Can good citizenship be taught? The ACS Athens Reparation Model

by: Peggy Pelonis, Dean of Student Affairs, ACS Athens
Julia Tokatlidou, Academy Vice Principal, and Director of IB/AP programs, ACS Athens

Ethos Magazine, Winter 2014, Vol. 9, Issue 1

Developing competent, responsible and productive citizens who will positively contribute to the community both socially and economically is no small task for both parents and educators.  The question then to be asked is what factors lead to youth becoming responsible, cooperative, productive, useful  members who contribute to society?  According to Coloroso: “part of raising kids who can think and act ethically involves looking for ways of being in the world that will reduce the harm we do to one another and to our planet.  At the same time, it involves creating homes, schools and communities that will effectively support us in raising our kids”(2005). The fact that “we are currently facing an ethical crisis which is greater in scope and depth than any financial crisis and which has tragic implications for the future of humanity” (Gialamas 2014 Vision presentation) is not to be taken lightly and most importantly the educational systems of the world are being called upon to reconsider and redefine the process by which human beings are molded into becoming ethical, caring, productive members of society.  To this end a Holistic, Meaningful, Harmonious approach (Gialamas, Pelonis 2008) in educating the whole person to the degree possible and available in any given educational system is deemed necessary.  The key ingredients in developing, molding and influencing young people toward being optimal members of society and balanced individuals are relational (Bitter 2009) and collaborative (Gialamas 2014).  Positive, consistent and caring yet firm relationships that provide opportunities for students to take healthy risks, fail and get back on their feet, learn from adversity, experience consequences and take responsibility for their choices are what create environments that allow diverse and effective learning to take place .  It is the child’s experience of being safe within these relationships with parents, teachers, counselors, administrators and adults in general that allow them to be receptive rather than reactive (Seigel 2010).

Caring and positive relationships are not to be confused with allowing children to believe that children are entitled to privileges but rather that these must be earned. They are not meant to protect children from the pain of adversity or the internal conflict of making choices that are good for them rather than choices that always make them feel good.  They are not meant to send adults racing to their rescue at every difficult turn.  They are relationships that teach children the consequences of their actions yet direct them toward finding solutions that will repair the damage done to self, other and the environment.  They are solution oriented and problem solving, innovative ways that can lead to individuals who believe they indeed have a choice and within their corner of the universe can make a difference mainly by the way they choose to live their lives and by how they treat and value the lives of others.  Providing opportunities for such competencies to develop is the responsibility of the adults yet we often become the greatest obstacle to this type of learning because of our love, indifference, lack of understanding, hectic lifestyle, fears, and anxieties for the well being of our children.  These emotions can impulsively send us to battle in their place depriving children of the learning experiences that allow them to find their way when caretakers are not around.  Further, to allow for such learning to take place implies that as adults we accept the notion that our kids, as all human beings, are fallible and will make mistakes.  Accepting the responsibility for these mistakes, finding solutions to repair the damage and moving on provides opportunities for the development of healthy, balanced individuals rather than those who constantly strive toward the illusion of perfection ailed by never ending internal anxiety lest they fall short.

While focusing on the acquisition of basic academic skills in schools is certainly essential, the attainment of knowledge in the traditional sense is a narrow focus at best if we expect children to cope with a fast paced and ever changing, challenging  global world.  The traditional three R’s of education (‘Reading’, ‘Riting’ and ‘Rithmetic’) are no longer sufficient to prepare children to meet the challenges that lie ahead.  Likewise protecting children from the ills of society is not always possible.  On the other hand strengthening their psychological immune system and providing social vaccines is a direction to strive toward.  The questions now being asked are along the lines of: what happens in children’s lives to lead them to success despite adverse life situations? What conditions within the family and the school environment encourage children to flourish even in difficult circumstances or at-risk situations?  We have come to understand that we must add a fourth ‘R’ to the realm of education; Resilience.  Resilience “involves  the acquisition of essential social-emotional competencies that enable one to handle life’s tasks, stressors and difficulties in stride, resilience involves the ability to bounce back from the set-backs or obstacles and continue on in a positive, responsible, productive direction in life” (Nicoll 2011).  Social- emotional intelligence refers to the development of one’s character and this must be part of every school’s curriculum and most importantly it must align with the philosophy of the school.  Dr. John Phillips, founder of Exeter Academy and Phillips Exeter Academy, envisioned a school where ‘above all it is expected that the attention of the instructors to the disposition of the minds and morals of the youth under their charge will exceed every other care; well considering that though goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and that both united form the noblest character and lay the sweet foundation of usefulness to mankind’ (1781).

Research indicates that poorly developed social-emotional competence has been closely connected to greater than before social adjustment problems, school failure and bullying.  Resilient children on the other hand, exhibit social-emotional competencies such as ‘understanding oneself, responsiveness to others, empathy, caring, communication skills, humor, positive social relationships, responsibility, flexibility and adaptability in solving social problems’ (Bernard, 2004). Furthermore, the ability to adapt socially and emotionally long term, develop academically and cognitively and build citizenship skills can be greatly enhanced through exposure to opportunities for developing and strengthening social competencies during childhood. (Nicoll  2011, Bitter, Masanger,  Nicoll,  Nicoll 2009, Nicoll, Pelonis 2014).

Bitter (2009) refers to Bernard (2004) and confirms the following:

  • Resilient children seek love by attracting the attention of available adults;
  • When children receive empathy and caring, they develop a capacity for it;
  • Compassion, altruism and forgiveness are returned to the giver and act as a buffer against difficult times;
  • Insight allows children and families living in great adversity to figure out that not all adults abuse others; that bizarre behavior is not normal;
  • The development of autonomy and self-esteem, when linked to competence in any skill or task, will enhance intrinsic motivation;
  • Refusing to accept negative messages about one’s self, gender, or culture/race serves as a powerful protector of autonomy;
  • Strong positive ethnic/gender identities are associated with high self-esteem, a strong commitment to doing well in school, a strong sense of purpose in life, greater confidence in one’s own efficacy and high academic achievement;
  • An internal locus of control is associated with better health habits and fewer illnesses, and believing that events in one’s life is determined largely by one’s own efforts is associated with self-efficacy and mastery;
  • A sense of humor is one of the most critical adaptive/mature defenses used by resilient individuals across the lifespan;
  • A positive and strong future focus is consistently identified with task success, positive self-identity, and fewer health-risk behaviors;
  • Creativity and imagination are critical to surviving and transcending trauma and risk;
  • Optimism in addressing causes of bad events is related to the generation of hope, and hope is critical to positive outcomes, such as social competence, problem-solving, and self-efficacy;
  • Whether people draw strength from faith or spirituality or meaningful philosophies, stability and coherence are enhanced by having a sense of purpose, self-worth, and center of value;
  • Human organisms and systems seek stability in the face of change, and it is meaning that helps to create stability.

Bitter (2011) also explains that Adler was the first to define the idea of Social interest:

“A community feeling that defined the healthy, functional, and effective personality of being oriented toward the well-being of others”.  Individuals with such social interest experience feelings of belonging to the human community.  They have a place in the world and see themselves as social equals, capable of making contributions to others. Consequently, they have what is now called “high self-esteem”.  Conversely people with diminished social interest do not experience a stable sense of belonging.  They feel inferior to others, and the compensation they demand often is to be treated as if they are special.  Faced with life’s challenges, they retreat or seek special care and treatment.  It is as if they are declaring, “I don’t feel that I belong unless people give in to me, provide me with desired service, or do what I want when I want. I should get to avoid any difficulty I don’t want to face. I don’t feel up to most tasks, nor am I good enough as I am.”

Social interest is essential in developing character and contributing to holistic well being and resilience.

Within schools, research further indicates that piecemeal, fragmented approaches to discipline are ineffective in preventing disciplinary issues and in promoting a positive school climate that enhances academics as well as citizenship development. (Mark T. Greenberg Roger P. Weissberg and Mary Utne O’Brien, Joseph E. Zins, Linda Fredericks, Hank Resnik, Maurice J. Elias, American Psychologist June /July 2003 Vol. 58, No. 6/7, 466–467.  Nowadays school profiles are not identified as noteworthy solely by academic performance but by the social profile of their students as well. Thus, there is an increasing demand for ethical, moral citizenship development exhibited in behavior, thought and interrelation skills. As the effectiveness of creating a positive school climate using traditional approaches to discipline is questioned, alternative approaches have been explored.  There is strong indication that effectiveness is enhanced by a comprehensive / holistic approach, one that takes into account the entire school community. (Mark T. Greenberg Roger P. Weissberg and Mary Utne O’Brien, Joseph E. Zins, Linda Fredericks, Hank Resnik, Maurice J. Elias, American Psychologist June /July 2003 Vol. 58, No. 6/7, 467–472). This idea points in the direction of developing a holistic disciplinary approach closely aligned with the educational philosophy and mission of the school: social responsibility, social interest, ethical decision making, caring, and empathic individuals, tolerant and appreciative of differences within a servant leadership model encouraging a culture where reparation and restoration are central tenants. Read more here

Academy Citizenship Development practices at ACS Athens

A holistic approach to citizenship is closely aligned with the ACS Athens philosophy – Holistic Meaningful Harmonious (HMH) mission (….preparing global citizens) and vision (….architects of their own learning) of the school.  Students can be empowered to be ‘architects of their own learning’ and of their lives in general when the school model of citizenship allows for and encourages accountability, responsibility,social interest, learning in any setting and community culture across all three schools. The citizenship development model stresses the following:

  • The principle of positive action, restoration and reparation regarding behavioral issues and their consequences
  • The premise of shared responsibility in creating caring, ethical, balanced and resilient students
  • The belief that leading by example is essential in maintaining a positive school culture.

Monitoring practices and consistency in the implementation of rules raises student accountability.  Students are encouraged to assume full ownership of their actions and to take positive steps to correct their infractions.  It has become evident that raising student accountability has improved attendance and has stimulated a noticeable effort on the part of the students to improve their behavior.     Implementing positive action and devoting time to repair the effects of inappropriate behavior with the guidance of school personnel is a productive course of action rather than spending time in a detention room. It provides an opportunity for social learning with the guidance of faculty, counselors, administrators and staff. Thus, students are expected to use their lunch time, for example, to assist staff/technicians with their duties, elementary and middle school faculty in the classroom and courtyard or to research, with faculty guidance, topics that are related to their questionable behavior.  This then refers to the idea of reparation (making amends or repairing).  Administrators receive feedback from participating faculty members and evaluative comments for each student’s reparative actions are recorded. This system allows faculty from all three schools to get to know high school students personally thus moving away from rumors or misperceptions. At the same time the approach works as positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior and contributes to student self esteem.

Citizenship development is not the duty of one person nor is it an overnight phenomenon. It is a shared responsibility of administrators, faculty, and counselors, supporting staff, parents and students.  It is a long term investment in the broader wellbeing of students that requires patience, commitment and consistency.  Alignment across the different constituencies   provides the framework of a stable and positive school culture.  Faculty and staff have been very willing participants in the implementation of the ACS Reparations Model. Their welcoming and guiding attitude towards students provide opportunities that allow students to focus on giving back to the community, on looking at the issues at hand from a constructive perspective and on evaluating social learning from experience.  Student testimonials from the reparations activities during the first semester indicate that social understanding was more acute and satisfaction from contributing to the community was enhanced. Students return from reparations with a more positive attitude, a sense of satisfaction and feelings of being useful.  Numerous faculty have highly praised the caring and responsible – student conduct during their reparations service.

Maintaining a continuous flow of communication between the citizenship coordinator, counselors, parents and students improves  student accountability and responsibility, clarifies understanding of expectations, provides opportunities for  more balanced, holistic and student tailored reparations and finally enhances  community awareness of the challenges as well as the progress  in student life.

Students, like faculty and administrators, are expected to serve as models of good citizenship for others. While no one expects all students to be perfect individuals, understanding what it means to do the right thing and practicing the right thing daily is one of the main goals of our school’s educational philosophy.  Good behavior is inspiring, serves as a benchmark of social recognition and is sustainable when it is connected to the individual underlying belief system. Common understanding and belief of what is considered good, acceptable or inappropriate, ethical or dishonest, caring or apathetic is required in order to achieve the school’s mission and develop the ACS Athens graduate profile.  Modeling good citizenship by all ACS Athens constituencies creates and maintains an ethical, balanced, caring, responsible school culture.

All of the above make the necessity of a partnership between the school community, parents and students more essential.  Students will only buy into the culture of an institution; its rules and practices when the adults involved show seriousness and consistency of rule enforcement within a caring, room for growth atmosphere; a place where mistakes are expected and forgiven as long as we find ways to correct, repair, and restore justice, where valuing ourselves and others is a given, where creating a culture of belonging is central and ‘doing the right thing when no one is watching’ is gradually ingrained. Students will rise to the occasion when there is an expectation from adults that they are capable of doing so.  Thus to the question, can good citizenship be taught? We have developed a model that involves the entire school culture.  Its parameters are not carved in stone; rather it is constantly and diligently revised and fine tuned to meet the needs in the best way possible.  Buy-in from students requires buy-in from the adults because there is no doubt that we are all invested in developing optimal citizens of tomorrow. Our society depends on it.

In closing, when Dr. Jonas Salk , thirty-five years after discovering the polio vaccine, was asked what he would be working on today if he was a young scientist, he replied “I’d still do immunization, but I’d do it psychologically rather than biologically”. The road may seem long with twists and turns and full of ups and downs but helping our children develop strong psychological immune systems with social vaccines is well worth the journey.