The Boy No One Could See

By Mary-Dean Barringer, CEO of All Kinds of Minds and co-author of Schools for All Kinds of Minds

When writing Schools for All Kinds of Minds, I had multiple insights I wanted to share.  Many of these insights were supported by social science research.  For example, Malcolm Gladwell and Karl Weick show us how “small wins” can be tipping points for change.  And numerous researchers have documented the value of using neuroscience findings to better understand the many moving parts of learning and better understand students.

But some of the book’s insights were based less on research and more on what we’ve learned from our collective experiences as teachers.  Chapter 4, “Digging Deeper: Knowing Students as Learners,” captures one such insight.

Knowing your Students is Vital

In Chapter 4, we urge educators to become “kid watchers” to find those relevant pieces of data that could be life-changing.  I have heard from so many children that they want a teacher in their life that really knows them.  For me, embracing the All Kinds of Minds approach described in the book is a way to demonstrate that you really know a child.  I’m driven by seeing too many kids disappear from the radar screen of teachers or parents. 

I’ve also seen the power of one “small win” change the course of a child’s life.  This is a story from my own family, one that was running through my head during the book’s creation.

Michael: Under the Radar

Michael is part of the kind of upper middle class family in which we assume the kids will be just fine.  But behind the doors were a relatively absent father and a mother battling her own demons with mental illness. 

He dealt with his family challenges by trying not to draw attention to himself but finding some things that made him feel proud.  Neither a bad nor exceptional student, school provided little guidance.  Michael became a fantastic skateboarder in elementary school and taught himself how to play multiple musical instruments.  By high school, he was pegged as a skateboard slacker, and he increasingly distanced himself from school life.

Moving On … But to What?

By the start of his senior year, Michael had fulfilled all of the graduation requirements and had taken the SAT.  The school granted him permission not to attend school if he enrolled in community college.  Michael moved out of his house and never looked back toward his high school. 

After two years of community college, Michael accompanied one of his friends on a visit to New Mexico State University.  He figured that while he was there, he would talk to someone to find out if he could get in, so he grabbed his SAT report and community college report cards.  

A New Beginning

Upon reviewing the documents Michael had brought, a student advisor asked him, “Did you know you nailed a perfect score on your math SATs?”  He told Michael that he could get scholarships, questioned why he took such low-level math courses at community college, and encouraged him to pursue engineering.

These were new questions and ideas for Michael.  No one had ever explained “placing out” of courses or looked at his SAT scores.  That day, he completed the university placement test well before the allotted time.  

He drove home, packed all his belongings, and cut off 14 inches of hair.  When he stopped by his parents’ house to say goodbye, he responded to their look of shock by declaring, “I’m an engineering student!”  Four weeks later, he had scholarship dollars and was enrolled in advanced math as an engineering student at New Mexico State University.

“Small Wins” in Action

In five minutes’ time, someone noticed a critical detail that not only changed how Michael saw himself, it changed the trajectory of his life.  The student advisor looked beyond the surface at the skateboard slacker, noticed data that revealed mismatches, and saw a boy with extraordinary mathematical talent that had escaped the eyes of many teachers as well as his own parents. 

This story is the inspiration for Chapter 4 and a powerful example of why it is so important to continually watch for the nugget of data that can make all the difference in knowing a child and ensuring they are on the path toward success in school and life.

What happened with Michael came about, in a sense, accidentally – not through the careful observation of a teacher skilled in “kid watching.”  We wrote Chapter 4 to help teachers make such “aha” moments deliberate, and not leave these kinds of life-changing insights to chance.

Tell Us Your Story!

Do you have a story about how “kid watching” really paid off?  How getting to know a student as a learner really made a difference for that student?  What are your strategies for getting to know your students as learners?  Share your experience with us below.

Note from All Kinds of Minds:  Did you hear about our free book giveaway?  Each week that we feature a blog post related to Schools for All Kinds of Minds, we’ll be giving away a free, signed copy of the book!  To be entered to win this week, you must subscribe to our blog and share your thoughts about this blog entry by posting a comment.  We look forward to hearing from you!

Related Links:

Teachers: What’s Your Framework?

By Craig Pohlman, Ph.D., Co-author of Schools for All Kinds of Minds and Director of MindMatters at Southeast Psych, a learning program in Charlotte, NC

In some circles, All Kinds of Minds has become equated with the neurodevelopmental framework it uses, but this framework is only one aspect of their approach to understand learning and learners.  All Kinds of Minds is really about a set of principles for education, such as leveraging strengths and affinities.  So the framework itself is not nearly as important as having a framework.

The Value of a Framework for Understanding Learning

As we note in Schools for All Kinds of Minds, gathering and then making sense of clues about learning is made easier with a framework for sorting and organizing those clues.  In the same way that artists or musicians know their influences, teachers should know what pedagogical theory guides their instruction.  Louis Pasteur once wrote, “In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.” A framework prepares the mind for understanding learners.  A framework is a conceptual structure or mental scaffolding that can be used to organize observations from multiple sources.  It is vital equipment for an educator because it clarifies what to look for and then guides how to interpret what is found.

A framework facilitates communication.  When teachers, students, and parents use similar terms to describe learners, collaboration is made much easier.

Learning plans are more readily handed off to different teachers.  Also, using a common vocabulary helps teachers support each others’ thinking and problem solving.

Our Framework

The neurodevelopmental framework used by All Kinds of Minds is an organizing structure through which all learners can be understood.  Developed with an eye towards linkages with academic skills, such as reading and writing, it is similar to neuropsychological frameworks and draws from disciplines such as speech-language pathology.  Its structure and components are well-supported by the research literature.  Its major aspects, or constructs, are attention, higher order cognition, language, memory, neuromotor function, social cognition, spatial ordering, and temporal-sequential ordering.

Frameworks Can Be Eye-Opening

Using a framework is not confining.  Rather, it is liberating in how it opens one’s eyes to new sources of data and more sophisticated levels of understanding.  Put differently, patterns and themes emerge more easily with a framework.  Also, a conceptual framework can and should be adaptable; it’s not acceptable for one’s framework to remain ossified in the face of new thinking and research.   The All Kinds of Minds framework has certainly evolved over the years.

If you are new to the AKOM approach, take the framework out for a spin.  You’ll probably find it comprehensive, yet user-friendly.  Most importantly, it will prepare your mind.

Craig’s  previous books are Revealing Minds and How Can My Kid Succeed in School?

Note from All Kinds of Minds: Did you hear about our free book giveaway?  Each week that we feature a blog post related to Schools for All Kinds of Minds, we’ll be giving away a free, signed copy of the book!  To be entered to win this week, you must subscribe to our blog and share your thoughts about this blog entry by posting a comment.  We look forward to hearing from you!

Related Links:

>      Schools for All Kinds of MindsRead book excerpts, purchase the book, download book extras, and more!

>      All Kinds of Minds neurodevelopmental framework

Building Schools for All Kinds of Minds

In our recently-published book, Schools for All Kinds of Minds: Boosting Student Success by Embracing Learning Variation, our CEO Mary-Dean Barringer makes the point that Educators, school leaders and policymakers … talk around learning but not about learning,” and she notes that equipping educators with current knowledge from science about how we are wired to learn is essential to the future of education.

But how can educators access this knowledge?  And once they have, how can they translate what they’ve learned into practical solutions in their classrooms, schools, and districts?  Providing answers to these questions is a big part of our work here at All Kinds of Minds.

Schools for All Kinds of Minds

Reading Schools for All Kinds of Minds can be a great first step for educators seeking this expertise.  This book gives school leaders insights, examples, and tools to help them use the All Kinds of Minds approach to transform their classrooms and schools and ultimately help their students learn and thrive.  It highlights schools that have made real progress in building their learning expertise for the benefit of their students and shows educators how taking even small steps can help them meet their long-term goal of ensuring that all students find success.

We invite you to join us on our blog over the next few weeks as the book authors share some ideas and tips from the book as well as personal insights around the book’s content.

Win a Free Book!

But that’s not all.  Each week that we discuss an aspect of Schools for All Kinds of Minds, we’ll be giving away a free, signed copy of the book!

To be eligible to win a book, you must subscribe to our blog and share your thoughts about the blog entry by posting a comment.

Check back next week for the first Schools for All Kinds of Minds-inspired post.  We look forward to sharing elements of the book with you!

To learn more about Schools for All Kinds of Minds or to read excerpts, visit our website.  Here’s a preview of what you’ll find there:

More than ever, America needs the kinds of minds that generate new perspectives, seek solutions, and discover emerging opportunities. Those are the minds of many of the students in your schools today who, at first glance, look a lot like the struggling student I was in school. I invite you to take a second look at the individuals who walk through your school doors. Join us in helping as many kids as possible become more aware of their unique talents and more confident in their learning abilities—and help us rescue the wonderful potential that may otherwise be lost.

— Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko’s
(excerpted from the Schools for All Kinds of Minds Foreword)

 

Have you read the book?

If you’ve already read the book, we’d love to hear what you found compelling, how it’s influenced your thinking, or how it’s changed your practice.  Leave a comment below!

Where are our Learning Experts? (Here’s a clue: They weren’t invited to DC this week)

By Mary-Dean Barringer, CEO, All Kinds of Minds

There’s a critical meeting in Washington, D.C this Friday, September 17th, on the “Future of the Profession: New Learning Ecology for Teachers and Students.” Billed as “a discussion about the emerging realities facing the nation—the funding crisis, the teacher shortage, and new technologies—that will reshape learning environments and expectations for the teaching profession,” it has a stellar panel. Leaders from both teacher unions, the U.S. DOE, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the Center for Teaching Quality, Michael Horn (co-author of Disrupting Class) and two teachers will present on “how school structures can capitalize on the transformative power of technology, the implications for creating a student-centered profession, and the federal and state policies that can support a new learning ecology for students and teachers.”

It’s disappointing that a conversation on a new learning ecology is absent any voice that would describe the new expertise that a profession needs to acquire and deploy if a new learning ecology is to be fully realized. But it isn’t surprising. The first chapter of Schools for All Kinds of Minds describes the challenge inherent in truly understanding learning as the core business of schools. As I state in that book, “Educators, school leaders and policymakers—working on new standards, new schools and new systems—talk around learning but not about learning.” Many people following education trends make the point that equipping the profession with the current knowledge from science about how we are wired to learn is essential to future vision of education.

Important initiatives are underway that can move us closer to a profession well prepared to develop the kinds of minds America needs. The Council for Chief State School Officers has created new teacher standards for licensure and practice that first and foremost address learning and learners. Organizations like the Dana Alliance, Johns Hopkins University, the Mind Brain and Education program at Harvard, and All Kinds of Minds are advancing this knowledge base and bringing it to teachers. All Kinds of Minds will be in DC this week as an audience participant, and we hope others working to bring the science of learning into our classrooms will be there as well.

The sponsoring organization of this event is the Alliance for Education Excellence—a first-rate organization advocating a better education for all students, particularly those in high school. They do a great job informing policymakers about critical and complex issues. And creating a learning profession is one. I invite you to read Chapter 1 of Schools for All Kinds of Minds (you can access it right here for free!). If the ideas resonate with you, write to the Alliance and tell them the next time they want to talk about learning, gather the experts and learning leaders.

To learn more about Schools for All Kinds of Minds or to read more book excerpts, visit our website.

How to guarantee “learning”? Understand the learner AND the content

By Mary-Dean Barringer, CEO, All Kinds of Minds

For several years, many of my colleagues have been urging me to pick a fight with Daniel Willingham, a well respected cognitive scientist: “He doesn’t believe in learning variation!” That may be, but having read his book Why Don’t Students Like School?, I find much in common with his recommendations and nine principles.

All Kinds of Minds doesn’t use a neurodevelopmental framework to assign labels or learning style terminology. Rather, a neurodevelopmental framework is most useful to organize research findings from the brain, mind and learning to contribute to helping teachers know how to best target pedagogical choices and instructional strategies to achieve learning outcomes–for all students.

Willingham’s blog this week in the Washington Post illustrates how he urges educators to engage in a little deeper analysis regarding the choices they have when teaching. There’s no “right” choice all of the time. Ensuring learning requires the ability to quickly diagnose the goodness of fit between teaching strategy, content, and desired instructional outcome.

It’s possible Willingham and I may part ways when we consider the usefulness of adding learner and learning expertise to the diagnostic “habits of minds” today’s teachers need. My own decade-plus of teaching “complex” students was successful only when I married what I knew about content with what I knew about learning and its variations to make effective instructional choices.

That’s the value of the research from the neurosciences and learning. We have more expertise available to help us understand and analyze the neurodevelopmental demands required to be successful at instructional mastery. It helps teachers make an even more specific and targeted instructional decision, increasing the likelihood for success. As Willingham points out, a PowerPoint can be the most effective choice for demonstrating quadratic equations, and I argue even more effective when modified to fit the understanding a teacher has of the attention, temporal-sequential, and memory strengths and weaknesses of a particular group of students.

That’s my opinion, and I’d like to hear yours. I’m sure Daniel Willingham would as well. So respond to both of our blogs today and continue this important professional conversation.

Origami and Temporal-Sequential Ordering … An All Kinds of Minds Lesson Plan

It’s the time of year when lesson planning is, once again, on every teacher’s mind. And we at All Kinds of Minds are thinking about lesson plans, too – that is, “Learning about Learning” lesson plans!

We believe that it is critical to empower students to find success. Educators can promote and support this goal in many ways. One way is to help students understand the different components of learning, gain insight into their strengths and weaknesses, and employ targeted strategies to achieve success.

With this in mind, we wanted to share a sample “Learning about Learning” lesson for you to try in your classroom. The objective of this lesson is for students to develop an awareness of temporal-sequential ordering and the importance of following directions in the right order.

“Temporal-sequential ordering” refers to the process of organizing information by putting things in order and understanding time. It includes:

  • Understanding order of steps, events, or other sequences
  • Generating products arranged in a meaningful order
  • Organizing time and schedules

LESSON PLAN: Ordering with Origami*

*Adapted from a lesson plan submitted by several teachers at Nolan Catholic High School in Fort Worth, TX.

Grade Levels: This lesson can be taught in an elementary, middle, or high school setting, with the complexity of the origami figure based on the grade level.

Objective: Students will develop an awareness of temporal-sequential ordering and the importance of following directions in the right order.

Estimated time: 20-30 minutes, depending on complexity of origami figure and depth of debrief

Preparation:

Materials: Paper square for each student

Lesson Procedure:

  1. Tell students that they will be creating an origami figure. Do not reveal what the final product will be.
  2. Tell students that this activity is designed to help them explore an aspect of how they learn.
  3. Convey the steps in one of the following ways: (1) Distribute handouts with the steps listed (either through pictures/diagrams or words), (2) Write the steps on a white board as you proceed through the figure, or (3) Demonstrate the steps while reading them.

Debrief (use all prompts or just a few):

  1. Discuss the mode in which directions were given. Ask students whether they think another mode would have been more effective for them, which mode, and why.
  2. Ask students whether they would have preferred to know what the final product was going to be before they began. If so, how would that have helped them achieve the result?
  3. Briefly explain temporal-sequential ordering. Points you may want to cover include how sequences and memory or sequences and language work together, how time is a sequence, how getting organized with time often involves organizing sequences, etc. Discuss the importance of sequencing and what can occur if the correct order is not followed.
  4. Ask students to brainstorm areas in which sequencing is important (e.g., understanding how time works, order of events in history or in a story, cause-effect relationships in science, problem-solving in math, etc.).
  5. As a class (or in pairs or small groups), ask students to come up with a few strategies they can try if they have difficulty with sequencing. See below for some suggested strategies to get your students started!

Feel free to adapt this lesson – play with it!

Sequencing strategies:

For students:

  • Break sequences into small chunks.
  • Repeat a sequence quietly to oneself (subvocalization).

For teachers:

  • Regularly repeat, review, and summarize key points of the sequence. Students will benefit from paraphrasing directions in their own words. Have students discuss whether they agree or disagree with each other’s summaries of the directions.
  • Provide checklists for sequential procedures, temporal order, and scheduling. Encourage students to refer to them often. Students may benefit from recording how well they use each step in the process.
  • Provide concrete visual representations of sequential information that is delivered verbally. Represent multistep or complex sequences by drawing diagrams and flowcharts, and writing timelines on the board. Give handouts to refer to during class instruction and discussion.

What activities have you used to help your students understand sequencing? How might you adapt this leson? Do you have any great strategies for helping students improve their abilities in sequencing? Share your ideas with us by leaving a comment below!

For more information about temporal-sequential ordering, see:

Facebook Back-to-School Question of the Week #2

To help get you in the back-to-school spirit – and maybe pick up some great ideas along the way – we recently started a Back-to-School Question of the Week series on Facebook.  This is an opportunity for you to share your thoughts with your virtual colleagues around some key back-to-school questions. We wanted to share some of these responses with our blog readers. 

Check back each week for highlights of the past week’s question and responses.  We hope you’ll join in the conversation by either adding your ideas to our blog or our Facebook page.

Last week’s question: What do you do in the beginning of the school year to create your classroom culture?

Responses:

  • “Create a parent letter to elicit important information about the child. Have children create goals and dreams, then classroom rules that will allow the students to achieve the goals. Create curriculum that is inquiry based. Make sure that there is academic choice for all activities. Morning Meetings a la Responsive Classroom, to include authentic curriculum.”
  • “I created a ‘Do I Know You Well Enough To Teach You’ questionnaire that ask silly, but revealing questions. We talk about what it means to be a Hamptonian” which is what all of my students are called since I am Mrs. (Momma) Hampton. I take pictures of my students when they are reading on the floor, working in writing groups, sitting at their desks, etc. and those pics are displayed on our classroom bulletin board to emphasize the idea that this is our” room, our community. I absolutely ♥ the first week of school and the weeks following.
  • “I adapted the compass points activity from the [All Kinds of Minds] Schools Attuned course… The H.S. students respond well and it starts them thinking and talking about what their learning profile is and what they need to be successful.”  NOTE FROM ALL KINDS OF MINDS: In this activity, participants are asked to identify themselves as North (structure), South (meaning), East (action) and West (caring) and, in small groups, to consider their own learning/working needs as well as the needs of those identifying with other “directions.” A brief discussion follows. This activity results in a set of ground rules for the group.
  • “Aware that she was facing a difficult class, one teacher I know wrote one thing on the whiteboard on the first day: ‘We are all new.’ (and then went into Responsive Classroom mode to get the kids to elaborate on what they thought that meant and what it would mean for them as they participated in creating a learning community in their class.” 

To read more, visit our Facebook page and look for our August 19th entry.  Keep in mind that you don’t have to be a member to view the page!  Or, if you’ve got an idea to share, leave a comment below. 

Pursuing Passionate Interests Can “Spark” Success for Students

Search Institute recently released Teen Voice 2010, a national survey of 1,860 15-year-olds and in-depth interviews with 30 teens, sponsored by the Best Buy Children’s Foundation.  This report caught our attention because it highlights the positive effect of “sparks” – similar to what we at All Kinds of Minds call “affinities” – on teens’ well-being and success in school and beyond.  All Kinds of Minds has been talking about affinities for many years, but this study has done a great job exploring and articulating the value of kids’ pursuit of sparks, or passionate interests. 

The report focuses on three key strengths that influence successful teen development:

  • Sparks
  • Voice (confidence, skills, and opportunities to influence)
  • Relationships

Researchers described “sparks” to survey respondents as “interests or talents you have that you are really passionate about. When you are involved with those sparks, you have joy and energy. You are not bored, and you might lose track of time because you are so involved in what you are doing. A spark is a really important part of your life that gives you a sense of purpose or focus.”

The report explores the teens’ experiences with sparks and the people and places that help sparks grow. In this year’s study – the second of its kind – creative arts, sports, and technology topped the list of sparks.

According to the study, the power of sparks comes when three key elements (comprising the “Sparks Index”) are present:

  • You know your spark(s)
  • Your spark is important (evidenced by what you experience when doing your spark and by the amount of time you spend on it)
  • You take initiative to develop your spark(s)

While 80% of the teens in the survey indicated that they have at least one spark, only about half of them exhibited all three of these key elements. 

We know what you’re thinking: Of course it’s important for kids to identify and develop passionate interests!  But here are some key takeaways that really drive this point home:

  • Teens who exhibit strengths in sparks, voice, and relationships do the best of all on every academic, psychological, social-emotional, and behavioral outcome they studied.
  • Teens who score high on all three elements of the “Sparks Index” are more likely than their peers to work to master what they study, work up to their ability in school, and report having a high GPA.
  • 71% of respondents said pursuing their sparks has helped them to learn new things outside of school, and over half of respondents said that pursuing their sparks had given them new skills that would help them in a career. Thus, schools’ efforts to help students identify and pursue their affinities may be key strategies for boosting achievement as well as college and career readiness.
  • 76% of respondents who have a spark said that other people have “often” encouraged or supported them with their sparks, but only 32% of 15-year-olds “often” get encouragement and support to pursue their sparks from teachers.

Just think about the power teachers have to encourage their students’ pursuit of sparks!  All Kinds of Minds has long encouraged educators to leverage students’ affinities as well as their strengths.  In our recently published book, Schools for All Kinds of Minds, the authors note, “Affinities provide educators with a vehicle for personalizing a student’s educational experience and increasing motivation to engage in learning. Educators throughout the school have the privilege of not only helping students to identify areas of passion but also helping nurture those passions” (page 99).

The possibilities for helping students explore their affinities in the classroom are endless – having students research and give presentations related to their affinities, having students create a blog to write about their affinities, and encouraging students to connect their affinities to broader topics, to name just a few.  To learn more about how schools and parents can nurture children’s strengths and affinities, take a look at this article.

How have you used student affinities to make learning more relevant?  How have your students benefitted?  Share your ideas below, and check out the Teen Voice 2010 report and video!

Facebook Back-to-School Question of the Week

To help get you in the back-to-school spirit – and maybe pick up some great ideas along the way – we recently started a Back-to-School Question of the Week series on Facebook.  This is an opportunity for you to share your thoughts with your virtual colleagues around some key back-to-school questions. 

Our first question of the series, “How do you get to know your new students’ strengths, weaknesses, and affinities?” sparked a lively exchange of great ideas, and we wanted to share some of these responses with you, our blog readers. 

Check back each week for highlights of the past week’s question and responses.  We hope you’ll join in the conversation by either adding your ideas to our blog or our Facebook page.

Last week’s question: How do you get to know your new students’ strengths, weaknesses, and affinities?

Responses:

“Wondering as a parent if I should write up things about my son, that I want his middle school teachers to know about him? Is helpful or just another thing for the teachers with already too much to do?”

“It’s very helpful if you provide that kind of information; I teach middle school and send a survey/questionnaire to parents so I get to know the students better; parents’ input and information is invaluable when it comes to teaching in the classroom!”

“Affinity surveys for our middle schoolers to fill out are a good way to get to know our students. There are many on the web, but can be tailored to fit the needs of individual teachers. Not only obvious questions like those about strengths, needs, affinities, but ones like where in the room do you like to sit? where do you learn best? what kind of learner are you (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc)? Answers to these questions can really tell a teacher volumes about their new students.”

“Let teachers know your child’s learning style. Do they learn through observing, reading, hands on, hearing. Do they need to sit where there are less distractions? Let them know if your child is sensitive to lights, loud noise, smells. If your child has an IEP. Be sure to let them know the best way for you to communicate with them, through notes home, phone calls, email.”

I’m a 1st grade teacher and I have my children bring in treasure bags” filled with 3 items that tell me something about them. I have each child sit next to me as I open their treasure bag and have them share with me and their classmates why they brought each item. I then take a picture of each child with his or her treasures and use them for our September scrapbook.” 

“I teach grade six and I have students fill out a sheet all about me” (this sheet has information on their likes and dislikes as well as information regarding their learning styles from previous multiple intelligence activity). Then … they each have a day designated to them where they bring in various items that help us get to know them and they decorate a small bulletin board in the classroom with these items and their sheet. They present themselves to the class and the bulletin board stays up for a set amount of time …”

“As a parent of two identified children in our system in Ontario I have found writing a letter from the student’s voice to be helpful in letting the teachers know both special interests, fears, areas of strength and weakness. I keep it brief… and I involve my kids because it is their letter to their teacher and their voice is integral to both informing and promoting self-advocacy …”

“One thing I did was ask students, using whatever production style they could best use, (write, draw, tell, perform) their ideal week in school. It gave me a great sense of what they felt they would excel at, their interests and I could infer a great deal of where they might be challenged.”

To read more, visit our Facebook page and look for our August 12th entry.  Keep in mind that you don’t have to be a member to view the page!  Or, if you’ve got an idea to share, leave a comment below.

Summer Blog Series Post #8: The Role of Social Cognition in Talking to Different Audiences

By the time children and adolescents arrive at school, chances are that they’ve already interacted socially with a number of different people: their parents/caregivers, siblings, friends, school acquaintances, and bus driver, to name a few.  And once they’re in school, they assume the role of student. As students, they also interact with teachers, administrators, and other support staff around the school. When interacting with all these different individuals, students need to consider the audience, or person with whom they are interacting, in order to communicate effectively and “fit in” socially.

Neurodevelopmental factors:

Students who are able to adjust their language in response to their current audience practice one of the most sophisticated aspects of social cognition: code switching. We don’t use the same language or speak in a similar manner with our parent(s) or caregiver(s) as we do with our friends; and we speak in a different voice when we are interacting with someone in authority (e.g., teacher, principal, or policemen). To effectively engage in code switching, students must devote attention to the understanding and use of language (i.e., code), as well as to the appropriate use of the language code of the particular audience. The ability to identify the audience and respond with the most appropriate code is a skill that we utilize throughout our lives.

Here are some possible signs that a student is succeeding with code switching:

The student …

  • modifies language for the audience, time, and place (e.g., chooses different words when speaking with her teacher than when talking with her friends at lunch about a favorite movie)
  • uses colloquialisms around friends
  • speaks respectfully to authority figures

Here are some possible signs that a student is struggling with code switching:

The student …

  • is teased for using “big words” or sounding too formal when interacting with other kids on the playground
  • gets into trouble for sounding disrespectful when speaking to others (e.g., uses slang when talking to the principal)
  • uses inappropriate language in front of adults or during class discussions

Strategies to help students struggling with code switching:

  • Guide students in identifying the conversational styles expected from different audiences (friends, teacher, parents, etc.). For example, have students complete a chart, writing down the language that they can and cannot use with different groups.
  • Students may need to improve their ability to modify both the content and the delivery of their interactions – both what they say and how they say it. Use role-play situations to help students develop these skills and structured opportunities for them to practice with school personnel. 
  • Students may benefit from examining the consequences of failing to switch conversation codes. Activities where students can play with language might include role-play activities and writing plays or short stories.
  • Students may need to develop an understanding of the language of their peer group to interact more effectively with their classmates. Setting up social skills training groups in your classroom may give students a chance to learn and field-test new skills and behaviors that contribute to social competence.  In order to maximize the likelihood that newly acquired knowledge and skills will transfer to other settings, talk with students about the need to accept others as well as how to develop adaptive coping strategies for unsuccessful attempts at social interaction.

We’d love to hear what strategies or activities you’ve used to help students who are struggling with code switching.  Leave a comment below with your ideas!

This is the last post in our blog series, Understanding Common Learning Challenges.  But not to worry — we’ve got some great ideas for the upcoming months and we’ll be continuing to post new entries regularly!

Related links:

Learn more about our summer series  

  1. More information and strategies about using the appropriate language for a given group
  2. Related research on social cognition
  3. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association article on Social Language Use