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Respect vs. Dignity

By Cultures Of Dignity | July 25, 2022

How to Create Cultures of Dignity (COD) in Schools and Highlight the Need for Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Developmental issues young people face are enduring. While some things change with each generation young people face similar issues over time no matter what. They want to be seen, heard, and supported all while trying to navigate growing up. As we come out of a tough time for everyone, we are hearing more and more about students struggling and the need for SEL in schools.

At COD we discuss shifting the conversation from respect (for example, respecting someone just because of their position) to treating everyone with dignity. Dignity is about recognizing worth, whereas respect is often misused and can become more about obedience, particularly for marginalized students. Distinguishing between these two words is not about accountability, it is about creating a healthy environment where kids can grow and develop. Kids will always make mistakes; they are supposed to make mistakes. We can treat them with dignity, even when they have messed up.

While dignity is essential between classmates, it starts with the adults in the building modeling appropriate behavior. Seeing others and being treated with dignity helps kids feel emotionally safe in their school environment. When people feel safe they treat each other better.

How Can We Empower Students and Counselors at the Same Time?

To help ourselves and fellow educators we have developed a curriculum called Owning Up and use a communication tool we call SEAL to help work through hard conversations and/or any potential and existing conflict. This process helps students learn and practice how to handle conflict. It is a process and not something people learn how to do overnight.

The steps are:

  1. Stop – is this the correct time and place to have this conversation?
  2. Explain – what exactly do I not like or would I like to change?
  3. Affirm and Admit – affirm what you don’t like and admit your role in this conflict.
  4. Lock – lock this friendship in or out or take a break from each other.

Understanding or doing any of these steps is a win. It gets easier the more you do it. As with anything with SEL, it is about progress and not perfection.

It is important to also consider how we call out kids for bad behavior. In our classrooms, if we see kids mistreating each other, our first instinct is to stop the behavior and handle it right then. While the intention is good, we often ask the kid on the receiving end of the bad behavior how they feel about it or if they are OK. That forces them to either “snitch” on someone in front of their peers or say “it’s fine” and neither of those choices will feel good or lead to an effective resolution. Addressing the child that used antisocial behavior in the moment and explaining that is not how we talk to/treat each other or that language is not OK is more helpful to the situation. You are showing your students that you are there to protect them while considering the situation. It lets them know you understand the complicated social dynamics of young people.

At the same time, there is always another side when working with kids and we don’t always know what young people are going through inside and outside of school. Asking young people when they come to you with a situation, “How would the other student describe what happened?” or “Is there anything else I should know?” will help you get a full picture of the situation. Being a trusted adult means not only listening and supporting, but also holding them accountable if they played a role in the situation.

As educators we need to be overt when teaching kids how to handle conflict and use empathy to understand other perspectives. Most kids are not taught social skills, most adults were not either, so although students may not understand some SEL concepts at first, the goal is to help them develop these skills to use in school and beyond.

How Can We Reinforce the Concepts of Dignity for Ourselves and for Our Students?

  1. It is important to model grace, forgiveness, and dignity for the young people we work with. Adults set the example.
  2. At COD we highlight what is called a spectrum of attitudes (objects, recipients, and resources) when working with young people. We want educators to recognize that there is a time for their students to be resources, to be the experts in their own lives.
    • Objects– when there is a fire drill, get in line as we need to count you and ensure everyone is safe.
    • Recipients– in the classroom, there may be some back and forth, but for the most part young people are receiving information.
    • Resources– when young people get to be the experts in their own lives. We look to them as the experts. What TV shows are they watching and why? What do they like about technology? How do they use it? We cannot make assumptions about young people. Just because they do things differently than we do doesn’t mean it is wrong. Don’t demonize what they do, try to understand it. By building that relationship and maintaining their dignity, you are allowing them to be seen, heard, and accepted. We want to work towards treating students as resources when possible. If you show an interest in what they do, they may come to you with something else later. You are building a relationship and trust that enables them to come to you even when they make mistakes.
  3. Ask if they are OK and how they are doing. Just the simple act of asking is important, whether or not they tell you. They will feel seen and know that you care about their well being.
  4. Give students grace. Rather than assuming the worst if they are quiet or don’t participate in class; recognize their behavior could be a sign of something else (e.g., they may be sleep deprived, stressed, etc.)

Will Learning about Dignity Benefit Educators and Students in the Future?

Student issues are almost all evergreen. While the pandemic may not be something all young people will experience with the same intensity, the desire to be seen, heard, and validated has been and will continue to be a need that students have. No matter what generation, students of all ages, grades, and educational moments can benefit from social and emotional learning via dignity.

Lesson Plans, Solutions, and Suggestions for Educators

In order for teachers to incorporate SEL into their day, they need to be given space and time, and most importantly, training. It cannot just be an added goal or expectation without the proper support and resources.

Additionally, it’s always important to remember that everyone is human, even adults. You can always go back to your students/young people and apologize. It teaches them that it is okay to make a mistake, how to handle it, and how to grow from it. Teachers are struggling too. We need to give them space to get through this challenging and novel time. However, going through these struggles while treating everyone with Dignity sets an example and road map to follow.

Listen to the podcast episode:

Additional Descriptions on the Podcast:

  • Modeling behavior for students, they see what we do. We need to demonstrate and show them how to give grace, have a hard conversation, and have empathy.
  • Dignity helps young people feel seen, heard and valued.
  • We are all human. Progress not perfection.

For a great resources on learning how to supporting and empower counselors and students see: