To create engaging learning communities and positive classroom climate, MMSD middle and high school staff use an approach called Developmental Designs (DD). It hinges on a blend of strong relationships, explicit teaching of social skills, engaging lessons and a group reflection practice at the end of class that reinforces learning and encourages self-direction and self-control.
This summer hundreds of teachers and other school staff from around the district took part in DD workshops. On a Thursday afternoon in mid-August, staff were wrapping up a four-day training at Wright Middle School. The focus: how adolescents’ basic developmental needs — autonomy, relationships, competence and fun — shape their learning.
Through games, discussion and exercises, staff in Developmental Designs levels 1 and 2 classes strengthened their skills at guiding students toward self-control, learned ways to rally the whole school around shared goals and guidelines, gained tips for teaching students to focus on the quality of their work and more.
A handful of workshop attendees offered to share their thoughts about the DD training and some the key lessons they took away from the week. What follows is a Q&A with four of them. For the full version of the conversation featuring six attendees, you can listen to the podcast here.
Kristin Ensminger, Social Worker, Hamilton Middle School
Chandra Anderson, Physical Education Teacher, Toki Middle School
Jenny Ploeger, Bilingual Science Teacher, East High School
Meghan Willauer, Bilingual Science Teacher, East High School
MMSD: How did you become interested in Developmental Designs?
Chandra Anderson: There were people on our staff who had taken the training, who referred to it frequently in discussions.
Megan Willauer: We had heard great things about how it had been working at the middle school, and we were wondering how we could incorporate it into the high school.
Jenny Ploeger: And with our Freshmen Academy, we’re trying to streamline as much as possible to help students in that transition from eighth to ninth grade. So a lot of us came together to DD1 so we could start some of the shared practices and shared languages.
MMSD: Kristin, you’ve been using DD practices for years in your previous school district in Colorado. Where do you find the strategies are the most useful?
Kristin Ensminger: With fairly mild behavior issues, perhaps kids struggling with compliance, not really understanding the rules, or kids who have experienced trauma. DD has been wonderful in creating a very neutral space in which students can process and staff can process and then come together collectively to come up with a solution.
MMSD: You touch on the idea that students share the responsibility for creating safe, inclusive and engaging environments, and that it’s a key part of Developmental Designs.
Chandra Anderson: I agree. I think it’s very empowering to take the focus off of the teacher making all of the decisions and put it into the hands of the students, making them feel empowered in the classroom, making them feel important, and that they have a role there.
MMSD: According to Developmental Designs, Students thrive in environments that embed self-control, self-assessment, and appreciation for others within their daily school responsibilities. Can you give an example of how you’ve used DD strategies to build student self-management and relationship skills?
Jenny Ploeger: One specific behavior situation happened last year when we were implementing DD. We were doing a Circle of Power and Respect when one of our students with autism froze [when it was their turn], and others laughed.
But we recovered using empowering language that was reflecting language — “I want you to think of a time where you felt singled out or you felt uncomfortable” — and it ended up being this super-powerful experience in which some of the people who were laughing got to share a time when they were the only student who didn’t have the resources of others in class. It got very powerful very fast, and we were able to repair that relationship that had been broken.
MMSD: In Developmental Designs training, you talked about the importance of language choice, that using language that is neutral, specific and descriptive help build a community of engaged learners and thoughtful participants that feel accepted, respected and valued.
Kristin Ensminger: It’s also been really interesting in our group talking about asking students for permission. By saying, “Remind me…” instead of “Can you...?” or by giving really solid directive can be powerful and still build community. It doesn’t take away from their choice. It really creates this amazing relationship not only between students but also between students and the teacher.
MMSD: The social contract is a tool discussed in the training. How do you use that or do you plan to use that in the future?
Kristin Ensminger: We’re looking to incorporate a school-wide social contract so that as a very large middle school everybody can be on board.
Meghan Willauer: We were able to do a ninth grade-only social contract at East. It was great.
Kristin Ensminger: That’s really wonderful. We talked about a grade-level contract but we are going to go after the whole school. I think it would be powerful.
Jenny Ploeger: I would also imagine that a social contract would make communication to support staff so much easier. Rather than, “This student just got sent to me from Chandra’s room. I don’t know what specific rule they broke in her room because she can’t talk on the phone for 10 minutes while trying to teach a class,” it could simply be a few words to the office: “We’re having issues with ‘be respectful’ in the social contract. ”
MMSD: How do Developmental Design strategies relate to the Behavior Education Plan (BEP)?
Chandra Anderson: The connection to the BEP is really important because I don’t know if everyone necessarily sees that connection yet. It’s putting the power, the autonomy, back on the students who want to feel that they have control over their learning.
Kristin Ensminger: Coming from another district, I was thrilled to hear that this was in place because it is empowering. I was coming from a district where we used empowering language and teachers weren’t as burnt out, they weren’t as overwhelmed, there was a very big sense of community, there was a way to problem-solve, a way to get through difficult situations, and leave for the day and have done some really hard, hard, hard work but be energized to come back the next day and to keep pushing through. I feel like this really offers that, so I’m really excited that Madison is taking that on and incorporating it with the BEP.
Jenny Ploeger: From my experience, it seemed like for the people who had the DD training, the transition to the BEP this last year wasn’t as painful as it was for the teachers who hadn’t had the training. I feel like the philosophy behind DD and the behavior plan are so similar that at least there was a place of understanding.
MMSD: How does DD tie in to your School Improvement Plan (SIP) goals?
Chandra Anderson: It ties into our SIP goals extremely well as we’re trying to engage all students in learning. By using empowering language, redirecting students to where they need to be, reminding them what they need to be doing, making connections to their personal lives, really giving them a chance to make those connections and feel better about themselves at school, socially, really all works together very well.
Kristin Ensminger: It’s a big part of our SIP as well. That was something that everybody felt very strongly about, about working on empowering language, developing that sense of community so kids are having an internal locus of control. Even though it’s a lot of hard work up front, it really pays off. It’s a pretty amazing process to watch. In the other district where I was, it felt great. Hold on, everyone, it’s coming! Just keep going! It really will be magical when it arrives, and it already is starting.