Creating a Values-based Atmosphere

Feeling Loved, Valued, Respected, Understood and Safe

As values must be “caught” as well as “taught,” the adults involved are integral to the success of the program, for young people learn best by example and are most receptive when what is shared is experienced. The establishment of a values-based atmosphere is essential for optimal exploration and development. Such a student-centered environment naturally enhances learning, as relationships based on trust, caring, and respect have a positive effect on motivation, creativity, and affective and cognitive development.

Creating a “values-based atmosphere” is the first step in LVE’s Developing Values Schematic. During LVE Educator Workshops, educators are asked to discuss quality teaching methods that allow students to feel loved, respected, valued, understood and safe.

The LVE Theoretical Model postulates that students move toward their potential in nurturing, caring, creative learning environments. When motivation and control are attempted through fear, shame and punishment, youth feel more inadequate, fearful, hurt, shamed and unsafe. In addition, evidence suggests that repeated interactions loaded with these emotions marginalize students, decreasing real interest in attending school and/or learning. Students with a series of negative school relationships are likely to “turn off”; some become depressed while others enter a cycle of blame, anger, revenge — and possible violence.

Why were these five feelings — loved, valued, respected, understood and safe — chosen for the LVE Theoretical Model? Love is rarely spoken about in educational seminars. Yet, isn’t it love and respect that we all want as human beings? Who doesn’t want to be valued, understood and safe? Many studies on resiliency have reinforced the importance of the quality of relationships between young people and significant adults in their lives, often teachers.

What happens to the learning process when we feel loved, valued and respected? What happens in our relationships with educators who create a supportive, safe environment in the classroom? Many people have had the experience as a child of an educator who they found positive, encouraging and motivating. In contrast, how do we feel when an educator, at school or home, is critical, punitive and stressed or when the peers are derogatory or bully? While an interesting stimulus can heighten the creative process, high anxiety, criticism, pressure and punitive methods slow down the learning process. Simply the thought that others may be critical or have dislike can distract one from a task. Neurophysiologists have found positive effects on brain development when a child is nurtured, and deleterious effects when there are traumatic experiences. Lumsden notes that a caring, nurturing school environment boosts students’ motivation, that is, students’ interest in participating in the learning process; their academic self-efficacy increases as well (Lumsden, 1994). A caring, nurturing school environment has also been found to reduce violent behavior and create positive attitudes toward learning (Riley, quoted in Cooper, 2000).

Currently in education, in many countries there is considerable pressure on teachers to raise student achievement levels. Constant pressure and an emphasis on memorization and test scores often reduce “real” teaching as well as distract teachers from focusing on nurturing relationships with students. Much of the pleasure inherent in teaching well is lost. It is also harmful to levels of motivation and the classroom atmosphere. Alfie Kohn writes of “… fatal flaws of the steamroller movement toward tougher standards that overemphasize achievement at the cost of learning. Kohn argues that most of what the pundits are arguing for just gets the whole idea of learning and motivation wrong, and that the harder people push to force others to learn, the more they limit that possibility” (Janis, quoted in Senge, 2000).

Real Learning Comes Alive in a Values-Based Atmosphere

Achievement automatically increases as real learning increases. Real learning and motivation come alive in values-based atmospheres where educators are free to be in tune with their own values, model their love of learning and nurture students and the development of cognitive skills along with values. This is not to say that excellent teaching will always occur when there is a values-based atmosphere; a values educator must also be a good teacher.

As Terry Lovat and Ron Toomey concluded from their research: “Values Education is being seen increasingly as having a power quite beyond a narrowly defined moral or citizenship agenda. It is being seen to be at the centre of all that a committed teacher and school could hope to achieve through teaching. It is in this respect that it can fairly be described as the 'missing link' in quality teacher . . . and quality teaching (2006).”

Modeling the Values from the Inside

In LVE Workshops, educators are asked to reflect on the values in their own lives and identify which are most important to them. In another session, they are asked to share quality teaching methods they can use to create their desired class climate.

Modeling of values by adults is an essential element in values education. Students are interested in educators who have a passion to do something positive in the world and who embody the values they espouse, and are likely to reject values education if they feel teachers are not walking their talk. LVE educators have shared amazing stories of change with angry and cynical pre-teens and teens, when they were able to stick to their values in challenging circumstances.

Teaching values requires from educators a willingness to be a role model, and a belief in dignity and respect for all. This does not mean we need to be perfect to teach LVE; however, it does require a personal commitment to “living” the values we would like to see in others, and a willingness to be caring, respectful and non-violent.

Skills for Creating a Values-based Atmosphere

The Theoretical Model and LVE’s workshop session on “Acknowledgement, Encouragement and Building Positive Behaviors” combine the teachings of contingency management with a humanizing approach, that is, understanding that it is love and respect that we want as human beings. Showing interest in and giving respect to students while pointing out well-done relevant characteristics over time can be used to build the ability of students to analyze their own behavior and academic skills, and develop positive self-assessment and intrinsic motivation. In this approach, there is a focus on human relationships as well as sensitivity to the level of receptivity and needs of the students.

Skills for creating a values-based atmosphere also include: active listening; collaborative rule making; quiet signals that create silence, focus, feelings of peace or respect; conflict resolution; and values-based discipline. Active listening is useful as a method of acknowledgement with resistant, cynical and/or “negative” students. A key tool of counselors and therapists, active listening is an invaluable tool for teachers. Thomas Gordon’s understanding of anger as a secondary emotion is a concept that is useful to educators in dealing with resistant students.

Collaborative rule making is a method to increase student participation and ownership in the rule-making process. Many educators have found that when students are involved in the process of creating, they are more observant, involved and willing to be more responsible in monitoring their own behavior and encouraging positive behaviors in their peers.

LVE training in values-based discipline also combines the theories of contingency management with a humanistic understanding of students and the belief in the importance of healthy relationships and well-being. Some people use the methods of contingency management as though the young person is a machine; the need for feeling accepted and valued as a person — by teachers and/or peers — is not factored into the behavioral plan. When social and relationship needs are considered as part of the intervention plan, outcomes are far more successful.

Educators can use the LVE Theoretical Model to assess the positive and negative factors affecting one student, a classroom, a school or an organization, and adjust the factors to optimize young people experiencing being loved, valued, respected, understood and safe rather than shamed, inadequate, hurt, afraid and unsafe. In conflict resolution or disciplinary settings, the emphasis is on creating a plan which supports building positive student behavior. Educators focus on treating the student in such a way that she or he feels motivated to be responsible in regulating their own behavior. There are occasions when students hold onto a negative attitude and logical consequences are needed; during the time period in which that consequence is paid it is recommended that the student not be treated as a “bad person.” While at times an educator may find it best to be firm, serious or even stern, opportunities are looked for to build the young adult’s ability to self-monitor and build relationship while the consequences are being carried out. This reflects back to Virginia Satir’s work; people feeling full of love and well-being are more positive in their interactions and behaviors.

LVE Workshops

The creation of a values-based atmosphere facilitates its success with young people, making it more enjoyable, beneficial, and effective for both students and teachers. LVE Educator/Facilitator Training for all members of the school or an organization’s staff is highly recommended whenever possible, however workshops are often given to educators from many different schools and educational organizations. Depending on the student population, consideration of some additional training for the use of the LVE at-risk materials could be appropriate.