Conscious Discipline for Older Kids: How to Adapt Rituals and Structures

We’re often asked: Is Conscious Discipline for older kids? The answer is that Conscious Discipline is for everyone! The Powers and Skills help us connect with others, manage our feelings, set and reach goals, resolve conflicts, and more—all essential abilities with no age limit.

Just like our youngest children, adolescents and teens need to feel safe, supported, and connected in order to learn and achieve. And SEL skills are extremely helpful in navigating the big emotions and stress of growing up. They also help teens assertively set boundaries and respond wisely to negative influences and peer pressure.

Still, educators sometimes wonder how to make Conscious Discipline rituals and structures relevant to older students. Will teenagers find deep breathing and I Love You Rituals babyish or embarrassing? In this post, we’ll share practical tips and ideas for adapting Conscious Discipline for use in secondary classrooms.

Purpose of Conscious Discipline Rituals and Structures

First, it’s helpful to understand the purpose of Conscious Discipline rituals and structures. Together, routines, rituals, and structures create the School Family environment. This is a safe, connected, and equitable school climate that promotes the optimal development of all adults and children.

Routines create predictability and show children what to expect, fostering safety. Rituals provide opportunities to connect and build a sense of unity and belonging. The structures offer tangible reminders of the SEL skills we want students to learn, and they allow students to practice these skills.

Because teens are better able to internalize SEL skills, they don’t need structures as much as younger children. You have the freedom to choose what resonates with you and your learning community. It’s also perfectly fine to tweak the rituals and structures in ways that fit your students. It doesn’t matter what you call your rituals and structures, or how they look. It’s all about the purpose and intention behind them.

Conscious Discipline for Older Kids: Rituals and Routines

We’ll start with our rituals and routines, which promote safety and connection in the classroom. These tips come from middle and high school educators who have successfully implemented Conscious Discipline with their students.

BRAIN SMART START

Many Conscious Discipline classrooms, including at the middle and high school level, start each day with a Brain Smart Start. The Brain Smart Start consists of four parts: an activity to unite, an activity to connect, an activity to disengage stress, and an activity to commit. These activities prime the brain for a successful day (or class period) of learning.

How to Use with Older Kids

The activity to unite brings everyone together. It can be as simple as putting on music for 30 seconds as students circulate the classroom, say hello, and give high fives. Some middle school students enjoy co-creating class chants or songs that start each day. Anything that involves joint attention or moving/singing in unison works here.

For older children, the activity to connect may include:

  • Dance along with a video/Go Noodle
  • High Five Friend for Life
  • Handshakes with different people
  • Look Up, Look Down
  • Telephone
  • Rock, Paper, Scissors
  • Say 21 and Win
  • Thumb War
  • Gotcha
  • Table Handshakes (creating a handshake within their table or group)
  • Staring Contest

The activity to disengage stress generally involves deep breathing and/or wishing well. We have found that older children enjoy both of these activities, and they are old enough to understand the brain science behind them. They are even willing to Balloon or Drain, but you may wish to challenge your students to come up with their own breathing exercises as well.

Finally, the Brain Smart Start ends with students making a commitment for the day. You can start by choosing a daily commitment, then asking students if they are willing. Alternatively, older students can come up with their own commitment for the class period, then share with a partner.

In Afton Schleiff’s junior high school classroom, “Brain Smart Start Leader” is a classroom job. She supplies a list of helpful activity ideas, but the students lead the way.

I LOVE YOU RITUALS

I Love You Rituals are playful, one-on-one interactions that strengthen connections and increase cooperation. They also increase attention spans, reduce hyperactivity, and build self-esteem. With younger children, these rituals must have four components: eye contact, touch, presence, and playfulness.

How to Use with Older Kids

When adapting Conscious Discipline for older kids, simply consider I Love You Rituals as relationship-building. What can you do nurture your relationship with your students? How can you encourage your students to connect with one another?

Ideas for teacher-student connection include:

  • Learning about and following up on student interests
  • Writing simple notes on Post-Its (celebrating accomplishments, asking if a student is OK, etc.)
  • Sharing a little about yourself
  • Making time to laugh and joke with students
  • Checking in: “How’s it going? Is there anything you need from me? How can I help you _________?” (turn work in on time, be more engaged in class, etc.)
  • Back and forth journals
  • Lunch together
  • Before/after school
  • Athletics/weekend events

WELCOME BACK RITUAL

The Welcome Back Ritual shows students their absence was noticed, and they were missed. It reinforces the idea that every student is an integral part of the School Family.

How to Use with Older Kids

Create a Welcome Back Ritual that feels comfortable for you. Sometimes, it might simply mean making an effort to say, “I’m so glad you’re back! We missed you! Is everything OK?” instead of, “Where have you been? You’re missing way too much class time.”

In Afton Schleiff’s classroom, “Welcome Back Person” is another student job. The student notices who is absent and writes their name on an envelope. During the bell ringer, they pass around the envelope with some strips of paper. Any student who wants to participate writes a note on a strip of paper and places it in the envelope. When the absent student returns, the Welcome Back Person hands them the envelope and says, “We missed you; welcome back!”

GREETING RITUAL

The Greeting Ritual starts the day with connection and attunement. Teachers get a chance to proactively address any students arriving to class in the survival or emotional state. This ritual also increases focus, cooperation, and attention. Typically, teachers provide students with several greeting choices, and students choose how they would like to be greeted as they enter the classroom.

How to Use with Older Kids

Many high school and middle school teachers use the Greeting Ritual as is. Provide simple greeting choices like a high five, a handshake, and a smile, or invite students to come up with their own creative greeting options.

“Greeter” is another potential classroom job for older children. Even if you have a student greeter, it’s helpful to stand at the door with them. Say hello to your students as they come in, and use the opportunity to gauge how they’re feeling.

SAFEKEEPER RITUAL

People learn best when they feel safe. The Safekeeper Ritual communicates to students that your job is to keep the class safe, and their job is to help keep the class safe. In the most common Safekeeper Ritual, students decorate a Popsicle stick, a rock, or another object to represent themselves.

At the beginning of class, the teacher reminds students of the Safekeeper job description. Students are then asked to place their object in a Safekeeper Box to commit to keeping the class safe. When younger children travel to another class, such as Art, the Safekeeper Box sometimes travels with them. The classroom teacher passes the Box to the next teacher, asking them to “keep my treasures safe.”

How to Use with Older Kids

Often, you can practice Conscious Discipline for older kids without the Safekeeper Ritual. They may not need the ritual in order to feel a sense of safety in your classroom. It’s enough to use predictable routines, strive to maintain your composure, and remind students that you’ll keep them safe.

During the first week of school, Afton Schleiff asks her students to write something they’re afraid of on a piece of paper. They put the paper in a pencil box, and she places it behind her desk or in her desk, saying, “In here, you are safe.” She tells the students that when they are in her classroom, it’s her job to keep them safe emotionally and physically. It is their job to help keep it safe. She reminds them of the Safekeeper job descriptions as necessary throughout the year.

WISH WELL RITUAL

Wishing well gives students and adults a way to support one another and calm themselves. We wish well when we notice someone having a hard time. It sends loving energy to the recipient, and it helps the sender practice empathy without judgment. Wishing well helps integrate the brain and body for learning and problem solving.

The Wish Well Ritual often involves the Wish Well Board. The teacher places pictures of students who are absent or having a difficult time on the board, then leads the class in wishing these students well. Of course, the ritual can be expanded to include other friends and family members too.

How to Use with Older Kids

Adolescents and teens often have a lot on their minds and their hearts, so they especially appreciate the Wish Well Ritual. You can ask for “wish well requests,” then lead a class-wide Wish Well Ritual that includes absent students. Alternatively, you can set a timer and have students send well wishes to whoever they’d like.

You may also want to provide varying prompts like, “Today, send well wishes to someone you love very much,” “someone who is hurting,” or “someone you’re in conflict with.”

Some teachers also give middle and high school students a designated area to post Wish Wells, either with Post-Its or on a bulletin board.

Conscious Discipline for Older Kids: Structures

Structures give both teachers and students helpful reminders of the SEL skills we want to encourage. They also provide tangible opportunities to practice these skills and work towards internalizing them.

Since the internalization of skills is easier for older children, some structures aren’t necessary in middle and high school classrooms. Use the structures that resonate with you, and tweak them to appeal to your students.

SAFE PLACE

The Safe Place is a center where children (and adults) can go to change their inner state from upset to composed in order to optimize learning.

It helps children walk through the five steps to self-regulation: I Am, I Calm, I Feel, I Choose, and I Solve. For younger children, the Safe Place often contains Feeling Buddies, stuffed animals, calming lotions, and visual reminders of the breathing strategies and self-regulation steps.

How to Use with Older Kids

As you adapt Conscious Discipline for older kids, a comfy armchair in a quiet corner can serve as a Safe Place. Include fidgets, stress balls, lotion with a calming scent, and perhaps some paper to write or doodle. Talk to your students about the self-regulation process.

Explain what you (the teacher) will do when a student is in the Safe Place, and talk about what their peers should do too. When a student sits in the Safe Place, give them about five minutes of space and then check in. Encourage the rest of the class to wish well when they see a student in the Safe Place.

You can also choose to change the name to Calming Corner, Zen Zone, or whatever feels natural for you. Watch this video about using a Safe Place in high school for more information.

 

SCHOOL FAMILY JOBS

In Conscious Discipline classrooms, every student has a job. School Family Jobs give children a way to be of service in the classroom, enhancing their sense of belonging. These jobs also promote self-worth, responsibility, and inclusion as every child contributes to the greater good of the classroom.

How to Use with Older Kids

With older children, you can call School Family Jobs “classroom jobs” or “classroom responsibilities” instead. Assign jobs in the third or fourth week of school. At the beginning of the year, focus on modeling the jobs and getting to know your students and the areas they can best contribute.

Then make a list of 30-40 jobs, and ask your students for input if you’d like. Next, either assign jobs or ask students to fill out a form listing their top three choices. You can change jobs monthly, quarterly, or per semester. Choose jobs that help the classroom run smoothly, as well as jobs that encourage safety and connection.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Welcome Back Greeter (for absent students)
  • Door Greeter
  • Class Counselor (someone who checks in when a peer is upset; may notify the teacher if more help is needed)
  • Pass Out Papers
  • Collect Papers
  • Runner
  • Attendance
  • Artist
  • Inspirational Quote
  • Librarian
  • Supplies
  • Photographer
  • Cleaning Crew
  • DJ
  • Lights
  • Timekeeper
  • Brain Smart Start Leader
  • Morning Message Writer
  • Celebration Board
  • Phone Receptionist
  • “Good Things” Person (Calls on 3 people to share a “good thing” for the day; students have option to pass)
  • Wish Well Leader

CELEBRATION CENTER

When we celebrate students, they feel seen, accepted, and encouraged. Celebrations allow students to honor themselves and each other for accomplishments they feel are important. The Celebration Center is typically a bulletin board that documents celebrations big and small.

How to Use with Older Kids

A bulletin board with a heading like, “Celebrations” or “Let’s Celebrate!” is appropriate for older children. Students can fill out a celebration form and post it with a push pin. Make sure to personally congratulate and celebrate students for the achievements they post.

In Afton’s classroom, they specifically celebrate goal achievement. “Celebration Person” is a student job. As students file in at the beginning of class, the Celebration Person asks if anyone has something to celebrate (a goal they’ve accomplished). If they do, the Celebration Person takes their picture with a Polaroid camera, asks them to write what they’re celebrating, and posts it on the celebration board.

At the end of class, the student stands at the door and receives high fives and, “Congratulations!” from their classmates. Afton plays the song “Celebration” in the background. This structure also fosters connection between class periods, as students from other classes check to see who’s on the board.

CONFLICT RESOLUTION TIME MACHINE

The Conflict Resolution Time Machine walks children through a step-by-step process for managing interpersonal conflicts. Students learn and practice skills like self-regulation, assertiveness, and problem solving.

How to Use with Older Kids

Although middle and high school students are probably too old for the Time Machine, they aren’t too old to learn conflict resolution skills. Teach your students to use assertive language like, “It’s not OK with me when you ___________. Next time, ______________ instead.”

If two students are in conflict, ask them if they’re willing to solve the problem. If not, one or both students may (separately) need time to calm down in the Safe Place. When they’re ready to repair the relationship, coach them in the language to use. Older students quickly internalize the language and learn to manage conflicts independently.

KINDNESS TREE

The Kindness Tree encourages kindness and helpfulness in the classroom by recognizing kind and helpful acts. Students add a leaf to the tree when they notice a classmate being kind or helpful. This practice builds a sense of unity and belonging and highlights the ways we can help one another.

How to Use with Older Kids

At Keller Middle School, students use “Snaps” to recognize the helpfulness of their peers and teachers. They fill out a simple form that says, “You’re a great teammate!” at the top. Below, it says, “I want to give Snaps to _______ in _________’s homeroom because ___________. That was helpful!”

Students drop the forms in a box, and a teacher or administrator adds them to a bulletin board in the hallway. You can adapt this practice for a bulletin board in your individual classroom.

Other teachers use “Shout Outs” in a similar fashion, with students giving shout outs to kind and helpful peers.

Final Thoughts: Adapting Conscious Discipline for Older Kids

Middle and high school students can benefit from Conscious Discipline just as much as younger children. And teachers benefit too! You’ll find that teaching time increases, behavior and academics improve, and you feel more competent and confident than ever in managing your classroom.

Adapting Conscious Discipline for older kids is much simpler than you think. Get to know your students, and use the rituals and structures you believe will resonate with them. If you aren’t sure, ask! Conscious Discipline will look different in your classroom than in an early childhood classroom, and you may call your rituals and structures by different names. Regardless of these differences, the impact will remain the same. What matters is that you’re helping your students feel safe, build positive relationships, and practice essential SEL skills.