pushing me through tough decisions and difficult situations.  That panache has carried me far.  I am lucky to be surrounded by those who love that in me on days when the downside is revealed.

Non Fiction goes to my core, but I learned to love stories thanks to Greta.

  • What authentic feedback can you give individual students to encourage them?
  • Are you inspiring?
  • Is the relationship there?

These three bullets are pivotal to learning that lasts a lifetime.  They do take pieces of you with them and carry them forever if you make an impression.

Telling Isn’t Teaching

Dinner with my childhood friend (who happens to teach third grade) inevitably turns to a discussion about this year’s “interesting” kid.  Zoe, who appears to have severe ADHD and a knack for enthusiastically engaging anything that moves, is Lisa’s 2012 Velcro kid.  Lisa was exhausted by September 8th and, of course, by Oct 1st Zoe had Lisa “wrapped around her finger”.   She still wears Lisa out, but now (with a relationship) there is warmth in her smile when Lisa details the exhaustion.   Like me, Lisa is intrigued by the challenging ones.

The main concern now is the learning of the other students.  It seems Zoe is fueled by the response her zaniness begets from her peers.  While Lisa is working with individual students, Zoe is trying to perform her clever stand-up routine.  And so now Zoe is carefully located two feet from her teacher in hopes that everyone can get to work with an intervention of proximity.   “I told her four times that this was not the time to talk”, Lisa said.  “It’s like I never said a thing!”

Well…….I’ve heard the same thing from so many teachers.  “I told them”, they say, believing that the job was done since everything was out on the table.  This statement is made about homework when there are incompletes and binder organization when papers are missing.   Transparency is cool, but it isn’t enough for kids like Zoe.

The problem is…….telling isn’t teaching. 

Most teachers post their classroom expectations.  Savvy ones allow kids to help create the details.    The most skilled teachers I know take it to the next level by teaching what they expect and reteaching periodically. 

Teaching expectations for all of your activities

The factors to consider regarding your expectations will be limited to a few issues. Expectations around these issues will vary, depending on the activity.  They will likely revolve around the following:

  1. Conversation:  How much and what type of conversation among students is allowed?
  2. Help:  How are students to request help? What should they do while they are waiting for help?
  3. Activity:  What is the activity, task, or assignment students will be engaged in? What is its purpose? What is the expected end product?
  4. Movement:  How much and under what circumstances can students move about?
  5. Participation:  What student behaviors will show active and responsible participation in the activity? What student behaviors will show lack of appropriate participation in the activity?

Being clear about what you want to see during each of your activities will be vital.  Most often, teachers are not clear for themselves.  If this is true, how do we expect kids to know what to do?  When asked what they expect during independent work, many teachers might respond something like this (exaggerated to humor us, but you get the point):

  • Conversation:    I want them engaged and working.  They can talk, but not too loudly.
    • Loud means no more than  four or five  kids at once, whispering
    • Or two kids talking quietly; or three kids talking without arguing
    • Unless I am in a bad mood, in which case they should be quiet enough that I don’t get irritated
  • Help:    If they need help, they should come to my desk.
    • Unless I am working with a student, then they should raise their hand and wait, but they shouldn’t have their hand up too long, unless I am distracted
    • I will get back to them as soon as I can
    • Unless we run out of time; and then I will get back to them when I remember

Steps to teaching expectations for activities

  1.  Make a list of the varied activities
  2.  Determine what you expect for each issue (conversation, help, activity, movement, participation
  3.  Consider using a matrix to organize the information
  4.  Create a graphic for each activities
  5. Teach the graphic before activities     Acknowledge kids doing the right thing
  6.   Monitor how well it is going by observing students during an activity


These techniques are great for your Velcro kids; your independent kids;  all of your kids. I’ve used these tips effectively with my openly belligerent Pug (who acts like a furry Napoleon) and fiercely independent husband (who hates doing dishes).

Knowing what you want, teaching what you expect and acknowledging when you see it is a step toward greater independence for you and them. For Zoe and Lisa , it could be a “game-changer”.   It keeps teachers  “honest”.    It keeps kids  “honest”.    It helps them build self-control, self-regulation and is probably even related to world peace and the reversal of global warming.

If you play with the data long enough.



CHAMPing in High School by wyork

Example of Expectations “CHAMP”ed by Colleen Hardy 

Safe and Civil Schools



Is CHAMPS evidence based?

Evidence of efficacy

Falling Forward Every Day

Our views are formed based on experiences.  Professionally, mine emanate from a life that includes an enormous amount of reading, formal education and then this:  raising a gaggle of kids.  With a blended family of six children, we have had the United Nations of learning styles under our roof.  Our engaged kids spend part of their time as:

  • A Carpenter
  • A Master Electrician
  • A Law clerk heading to grad school
  • A Painter in art school
  • A Musician/physics major and
  • Our baby is a senior in high school.  Science is her thing.

Watching these kids go through school as an educator was often tricky.  “Put him on the bus and go to work, Mary!” is what I often had to say, especially with my drummer/pencil tapper who drove teachers mad with the noise.  Who they were in elementary is not who they were in middle school and high school. Engagement varied greatly from year to year during school for each of them.   Watching their person emerge in young adulthood has been fascinating.  They do take pieces of us and make them their own over time.

As a mother, you see potential.  That is your focus.  You want them standing solid as adults and you support their strengths with a vengeance.  You follow them closely over time.  The system often sees the student in their context at that particular time.  This limited view, at times, is constraining during temporary struggles.   It can subtly  set  limits on who they are and often infers who they will be.  This can be discouraging, especially during the highly social context of learning in adolescence when they are consumed with figuring out how they fit into an often brutal environment.  Keeping it in perspective is important:  the message they need to hear is that tomorrow can be better.

Who you see in class is a work in progress.  We do not know where they are going.  We simply try to set them up for success and support them with the next step.  Managing conflict, disappointments, hurdles- this is where the learning is real.  Keeping hopeful is vital.

One thing I know from our children is this:  once they had a goal, the switch flipped and their blinders went on.  Nothing could stop them.  This had a positive impact on every learning experience they had going forward. 

Helping kids discover their goals is one way educators and parents can support a more engaged child. Modeling goal-driven behavior is a step in the right direction.    The goal is not the aim, instead we hope for   goal-driven behaviors that make for a motivated and engaged human being who learns with passion -for life.    The timeline for this will vary by person, but it must always be a focus.  This is not about specific class related goals or any moment in time alone. It should not be adult-directed.   Instead we should be helping them discover what will set them afire , falling forward every single day.  

Some resources:







Pieces Of You

I have spoken with a handful of weary educators this week.  The stories slightly different, but general themes still emerge:

  • They are distracted from their work by things that are only loosely related to their goals
  • There are never enough resources to ensure their students have what they need
  • A handful of students require the bulk of their time
  • They worry they did not meet the needs of every student, every day

The weariness in their face and voice concerns me.  Having hope is vital as it keeps you moving in the right direction.

It is helpful to have some reminders in times like these.  While it feels like efforts aren’t paying off immediately, we know that we cannot immediately measure that which matters.  They take pieces of you and make them their own over time. 

  • Keep hopeful.
  • Believe that your work is vital.
  • Keep focused on the lynch pin:  your relationship with each individual
  • Attend to your voice and nonverbals:  “The voice we use when we speak to them becomes the voice inside their head.”
  • When problems arise, keep trying to solve the problem.  You can make it better.
  • Focus on what you can impact and let the rest go

Public education is vital for everyone, everywhere.  It is our tomorrow.  You are the key to this truth.

We must believe, collectively, that things are going to be okay.