Skip to main content

Create learning environments that bring out the "angel in the marble"

Jessica-Russo.jpgOne of the most difficult aspects of working with groups of young people is managing behavior. As adults, when unruliness or its potential ensues, it can be hard not to revert to "adult default," ignoring our desire to incorporate youth voice in order to re-establish a more comfortable level of control.

So how much should effective "behavior management" be about managing behavior, and how much should it be about managing (or really, creating) the environment? To me, the goal of behavior management is not for the adult to control the child -- the goal is for the child to learn a sense of independence and inter-dependence that brings about self-control.

Making a case for the child-centered classroom, Pereira and Smith-Adcock say that "as an individual, the child thrives when encouraged to freely explore and construct personal meaning through making choices for self and experiencing the results of those choices." And in fact, we know from other research that when this need to discover independence is not met, the result is more negative behavior and less motivation.

three-youth-camera.jpgInterestingly, our English word "educate," from its Latin roots, literally means to draw out of, or lead out of. This implies that education is more about bringing out what is already there than filling in what's missing. I like this -- it removes the emphasis on control of the learner and places it on control of the learning environment. Like Michelangelo, who said, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free," our job in educating young people can be simply to carve away the conditions that prevent young people from making use of and refining the capabilities that they already have. Perhaps this view could help make the "dream" of the ideal learning environment a reality.

Here are some steps I have developed for creating an environment that helps youth learn self-discipline:

Create your vision for a healthy learning environment. Based on a report by Milbrey McLaughlin, the most effective learning environments are youth-centered, knowledge-centered assessment-centered, and community-centered. See a previous blog entry on the ideal learning environment for a summary of these points.

Develop a healthy environment to prevent negative behavior. Create a plan for how you will arrange an inviting physical atmosphere. Discuss with youth the collective needs and expectations of the group. Develop predictable but flexible structures, along with a meaningful, logical sequence of lessons. And above all, plan plenty of opportunities for everyone to get to know each other.

Maintain the healthy environment. Maintaining health is about following through on your commitment to it. How you might consistently acknowledge each young person for who they are and encourage and respond to the good that they show? Involve youth in both maintaining expectations and rules, and assessing how plans and structures meet their needs.

Redirect negative actions to help youth see their "inner angels." Sometimes only a strong intervention can turn harmful actions into a teaching moment. And in fact, not doing so can have worse consequences than the action itself. Consider how you will proactively address negative behavior with individual youth, to help them separate their actions from who they are as a person. Also consider how you might proactively address actions that harm the entire program (such as a crisis, or any way in which the group may have exacerbated a situation).

Do you work to create learning environments that bring out the best in youth? What strategies do you find effective?

-- Jessica Russo, assistant Extension professor and director, Urban Youth Development Office

Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Hi Jess,
    In my "free" time I teach an on-line early childhood course on Guidance and Learning. The principles that you talked about that have been successful in your work fall under the umbrella of guidance, as it is called in the ECE field. I think your points about the physical and emotional environment are so key. When we can set up environments for youth to be successful, we have a better chance to see them attain success.
    One of the most important skills for guiding challenging behavior is to model what you want to see. How often have we seen adults meet youth's negative behavior with yelling, sarcasm, or by giving up/ignoring the behavior? What message does this send to youth? I think we have to help youth, especially those who may not get this "practice" at home, see how to best handle challenging conflicts. In doing so, you create an environment of trust and turn conflict into a teachable moment.
    Thanks for getting this conversation going. I'm interested to see what others have found to be good strategies.

  2. Jessica -
    I appreciate how you presented education as being analogous to Michelangelo’s marble sculptures. I am picturing his life-like works of art as I write …
    Also, I am in-step with your focus on the learning environment. I also see a role for relationships. Years ago I read an article that named the pedagogical relationship between a teacher and student as being one of the most important (and influential) factors in a learning environment. I recognize the term “pedagogical” may conjure up all sorts of reactions – but I think the point of the “relationship” is a good one and I think it can be transported to the field of youth work. How a youth worker relates to youth can have a significant impact on learning and development. For instance, does the relationship reflect mutual respect, shared understanding, equity, and the embodiment of youth and adults both being co-learners and co-educators depending on the situation at hand? So in other words, how does a youth worker relate to youth?
    What are your thoughts on the role of relationships in a learning environment?
    Also, have you developed some tools to help youth workers establish these environments?

  3. I couldn't agree more Jessica and how timely! I find it helpful to flip my perspective from viewing behavior management as something wrong with the young people and a control issue, to viewing it more as a lack of engagement and commitment to the activity at hand. That gets me out of a one-on-one power struggle and looking more at how I can more effectively find a way to pique this young person's interest and passion.
    Look for ways to support young people's strengths and interests--the "angel in the marble"--and they will be more engaged and committed and less likely to disrupt or destroy. Thanks Jessica!

  4. Hi, Sam. That's an important point you bring up about modeling. This can be so hard to do in the moment, especially for youth workers new to the field, because it requires being so aware and honest about our own tendencies in reacting to certain circumstances. I have found that I learned the most about modeling as a youth worker by practicing it as a parent! This, to me is where Jennifer's point about relationships is so important, because if we don't have a sense of love about what we are doing with and for our young people (as well as a sense of love for the young people themselves), it is easier to become complacent about what behaviors we are modeling. Do you find this to be true?

  5. Jennifer, I absolutely agree that the relationships we build with young people are the most essential part of building a healthy environment. And I think our "view" of youth determines what our relationships with young people look like. Do we see them as people, with a meaningful contribution to the world? Or are do we view them as incomplete and therefore not a part of the adult world?
    I think that the mutual respect you mention is an important part of how we relate to youth. Having a sense of mutual respect allows both youth and adults to see youth as co-learners and co-educators. Research (on youth engagement, youth-adult partnership, citizenship, for instance) does support the notion that youth co-learning and co-educating with adults is an important way for them to develop their independence as life-long learners and contributors to the world.
    In answer to your last question, I have developed a tool to help youth workers think through a plan for building healthy learning environments that I could share with anyone interested.

  6. Thanks, Beki, for your comments. I think that's the motive behind this blog--to flip people's perspective in a way that helps authentically foster motivation for learning. You brought up some interesting points in a previous blog called “Wake up to the expertise of older youth” (October 26th posting) that there is a “pervasive belief” that older youth are troubled, untrustworthy, delinquent, etc. But more troubling to me is the eerily subversive belief that youth are limited by definition. I think that's why I like so much the image of carving out the angel (rather than making a block into an angel). What does this idea bring to mind for you?

  7. George and Martha MoffettDecember 1, 2011 at 9:28 AM

    We think your piece is spot on, Jessica. Your point about drawing out what's already there is the heart of it, and the Michelangelo quote -- long one of our favorites -- says its best The link between student and teacher, surely, is that we teach what we are. So much worthy of perpetuity stems from this. Thanks for the helpful insights.

  8. Jessica,
    I really appreciated your article and believe crafting a positive learning environment is so very important in the youth work field, but also parenting. I would really like to explore translating these key "behavior management" steps into a parent engagement model that can be shared with families. Sam mentioned ECFE as a great model, but it would be wonderful to incorporate this knowledge/skill as we seek to positively engage parents, especially those who may be in challenging situations or without positive parent role models themselves.
    As a parent of an almost pre-schooler, I have really benefited from this knowledge and it has helped me to continually craft the best learning environment as a foundation for my son to develop independence and mastery. He often corrects me and says" I want to do this all by myself." He is still at an age where he can tell me to back off and I am able to identify, yes, this is essential for his development of independence (and mine too).

  9. Hi, Amie. It is so much easier, isn't it, to recognize those moments in younger children, perhaps for the simple reason that their obvious size difference reminds us that they are in a different realm of development than we are as adults. When children get bigger, we expect more from them but often don't know how much space to provide for our young ones to figure things out for themselves and when we need to come into that space to provide direction.
    The many professional fields that involve youth--education, youth development, and parent education, for instance--can and do inform each other. I agree that "translating" these steps, as you put it, into a parent engagement model could be helpful for parents--I also think that looking at parenting models and research is a good way to inform our work. Have you found helpful parenting resources that you think could inform the youth development field?

  10. I really appreciated your article and believe crafting a positive learning environment is so very important

  11. Very important point mentioned here. I am glad that I landed here as liked reading and knowing the information being shared. Appreciable!


Post a Comment