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Author Interview: 'Teaching Kids to Thrive'

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Debbie Silver and Dedra Stafford agreed to answer a few questions about their new book, Teaching Kids to Thrive: Essential Skills For Success.

Former Louisiana Teacher of the Year, Dr. Debbie Silver, is a humorist, speaker, and a best-selling author.

Dedra Stafford is an educational consultant, trainer, author, former classroom teacher, and past district professional development specialist.

LF: Instead of calling them "non-cognitive skills" or other more common labels, you describe social emotional learning as "Thrive skills." Why?

Debbie Silver & Dedra Stafford:

We think specific terminology is vital to understanding concepts, so we stayed away from terms like "soft skills" and "non-cognitive skills."  The term "soft skills" seems to imply that the dispositions we explore are somehow less rigorous and less valuable than traditional basic academic skills such as reading, writing, and math. Likewise, the term "non-cognitive" is misleading because it implies that self-skills and social-skills do not require higher level brain functioning. To employ empathy and other social-skills a student must be able to assess another person's viewpoint as well as weigh options and make judgements.  These endeavors engage both cerebral and rational thinking. To navigate the complexities of self-skills like perseverance and self-efficacy a student must analyze and consider his performance—a profoundly cognitive activity.

In examining the subset categories listed under the global term of social and emotional learning (SEL) skills we found a lack of consistency among researchers and educators.  We wanted to look at the essential skills it takes for students to thrive in whatever future choices they make.  We chose to investigate competencies identified by experts as identifiable, malleable, and teachable.  We use the term "Thrive skills" to include what we consider to be the most essential self and social habits and skills that can and should be taught in every classroom to help students not just survive, but also thrive.

LF: I have a particular interest in encouraging student agency, and you have a chapter on that topic. Can you share some key points that would be helpful for teachers to keep in mind?

Debbie Silver & Dedra Stafford:

Student agency, a combination of self-efficacy and a growth mindset, is as important (if not more important) than any single factor in the determination of success in school and in life.  As educators, we are aware that many students have severe constraints on their readiness to learn.  Poverty, trauma, learning disabilities, and countless external factors can affect student performance, but teachers can empower students to choose how they will respond to those constraints.  Formative assessment that helps students focus on getting incrementally better has proven to be a powerful tool in getting students to take more risks and persevere longer with a task as does emphasizing the word "yet" when student complain they cannot do something.

When teachers treat mistakes (both the students' and their own) as learning opportunities, they provide students with a safe environment to try new things.  Teachers can reinforce a growth mindset by ensuring that feedback focuses on things a student can control (e.g. choices, efforts, strategies) rather than praising or criticizing innate abilities and talents.  Student agency is enhanced when students learn how to maximize their internal strengths to overcome external challenges.  Our book offers several suggestions for building both self-efficacy and growth mindset with students.

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LF: You describe quite a few "thrive skills." Teachers, however, always have to make decisions about priorities since there's only so much time in a day. Which two or three do you think educators should make a particular point of emphasizing in their planning and teaching?

Debbie Silver & Dedra Stafford:

We were very conscious of teachers' over-packed schedules as we wrote our book.  We purposefully tried to demonstrate how to weave many of the Thrive skills seamlessly into existing curriculum.  Many of our suggestions are related to establishing a classroom culture and utilizing management techniques that reinforce Thrive skills without investing additional instructional time.  However, one skill that may have to be taught and practiced is that of mindfulness.  The research on mindfulness training is so overwhelmingly positive that we dedicated our first chapter to it.  Many of the other Thrive skills flow naturally from students learning to focus and clear their minds.

We are also big believers in teaching every student appropriate grade level information about the physiology of their brains.  Teaching students to understand what is happening inside their heads as well as how they can control their emotions are vital steps to helping them develop self-agency.  In our second chapter, we talk at length about the command and control functions of the brain and give tips as well as specific activities to assist with students who have not yet fully developed their executive functioning skills.

LF: What are a couple of "take-aways" from your book that teachers could do tomorrow in their class?

Debbie Silver & Dedra Stafford:

Probably one of the best "take-aways" for teachers is the simplicity of some of the ideas and activities teachers could do tomorrow to solve existing problems in their classes.  For instance, if there is a present problem with bullying, the book offers several suggestions for explicitly addressing the difficulty.  The "Epiphany in a Paper Bag" activity (p. 185-186) is a simple and effective way to start a conversation about empathy among students.  Additionally, many short YouTube and other resources are offered to promote awareness of areas teachers may wish to highlight with students.  "Teaching Kids to Thrive" offers quick and easy ideas for addressing common social and motivational dilemmas.  Our website presents several printable sheets ready for immediate classroom use.

LF: Is there anything I haven't asked you about that you'd like to share?

Debbie Silver & Dedra Stafford:

One of the things that sets our book apart from other books on social-emotional learning is the concrete applications we offer for teachers at every level.  People have been talking about SEL for quite some time, but few have offered the tips, activities, and resources teachers need to accomplish the goals they have.  Not only is the book grounded in research, it offers loads of examples and ideas.  What makes this book singular in nature is the interactive website that we developed to go with it.  Teachers can find additional help at our website as well as contribute their own ideas and suggestions for other teachers.  Please visit our website.

LF: Thanks, Debbie and Dedra!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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