Soon, we will know whether we are all returning to campus-based, virtual, or hybrid schooling. Regardless of what happens, we will likely be interacting professionally from behind masks to reduce the accidental transmission of the COVID-19 virus. On some level, we will also continue to interact virtually to limit gatherings or hybridize instruction.
I am not here to debate the mask issue. Required or not, I am “all in” on wearing them. Even if it only reduces the spread by a fraction of a percent, I feel that I have the moral obligation to wear one. So, instead of trying to argue my way out of it, I am proactively planning ahead to limit the impact of masks and the limitations of the virtual world. Let’s get productive!
We can put our minds to some very productive things, like figuring out how to interact with others when some of their most critical non-verbal cues are behind a mask. In turn, how can we assist our listeners with other signals besides those our full-faces typically provide?
There may likely be a virtual component to our teaching and administrative practices when we return. Whether you are involved in a hybrid model, part online instruction, or an entirely virtual model, there are some tips included here that apply to the virtual world. They may be able to see your face, but they lose some of your personality and full-body language. I note these below as well.
Building and Maintaining Rapport
Building relationships is one of the most critical factors for maximizing the effectiveness of teaching practices. So, I will discuss building rapport. I make an argument for being creative and theatrical in your teaching practices. Then, I share a series of random ideas. Perhaps something will inspire you!
Consider making a video or voice-over slide show that tells your students (or staff) about who you are. What are your hobbies? Do you have an interesting family history? What are you passionate about? Play it in class or virtually. This idea addresses the mask issue, as you can use images of you without you wearing your mask.
Externalize the checking-in process. Try not to make assumptions when you see an individual who may be upset, sad, frustrated, or angry. Agree as a class (or staff) on how to check-in. For example, you could teach them that when you say, “How can I help?” you mean that you have seen that they might be upset or frustrated, and you are ready to problem-solve with them.
When in a virtual world, teach your students and staff how to send you private messages during class or a meeting. Encourage them to convey concerns, frustrations, and such in this manner to keep information flowing for the rest of the group. Just be sure to monitor that outlet!
Be Creative and Theatrical
Think about all the ways actors portray emotions and meaning when wearing a mask (body language, over-emphasized movements, voice tone, and props are an excellent place to start.
Here is just one example of tying non-verbals in with theatrical motivators:
Before making a critical point that ties in with the lesson objective directly, put your hands in the air and call out, “As you can see…” in an easily discernible way.
After you make the point or convey the skill, take a bow. Better yet, create a signature bow to inject some fun.
The bow signals the students to respond in-line with how confident they feel about their understanding of what they heard or saw during the instruction.
Hands over eyes = I understand so well that I could teach it with my eyes closed
Snapping fingers = I kind of understand; could you review/do another example?
Clapping = I am pretty sure I understand; might need some practice
Teach your students or staff ways to give you feedback on their understanding from a distance using signals, signs, or technology. Perhaps they can hold up a question mark sign if what you just said confused them. Maybe a stop sign if they need you to repeat what you just said. The Fist of Five strategy is an excellent and adaptable formative assessment you can do on the fly, even virtually.
Be prepared to face boredom and sleepiness. Get them moving now and again; even it is chair aerobics.
Make videos of yourself mask-free (record in a safe environment!) for use throughout the week. This video could be an opening message, it could be information they use for a homework assignment, a science demonstration, or it could be you making letter sounds so younger students can see the shape of your mouth.
Give homework assignments with the option to video record themselves (while mask-free). This option teaches public speaking and allows them to express themselves to their peers with their whole face in view.
Year after year, I have watched my fellow teachers selflessly give drastically more of themselves than they are required to by their primary job description because it was the ‘right’ thing to do. They spend hundreds of dollars (sometimes thousands) from their own income to create safe and inviting classrooms with activities that engage the senses of their students. Many tutor students during every free moment they have before school, during their minimal lunchtime, and after school has let out. Since much of their ‘planning’ time is taken up by conferences, meetings, and completing required paperwork, they chip at their personal time to manage the tasks that are impossible to complete otherwise.
I see the same thing with school administrators who assume the stance that they be the first one in the building and the last one out (which in my experience has been most). They plan and attend an extensive amount of school activities, juggle the mandates from the district and state, and attend to the constant flow of administrative requirements. They must do this all while attending to the needs and desires of their staff. They also chip away at their personal time to accomplish the seemingly impossible tasks of an educational leader.
Educator burnout has been cited as one of the leading causes for educators leaving the profession for as long as I can remember. However, many of the colleagues I have watched leave the profession citing ‘burnout’ described something far closer to demoralization. Though, I will admit that I did not recognize it until I read Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession and How They Can Stay by Doris Santoro.
The line of teachers entering the profession has gotten shorter and shorter. Going into the COVID-19 closures, we were already in a critical, nationwide teacher shortage. Veteran teachers were already feeling the strain of teacher shortages with larger class sizes, more duties, and the near-constant need to support long-term substitutes and new-to-the-profession teachers. Alternative certification pathways are rapidly becoming a lifeline for districts as they seek to fill vacancies, especially in their higher needs schools.
We are hemorrhaging good teachers, and there is no stockpile of qualified candidates to fill the voids. We have to stop the bleeding, and that means addressing the issue of demoralization, both for ourselves and our colleagues.
Demoralization Versus Burnout
One thing that has always irritated me was the way that ‘burnout’ puts the emphasis on the shortcomings of the educator. It centralizes the blame on the struggling educator for not being able to continue in the profession due to a lack of resilience, dedication, and skill sets. It is often dismissed by citing the low pay or the demands of a culture hell-bent on maintaining a standardized testing focus. People just assumed that more teachers were coming, so those who burn out are simply absorbed into other professions as the world kept spinning.
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion that is most often caused by prolonged stress. Educators who feel burnout describe feeling overwhelmed, emotionally spent, and no longer able to meet the constant demands of the profession.
Demoralization looks almost identical at this point, but there is one major difference: the presence of a moral source. When faced with consistent and pervasive moral conflicts with their work, educators can begin to feel that they have no power to alter mandates they believe could be harmful to their students or staff. They watch things happen that damage and denigrate the teaching profession while feeling powerless to make positive changes.
Resist the label of ‘burnt out.’ Describe yourself as ‘demoralized.’ Don’t let people tell you [that] you are burnt out, used up, or don’t have anything left to give,” she says. “You have things to offer. And, [though] the space to offer those [things] has become winnowed to the point the practice may look unrecognizable to you, you have to make decisions about how you can find the way to broaden that aperture again and find some ways to enact what’s most important to you in teaching.”
Doris Santoro ~ Philosopher of Education, Bowdoin College (and former classroom teacher)
To put this in perspective, demoralization is one of many processes used during warfare to erode morale 0n the other side and to encourage enemies to surrender or defect. It is psychologically damaging to stay in a state of demoralization for both individuals and organizations. I do not draw this comparison lightly, nor am I implying that it is being done intentionally to educators. I simply want you to understand the gravity of demoralization in order to mobilize you to action.
Causes and Effects of Demoralization
The causes leading to demoralization are a little different for everyone, but there are some overarching themes.
Lack of workplace trust
Ineffective or absent emotional and mental health supports
Having no voice and choice with regard to mandates and management
Being forced to take actions while feeling morally in conflict with them, especially if your struggle is not acknowledged
Not receiving feedback and/or appreciation
Casual disregard of time and workload by leaders
“Lip Service” – being asked for advice and insight with no discernible response to concerns raised
Demoralization takes time as a process. We must catch it early. Then, we should focus on how to prevent it in the first place. It is important that you recognize that feelings of powerlessness play a huge role in the development of demoralization. When dealing with someone who is showing the signs of demoralization (even if it is yourself), finding where the powerlessness stems from is crucial to identifying how to intervene and improve the situation.
Dealing with Demoralization as a Teacher
As you have been reading, you may have developed or confirmed a suspicion that you are feeling demoralized. You are not alone. Chances are you work with several colleagues who are in the same boat as you. Your bosses may even be dealing with it. In truth, much of the nation is feeling demoralized, given the absolute chaos of the pandemic and social crises in our general lives.
The members of our society will be looking for us to manage our own feelings while providing for the needs of our community’s children. That means that the education community must pull together and address demoralization as a whole. It is the only way to stop the nearly constant loss of experienced and effective teachers and educational leaders. There is no option: We have to be healthy and empowered as individuals in order to provide our students with all that they will need.
Ways to address and combat demoralization for yourself:
Build or become part of an authentic professional community (even if you have to leave your school or even the district to find one that fits)
While I wrote the above section focusing on teachers, school leaders are also in a precarious position to suffer the effects of demoralization. All of the suggestions for addressing it listed above apply to school administrators as well.
Please note that by creating a school environment for your teachers that has components to address and prevent demoralization, you are creating an environment that can do the same for you.
When a teacher brings a concern to your attention, look for the deeper moral concern behind it
Recognize that most teacher concerns revolve around three key issues: their ability to be responsive to students’ needs, their ability to meet the demands of the job (time), and things that impact their wellbeing (emotional and mental health)
Even if you disagree with a member of your staff on issues, you can still acknowledge their concern and validate their experience
Be the gateway for issues and initiatives that will impact your teachers. Recognize what is non-negotiable and help them navigate what can be ignored or sidelined
Frequently meet one-on-one or in small groups with your staff to provide support and encouragement
When you genuinely practice mindfulness, your experience of life changes. For many, it feels as if life becomes more intentional as your center of power shifts. When you are consistent with applying the skills, you can truly come to understand how important it is to be present in your life in an effective way. Prepare for feelings of powerlessness and anxiety to diminish.
First, you begin to experience more “space” around your thoughts. There is less mental clutter, and your baseline for negative emotions seems much higher. In time, you become less reactionary to unpleasant thoughts and experiences. For those of us who experience anxiety and/or ADHD, this can be a life-changing experience. It certainly was for me.
As you more intentionally connect with your thoughts, you start to realize how much time you spend struggling with the past and the future. Ironically, all of this struggling serves little purpose. Can you take action in the past? What about in the future? Think about that for a moment. Now consider the toll that stress takes on your body. Most of your stress comes from thinking about the past or thinking about the future. Worrying robs you of your experience of the here and now.
Then, it dawns on you that the only moment in time you have any power to choose and act is the very moment you exist within. Outside of the current moment, your past and future actions are simply memories and projected thoughts. As I discuss later, this is why habits and routines are so important. All of your manifest power exists in the current moment. Mindfulness practices cause us to consciously bring all of our senses and knowledge into the present moment, along with our reasoning skills and metacognition. This can be very impactful when you are a teacher dealing with a classroom management situation or if you are an administrator who gets some stressful news that affects your staff in a big way.
This presence with our thoughts, in turn, evolves into the powerful and liberating realization that you play more of a role in the outcomes of your life if you mindfully experience what is going on around you while harnessing the immense power of choice and action within the current moment you exist within.
Over time, you will train yourself to use your mind as a tool rather than your mind using you to run its negative and harmful narratives. When you do not allow your mind to live in the past or future unchecked, your worrying should begin to diminish. Another positive side effect of a quieter, more controlled mind is that you may start to recall essential lessons and advice you have received in the past right when you can apply them. Best of all, it changes your relationship with anxiety and frustration.
The Resistance Within
I found that setting the goal to practice mindfulness only frustrated me as other priorities pushed it to the side. I had to decide that meditation and mindful moments were a priority and that I was going to make them a habit. After researching how to establish habits, I made a plan, built-in some peer accountability, and made mindfulness a habit.
Establishing a new, healthier habit that provided me with positive replacement behaviors was FAR more natural than working to eliminate or change my old, less beneficial behaviors through sheer will and external motivators.
After practicing mindfulness daily for three months (the minimum time I set for myself), the positive impact was so profound that the benefits became rewarding enough to break through my resistance ceiling. After almost two years of dedicated practice, I now crave to do a variety of mindfulness practices on the regular. I do them so often that I can even do them in the presence of others at work, with or without them knowing.
It takes differing amounts of time for repeated action to become a habit for each of us. You will have to find ways to motivate yourself to begin and sustain a mindfulness practice before the self-perpetuating motivation loop begins. Even after you successfully establish your practice, you might lapse, and you may find yourself looking for the motivation to start again. No matter what, start again.
Here are some tips for breaking through resistance.
Keep your practice simple. If setting up an elaborate area or wearing specific clothes comes before merely doing the exercise, you are simply adding layers that make procrastination more likely. All I need for my meditations is somewhere to sit and the guided meditation I plan to use.
Use your tech to access free and low-cost guided meditations. I have used the Headspace app on my phone for going on two years. It has been more effective than anything else I have tried. I also scour YouTube for guided meditations with specific focuses, such as Loving-Kindness and Breath Awareness meditations.
Do it every day, even if it is only for five minutes. I had to do it at the same time every day for months to establish the habit. I later began scheduling it at different times of the day to generalize the skills and benefits involved.
Embed your meditation in an established routine. I first chose to do mine during my morning routine: after my coffee, but before I visually map my day. You might do it right after lunch or during your evening routine.
Stop waiting for motivation to do it, and just do it. The motivation will come later for some of you.
Tame Your Monkey Mind
The number one excuse that people use to explain why they don’t meditate is that they cannot quieten their minds enough to meditate. The tendency for your mind to swing wildly from one thought to another is referred to by some as the “monkey mind.”
The misunderstanding that you need a quiet and controlled mind to begin meditating is detrimental to your success. Accept your monkey mind. Don’t judge it; start training it. That is one of the primary purposes of meditation. The images of the serene meditating masters who sit for extended periods speak to the outcome of an avid and long-term dedication to the practice, not to the starting point. You don’t pick up a guitar for the first time and rip out a classic hit or compose your opus in one sitting. You must adopt a beginner’s mindset, learn the theory and necessary skills, and then consistently practice with a growth mindset. Meditation and other mindfulness practices are the same way.
Two of the best tools for taming the monkey mind, from my experience and knowledge of talking with others, are Breath Awareness meditations and the labeling technique. I will discuss both below.
Before you get into the necessary details of mindfulness practices, you may want to read about several of the fundamental paradigm shifts that you must make for your mindfulness practice to be most effective. I have summarized them in my article, “Something Educators Need Now More Than Ever.”
Conduct Body Scans at the Beginning of Meditations
At the beginning of my mindfulness practice, I struggled with the body scan. It didn’t make sense to me, and it wasn’t until about a year after I began my practice that somebody explained it to me. I will save you some time and explain the purpose.
The purpose of the body scan is to reconnect with your physical self and to become in touch with the physical sensations you are experiencing in the current moment without judgment. In the process, you also release tension in all parts of your body as you focus on each one successively. You can do a brief scan within five minutes, or use a 15-60 minute meditation to scan more thoroughly. There are many guided meditations out there that walk you through a body scan.
If I am waking up or trying to keep my energy up, I begin my body scan at my feet and move up my body. If I am trying to relax or self-calm, I prefer to start at the top of my head and scan down. Whether to start at your feet or the top of your head is a personal choice. With practice, you will find which one you prefer. Some guided body scan meditations take 15 minutes or more like several of these.
Be With Your Breath
It took me two weeks of sitting through guided meditation before I had my first experience with truly being with my breath. Breath awareness meditations are among my favorite interventions when I need to quieten my mind. Coupled with the labeling technique below, this is where you will begin your journey to the seat of your real power.
Of all the things I have learned about meditation, the strategy of labeling has been the most impactful on both my anxiety and my ability to manage uncomfortable thoughts and experiences. Here is a brief lesson on the basic labeling technique. Note that the only two labels I use are “thinking” and “feeling.” This choice is a personal preference, so you should explore your options and use the label(s) that are best for you. Don’t slap the label on and admire it. Simply note the label as gently as touching the edge of a feather to glass and return to your meditation or mindfulness focus. Sometimes, you will feel like you are constantly labeling (hello, monkey mind), but in time this will diminish in frequency.
What Does This Have to Do With the Anxiety Paradox?
One of the key ingredients for perpetuating anxiety disorders is resistance. The more we stand in resistance to anxiety, the more of an impact it has upon our lives. A notable paradox of anxiety is that it often gets worse when we resist it. Through mindfulness, particularly meditation, you will slowly change the ways you respond to thoughts and experiences. Ultimately, this includes many of the behaviors that trigger and perpetuate the anxiety response. Mindfulness is about letting go of resistance and judgment, which both lead to self-perpetuating anxiety.
Fascinating Science You Can Research Further
Research suggests that when we train the brain to be more mindful, we can actually change the brain’s physical structure.
Consistent mindfulness practices, including meditation, can lead to a shrinking of grey matter in the amygdala (this is a good thing), which plays a huge role in anxiety disorders when overactive. It can lead to an increase of grey matter in the creativity and thought centers of the pre-frontal cortex, where reason and decision-making occur. There can be an increase in the production of positive brain chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, can be reduced in the body’s systems. This fact is also a good thing, as long-term exposure to heightened cortisol levels has many adverse effects on the body.
Simple Mindfulness Activities
Mindfulness has become so second nature to me that my thoughts naturally gravitate to the question, “Do I want to do this activity mindfully?” Here are several resources for starting or adding to your mindfulness practice.
A classroom full of students working on what looks like math problems. One student in the middle of the room begins to get restless. He starts making sounds of frustration. He snaps his pencil in half. The teacher recognizes the signs and becomes very authoritative and calm as she moves in to stave off the next stage. However, something sets him off before she gets there. He clears his desk with one sweep of his arm. She arrives at his desk, and he yells, “I can’t do this shit!” directly at her. Then, he quickly leaves the room. He walks into the main office and sits down. The woman at the front desk asks, “What do you need?” “Man, my teacher made me mad,” the student replies.
Now, switch gears and picture this:
You are an instructional coach observing a first-year teacher who has been complaining about a student losing his temper and “trashing the room.” The teacher is moving from student to student, giving very shallow feedback to each on how they are doing. She uses phrases like “good job” and “I’m so proud of you. Keep working!” Every once in awhile, she says, “That one’s not right, and you didn’t finish this one. I will come back in a few minutes, and I would love to see both of them done correctly.” She looks over as a young man snaps his pencil in half. She takes a deep breath. You’ve noticed the young man escalating some time ago. She starts to move toward him and is loudly trying to calm him down as she approaches. He clears his desk and yells at her that he can’t do the work, along with some profanity. He leaves the room, and the teacher goes about quietening down the remaining students. She then calls the front office to let them know that Dave has left class again. After the students have left and you are alone, the teacher bursts into tears and starts going on about how angry she is that nothing ever seems to happen to the student when he acts out like that. She says she tries to be helpful, but that he always blows up at her. She ends her rant with how teaching isn’t what she thought it would be.
I have seen scenes like this play out in countless classrooms at both the elementary and secondary levels, including my own. After years of experience, I often can sense another person’s frustration before they even sense it within themselves. For sixteen years, I taught students with emotional/behavioral disabilities, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorders. There’s no way even to count how many teachers I have had to coach through their own frustration or guide them in how to address the feeling in their students.
Mindfulness and metacognition are handy tools to use, whether you are a teacher who wants to learn how to coach students through frustration or you are an instructional coach who needs to train a teacher to reduce acting out behaviors caused by frustration.
The Secret Jobs of Frustration and Anger
Frustration is an emotion I deal with every day, both within myself and with the teachers and students that I coach. I could easily choose to see frustration as a “bad” thing to push away, but then I would completely deny myself or the individual the opportunity to grow in really positive ways.
When I was going through a particularly challenging time wherein my anxiety was out of control, I found myself getting frustrated and angry often. My therapist explained that I must identify the emotion(s) behind the frustration and anger.
Over the next nine months, through books and mindfulness practices, I would learn how to lean into the frustration, become completely mindful of what was happening around each occurrence, and apply metacognitive strategies to identify the roots and move through the frustration.
Frustration is no longer an emotion I dread. For you see, it is a signal emotion that alerts you to pay attention to something that is going on. Frustration is the feeling of struggling to hold back another negative feeling.
Individuals often hold back on expressing anger. Frustration then grows and can suddenly erupt into an outburst when something triggers the disruption of emotional self-regulation.
Something fundamental to note: Anger is a secondary emotion. It plays an active role in protecting the angry individual from another feeling that makes them feel more vulnerable, such as:
Hurt (feeling betrayed falls in this category)
In the student scenario above, it stands to reason that the frustrated student was angry because he was either fearful or ashamed of his seeming inability to do math well. Additionally, he could have been embarrassed by the teacher calling him attention when he was in this state.
In the teacher scenario, her frustration and anger possibly hid that she was afraid of failing as a teacher or that she was ashamed of the anxiety she had been experiencing about coming back to work each morning for fear of how this student would behave each day.
Frustration signals that there are other negative emotions beneath it that need to be addressed to improve the situation.
Where Mindfulness and Metacognition Come In
Mindfulness practices will help you tune into the frustration at its early stages so you can identify and address the issues causing the negative feelings underneath. It will also help emotional self-regulation and other executive functions develop with practice.
Metacognition will help you to identify the path to take to address the frustration and its underlying causes. Metacognition is thinking about thinking.
For Hennessey (1999), metacognition is the
“awareness of one’s own thinking,
awareness of the content of one’s conception,
as active monitoring of one’s cognitive processes,
an attempt to regulate one’s cognitive processes in [relation] to further learning, and
an application of a set of heuristics as an effective device for helping people organize their methods of attacks in general.”
To coach any individual through frustration to decisive action, is a simple process in theory. Remember, however, that the frustration you are seeing could either be from or cause a series of patterned behaviors that may be difficult and time-consuming to change. For example, procrastination, work avoidance, and lashing out can all develop because of poorly addressed frustration.
One Process That Has Been Successful for Me
After an episode of frustration, guide the individual (or yourself) to process through the emotions of frustration and anger using metacognitive strategies to identify the negative feeling(s) driving them. This phase will take a lot of active listening or deep introspection (listening to your thoughts as you ask yourself questions).
Support the further development of mindfulness practices so the individual can become more aware of when frustration is rising. Once they establish this awareness, they can begin to apply de-escalation strategies and the ideas that came out of their problem-solving stage.
With this approach, the coached individual regains, retains, and develops their emotional self-regulation skills. It is a cyclical process: each time they experience frustration, they practice their mindfulness. Each time they practice mindfulness, they are able to better regulate their emotions and use metacognitive strategies to make a plan.
Their plan should begin with an analysis of what they can and cannot control. Then, they can make decisions or take advice on changes they could make and strategies they can use in those areas they can control. Continued support will likely be necessary as they change established behavior patterns and establish new, more productive ones.
Stay Tuned for Next Week…
I will cover accessible mindfulness practices for beginners and intermediate practitioners in my article next week. Please subscribe at the bottom of this page to receive future articles directly in your email in-box.
Stay mindful. Be intentional. You are not alone.
Hennessey, M. G. (1999). Probing the Dimensions of Metacognition Implications for Conceptual Change Teaching-Learning. Distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse.
Writing an article about the importance of preparing early to teach empathy in response to current events seemed like an easy home run, but then I started researching and realized that focusing solely on empathy would be an unbalanced approach.
Much like the term ‘mindfulness,’ empathy has taken on a pop-culture meaning that is far simpler than the nuanced reality that it is. In order to teach something, it is important to understand the content fully. With this in mind, I went in search of what skills should be taught so that a healthy sense of empathy surfaces in our students.
The deeper you dig down the empathy hole, the more difficult it is to find sources that don’t associate empathy with morality. As a teacher, I start to get unsettled here. Now we’re talking about teaching morality?! Whoa, wait a minute. This is a weird gray area for educators. It is general practice in most American communities for families to impart moral teachings to a child. We, as educators, are to model positive universal truths (i.e. kindness, integrity) and the positive morals appropriate to our community and national culture.
Come on now. If you have ever been a teacher, you know full well you have played a role in the moral development of the students you have taught.
Deeper still: How can we, as educators, objectively teach students the skills necessary to be moral and empathic members of the community, while setting aside our own biases and misunderstandings, if necessary?
Now I am getting to the big question: What factors will maximize the likelihood that our education system helps provide the community with new members who are both capable of empathy and predisposed to continue improving both their own and their community’s well-being through moral acts?
I am going to first break down the components of empathy, each of which must be coached and taught for authentic and intentional empathy to take place. Then, I will discuss executive functions and their role in empathy (and…dare I say…morality). But before I do, note the most important factor.
Even with all of these things in place in the classrooms, there is one key ingredient that makes it at all viable: a deep, culturally responsive, and enduring partnership with the parents of our students and the larger community that they live within.
Understanding the Components of Empathy
There isn’t a great deal of literature on the components of Empathy. Most academic papers all pointed back to a single source: Decenty and Cowell’s 2014 article, “Friends or Foes: Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Behavior?” They describe empathy as a “catch-all” term for three decidedly different processes: Emotional sharing, empathic concern, and perspective-taking.
Some level of these three characteristics may be instinctual and initiated very early in a child’s development. However, instruction in the areas that inform appropriate behaviors around empathy is critical during the time students’ brains are developing their prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for many things essential to social interaction: how we regulate emotions, control our impulsive behavior, assess risk, and make long-term plans. It isn’t fully matured until our mid-twenties. Take note! The things I just mentioned are executive functions, which I will certainly get to shortly.
Meanwhile, take a look at the three proposed processes forming authentic empathy.
Emotional Sharing: The experience of feeling distressed at observing others in distress is known as emotional sharing.
Empathic Concern: The motivation to care for an individual who is either vulnerable or distressed is referred to as empathic concern.
Perspective Taking: When you intentionally put yourself into the mindset of another individual and try to imagine what they are thinking and feeling, you are taking on their perspective.
I have seen each of these processes played out NUMEROUS times on playgrounds, in cafeterias, and at track practice (which I coached). Our high expectations of our students must include high expectations around their use of intentional empathy. So how do we get them there with the consistency of high expectations in all grades?
Let’s Get a Round of Applause for…
One quote sent me down a rabbit hole that changed my entire view of teaching empathy in the context of conflict. “In resource allocation situations, [when morality and empathy are in conflict], empathy can become a source of immoral behavior” (Batson et al., 1995).
As I processed that last statement, something became very clear to me. It is one thing to teach empathy, but what is the point if empathy can be subverted so easily by the need to belong? That led me down a path to anti-bullying instruction. I began to see a pattern emerging across this and all of the socio-emotional curricula I have taught throughout my career in special education and teacher training.
The common thread was that true empathy is made more intentional by the thinker’s executive functioning skills. If we are going to teach our students empathy, we must also strengthen their executive functioning abilities. I propose that this will also have the wonderful consequence of positively impacting student engagement.
What exactly are executive functioning skills?
As you read through this list of commonly recognized executive functioning skills, ponder two things. First, what functions are necessary for intentional empathy? Secondly, which ones are essential for school success? (Hint: They are all essential for both empathy and school success. More bang for your buck!)
I have included resources for teaching and strengthening each of the following examples of executive functions across all age groups after each function.
The ability to maintain attentional focus on relevant stimuli, such as listening to others, watching a presentation, and listening to instruction. In regard to empathy, this comes into play when you consider active listening, which is necessary to fully understand the experiences of others.
The ability to refrain or delay response to a sudden strong urge or desire to act. Giving the brain time to fully understand and process information is imperative to intentional empathy. This is also a very important skill in the emotional self-regulation toolbox. You could look at impulse control as empathy for your future self, as it allows you to step into your own shoes and consider the effects of your behaviors before you act.
The ability to control one’s behavior, emotions, and thoughts, particularly the ability to manage disruptive emotions and impulses. The link to empathy and moral action is clear with this function. Understanding one’s own emotions is key to the ability to control one’s emotional expression and responses to the experience of empathy. This is a key function that is often negatively impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and trauma.
This involves the ability to select the most important/time-sensitive tasks, think about the activities required to achieve the task, and to make a plan to meet the goals of the task. When deciding what actions to take during and after an empathic response, planning is important. This is especially true when dealing with a moral issue or when attempting to change factors that are causing distress to an individual or larger groups.
The ability to switch between thinking about multiple different concepts, tasks, or strategies simultaneously. This is a key function in being able to adapt to new situations and environments. This skill allows us to persist with current behavioral strategies for as long as they are productive at achieving goals and to be able to switch approaches and strategies when there is a change in the situation or environment. This is especially important when there is a plethora of information that is available, which with the internet is the norm. It is a required skill for perspective-taking, which is very important for intentional empathy.
The ability to keep anything you need in mind while you are doing something, like a phone number as you are dialing or keeping story events in order as you process the meaning of a book. This is essential when processing cause and effect accurately.
Self-monitoring is critical for actively engaging learners in reflecting, assessing and working toward academic, behavioral, and social goals
This is our ability to become motivated, to take on new tasks, to persevere at those tasks until their completion, even if we encounter challenges. It is one thing to have an empathic response. It is a whole other matter to initiate and persevere at tasks which deal with systemic changes.
The ability to put things together in a logical order, often by creating systems. As we watched the Nation’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests, it was clear that they became more and more organized. Organizing our behaviors is one way to make the maximum impact when we begin taking action. This is also crucial for every type of schooling and career.
The ability to sort specific experiences and information into general rules or classes. Concept formation greatly impacts how students respond when they practice intentional empathy and make decisions about how to react.
Next Week: I Will Discuss Metacognition and Mindfulness
One of the best tools you can provide your students with as they strengthen their executive functioning skills are metacognitive strategies and skills. Metacognition is essentially thinking about thinking. If you would like to prime the pump, check out this resource on metacognition from Vanderbuilt University.
As you process this information on executive functions, consider how you can embed practices and strategies for their development within your content area and for your specific age groups. These are skills that will pay dividends in their ability to function as empathic learners.
In August, the families of our communities will once again entrust us with their most valued of all things: their children. On the surface, they will count on us to manage their intake of knowledge. Please make no mistake about it, though; they are counting on us to support their children as they navigate massive societal changes when trust is challenging to come by.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines zeitgeist as “the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era.” For more than 18 years, a zeitgeist of testing accountability has dominated our field. It has had the unintended consequences of disillusioning a generation toward schooling and driving away dedicated teachers until we faced a national shortage.
This disillusionment, in turn, drove the need to establish management strategies aimed at extrinsically motivating students with external rewards. While I support Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) over the control-by-punishment methods, I have often felt that it was a retrofitted solution that only salved a deeper problem. (Ask any teacher who has spent hundreds of dollars from their own income to meet the students’ escalating expectations for rewards.)
Finally, a new movement has begun taking root among my colleagues: increasing student engagement. Authentic engagement cannot be bought. Only the outward appearance of compliance can. So, this new aim to get students excited about learning (intrinsically) stands as a beacon for me as I train and support first-year teachers.
As I contemplated recent events surrounding the pandemic and social unrest regarding race relations in our country, I began processing how to prepare our teachers to receive their students when the new school year begins in August.
Educators will be faced with supporting students and colleagues who have experienced isolation and trauma of varying degrees. Where do we even begin with less than three months to prepare? We begin by getting inspired to be change-makers.
I have gathered together some “taster talks” that are intended to inspire you to research further as you prepare for this daunting task: shifting the zeitgeist of education from compliance to community.
First, We Must Prepare for Healing
What used to be the language of special education and other specialized educational and social service fields will need to be brought further into the lexicon of general education. Fortunately, there are pioneers in the following approaches that have paved the way for us to get a head start.
Building Healthy Relationships
I could go on and on about this one, but I think that Rita Pierson says it best. Unfortunately, Ms. Pierson is no longer with us, but her message is timeless and powerful.
Culturally-Responsive Educational Practices
Culturally-responsive teaching practices acknowledge, respond to, and celebrate fundamental cultures while providing equitable access to education for students from all cultures.
Here I want to share the inspiring message of Jeff Dessources, the Director of the Center for Leadership and Engagement at New Jersey City University.
There is little doubt that each of you will be faced with supporting students and colleagues who are traumatized on some level. Trauma affects the brain in all humans, but the impact during the time when the brain is developing can have profound, long-term effects.
This talk is by Mark Sander, the Director of School Mental Health in the Minneapolis Public Schools.
If I have learned anything during the pandemic lockdown it is this: Educators are a powerful force in our society. Released from the confines of compliance, I have watched teachers rise to the occasion of engaging their students while growing meaningful and empathic relationships with them against the odds.
Join me in embracing a new educational zeitgeist defined by making connections with the community, being responsive to the needs of all learners, and healing our communities while building up the resilience of our future community leaders.
I hit a wall at the end of last week. Then, I slid into a very dark hole. It wasn’t depression, per se. It was more of a void: a total lack of contentment, meaning, and purpose.
Thanks to chronic insomnia, I have been averaging only 4-4.5 hours of sleep per night for six weeks, but I have used self-care and naps to cope. Aside from missing my tribe, I felt I was managing well.
Perhaps it was my exhaustion along with the cumulative effects of quarantine isolation triggered by the realization that I had fallen into the trap of writing like a textbook rather than from the soul. Maybe it was the suppression of grief from my break up with my partner after a difficult 9 months. In all honesty, I was likely hurtling toward this dark space since March, and I couldn’t see it because I was busy being diligent with writing and helping others through their dark spaces.
But mental health disorders are often unpredictable like that.
I reached out to someone in my social support tribe to ask them whether they had the mental space to help me process what was happening. He assured me that he did, listening patiently as I talked in a stream of consciousness.
When I reached a pausing point after realizing I had been talking non-stop for over thirty minutes, I waited for my friend to respond. He took a long, slow breath and said, “You are one of the most positive people I know.” Another pause. “Do you realize how nihilistic you sound, Jenna?”
The question jarred me. It left me frantically sifting through my segmented memories of the things I had just said to find some shred of evidence that he had misunderstood my message.
“What is the point? My life feels meaningless. My impact on the world is so small. When I die, I will only have mattered for as long as the memories of my loved ones can sustain snippets of who they perceived me to be.“
“Perhaps I will write a book, and someone, a hundred years from now, will quote something I have said. It is unlikely; everything has been said before. Originality is only a function of exposure.”
“I am a speck of stardust on a rock that ishurtling through space. Insignificant to the Universe.”
I had even quoted the Epicurean paradox as I ranted about the pandemic and how the prayers from around the world were not stopping its spread.
I sat there, stunned. I had unknowingly stumbled into the realm of existential nihilism, and I had wandered in so far that I couldn’t see even the slightest sliver of meaningfulness on the horizon.
Don’t Google “nihilism” and begin judging me as a godless Being without morals. The first definition that comes up is biased in its brevity and dangerous in its assumptions. It is insulting and presumptive to lump me in with Nietzsche as if the direction he took nihilism in is the only perspective that can come from realizing that most of the striving we do in life is pointless in and of itself.
In our darkest moments, we can surrender to the shadows, or we can fight them with our light. I started fighting by researching, as is my way. The starkly pessimistic words of historical nihilists resonated with my dark space. I began questioning whether I was becoming informed or falling farther into the hole, but I kept scanning the texts for a way out.
Then, I was met with salvation as one quote jumped off the screen at me.
What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world-and defines himself afterward. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.”
The Ego Falls Away
When I was 15 years old, my Theory of Knowledge teacher took us to a field and told us to go lie in the grass alone and ponder René Descartes’ declaration, “I think; therefore, I am.” Being the unassuming rebel that I was, I sat there and made a chain of clover flowers thinking that I existed simply because I existed and that I didn’t need to understand why.
How could I have known then that the experience she had gifted me would connect with existential nihilism almost 30 years later only to give me the power and purpose climb out of my dark space?
I have suffered for countless days wondering why I was made to exist in a world that wouldn’t have missed me if I was never born. This is a gift of periodic depressions and the darkness of mood swings.
The roots of my darkness run so deep that so far, I have only managed the symptoms when it takes over. Being bullied by “mean girls” as a pre-teen adolescent tore wounds into my ego that would take nearly three decades and a lot of therapy to heal. This is where the ego comes into play.
I have been consumed by worrying about what people thought of me for most of my life. Even as I write this, I feel the sting of fear that someone I know will judge and reject me as I begin opening up windows into my mental health experiences in this blog.
Psychologically speaking, the ego is “the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity” (Oxford Languages). Ego is more commonly understood to be one’s sense of identity and self-worth.
Several spiritual and religious paths guide us in releasing the ego for enlightenment, altruism, and the glory of a higher power. We can experience huge shifts in our ego toward peace and acceptance only to find ourselves battling the ego again only days, weeks, or months later. This is part of the human condition.
The negative things that happen to us can feed a pain body within our ego, making dark thoughts part of our personal narrative. It is easy in troubling times for this pain body to take over and move us into dark space.
The first step in battling the pain body of the ego is to acknowledge its presence. Stare it in the face and say, “I see you there. I know you are not me.”
Now that I realized my ego’s pain body had pushed me into the wall and rolled me into the hole, I began searching for inspiration in one of my favorite places. I started watching TED Talks on depression, nihilism, and mental health. Enlightenment came with the seventh talk I listened to.
I have been isolated from the work I love, which is supporting teachers in personalized, face-to-face coaching sessions. I have had very little social interaction. My one remaining connection to the servant leadership that is essential to my self-worth, namely this blog, had plateaued in readership.
Then the epiphany: In the absence of service, belonging, and impact, my ego becomes nihilistic.
I had taken the next step to weaken my pain body after calling it out: I had identified what fueled it. Now I could take steps to dismantle it.
The connections we make with ourselves and others are the fabric of happiness and purpose, and we create that on our own. Even the act of surrendering to a god is a personal choice meant to bring belonging and meaning where there was none; it is part of our essence that we bring into the world by pure will. Call it faith if you wish.
Steps to Grow a Sense of Belonging
Change your personalnarrative with positive self-talk. If you catch yourself ruminating on the rhetoric of your pain body’s darkness, reframe it into positivity by keeping a gratitude journal, developing goals with a plan, creating a vision board, or using positive affirmations with yourself.
Look for ways to integrate the best parts of your various personas. If you have been segmenting your life into work versus social versus the self you give your significant others versus who you are when you are alone, find a way to reintegrate yourself. I am not suggesting you take down barriers that help you. Instead, find what personas and skillsets you like most about yourself and invite them into the various compartments of your life.
Make healing a priority. I would not have come so far in my mental health progress without therapy and other expert resources. The book The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown is a powerful place to start.
Service and Impact
The ripples we make in this life define who we are for others and invites belonging.
I am a deeply spiritual and moral woman because I choose to be for the comfort of my soul and those around me. I have always recognized that it is the impact we have on others and the feelings we cultivate within ourselves that brings meaning to this existence in the brief time we are a part of it.
How I treat one person can change them for the rest of their lives. That change could impact how they treat everyone they know and what they choose to do to bring their own life meaning.
Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
Find out how you can provide service to those you wish to belong with. For me, that is continuing this blog despite the fact that I may never have thousands of readers. Even if I only impact one person in a positive way, the ripples of that could spread that positivity to others they know. Ripples.
In Summation: A Call to Arms for Educators
If we are to equip our youth with the tools they need to make their own meaning in this world, we have a moral responsibility to define and strengthen the meaning of our own lives.
We also have a moral responsibility to destigmatize mental health issues. Goodness knows there will be plenty of people dealing with the reality of mental health disorders and emotional struggles as we emerge from quarantine for the next school year.
I am still struggling with my dark space today, but I can see hope on the horizon. Instead of dwelling in the nihilism, I am accepting it as a stage I must move through to deal with the scars of my past. When you feel lost in the darkness, don’t ever stop looking for the light.
You are important. You are worthy. Now, go make your own meaning!
Over the next few weeks, teachers across the nation are wrapping up their instruction for the school year and preparing for what is sure to be a non-traditional summer in uncertain times.
I have a great deal of anxiety around how the 2020-2021 school year could look. How do we prepare for the “new normal” that we cannot even define yet?
I am nervous for the new teachers just graduating college. Some of them didn’t get to complete their student-teaching practicums. Many of them were hired through online interviews, so they didn’t get to visit the school to see whether they felt like the school’s environment and culture is a ‘good fit’ for them.
We have to be creative when ending the school year to make it enjoyable and healthy for our students, teachers, and future colleagues:
Have a virtual End of Year Celebration
Have each of your school’s teachers and staff members send in a brief phone video introducing themselves and giving a positive statement about their experience in the school family. Turn that into a video and share it with new-hires for the next year.
Complete a closing virtual parent conference with each family. Take notes on important struggles and learning a-ha’s their child had while schooling at home and share them with the next teacher to have the student.
Call each child on the phone or virtually meet with them individually to give them a positive send-off.
As I meet with all of the teachers I have supported this year, several questions keep coming up. I have made each of these questions into active links so you can jump right to the ones that are swimming in your head as you read this.
Build some high-impact virtual lessons to start school just in case. If you make videos about your online/hybrid behavior expectations in a way that they can be used during in-person lessons, too, it is win-win. Digital Citizenship, active listening, self-regulation, and asking quality questions are some examples of mini-lessons you could create now and use both online and face-to-face.
Watch Out for Seductive Details as You Build Resources
In order to make educational materials such as textbooks, slideshows, and virtual lessons more engaging, the creator may choose to add elements such as photos, videos, music, cartoons, and text such as quotes. The catch, however, is that some of these could be what is called seductive details.
By definition, seductive details are:
Interesting to the learner, but
Not aligned with the learning objectives/goals
Research has shown that these unaligned features may lead to poor information retention for the lesson overall and difficulties in transferring (applying and generalizing) the actual content of the lesson. This is referred to as the seductive details effect.
Critics of this claim might argue that seductive details may increase learner engagement, especially when presenting “dry” content or content which does not intrinsically motivate the learner.
Some examples of seductive details:
During an earth science lesson on the causes of extreme weather patterns, such as lightning, the teacher includes a video clip of a woman walking her child in a stroller as lightning suddenly strikes less than three feet away
An algebra textbook includes photos and illustrations around the theme of a beach to make the pages more visually appealing (even if the application story problems include the same theme)
A technology lesson on the use of email etiquette for business communication includes a slide discussing the evolution of written communication includes a picture of a famous actor dressed as a postman from one of their recent movies
If you include seductive details, be very clear with yourself on why you are including them. For example, if you include a cartoon for the purposes of building rapport and unity with your learners through inducing laughter or to give comic relief during a lecture on a stress-inducing concept, recognize that you will need to intentionally redirect your learners back to the goals and objectives of the lesson.
Instead of seductive details, see if you can provide elements that are actually aligned with the content and learning expectations. Going back to the examples of seductive details above, here are some elements they could have used instead to avoid using those that were not aligned:
In the lesson on lightening, the video could have shown examples of the three types of lightning: cloud-to-ground (the most commonly known type), cloud-to-air, and cloud-to-cloud
An algebra text could use visuals that model a strategy for solving the application problems with base ten blocks in lieu of including palm trees for visual interest
The technology lesson on email etiquette could use a colorful timeline modeling the evolution of written business communication
A Mix of Online and In-Person Instruction
While blended learning focuses on the combination of offline and online instruction, hybrid learning seeks to find a balance that promotes the best experience for individual students.
Blended learning combines in-classroom instruction with asynchronous exercises and content that are consumed outside the classroom. Hybrid learning, on the other hand, is the method of teaching remote and in-person students at the same time via virtual instruction solutions.
In traditional schooling, students receive content during class and complete problems or application activities at home. In a flipped classroom, the students receive content while at home through videos, readings, etc. Then, they come to class to apply the content as the teacher facilitates application activities, reteaches, corrects misunderstandings, and differentiates.
Anticipate Preparing Space in Your Home for Virtual Teaching
Whether we return to campuses or not, you have now seen the power of being able to use technology for teaching. Having space in your home pre-prepared for virtual instruction can reduce stress as we approach the new school year not knowing what it might look like. Even if all schooling takes place in the classroom, you can use instructional mini-videos make at home to enrich, reteach, and differentiate your instruction.
Rearrange your furniture to create a front of class look or themed space.
Differentiating Online Learning
There are four primary focuses for differentiation of assignments and assessments regardless of whether the instruction is virtual or in-person: Content, process, product, and affect/environment.
Content is the knowledge, understanding, and skills we expect the students to demonstrate mastery of during and after instruction. KUD, or Know-Understand-Do, is an easy to remember acronym that captures the essence well.
It is important to note that when we plan for differentiated instruction, we must be careful to not accidentally modify the content. The same expectation of mastery and performance is maintained for all of the students unless they have an IEP or 504 plan that calls for modifications.
Online Content Differentiation Examples
Provide supplemental guided notes that can be used while watching an instructional video
Meet separately with students to re-teach (virtually, with an individual or small group)
Provide alternate texts (ex. No Fear Shakespeare)
Make videos available in addition to the text-based material
Offer personalized instruction videos
The ways in which a student engages with the content of a lesson is the core of process differentiation. The students all receive the same content, but the process by which they make sense of the content and skills can vary.
If the class is creating an outline for writing a comparison essay, give a student a Venn diagram for them to use as they brainstorm how two concepts or things compare so they can better organize their outline
Provide Tiered Activities wherein, for example, different groups work with the same content but have different processes:
Group 1- Struggling Students:
Requires less difficult independent reading.
Has materials based on the average reading level of the participants, which is usually below grade-level
Has spare text and lots of graphic aids.
Has a low level of abstraction (i.e., is as concrete as possible).
Requires fewer steps to complete the assignment
Requires only knowledge and comprehension levels of thinking for independent work.
Includes supportive strategies, such as graphic organizers or teacher prompting to help students infer and draw conclusions. (i.e., use higher-level thinking skills)
Group 2 – Average Learners:
Includes independent reading materials from the textbook or other on-grade level sources.
Uses concrete concepts to help students transition to more abstract concepts.
Includes questions or problems that are a mix of open-ended and “right answers.”
Can have more steps.
Expects students to infer and draw conclusions with less teacher support. Teacher should count on being on hand if necessary to prompt students in this area.
Ensures that students can be successful with knowledge, comprehension, and application on their own, and that with help they can address some of the high levels of thinking
Group 3 – Advanced Learners:
Includes reading materials from sources more complex than the textbook, if possible.
Requires more lengthy sources because students can read faster than lower or average students.
Focuses on abstract concepts as much as possible and uses open-ended questions exclusively.
Requires students to infer and evaluate.
Assumes students have knowledge, comprehension, and application abilities, and that they will be challenged only if you ask them to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate.
Sourced from IRIS Differentiation Module
The product is the outcome of an assigned task that is used to measure mastery of the learning goals.
Online Product Differentiation Examples
While most students are writing research-based essay, this can be differentiated by having a student create a slideshow that demonstrates the key concepts they found in their research
If the class is taking an online math quiz and you notice that one student did them all wrong, have that student model doing a few difficult problems while thinking aloud as they record video of themselves. This can help you identify errors in thinking and give partial credit for the parts wherein they used correct logic
Ask a student who is struggling with anxiety during virtual class sessions what would be better for them. They may ask to answer questions asked during the virtual meeting in a document while staying muted and camera off. Then they turn in their notes.
If you have a student who is disrupting the online learning environment and agitating a student with sensory or attention issues, have a procedure for warning the acting-out student and mute their mic, if necessary.
I realize that this article is a bit all over the place. So is our knowledge of what we are heading into as we wrap up the school year and prepare for the next. Get comfortable with change and uncertainty.
Stay Strong. Stay Proactive!
D’Agustino, S. (2011). Adaptation, resistance and access to instructional technologies: Assessing future trends in education. Information Science Reference.
Each student brings their own background, strengths, needs, and interests into your learning environment. Instead of retrofitting lessons on the back end to make way for each student’s uniqueness, doesn’t it make far more sense to consider their individuality upfront and design meaningful instruction with their nuances in mind?
When I began teaching, it seemed as though students were put into “tracks” more often, and classes tended to be more homogenous. After the inception of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2004 and subsequent changes to legislation and policy within specialized education programs, we began championing the inclusion of all students within general education settings.
This is a good thing because research clearly shows that students who have differences in their learning needs, such as English Language Learners and individuals with disabilities, typically have better educational outcomes when they are educated in the general education setting alongside average and accelerated learners as much as possible. However, this means our classes are extremely diverse, requiring that we differentiate across a broad spectrum of needs. The key is to ensure that the right supports are in place. This is where UDL and Differentiated Instruction come into play.
If you have a firm grasp on both UDL and Differentiated Instruction, and are ready to begin planning your lessons using the UDL framework, go directly to the UDL lesson planning process.
Ask the Better Question
In researching for this article, I found a lot of charts, graphics, and essays bent on contrasting the Universal Design for Learning framework (UDI) and Differentiated Instruction (DI). I think it is important that you have a general understanding of how they compare, but getting too hung up on how they are different could serve to confuse you on how to integrate them and inhibit your motivation to deepen your learning of both.
UDL is a proactive lesson planning process that minimizes barriers to learning and optimizes learning for ALL students before the actual instruction takes place. Differentiation is the use of responsive strategies during and after instruction to address the specific support needs for a particular student or group of students, and it can be done on the fly should the need present itself during the lesson.
So if you find yourself asking, “What is the difference between UDL and Differentiated Instruction?” migrate your thinking to a better question:
“How can I use the UDL lesson planning process and Differentiated Instruction together to improve outcomes for all of my students?”
When I brainstormed this article, I anticipated that some of my readers are visual learners and some would prefer to get a lot of information quickly, so I decided to embed graphic organizers proactively throughout this article. This is an immediate example of the UDL process at work.
The use of Venn Diagrams and other graphic organizers is a powerful tool you can integrate into a lesson plan upfront with the UDL process. What is good for a few can be good for all.
However, if you design a learning experience and then realize as you are teaching the lesson that a handful of students need a graphic organizer, leading the class in the completion of a Venn Diagram is a differentiation strategy.
Anyway, let’s look at how the two meet in the middle to maximize what students learn in a lesson.
You can amplify the effects of both by using the UDL process to structure the environment and curriculum at the onset of planning for instruction in conjunction with embedding differentiated instructional practices.
For this article, “curriculum” generally refers to the lessons and academic content taught in your classroom, which is guided by your state standards, and not a packaged Curriculum, such as Bridges (math) or Open Court (reading).
As you develop your understanding of both UDL and DI, you will begin to notice that the packaged Curricula that are strongly research-evidenced have features that are recognizable as applications of both UDL and Differentiated Instruction.
The Universal Design for Learning Framework
If you haven’t already watched my briefing on the origins, basic brain science, and guidelines of UDL, take some time and watch it now. (11-minute video) I am going to begin the deeper dive now, assuming you have the basic understandings I conveyed in my video.
When a teacher presents complex knowledge and skills to the entire class in the same manner for everyone, chances are, a portion of the group already knows it, another part will get it during the lesson, and the remaining portion of the class won’t master it at all. So two out of these three groups of students are essentially experiencing wasted time. This is a HUGE opportunity cost.
Opportunity cost is the “cost” incurred by not enjoying the benefit associated with the other, possibly better, options. For example, if you only use lecture while students take notes and use their notes to complete worksheets for all of your primary instruction, those students experience an opportunity cost from not being exposed to collaborative learning and application projects.
With UDL, you consider the variability of students before you design instruction so that you can minimize the opportunity cost associated with repeating limited instructional practices. UDL gets you out of the box and into a dynamic experience for you and those you teach.
Using the UDL Guidelines
Understanding the basic guidelines of UDL forms the foundation for your implementation of the framework. Take your time and explore them. Internalize the three Principles and what networks of the brain they target first.
Multiple means of Engagement to activate the Affective Networks of the brain to address the “why” of learning
Multiple means of Representation to activate the Recognition Networks of the brain to address the “what” of learning
Multiple means of Action & Expressions to activate the Strategic Networks of the brain to address the “how” of learning
Then, explore the Guidelines associated with each Principle. After you feel comfortable with those, dive deeper into the Checkpoints for each of the guidelines. Each of these Guidelines involves providing options. See the graphic below.
To start, it is important that you understand the flow within the Principles, Guidelines, and Checkpoints. They move in bands from accessing to building, and culminate with internalization wherein the students are purposeful and motivated; resourceful and knowledgeable; and strategic and goal-directed in their learning. Here are the simplified guidelines with notes on how to read the bands. The checkpoints for each guideline have intentionally been removed to focus you on the flow rather than the details. You can explore the checkpoints using a link I provide later.
Once you understand the flow, you can really dive deep into the checkpoints for each of the guidelines to find teacher actions that support and develop your options for strengthening the outcomes for students.
Vygotski, a Russian Psychologist who pioneered the field of sociocultural theory, identified something he referred to as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). He contended that we learn in a social context with the models and through collaboration with other individuals. This helps to maximize learning by directly targeting where the learner is in their current knowledge. It’s the sweet spot of learning with supports in place and comes between what they already know and what they are not yet able to understand or do.
In the ZPD, we apply scaffolding and strategies that move the student forward. Educational (or Instructional) Scaffolding is a teaching method that enables a student to solve a problem, carry out a task, or achieve a goal through a gradual shedding of outside assistance. It is a fancy word for the gradual release of the supports we provide during lessons.
For example, if the assignment is to read a chapter of a science text on biological adaptation in order to write a detailed essay on it’s significant concepts, there are several things a teacher can do to scaffold the assignment:
Break the reading into chunks
Preview the text and discuss major vocabulary with visuals
Support a guided discussion of each of the chunks and ask questions to ensure comprehension
Provide short videos they can watch to deepen their understanding of complex concepts
Differentiation might then go farther for struggling students if the teacher provides the same content in an easier to read text or if they modify the writing assignment or its grading protocol. We can build in scaffolding for all (as UDL might suggest) or scaffold for an individual or small groups outside of the primary instruction as a differentiation strategy.
Differentiation by Content, Process, Product, and Affect
Before we get into a lesson planning process for implementing the UDL framework, I want to clarify how this works with Differentiated Instruction. Remember, UDL is a proactive lesson planning framework that takes place before instruction. Differentiated Instruction is a responsive set of strategies and instructional practices that are added to your lesson plan or applied on the fly as the need for differentiation arises during and after your instruction.
The knowledge and skills students need to master
Loosely aligns with the UDL Guideline: Multiple Means of Representation
The activities the students use to master the content
Loosely aligns with two of the UDL Guidelines: Multiple Means of Representation and Action & Expression
The method students use to demonstrate learning
Loosely aligns with the UDL Guideline: Multiple Means of Action & Expression
The effect of students emotions, feelings, and the environment on their learning
Loosely aligns with the UDL Guideline: Multiple Means of Engagement
In my article next week, I will do a deep dive into differentiation by Content, Process, Product, and Affect. So be sure to subscribe to my blog below so that you can get instant access to the new content without having to search for it!
UDL Lesson Planning
The fantastic thing about adopting the UDL framework for lesson planning is that you likely already do all of the components within standard lesson planning. The difference is simply a paradigm shift in the order and depth to which to take each action. First, consider the general flow of the UDL planning process with this timeline below.
Notice that once you have clearly defined the learning goals and considered the different ways your students learn by keeping in mind their strengths, needs, and barriers to learning, you then decide on the assessments, both formative and summative. You do this before you formalize the methods, materials, and media you will be using.
Think about it: if you know what the learning goals are and you know exactly how you are going to assess their mastery during and after the lesson, your methods for teaching become informed and more elegant in their progression.
1. Define Your Learning Goals
The clearer you define your learning goals, the less ambiguity there is for both you and the learners involved. It is your learning goals that drive the entire lesson and give it purpose. When they are clearly stated, you provide your students with a deeper understanding of what you want them to know and do. This often increases motivation because the learners know exactly where the target is.
Clearly defined learning goals help you as the architect of the lesson, too. Knowing exactly what you require them to know and do, you can select appropriate assessments, methods, and products that demonstrate their progress toward the targeted goals.
This is key: When you are defining your learning goals for a lesson, concentrate on the purpose of the lesson and not the activities you are thinking about including. What you are looking for are the big ideas and enduring understandings you want your students to get out of the lesson.
We will select assessments and methods after we consider the variability of the participants and any possible barriers that might get in the way of their learning.
2. Consider Learner Variability
Simply put, considering learner variability means that you acknowledge that all people are unique in the way that they learn, and you intentionally explore what that means for the learners you are working with while looking for the best ways to tap into the various learning functions of their brains. Actively consider any potential barriers that may be keeping them from maximizing their learning.
The Affective Networks of the brain control and coordinate efforts related to how learners become engaged with what they are learning and how they stay motivated throughout the lessons you teach. What gets them excited and interested in what they are learning? Do they find it challenging and rewarding to do the work?
When you start getting into how we gather facts and categorize all the information we gather through our senses, you are considering the functions of the Recognition Networks of the brain. These networks are key in the comprehension of text and other media. Do the students require scaffolding during reading to access the content associated with your learning goal? Do you need to present the information in more than one way?
When it comes to expressing what they know, it is the Strategic Networks of the brain that help us organize and express our ideas. From solving an algebraic equation to writing an essay, these networks are the powerhouses of problem-solving. Is there more than one way students can demonstrate their knowledge? Can your students use multiple tools to organize their learning?
There are many actions you can take to consider learner variability:
Review existing data on each learner
Give interest inventories and/or discuss learner preferences with them
Reflect on the strengths, needs, and barriers for each learner from prior lessons
Talk to teachers and specialists who have worked with your student(s) in the past
Talk with other teachers and specialists who are working with any of your students now
Consult specialized documents, such as Individualized Learning Programs (IEPs) for students with disabilities; Learning Plans for English Language Learners; and plans developed for students in Gifted/Talented/Accelerated programs
Get to know your students better through meaningful and intentional conversations
Talk to students’ guardians about their child’s past schooling experiences and how they learn at home
3. Select/Design Formative and Summative Assessments
This is likely where the UDL lesson planning process diverges from what you have done in the past. Many teachers design their assessments as they plan their methods or after the majority of the lesson plan is developed.
If your learning goals are written in the SMART format, meaning they are measurable, your assessments answer the question, “How do I measure progress toward mastery of these goals during instruction and the mastery of these goals after instruction is complete?”
Consider this example.
SMART Learning Goal: When given a two-step equation (e.g. 3x + 5 = 23) with whole numbers, the students will solve for the variable using visual or arithmetic strategies (i.e. equation mat with algebra tiles, algebraically with inverse operations).
Examples of Formative Assessments for this goal:
The day before this lesson, have students attempt a problem such as this while showing their work. Let them know that you just want to know what they already know
Provide a warm-up problem that requires them to solve a one-step equation and use their responses to scaffold learning, if needed
Students use individual mini-whiteboards to solve working examples and show their work as you circulate to observe
Students work on an application project collaboratively as you move through the room listening in and spot-checking their work
Examples of Summative Assessments:
Students take a quiz or test focusing on the learning goal
Students complete an application project that requires solving two-step equations with whole numbers
Students demonstrate solving two-step equations with whole numbers in one-on-one sessions while their peers work on an independent task. Allow them to talk aloud as they work so you can assess any errors in understanding or praise their correct thinking
4. Select Methods, Materials, and Media for the Lesson
As you designed and decided upon your assessments, you likely made a note of teaching methods you feel would best get your students to demonstrate mastery through the assessments.
Consider what routines you need to have in place to facilitate task completion and movement in the room as you transition between tasks.
Develop your lesson with a gradual release of responsibility: moving from more teacher-directed tasks toward independently completed tasks. Some refer to this as “I do – We do – You do.” Others call it “Show me – Help me – Let me.” What we are talking about is systematically moving from modeling to guided practice and ultimately to independent (and/or collaborative) practice and application.
Select materials and media by asking yourself, “What resources and materials do my students need in order to achieve the learning goal and complete the tasks?”
Common teaching methods include, but are not limited to:
Direct instruction with lecture and/or discussion
Question & answer (be sure to use Bloom’s Taxonomy to access all levels of thinking!)
Drill & practice
As an example of using UDL Strategies during a lecture with discussion:
If the students had to pre-read content before this lecture, provide them with a list of possible discussion questions ahead of this lesson with time to prepare
Now teach the lesson using Differentiated Instruction, as needed. Then, assess for mastery.
In a UDL lesson, your summative assessment for the lesson could involve student choice. Can they demonstrate mastery in a speech, slide presentation, quiz/test, or video themselves performing a task? The options should directly address the learner variability you noted in step 2 of this process.
6. Reflect on the Lesson
It is imperative you reflect on your lesson. This is not an afterthought that can be disregarded. It is a critical step in the process to ensure continued improvement in your practices and to inform future lessons.
Reflect on the students’ work. Was there a common error that brings to light something you didn’t develop fully with your methods? Are there any students whose lack of mastery indicates the need for future differentiation or scaffolding?
Not only are we talking about you, the teacher, reflecting here. Your students should be reflecting on their performance and learning as well. They will likely need you to teach them how to become self-reflective learners.
A Final Note…
Mastering the UDL process takes practice. Give yourself time to research and look at sample lessons. You can access the core book online for free by clicking here and creating a free account. I have never received spam from doing this, and they will also provide you with a set of links to other free, in-depth resources.
If you have any questions, you can send them to me directly or include them in a comment on this article. Please take the time to subscribe to my weekly articles at the bottom of this page.