Middle school respect

Two weeks ago, I was in Baltimore presenting at the National Association of Independent Schools Conference on the topic of “Making Your Core Values Visible.”  It was a great opportunity to share so many of the ways St. Anne’s makes a concerted effort to holistically inculcate many values, including respect, kindness, integrity, perseverance and honesty, through programming, curriculum and teachable moments.

One part of our approach includes proactively promoting values and finding opportunities to practice them consistently through experiences such as outreach, writing appreciations to staff and one another, and working with younger students through our buddy program. Daily practice of values builds muscle memory that fosters St. Anne’s graduates who are empathic and kind citizens that enrich their next communities. For those that have not read it, I would highly recommend the book Unselfie which amongst other things, speaks to the many ways we can help nurture empathic kids through daily practice.


Perhaps the strength of our approach, though, lies in a community of teachers, advisors, staff, trip leaders and coaches who are all committed to talking about core values in every aspect of school life.  Respect isn’t something that should be limited to advisory or a character education class. It is an essential part of the education that happens on trips, such as the 6th grade end of year trip to St. Anne’s in the Hills, where Mr. Bird teaches respect through trail etiquette, not disturbing nature and leaving places better than when you arrived. Watch a basketball game coached by Ms. Jordan or Mr. Amend and you’ll not only hear an emphasis on defensive schemes, but also lessons on playing with sportsmanship and treating the other team with the respect they deserve. Even in the dining hall you’ll see our staff, led by Ms. Jones, reminding students to say “please” and “thank you.”  At school, at home, or over spring break, we always have opportunities to have conversations with our kids about values, helping build their understanding of these lofty terms through practice and discussion.

Regardless of where the conversations happen, as adults I believe we must be mindful of the way in which we have those conversations. A major tenet of my presentation to other educators was that we must not rely solely on a list of “Do not do’s” to guide and grow adolescent behavior. After all, it is impossible to remind and direct kids of every single thing they should not do. And when we tell them to not do something without proper rationalization and context, the reality is we have merely piqued curiosity of the developing adolescent brain. None of us wants to raise kids who are going through life worrying about all the possible missteps they can make. So, we must cultivate an understanding of values so that our kids may use them as a road map to navigate the many new situations that await them in the world.  

There’s no question that it is much easier to teach from successful demonstrations of values. But when you have a school that brings together over 400 children in the same space for eight hours each day (or a home with one or more kids in your family), the reality is there are going to be instances when our kids fall short of embodying those values.  While we must enforce boundaries, we must also view these instances as invitations to discuss our core values. “Inappropriate uses of technology” is listed in our handbook as a violation of our student expectations, but when a student makes that mistake, how do we help them understand why it is written in our handbook? Empathy and our core values provide the key.

There are several tools that our faculty use frequently in our conversations with our students that help shift the focus from a “don’t do that,” to an opportunity to construct meaning and understanding of values. The first is the use of intention versus impact. Asking a child about what their intention was or to share what factors motivated their choice accomplishes several things, the most important of which is the deferring of judgment and opening a channel for dialogue. Second, whether the response is “I was trying to express that I was mad at them,”, “I was trying to raise my grade,” or “I was looking for attention from my friends,” it leads to an opportunity for us to help them make a connection between their choice and the values that the choice might not live up to, whether it was kindness or honesty. It also can sometimes provide us a window into feelings and emotions the child is really experiencing. Finally, it tees up a couple of natural follow-up questions: “What do you think the impact of your choice was on your peer/friend/teacher/you?”  In most cases, there’s also an opportunity to shine light on how others not considered might be impacted. Considering the impact on others nurtures empathy and helps them realize how their choices impact more than themselves. “What is an alternative choice you could have made that might have addressed what you were feeling and would be respectful/kind/honest?” Asking this question helps students understand that there is almost always more than one option. Considering the likely outcomes of those alternative options can also provide good conversation and a chance to correct misconceptions and coach good decision-making.

Embedded in all of this dialogue is the notion of separating the child from the choice. Rather than saying “you’re a bad kid,” saying that they made a bad choice reminds the that they had control over their decision and that you see they make lots of other choices every day that are good ones. This kind of phrasing supports a growth mindset where a student can make progress other than a fixed mindset of being incapable of making good choices because they are a bad kid. Our children need to know that we believe in their capacity to be good.  

All of these tools require patience, empathy and time, precious resources which, I realize, are not always available to us on a given day.  At the same time, our kids are receiving inconsistent messages from media, the internet, and even travel sports teams, amongst other places, which demand that we spend time talking about values.

While there is certainly a space and need to be brief and direct with kids about what is and is not appropriate behavior, finding the balance is necessary, as is keeping perspective. It is important for our own health that we remember that, despite our modeling, efforts and reminders, adolescents will learn from making both good and bad choices at different points in their lives, just as we have done. They will also ask questions, push boundaries and challenge us.  Values, after all, are ideas we wrestle with still today as adults, and there are definitely circumstances when two important values may come up against one another, such as being kind versus being respectful. Expecting our kids to be masters at this right away is unreasonable, but it is worth our time. Being thoughtful about how we have conversations with our kids not only can help build trust and empathy, but it also provides a means to teach the values we hold dear and hope to pass on to them. 

Middle school respect