9 Discussion Questions for Successful Staff Meetings

Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

9 Discussion Questions for Successful Staff MeetingsI didn’t begin my career in education. My first bachelor’s degree was in theater. My dad used to say to me, “What the heck are you going to do with a theater degree?” Well, not a lot. I went into retail and the restaurant business instead. I did move into management in both industries, learning productive management skills along the way. One of the tools I learned during those years was how to ask my staff good questions during routine meetings.

When I moved into education, I brought with me many of the management tools and strategies I acquired in my earlier life. As an administrator, I found that asking good questions in a staff meeting often uncovered issues I was not completely aware of, eventually bringing about changes that were initiated by the staff. Here are nine questions that are useful for igniting conversation, uncovering issues, and stimulating celebrations:

1. What’s working and what’s not working? This question can be used broadly—what’s working or not working in the classroom, the building, or a program. Don’t leave this as a stand alone question—always follow up with question #2.
2. Why is it working or not working? Even when things are working, we should always pause to reflect on why they’re working. Knowing what we are doing right can help us avert future problems and ensure that we continue to do what we know works. Considering why something isn’t working can uncover the need for more resources, training, materials, time, or effort. Just because something isn’t working doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. It could mean that there needs to be refocusing of resources, energy, or people.
3. What accomplishments in student achievement are you most proud of over the past few weeks? This is a great question to get teachers thinking about the effect they have on their students and the school community. Be sure to coach the staff to always be on the lookout for accomplishments, no matter how small. Small accomplishments usually lead to bigger accomplishments. Additionally, hearing how others have been successful with students can give us all an energy boost to say, “I can do that, too.”
4. What have you learned about yourself as a learner this week? To encourage teachers to remain lifelong learners, asking what they have discovered about themselves keeps them thinking. The focus of this question is on learning—not on teaching. Sharing our thoughts and ideas about how we learn can spill over into our instructional practices.
5. Recently, who or what has inspired you to be your best self? We all need inspiration in our careers and life. Asking your staff who or what has inspired them can help others make those inspirational connections. Also note that the question states, “to be your best self.” As famed psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck states in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, a growth mindset means we value our successes when they are making us better rather than as a means to compare ourselves with others.

Note that the five questions above are aimed at the individual rather than the whole organization. I believe when individuals feel valued, listened to, and honored for their accomplishments and their learning, the organization only gets better. The remaining four questions are about the school organization and environment:

6. What are the characteristics of success, and how do you promote them to your students? This question can get teachers thinking about defining success beyond grades. Extrinsic rewards have little to no effect on achievement. In fact, students can view grades as punishment for not doing exactly what the teacher wanted or as reward for not putting forth much effort. By having teachers articulate the characteristics of success, teaching those characteristics to their students can become an intrinsic motivation booster.
7. Who continues to amaze or surprise you with his or her contributions to the school community? It’s a good idea to have staff applaud other staff or community members who have been valuable to the school and its operations. Letting those who do good for the community know their work is seen and appreciated can increase the overall morale of the staff.
8. Why is bonding with other staff members essential to a learning community? This question can help staff consider their individual and group actions as being important to a productive learning environment. I also find that “why” questions require a deeper level of thinking and reflection.
9. In what ways has the school community changed for the better? Or, in what ways can our school community change for the better? Focus your staff discussions on the positive aspects of the environment or on positive ways the community can change for the better. Avoid negatively phrased questions that can turn a staff meeting into a grouse session.

Depending on what you want to accomplish during your meeting, choose the top five questions to build individual growth or the latter four questions to improve group growth and cohesion.

Starting off a staff meeting with any one of these questions can spark interest, build morale, open up lines of communication, and get people thinking deeply. I’d love to hear what questions you have used in staff meetings that have proven valuable to building the learning community.

Richard Cash EdD, FSP AuthorRichard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Advancing DifferentiationDifferentiation for Gifted Learners

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After the Trauma: Treating PTSD in Children

By Barbara Gruener

Part of our Counselor’s Corner series. Click to read other posts in the Counselor’s Corner.

After the Trauma: Treating PTSD in ChildrenLike its name implies, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can result after a person or someone close to that person endures a traumatic event. This can include, but is not limited to, physical abuse, sexual abuse, a violent event like a car crash, the unexpected death of a loved one, or even a natural disaster like a tornado or hurricane.

The numbers cited on the website for the National Center for PTSD (part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) are staggering: “Studies show that about 15% to 43% of girls and 14% to 43% of boys go through at least one trauma. Of those children and teens who have had a trauma, 3% to 15% of girls and 1% to 6% of boys develop PTSD.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD symptoms can be categorized into three experiences: reliving the event, avoiding the event, and hyperarousal sensitivity. Children who cope by reliving the event may have flashbacks, talk about it over and over again, or act it out in their play. Those who cope by avoiding the event choose to stay away from any reminders of what happened, including going anywhere near where it happened. In hyperarousal, victims stay on high alert just in case the event were to happen again because the amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for emotions) senses danger even if it’s not there.

KidsHealth lists the following possible PTSD symptomatic reactions. (Follow the link for more complete descriptions.)

  • Intrusive thoughts or memories of the event, including unwanted memories, flashbacks, and bad dreams.
  • Negative thinking or mood since the event happened, including blaming oneself for what happened; persistent anger, shame, and fear; and persistent worries about the world being unsafe.
  • Persistent feelings of anxiety or physical reactions, including anger and grouchiness, trouble sleeping, difficulty focusing, and constantly being on the lookout for danger.

Consider this fictional encounter with a young female trauma victim: She comes into my office at lunchtime because it’s too noisy in the cafeteria today. She feels uncomfortable in her own skin. It’s intense, and it’s happening again. It’s something I’ve seen before. She’s on hyperalert caused by a traumatic event that she endured months ago during Hurricane Ike, and she’s experiencing severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress. The good news is that she has coping skills that have helped her make her way to my counseling office, her safe space.

A counseling colleague recently explained PTSD using this metaphor: Much like a smoke detector in the house, our brain’s amygdala has an important job—to alert us when there is potential danger. But hold a match up to the smoke detector, and it cannot discern whether it’s just a test or a full-blown fire. So it is with the amygdala. It controls our fight or flight response, but after a trauma, its function as a warning signal is compromised. It finds itself unsure about whether the perceived threat—in the case of my fictional client, the loud cafeteria noises—poses a real danger or not.

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, “early intervention is essential,” and reestablishing a sense of safety in PTSD victims is key. When I work with children who present PTSD symptoms, we work together with the child’s family to find therapeutic resources that best fit who the child is and what they need. Some children are comfortable with and prefer to talk out their feelings. With them, we can use cognitive techniques like role play, thought-switching, and thought-stopping.

Others prefer to draw or color to express their emotions, so we use a more behavioral approach to healing. One activity I’ve used with a student is to list the strategies that she finds helpful on these Calm-Down Sandwiches.

Students with more physicality might benefit most from a kinesthetic approach to recovery; walking, dancing, or playing outdoors will have the greatest medicinal effect for them. Just last week, a fourth-grade boy I’m working with asked to go out into the nature center, where he joyfully chased and tried to catch a lizard during his counseling time.

Still others find that sitting in isolation with soft music and meditation will best comfort and soothe them enough to de-stress, regulate their feelings, and find their calm.

While school counselors are not therapists, we can certainly offer support for the children in our care who are experiencing post-traumatic stress symptoms. At Bales Intermediate, we offer a Sensory Room adjacent to my counseling space for that very reason.

Sensory RoomSoft lighting, music that complements natural biorhythms, and therapeutic tools like stress balls, calm-down jars, scented rice, and a basket of books that normalize feelings are available for students to use as they find their way back to a comfortable place from which we can move them toward productivity in the classroom. Earlier this month, I was pleased to see that Bales Intermediate is not alone in creating a space like this to support students. Check out how this school in Boston uses trauma-informed design to help students recover from traumatic events.

Guided interventions like belly breathing, simple stretches, or yoga poses complement these other techniques because they help children cultivate a physical mindfulness of and connection to their bodies and their surroundings.

Another therapeutic option for children who suffer from PTSD is, of course, pharmaceutical, and a family doctor, pediatrician, psychiatrist, and/or psychologist can help families make that decision.

Whatever the medium to help support recovery, the good news is that children can learn the resilience skills they need to survive PTSD and feel safe in their new normal as they work to be emotionally healthy again.

Barbara GruenerCurrently in her 32nd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book, What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

Suggested Resources
Helping Them Heal: How Teachers Can Support Young Children Who Experience Stress and Trauma
What to Do When You’re Scared & Worried: A Guide for Kids

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2015 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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Enter Our Holiday Manners Giveaway!

Holiday Manners GiveawayThis giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to our winner, Nancy Myers! This holiday season, encourage better behavior around the table with must-have resources on the importance of learning and exercising good manners. One reader will win all of these resources:

To Enter: Leave a comment below telling us how you would use these resources. This giveaway is now closed.

For additional entries, leave a separate comment below for each of the following tasks that you complete:

Each comment counts as a separate entry—that’s four chances to win! Entries must be received by midnight, November 13, 2015.

The winner will be contacted via email on or around November 16, 2015, and will need to respond within 72 hours to claim his or her prize or another winner will be chosen. This giveaway is in no way affiliated with, administered, or endorsed by Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Winner must be a U.S. resident, 18 years of age or older.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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What Children Can Learn from a Cardboard Box

By Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy, coauthors of A Moving Child Is a Learning Child. This post was originally published on the Moving Smart Blog.

What Children Can Learn from a Cardboard BoxLike red rubber balls and teddy bears, skipping rope, sticky fingers, boo-boo kisses, bath time pouts, and nighty-night tuck-ins, I think cardboard boxes are part of the essential kit for little kids.

And the granddaddy of them all are refrigerator boxes.

Guess what arrived at my house the other day? (Hee-hee-hee!)

After spending a day with my grandchildren and a big cardboard box, I got to thinking about why kids love cardboard boxes and why cardboard boxes are great for kids.

Six Learning Dimensions of a Cardboard Box (Refrigerator or Otherwise)

1. Spatial Awareness. Babies do it. Toddlers do it. Preschoolers do it. (And I bet more than once you’ve secretly wanted to do it, too.) The first thing little kids do when confronted with a cardboard box is try to get in it. Cute as this is, there’s actually an important reason why they do this. It’s called spatial awareness.

In the early years, little ones spend a good deal of time getting to know their bodies, and with that comes the necessary question, “How big am I?” But they’re growing, so the answer to that question keeps changing. That’s why kids are constantly testing their size by crawling in, through, around, over, and under things. Cardboard boxes are often the perfect size for this kind of spatial exploration.

2. Comfort and Security. There’s also an emotional component to seeking out small spaces. Right from the start, children are soothed by a sense of being bundled up or embraced in mommy’s arms. This need for “denning” continues throughout childhood (and I would argue throughout life) because in many ways, it’s a subconscious return to the comfort of the womb.

3. Empowerment. Imagine what it’s like to always be the smallest person in a room. Everything is sized for big people. However, in small spaces, kids feel BIG. (Sometimes it’s good to be small.)

Likewise, the lightweight construction of a cardboard box enables young children to move and manipulate an object that is bigger than they are. In other words, cardboard yields to their will.

4. Control. Cardboard boxes make ideal hiding places. And kids love to hide. Now, I haven’t made a scientific study of this, but I believe the hiding game may well be the first experience a child has with knowing something that you don’t know. And I think this is such a powerful idea that, when we grow up, we intuitively get it.

Think about it. The hiding game usually begins with an impish grin as she ducks out of sight. Without even thinking about it, you join the game. “Hmmm. I wonder where Caitlin is? I can’t see her. Is she under the pillow? No. Is she behind the couch? No. Hmmm. Is she on my head? No . . .”

Then comes the big surprise: “Here I am!” And of course, the tone in her voice let’s you know she’s got one up on you. What fun! And what a powerful role reversal that is.

6 Things Children Can Learn from a Cardboard Box5. Asensory Play. I’ve read and written a lot about the importance of providing children with rich sensory experiences each and every day. Yet asensory experiences play an important role in sensory development as well.

For instance, the humble cardboard box is a great example of an asensory environment. The brown color suggests nothing in particular. The smooth sides imply little. The cube structure defines empty space. The subtle smell lacks distraction. The sound of the cardboard folding is muted and music-less. This very lack of sensory inputs (or perhaps, more accurately, the subtle nature of these sensory inputs) is an essential contrast to the more powerful and deliberate stimulation we traditionally think of when we talk about “sensory play.”

This relief from the sensory world may explain, in part, why kids find the confines of a cardboard box so appealing. And of course, its very neutrality is the blank-slate upon which children so easily imprint their imaginations . . .

6. Imagination. Much has been written about imaginative play, but for my money, the minimalist Not a Box by Antoinette Portis says all that needs to be said on the subject.

Introducing a Big Cardboard Box

For the record, turning a box into a plaything is an eco-friendly first lesson in waste-not, want-not, just remember to remove any staples or other sharp objects first. So when you have the opportunity, try encouraging preschoolers to think about the concept of reusing things for other purposes. For instance, you might explain the purpose of packaging—that the box was designed to protect the product so that it wouldn’t get scratched. But that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing you can do with a box. Then wonder aloud, “I wonder what we could do with this big box? What do you think?”

A child’s natural curiosity should take over, but if the size of the thing is a bit overwhelming, you might want to encourage a few ideas to get him started, and before you know it, you won’t be able to get him out of it!

Big Box Ideas?

For this post, we focused on oversized boxes, but any size box can be put to reuse for recycled fun. Visit our Cardboard Box Fun board on Pinterest for more activities and ideas. If you’ve tried a great big cardboard box idea with your kids, I’d love to hear about it! Please post your idea here in the comments section. Thanks so much.

Gill Connell, coauthor of A Moving Child Is a Learning ChildGill Connell is a globally recognized child development authority, specializing in the foundations of learning through movement and play. She provides developmental expertise to parents, preschools, schools, and companies, such as Hasbro, Inc., based on her 30+ years in preschool and primary education. She is the founder of Moving Smart, Ltd., which offers resources, tools, training, and workshops.


Cheryl McCarthy, coauthor of A Moving Child Is a Learning Child Cheryl McCarthy is a former vice president of intellectual property development for Hasbro, Inc. She is a 30-year veteran of the world of children’s play, specializing in young children’s storytelling and entertainment. As executive producer, she managed the creative development of properties such as My Little Pony, Candy Land, Mr. Potato Head, and many other beloved children’s icons. She is currently the creative director at Moving Smart, Ltd.

Free Spirit books by Gill and Cheryl:

A Moving Child Is a Learning ChildMove, Play, and Learn with Smart Steps

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Friday Link Roundup

Free Spirit's Friday Link RoundupThis week’s reading was dominated by the terrible story of a school resource officer who slammed a student to the ground at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina. The incident was caught on video, and the officer was fired. Reactions have been circulating the Internet for days, but this one from José Vilson is among the simplest and most useful: As adults, we can choose to lead with love.

On a more inspiring note, you may have heard that Sesame Street has introduced a new character with autism. But according to Jennie Baird, a writer for the New York Times’s Motherlode blog—and whose 14-year-old son is autistic—there already was one. This would explain a lot.

For students with learning disabilities, assistive technology (AT) can be a key tool in helping them learn. The Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities blog asks, “Has Your Child Had an AT Evaluation?” An AT evaluation can help grown-ups understand how a given student learns best. Check the link to learn more.

“Similar to the way in which cochlear implants can open up the world to those who can’t hear, technology can open up the world to those who have difficulties interacting within it.” That’s Carrie Rogers-Whitehead, senior librarian of teen services at Salt Lake County Library Services in Utah, on the School Library Journal blog talking about an iPad program she started for kids with LD.

But wait. Isn’t too much screen time and technology harmful for young people? Not according to Stephen Pham writing for Education Week: “Technology Isn’t Bad for Students. In Fact, It’s Character Building.”

This sketchnote is from last summer, but it’s been getting renewed attention lately and is worth another look: “15 Things Every Teacher Should Try This Year.” Some of the ideas are really fun (gamify your classroom)!

Teachers, when your well-planned lessons end early or—worse—flop, you need to have some reliable sponge activities on hand. Edutopia provides ten good ones here. (Click “download.”)

“Nice work!” and “Good job!” are nice-sounding words of praise, but they don’t tell a child anything specific about his or her work or motivate students intrinsically. From Starr Sackstein at the Education Week blog, here are “10 Tips for Offering Excellent Feedback.” (Registration required.) NAEYC also offers “10 Good Job Alternatives” for younger learners.

Via Upworthy, here are 15 parenting comics that will make you feel less alone in your pain/joy. Number 15 may ring especially true for some Free Spirit readers. (Some mildly foul [and fowl] language.)

Every day, these bus-riding students in Arlington, Washington, were warmly waved to by an elderly woman as they passed her home. They called her “the grandma in the window,” and when she wasn’t there one day, they worried. Check out what they did in this touching story from the Huffington Post: “Kids Return the Love to ‘Grandma in the Window’ Who Waves to Them Daily.”

And circling back to South Carolina, here’s a story of an adopted girl who celebrated her 8th Gotcha Day (anniversary of her adoption) by adopting a kitten from a rescue center for pets displaced by the recent severe flooding. Be sure to watch the news video for footage of the devastating flood, more info about the displaced pets, and, of course, a cute interview with the girl, Kayla Hodge.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2015 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.



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