Civilly Speaking
Civilly Speaking
Dr. Scott Hamilton, Assistant Head of School for Academics

Across the country, children and adolescents are facing an unprecedented challenge to develop skills relating to others with civility and empathy. Two primary factors may be contributing to this difficulty. For one, the rise of communication via social media through smart phones and computers provides fewer opportunities for youth to interact face-to-face. Communicating through text prevents people from hearing tone of voice and viewing facial expressions, both of which are key components of nonverbal communication to interpret emotion and experience empathy. Technology also provides the opportunity to write anonymous, hurtful comments towards others, in the form of texts, discussion comments under news articles, and through social networking. A second negative influence on civil communication is that the news media and public figures have increasingly modeled a style of communication that emphasizes making one's point as loudly as possible, without listening to, or in some cases completely dismissing, another's viewpoint if it happens to be contrary. Impressionable youth are susceptible to adopt such dichotomous thinking about issues and situations, and to emulate the bombastic talking heads they see on television.

On top of these current sociological challenges, Howard School students face an additional hurdle in developing civil communication skills: language learning disabilities and learning differences. Many students with language learning disabilities contend with social pragmatic language, for example, following the verbal and nonverbal rules of conversation, or code switching (i.e., knowing how to speak differently to an adult than to a peer). Students with language learning disabilities also frequently struggle with language fluency, meaning that it is more difficult for them to retrieve the right words for the situation "on demand." Moreover, students with ADHD and other executive functioning difficulties are at risk for difficulties with regulating emotions effectively, blurting out, and inhibiting other impulsive behaviors that can impact civil communication.

In response to the confluence of these issues, Howard School prioritizes several schoolwide initiatives targeting civil communication and empathy. For example, the Lower School makes "kindness cards" when they recognize acts of kindness at school, which are added as "blooms" on the kindness tree in the lower school hallway. Middle School and 8th grade Transition students have weekly Gratitudes at morning meeting, where students acknowledge specific acts of kindness and exemplary use of Habits of Mind by their peers. The High School has a "Project Civility" initiative which addresses expectations for a culture in the high school of politeness, cooperation, and building code switching skills. Less structured times (e.g., break; lunch; passing periods) are a particular focus in the high school. Across the entire school, there are multiple opportunities which reinforce civil communication, cooperation, and empathy, including Betts Pets Club; multiple community volunteer service learning opportunities; high school mini-mester advisory sessions; Field Day; honor council; and specific classroom lessons which integrate cooperation, civility, empathy, and perspective-taking. In addition to work in the classroom, this past summer, the entire faculty read and discussed Dr. Michele Borba's book Unselfie, in which she provides practical strategies for adults to help children to develop empathy.

At Howard School, speech language pathologists, school psychologists, literacy specialists, and principals work with the teachers to set expectations for a kind, cooperative, and empathetic community. Student communication missteps become teachable moments, where faculty directly model and teach, and students practice code-switching and communicating with respect, kindness, and empathy. Having a common framework to have these sorts of conversations, scaffolded to the students' levels of development, provides the consistency needed to build students' social pragmatic skills. The Howard School teaching team welcomes parent input and involvement in our efforts to reinforce civil communication and empathy.

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