Students arrive every day to Dawson and make choices, hundreds of them throughout the day. The good choices are celebrated and the not-so-great choices, ones all students will eventually make, sometimes end up at my door. When I talk with students, I start with questions such as, “Are you okay? Is the other student okay? What happened? What happened before that?” But usually, the most important question that needs to be addressed is, what is going on with this student that is resulting in these choices? What is happening in our Dawson community, or the larger community, that might impact our culture and students’ choices? This can include changes at home, their best friend is sick and they don’t have anyone with whom to play, their sibling left for boarding school, mom left for a business trip, another family member lost their job, the political climate, social media conflicts, or maybe a local or world trauma event. Kids don’t make bad choices for no reason; there’s almost always a catalyst. Part of my job is to find out the ‘why’ of what happened, and coach students to reflect upon the event and move forward with a better understanding of themselves and the impact they caused. I recently read an article illustrating the importance of thinking about the other student’s perspective. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/11/14/teacher-to-parents-about-that-kid-the-one-who-hits-disrupts-and-influences-your-kid/?utm_term=.4557ba22222e
When messages are delivered with regard to student conflict, a family might feel sad, frustrated, angry, or scared. It can be upsetting to not hear what happened to the other child or how the family on the other end responded. However, it’s important to know issues will happen: Kids will disagree and sometimes use their hands instead of their words. But two important aspects of these interactions are how they are handled and what is learned from such situations. For those whom have been an ongoing part of the Dawson community, they already know this procedure and, most importantly, trust this procedure. When students walk through our doors, they know the boundaries. Although some may occasionally push them, this is typical for their development and necessary in order to build resilience, leadership skills, empathy, and space to make their own decisions. When their decisions aren’t the best, students are surrounded by their Dawson family to help them reflect, offer support as they learn to navigate conflicts, and brainstorm choices that can help result in positive outcomes.
When you drop your child off at Dawson, you are expecting them to learn, have fun, and grow both academically and socially. One of our Core Beliefs is, “Dawson graduates are complex problem solvers and collaborators; empathetic, flexible, and innovative; and critical thinkers who develop into resilient lifelong learners and leaders.” Resilience and empathy take practice and sometimes end with many failed attempts at problems, relationships and decisions. We don’t rescue kids here; instead, we surround them with people who are ready to help them reflect, set goals, and practice skills. Families have different parenting styles and kids are each going through things about which we may not be aware. One common thread is how our Mission drives what we all do when we walk on campus: We are a strong community of people who arrive each day ready to learn about and from one another. If and when you receive a phone call from the dean about your child or another student’s behavior, please remember the person on the other line cares about your family and wants your child to succeed, not only here at Dawson, but as a lifelong learner and leader.
Part of preparing students for the future is allowing them the opportunities to interact and collaborate with all different types of students and people. Technology has given us access to working with and learning from people who look different, think different, speak a different language, have opposing values to us, and have different work and communication styles. Exposing students to different ideas and people when they are younger will only prepare them to be more successful throughout life. But this can come at a price: conflict or misunderstanding. Instead of viewing conflict as, “the other child did something wrong”, try to look at it as, “How can I make sure my child has the necessary tools to seek understanding, voice their opinion, stand up for others, laugh at themselves and have an open mindset?” Asking questions about their interactions and group work or friendships can help point out skills that will benefit them as they grow older. What is valued within your friends? Why do you think you and your best friend get along so well? Who did you work with today and what did you learn from them? What did you learn about yourself? With whom do you not prefer to work? Why? The focus of the questions are reflection, not blame. Reflection breeds growth; blaming impedes growth.
Parenting in this age is unbelievably challenging and it sounds ridiculous to hear someone say, “Your child is supposed to mess up or that was a bad choice, but it’s actually developmentally appropriate.” But these K-8 years are the years to push boundaries, find out who they are, learn from others, take risks, make mistakes and fail. If all students left Dawson with no failures or no conflict with other students, then we all have failed.
By Meg Aumann
Dean of Student Life & Diversity
The Alexander Dawson School