What It Means to Belong

by | Nov 19, 2021

“Most children fail in school not because they lack the necessary cognitive skills, but because they feel detached, alienated, and isolated from others and from the educational process.” – Dr. Peter Gray

Our home in the forest at Aishling Forest School is a community, and as such, it’s made up of individuals who choose to come together and care for one another. This process takes time and patience and the mentors are ready with the agreement board, social thinking activities, and an attentive ear or shoulder to lean on.

Social Thinking, coined by Michelle Garcia Winner, refers to understanding how one’s own behavior impacts others’ thoughts and feelings. This is one of the tools used at Aishling to promote empathy and help develop social skills in our community. Some of the tools we utilize at Forest School include:

  • “Expected” vs “Unexpected Behavior”- recognizing if people are abiding by unwritten social rules or hidden rules (ex: not spitting your food out while having dinner).
  • “You can change/affect how I feel”- recognizing that others behaving or doing what is expected makes you feel more positive (proud, happy, safe), and seeing others doing something unexpectedly makes you feel more negative (frustrated, uncomfortable, angry).
  • “Good thoughts” vs “uncomfortable thoughts”- Thoughts we have as we watch others. (good thoughts- seeing children sharing vs. uncomfortable thoughts- seeing children grabbing items from one another)

During this past week, we have worked extensively on helping to foster a sense of belonging in our learners by making sure each learner’s voice is accounted for. During our community circle, we discuss topics such as taking care of oneself, each other, and Mama Earth. We vote on agreements to help develop a sense of democracy, but also define what each community of children is comfortable with. No agreement gets passed unless every child agrees (with a thumbs up), we open the floor for those to express their opposition. Mentors will make suggestions to help the group create statements that may allow for a consensus.

Recently, I, as an Occupational Therapist have included Social Thinking activities modified from the Zones of Regulation into our community circle. This week we explored “Expected” vs “Unexpected Behavior”. I acted spontaneously bizarre during our community meeting, and then asked the children what they thought about it. The discussion didn’t just shed light on the different levels of awareness and abilities to regulate emotions within the group, it also allowed for dialogue on other behavior that makes us uncomfortable or upset this past week. The conversation was kept open, honest, and kind.

The community circle is by no means the only time problem resolution happens. Throughout their time in the forest, each mentor is available for one-on-one conversation, supporting the children in self-advocacy (finding the words, exploring their emotions, etc), or finding a space to discuss disagreements in a peaceful way (such as during our peacemaking sessions on our Peace Log). In addition, the closing circle is our exciting community gathering with Grandma Tree as we thank her and exit our home in the woods. Here the community comes together one last time before running off to our caregivers. During this time, we’re open for discussions about new agreements created during play or anything else discovered during play that was exciting or perhaps uncomfortable.

aishling forest school, tree, natureThis magical place holds our children in a space filled with love and understanding. Mama Earth provides us with a soothing space where our children can test themselves and one another under the safety of her wisdom and the mentor’s caring gaze. The ability to engage in tree climbing, rope climbing, running and other physical activities and games are being encouraged as modes of intervention in the play therapy world. A systematic review in 2020 “Engagement in physical activities, particularly those that enhance the mind-body connection, enhances mental health and that such interventions should be introduced in childhood when people are learning behavioral and emotional regulation skills (Hall et al., 2016)




Social Thinking Activities to Try at Home:

  • When reading a book together or watching a show, pause to ask about the following questions about the character’s behavior
    • Was the character acting in an “expected” or “unexpected” way
    • How did the character’s actions change/affect how you feel or other characters felt?
    • When watching the character act as it did make you have “good thoughts” or “uncomfortable thoughts”? why?
  • Discuss what might be expected behavior in a different context
    • Ex: running at Forest School vs. in a library
  • Engage in structured team sports and discuss its rules and why they matter.
  • Practice Yoga and discuss how the body feels when upset vs focused.
  • Read or listen toMiss Nelson Is Missing (1977)” and discuss that people’s feelings can be changed by the behavior (actions) of others around them.
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