STOP THINK DO traffic lights in the classroom save lives!
By Lindy Petersen
, author of STOP THINK DO
, an Australian social skills program for schools.
A positive social climate in the classroom saves lives!
This sounds like an exaggerated claim, but long-term research and experience with children supports it. It shows that children who relate well together and make friends are less likely to have serious problems that ruin their lives; these include delinquency, criminality, drug dependence, school drop-out, low self-esteem and motivation, loneliness, depression and psychopathology of various types which may last into adolescence and adulthood. But the number of children already at risk of these problems is frighteningly high; around 10% of school age children do have significant problems with peer relationships, even higher for children with disabilities. This means that about 3 children in the average classroom are at risk of serious damage. And the suffering is not only personal; society ultimately bears the costs in financial terms - since it has to provide for the medical, legal and welfare needs of people whose lives are damaged by early emotional and social difficulties - and in spiritual terms as we lose faith in the younger generation and our ability to steer them positively.
In response to these serious concerns, programs specifically designed for training social skills in children to improve their peer relationships have proliferated over the past few decades. Fundamentally, the value and aim of social skills training is to develop emotional-social intelligence and skills in children to improve all of their relationships. The specific focus of training may be therapeutic for children who already have social problems - to provide them with positive skills, attitudes and strategies to replace their negative or ineffective ones - or educational and preventive for reasonably functional children or those "at risk" of difficulties due to their circumstances - to teach them social skills to enhance their friendships and thereby, armour and protect them from peer rejection and its long-term, life-threatening effects.
While schools can conduct treatment programs for children with problems by withdrawing them from classrooms for skills training individually or in small groups, they are particularly suitable locations for prevention programs in classrooms and indeed, across the whole school. Teachers can be assured that by creating a positive social climate for their students in the classroom, they may be saving their lives, at least in terms of quality of life.
How the STOP THINK DO traffic lights improve social skills in the classroom
STOP THINK DO is an Australian social skills training program originally devised three decades ago as a clinical treatment program for children and adolescents referred with social-emotional-behavioural difficulties affecting relationships. It has been adapted for use in the school setting and incorporates the optimum components for school-based intervention identified by researchers and practitioners, including the following:
- It is a multi-dimensional program, training cognitive problem solving and behavioural skills, and incorporating effective-motivational factors.
- It is a multi-systems approach, involving teachers, peers and parents.
- It may be used in schools as a treatment program with individuals or small groups of children who have social difficulties.
- It may be taught directly in the classroom as a social skills curriculum with an educational-preventive focus.
- The curriculum program extends over the formative years, and may be utilised across the whole school.
- It includes a teacher training program, encouraging teachers to use STOP THINK DO themselves to manage student behaviour problems and model the positive problem solving method for students.
- It creates a positive learning environment in classrooms to encourage academic progress, and has been further adapted to use with individual students to improve their motivation for learning, including those with special needs.
- It includes a peer mediation program for regular, natural training and reinforcement of students" social skills in the classroom and schoolyard.
- It incorporates regular parent involvement, with the provision for more intensive parent training if required.
STOP THINK DO is suitable for children of all ages with age appropriate manuals, video and posters available to facilitate training. It may be implemented flexibly to suit the needs of students and teachers. The length of the program and the rate of progress through it may be varied according to the location and the age, intelligence or special needs of the children involved. For example, younger students, slower learners, those with hearing or language difficulties or autism, or students from different cultural backgrounds may require more individual attention, repetition, structure or cueing, with the traffic lights and hand signals being adaptable and powerful visual cues. Students with visual difficulties may follow the language cues with tactile representations of the traffic lights and hand signals. For adolescents, the program may be extended to include issues like sexual relations, potential self-harm behaviours and employment relationships. Teachers also learn to use STOP THINK DO themselves to manage children's behaviour, thus modelling the very skills they are teaching their students and improving their own relationships with them at the same time.
And the universal traffic light has a critical role to play in the STOP THINK DO program. It accelerates the learning process as it cues people to use:
- perceptual, self-control and communication skills at STOP (the red light)
- cognitive consequential thinking skills at THINK (the yellow light)
- verbal and non-verbal behavioural skills at DO (the green light)
- and the motivation to be pro-social and extend their skills into the real world.
STOP THINK DO suits all personality types including shy, anxious, unconfident, unassertive or immature children, and hyperactive, impulsive, aggressive, bossy children, and all in between. For students with special needs who already have relationship problems, it is often helpful to consider them as 'stuck" at one of the STOP THINK DO steps. For example:
- Dependent, immature children are stuck at STOP; they tend not to think or do much for themselves, but generally rely on others and wait for input.
- Shy, anxious children are stuck at THINK; they often think too much about what could happen which prevents them choosing something helpful to do.
- Impulsive, aggressive children are stuck at DO; they do and do, and rarely stop and think.
The program aims to "unstick" children by training them to move comfortably through all STOP THINK DO steps over and over again. In fact, self-discipline, self-control, self-esteem, self-confidence, empowerment, maturity, respect, independence, responsibility - all the ethereal qualities we hope children develop - are outcomes of using STOP THINK DO whenever and wherever possible. And all the while, a positive social culture grows in the classroom and school.
Research in Australia and the UK into the program over the years has yielded very positive results for children of various ages and abilities. It shows that children learn to solve social problems maturely, control aggression, feel more confident, and be more acceptable to peers when they participate in STOP THINK DO training. Parents and teachers report benefits which extend to school and home. And the traffic light is seen as a powerful and universal cue for all concerned.
How the STOP THINK DO traffic lights improve academic learning
When teachers and students learn STOP THINK DO to develop social skills in the classroom, the positive social climate which evolves also facilitates academic learning. Students who relate well together, learn well together; students will be more likely to encourage each other's learning and less likely to distract each other, and less teacher time and energy will be wasted on behaviour management and relationship issues if everyone is getting on well.
In addition, STOP THINK DO has been further adapted as a model for directly improving children's motivation for academic learning through the devising and implementing of individual learning plans with teachers. These plans also follow the traffic light cue. Basically, children are motivated to improve their weaker areas when their strengths are identified as their potential (what they can achieve) at STOP, and individual learning plans are devised to raise weaknesses up to strengths at THINK and acted upon at DO. Motivation for any change comes from seeing what is possible and planning how to achieve it! These plans can work for all students, including those with special needs like attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, asperger syndrome, anxiety, dyslexia, intellectual delay, anxiety and gifted underachievement. Most importantly, students are active participants all the way in their learning plans. As a result, they feel more confident, empowered and responsible and less overwhelmed, frustrated, anxious or angry. This process can take the emotions out of learning difficulty, just as it can for social problems. And the quality of children's lives now and in the future is further enhanced.
STOP THINK DO Resources
The following resources are available from Australian Council for Educational Research, Victoria:
- STOP THINK DO Social Skills Training: Primary years of schooling ages 8-12 (2002) L. Petersen & A. Adderley.
- STOP THINK DO Social Skills Training: Early years of schooling ages 4-8 (2002). L. Petersen & A. Adderley.
- STOP THINK DO Social Skills Training: Supplement for middle years of schooling ages 12-15 (2004). L. Petersen & P. Lewis.
- Social Savvy: Help your child fit in with others. (2002) L. Petersen.
- STOP and THINK Friendship DVD/video package (2000, 2006) L. Petersen & M. Le Messurier.
- STOP and THINK Learning; A teacher's guide for motivating children to learn including those with special needs. (1995) L. Petersen.
The author, Lindy Petersen
, is available to run training programs for teachers and counsellors nationally and internationally.