Monthly Archives: April 2016

How to success just at home

All parents love their children. At this times, grow frustrated with them, especially when those children are young-and still-developing their self control skills.

But for low-income families, the strain of limited resources and a lack of security can push emotions so much higher when a child refuses to eat his dinner or makes it difficult to leave the house on time.

A new social-emotional learning (SEL) intervention from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Stephanie Jones and her research team offers a promising source of support for low-income families. With the tools Jones and her team have developed, parents can learn to manage frustration and use simple moments with their children to bolster their relationships and build important executive function skills — for themselves and their children. Even under the weight of poverty, those interactions can begin to replace intergenerational stress with happiness and stability.


For many adults, lasting poverty and adversity can tax executive function (EF) skills, such as self-control, planning and prioritizing, and focus, leading to heightened stress, impulsivity, and negativity. For adults with children, this challenge can be especially precarious. Over time, as Jones and researchers Rebecca Bailey and Ann Partee explain in an upcoming article in the Aspen Journal of Ideas, stressful encounters such as yelling and persistent negativity can undermine the relationships that buffer children from chronic stress. Parents may lose confidence in their ability to respond to tough parenting situations and manage children’s behaviors. Children, in turn, may learn to act with impulsivity, aggression, or withdrawal. In such a cycle, neither parent nor child is drawing on or building the essential skills of emotion regulation, reflection, and problem-solving.


While many schools are now emphasizing SEL, much of the work to build self-regulation skills starts at home — and few programs have existed to support home- and school-based learning in alignment. Jones and her research team, using the SEL curriculum they’d already developed for schools, have now created just that kind of aligned intervention, called SECURe Families — a set of workshops for parents that mirror the strategies children are learning in schools.

The workshops, piloted in 2014–2015, give parents a concrete set of tools and activities designed to help manage stress and frustration and improve relationships.


One such tool, co-developed by Rebecca Bailey, Gretchen Brion-Meisels, and Jones: A set of simple strategies parents of young children can use to build self-regulation skills at home — for themselves and for their children.  

  1. Stop and think. Instead of yelling “no!” when your child is growing upset, overexcited, or disruptive, ask him to “stop and think”: pause, take a break, and reflect for a moment before acting.
    Game tip: “Simon Says” can help children remember to think before acting.
  2. Focus, pay attention, and listen. When your child is talking to another person, remind her to stop what she’s doing, look at who is talking, and “hold on to” her ideas rather than interrupting.
    Game tip: “I Spy” and “Name that Sound” can help children practice looking and listening carefully.
  3. Remember directions and follow through with daily tasks. For multistep chores such as setting the table or getting ready for school in the morning, post a list of steps in that area or make up a song to help your child remember what he has to do.
    Game tip: “Going on a Bear Hunt” and “Going to Grandma’s House” can help children practice keeping track of and updating lists of items.
  4. Plan and set goals. When making plans, talk through them with your child. For example, if she wants to have a birthday party, write out list of steps (sending out invitations, buying decorations, making a cake, etc.) you both have to accomplish before the big day. Set a timeline and cross off tasks together as you both complete them.
  5. Practice being patient. Explain to your child what you do when you have to wait for something. Try out different strategies for the two of you when waiting at the doctor’s office or in line at the grocery store, such as counting all the red things you see or singing a song.

Closing the Gap

Thanks to the particular choice of a particular 17 year old . A lot of the world is talking about gap years.

But as Malia Obama’s decision to defer her Harvard admission shows, the conversations can carry some very privileged associations — seemingly distant from the post-secondary options available to many less-advantaged or nontraditional students and families.

So are gap years just another enrichment lever that only highly advantaged students can pull? Or is there a way to make gap year opportunities broadly accessible, without making college less attainable for the kids already at risk of not getting there?

An Equitable Gap Year
• Tied to college, conceived as a bridge year
• Highly structured
• Debt-free, financially sustainable
• A guided transition from high school, supported by school counselors
• A guided transition to college, with acclimation support from campus counselors
• Connected to service and career pathways

Richard Weissbourd, a developmental psychologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), believes in the benefits of taking a year between high school and college — to explore work and service opportunities, to grow, to gain perspective — for many students. “There’s a conundrum here, in the sense that a gap year really works well for a lot of young people — those who want to explore service opportunities, travel, or work, but also for those who really need to decelerate, who need to think about their purpose, who may be very stressed, with some mental-health concerns.” For those young people, the merits of a year to refocus on their own sense of self while engaging in service to a broader community are persuasive, says Weissbourd, who is leading an initiative calling for broad reforms to the college admissions process.

But for economically disadvantaged kids, there’s a risk of falling off the college track altogether. “Many less-advantaged kids can’t afford a gap year or are tenuously connected to college as it is,” Weissbourd says. “School counselors are working to move those kids toward college, not away from it. You worry that if kids go to work for a year or step off the path in some way, they’re not going to come back.”

As gap years become more popular, says Mandy Savitz-Romer, the phenomenon has the potential “to give advantaged students even more advantages. The worry is that gap years become one more thing for less-advantaged students not to know about, and not to have.” The lack of parity could mean more than missed opportunities, says Savitz-Romer, who directs HGSE’s master’s program in Prevention Science and Practice and works on research and policy related to college access. It could make college admissions an even tougher hill to climb, as less-privileged students compete with gap-yeared peers who can demonstrate a range of skills and experience.


One way to broaden the gap year opportunity is to tie it explicitly to college. “To work well for less-advantaged students, gap year programs have to be structured, with the expectation of postsecondary planning baked in,” Savitz-Romer says. “When the gap year occurs outside of an educational setting or another structured setting, now students lack the access to counseling and supports. They’re not attached to a college, but they’re no longer attached to their high school supports. So there are risks.”

Benefits of a Gap Year — for All Students
• Developing one’s identity and self-knowledge
• Developing maturity and judgment
• Promoting civic engagement and service
• Exploring and preparing for diverse career pathways
• Deceleration for fast-track students
• Health and wellness
• Support through the college acclimation process
• Preparation for academic, cultural, social realities of college
• Positive impact on college persistence for students at risk.

But the solution is to mitigate those risks, she says — “not to say that certain kinds of students can’t or shouldn’t do this.”

Colleges have a role to play in finding those solutions, Weissbourd says. “For many economically disadvantaged students, you could imagine a gap year as being a bridge year, where they’re doing some academic or service work and they’re also getting some preparation for college, so that when they actually get there, they’re more likely to stay,” Weissbourd says.

He cites a program at Florida State University, where all students who apply for deferment are automatically considered for financial assistance to support their gap year — rare for a public university. The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill runs its own service-oriented gap program, offered with financial assistance to a small number of its incoming students who wouldn’t otherwise be able fund such a year. And Princetonoffers a tuition-free year for select incoming freshmen who want to do a service year abroad. (Harvard is among many top-tier institutions that encourage students to defer admission but don’t offer or fund gap programming.)


Employers could also play a key role, says Savitz-Romer. “For many low-income students, exposure to a variety of career pathways and options is limited. So you could imagine a system where companies or industries would pay into a gap year program, developing structured experiences that would help them build a pipeline to future employees — and that would connect students to careers, or even expose them to a range of careers within one industry,” she says.

In this model, the work experience would be explicitly tied to college-going — framed as a temporary opportunity leading to matriculation.


This post is republished from Into Practice. Into Practice shares evidence. Based teaching advice and pedagogical practices of faculty from across Harvard.

“By sharing perspectives and differing approaches, classmates can in some cases teach their students more effectively than the professor,” says Lani Guinier, describing the teaching practices she employs at Harvard Law School — practices that could be instituted in almost any educational setting. Guinier incorporates collaboration into her late-semester assignments to provide opportunities for self-improvement and self-reflection.

The benefits: Whether encouraging lecture course students to take their final exam in small groups or asking seminar students to prepare and lead portions of late semester discussions, Guinier believes collaborative endeavors show students that understanding how to get the answer is as important as getting the answer.

The challenges: Guinier says that because merit is malleable, it is difficult to construct assignments that truly measure learning. The efficiency and quantifiable criteria of traditional tests are appealing, but do not wholly capture ability.

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Collaboration combats competition. Guinier finds that students gain confidence working together, “and they don’t worry that others know the answers that they don’t. It creates a climate in the classroom I find very effective and engaging.”
  • Diverse perspectives yield stronger work. When collaborating with others, students have to explain their perspective and opinions, which ultimately produces a stronger outcome. “People look at problems from very different perspectives, and it’s helpful to have to deal with those alternative interpretations.”
  • Student-led learning is lifelong learning. Guinier first employed a group learning practice at the University of Pennsylvania where students helped to develop a seminar curriculum. She has continued the practice because it more accurately reflects the environment students will find upon graduation: “Your colleagues will give you feedback that can refine and expand your thinking. No matter how ‘smart’ you are, you alone may not know what your client needs.”


When the time to renovate an old school or build a new one, many teachers have a simple wish list.

They just want buildings that work. They’re thinking about windows that are operable, good air handling systems, enough classrooms to fit everyone in — the building blocks of a basic, functional school.

But learning has changed, says Stephen, and it’s time for educators to seize the chance “to think beyond the traditional school blocks that they’re accustomed to.” So how can educators help design 21st-century learning spaces?

Usable Knowledge asked Stephen to share some advice. We also asked Daniel Wilson, the educational chair at Harvard’s Learning Environments for Tomorrow Institute, and Grace O’Shea, an eighth-grade teacher in New York City and a member of room2learnat the Harvard Innovation Lab, to share their thoughts.


Changes in technology and in teaching methods are making it possible to think of school buildings in far more dynamic terms, says Stephen. Schools no longer have to be “collections of classrooms, administrative spaces, and a gym, auditorium, and cafeteria. They can be high-performance work environments that promote the 21st-century soft skills of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication.

“Schools are becoming interconnected ecosystems — less compartmentalized and departmentalized. Classrooms and the spaces between them, as well as shared amenities such as the cafeterias and media labs, are becoming more flexible and agile.”

What does this look like in practice? A focus on project-based learning might mean that workspaces are more flexible — desks can move and stack easily against the walls or connect to form large, flat working surfaces. An emphasis on high-quality learning might mean that classrooms are more physically transparent, so that passersby can see students working in a robotics lab or an art studio. A fully wired school might mean that learning can take place anywhere, so hallways become extended-learning areas.


But an architect designing a new school can’t construct these changes on his own. To work in a space that supports their goals and sense of innovation, educators need to be prepared to describe precisely what kind of learning environment they want to create. Wilson, the Director of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, thinks the conversation between educators and architects should cover four broad points:

  1. Visions and goals. Educators should be ready to share a broad vision of the school’s mission and what teachers are trying to achieve, such as “We want students to be global citizens” or “We want students to be collaborators and creators.”
  2. Illustrations of those goals. Once educators have articulated their general goals, they need to share examples of what success might look like in daily practice. If a principal wants students actively engaged in current events, then the school might need gathering spaces where students can watch and discuss the news during free periods. If teachers want students regularly working in groups, then classrooms might need easily maneuverable desks.
  3. Current obstacles. Educators can use this chance to consider some of the biggest challenges they face in their current setting. Are they lacking storage for project materials? Are they missing common spaces for bringing together multiple classes of students?
  4. Supporting teacher learning. A new school is an opportunity for teachers to consider the ways they learn and grow at work. They should think about how they collaborate best with colleagues or generate lesson plans, and recognize that a new building is a chance to help them on their path of professional development.