Kindergartners Xander Schlechter and Roman Carranza Rendon were bickering over one of them hogging the wooden train tracks Monday during class playtime. Noticing the conflict, Natalie McKaig had Xander, 6, and Roman, 5, explain their feelings and then write each other apology notes.
But Natalie isn’t the kindergarten teacher — she’s a 5-year-old fellow student in Lindsey Kealey’s kindergarten class at Silver Rail Elementary School in Bend. Having “student facilitators” like Natalie help their classmates work through disputes is just one piece of Kealey’s classroom management system.
“It’s amazing how effective peer support is,” Kealey said, observing the three students. “They were able to resolve that, they feel good about it, and that allows me the time to really focus on instruction. I’m not having to stop and put out fires.”
Kealey’s program, PAWsitive Choices — its animal-inspired name comes from the program’s cartoon animal visual aids — centers on having very young students learn social-emotional skills such as self-awareness, self-management and responsible decision making. It also manages classroom behavior and keeps students motivated without using punishments or rewards. The fourth-year teacher came up with the idea for the program while she was earning her masters’ degree from Oregon State University-Cascades in 2015 — her graduate thesis was about how students view themselves as learners.
After two years of Kealey creating and developing the program in her own class, Bend-La Pine Schools officials took notice, and now Kealey is coaching 33 kindergarten and first-grade teachers throughout the district to use the system.
“When you talk about self-awareness and self-management for 5- and 6-year-olds, traditionally … It’s all about compliance about what adults are telling you to do,” said Lora Nordquist, assistant superintendent for Bend-La Pine Schools. “What Lindsey is working on … is allowing students to recognize their own feelings, make choices for themselves and take ownership in that skill development.”
To start the day in Kealey’s class, students pick and draw at least one of six goals for themselves to follow: listening and thinking, following directions, being safe, being persistent, being kind or being responsible. Kealey said students become very accurate in knowing which areas they need to work on.
According to Kealey, when students see themselves in a positive light, they become more successful in school — which is why there are no behavior charts on the walls or anything that publicly shames students. If there’s a conflict, kids fill out problem-solving sheets, sometimes with a fellow student facilitating that process. Afterward, students can write apology letters, practice redoing the negative action in a positive way or say kind words to each other. Kealey noted that some students even forgo recess activities to write apology letters to their friends.
“When we encounter a problem, it’s an opportunity for us to learn from a mistake and to make a plan moving forward,” she said. “I feel like kids have closure, and relationships are constantly being repaired. It builds a great sense of community in the classroom.”
There’s also only one reward students are given in Kealey’s class for succeeding in a task or lesson or being kind: growing their brains.
“You can teach children about their brain and that will motivate them to be successful,” she said. “It kind of goes to show, you don’t need a prize box or treasure chest.”
Students who struggle with trauma also benefit in the system, Kealey said, as those kids can learn how to regulate their own emotions when a triggering event happens, which in turn improves their confidence.
Kids bring these practices home with them, too, Kealey noted, as students are asking their parents for problem-solving meetings with their siblings and being more open about their feelings.
“(Kids) state how they feel; they ask their brother or sister, ‘What were you thinking, because it made me feel this way,’ and they write them a sorry letter,” she said. “Their parents are just like, ‘Wow, this is new.’”
Now the school district is testing Kealey’s system out this year in different classrooms, sometimes with Kealey present to guide other teachers. Nordquist said the goal is to see if Kealey’s strategies can be transfered to other teachers in other schools.
One of these teachers is Kaelynn Adams, who also teaches kindergarten at Silver Rail. She said Kealey’s system is very effective at getting kids to make the right decisions for the right reasons.
“In the past, I’ve used other classroom management programs, … but kids start to do things just to please the teacher, and that’s not how you want people to make choices,” she said. “Now, you say, ‘This is a problem because it’s not kind,’ and then they’re actually finding solutions to their problems.”
Another kindergarten teacher in the pilot program, Michele Vincent at High Lakes Elementary, said although she mostly likes the program, she was concerned about the constant paperwork that it gives the young students.
“We’re sharing with Lindsey that maybe we could come up with a way to keep the reporting a little bit more simple,” she said. “The daily goal sketching and writing, we’re just experimenting with different ways in which we can do that.”
Adams said she hopes all kindergarten and first-grade teachers in Bend-La Pine move to the new system permanently.
“If it was more widespread, we’d have a common language,” she said. “And it’s realistic of the people we want to create, people who can problem solve.”