Benefits of the School Family at Any Age: An Interview with Diane Phelan 

Conscious Discipline is most often practiced in early education and elementary settings. Resources such as the Feeling Buddies Self-Regulation Toolkit and Baby Doll Circle Time, and the implementation of practices such as I Love You Rituals create a solid foundation for optimal brain development, mental health, resilience, and social-emotional development in the earliest years. But the benefits of Conscious Discipline’s powers, practices, and skills aren’t just for young children. In fact, the lasting effects reach far into secondary education into adulthood. 

Diane Phelan, a former secondary education administrator and current Director of Engagement at Conscious Discipline, has vast experience implementing Conscious Discipline in secondary education settings. She cites one essential theme that ties relevancy throughout all ages and grade levels: the creation of a School Family.

When Diane opened a new middle school, Keller Middle School, she knew she wanted to implement Conscious Discipline from the very beginning. She brought staff from each grade level (15 in all) to a Conscious Discipline Institute with a vision and purpose. She said, “It changed everything.” From then on, she committed to sending faculty every year. Keller was also at the front end of Academies. 

When Diane moved to high school, she knew how long it took for implementation to reach fidelity. This made her even more intentional about building a School Family. She implemented tools school-wide such as incorporating breathing and wish wells into school announcements in the morning to make things more purposeful. “You have to make it safe for teachers to take risks,” Diane says, “Teachers must feel a difference.”

What is the School Family?

In the simplest terms, building a School Family requires investing in relationships and cultivating a compassionate classroom culture. Positive connections are attributed to the lowering of anxiety and depression, and the raising of self-esteem in both children and adults (BetterHealth). A positive school climate has a myriad of effects such as dramatically increased teaching time and academic success, and a significant decrease in behavioral issues. School climate is contingent on building healthy and strong relationships between teachers, students, and stakeholders. 

Connection Over Content

A School Family can’t be successful if you do not first attempt to connect with others in a meaningful way. There are some who believe connections come a bit easier in the early education or elementary level. Lesson plans that include music, graphics, etc., tend to be more common at these ages but School Families also thrive in middle school and high schools. Diane says, “Secondary education staff, teachers and even administrators are hungry for the kind of connection that the School Family provides. And they can create it, it just looks different than it would at the earlier ages.” Often, professional development is content based in secondary education where teachers instruct specialized subjects; however, without a felt sense of safety, belonging and connection, content is dead in the water. 

Meaningful Rituals

At Conscious Discipline, we create powerful connections through eye contact, presence, touch, and playfulness. Connections with early childhood and elementary ages can start with a simple greeting ritual in which we offer each student choices about how they would like to be greeted as they arrive in the morning, and then offer that connecting ritual authentically. Diane connected with students and staff via morning greetings in high school as well, but they were more of the fist bump sort than the “butterfly hi” and superhero greetings you might employ at younger ages. Diane also made an intentional choice to “celebrate everything,” and to open the floor to input at staff meetings and assemblies to increase both connection and agency. “Connection invites cooperation, increases mental health and even impacts teacher retention in a positive way,” Diane said. “Establishing connection is everything!” Rituals, routines, and learning structures such as the Safe Place and the Kindness Tree heavily contribute to building a School Family.

“Keep the Tenets, Adjust the Delivery”

The powers, skills, and principles of Conscious Discipline are beneficial for every age group. The challenge can come when trying to convey that message in a way that is applicable to different age groups, cultures, and school environments. This is why Conscious Discipline’s adult-first model of learning, reflection and internalization becomes essential. Once we understand the core tenets of Conscious Discipline, it is possible to implement them in any setting. Those who operate in the secondary education space will naturally use language that sounds different and classroom structures that look different from those employed by elementary-focused educators to achieve the same goals. Diane stresses the importance of maintaining fidelity to the core teachings of Conscious Discipline while also adjusting the language to reach your students’ unique needs. It can be a simple reframe such as: “We practice the skill this way… We adjust the language this way…” The same concept can be used when introducing implementation tools across ages and grades, such as the Conflict Resolution Time Machine. “The reality is that a conflict resolution tool is something we should all be using,” says Diane, “Some of the Conscious Discipline visuals can be adapted to fit specific demographics and audiences, but the focus remains. You must be willing to self-regulate and then work through the problem together.”

Conscious Discipline as an Adult-First Practice

Conscious Discipline is an adult first self-regulation practice that focuses on the whole person of any age, “from infants to in-laws” making it beneficial in all education settings. The goal is to highlight the value of self-regulation at every stage and age of development. Then, provide inroads for educators to recognize and apply those benefits in relatable ways. Conscious Discipline is not always considered a secondary education practice, and according to Diane, “It will not be a secondary education practice unless the adults see their jobs as taking care of the whole child and every aspect of their lives, not just their field or department. Conscious Discipline gave our school’s teachers the tools they needed to reach all kids in our low socio-economic school district.”  

It is not too late to explore in depth the benefits, steps toward implementation and the transformational power of a thriving School Family with any age group at our 2-day event November 3-4, in St. Louis, MO. 


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