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Cameron threw his PVC pipe onto the ground and screamed “this is stupid!” I quickly scanned the demeanor of the other 11 students and announced a snack break. Team Cloud had been working on the gutters challenge for over an hour. Gutters is a teambuilding activity where each student gets one short length of half pipe, and the group must work together to roll a ball down the pipes from start point to finish. I went to check on Cameron, cheese stick in hand and asked him how he was feeling. “This is so stupid!” he again screamed. I told him it sounded like he was feeling frustrated, to which he agreed. I reminded Cameron of how influential his voice was during the process of gutters. Students were following his directions this contributed to each attempt getting closer and closer to the cup. Cameron shared that although there was progress he was tired and wanted a break. I told him in the future he could always use a calm voice to let me know he was feeling frustrated and that a break would be beneficial. Team Cloud accomplished gutters in soon after that. The smile on Cameron’s face was worthwhile.

Due to the nature of environmental and outdoor education we often have the ability to focus on social and emotional development with students. Social and emotional development plays a large role in their learning. In fact, “research shows that social and emotional learning (SEL) increases prosocial behaviors, improves student attitudes towards school, and reduces stress among students” (Durlak et al. 2011). By spending time on SEL educators will spend less time on behavior management, increase group morale, and prepare students for the real world. According to The Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), there are five SEL core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. For the purpose of this article we will be focusing on self-awareness.

Self-awareness is the ability to understand how one’s emotions, thoughts, and values influence behavior. In order to comprehend these connections students must be able to identify and assess their own strengths and limitations. A favorable method of integrating SEL into teaching is facilitating a teambuilding exercise at the start of the teaching week. This exercise will act as an anchor lesson for SEL, and will be referenced throughout the rest of the week. A few examples of teambuilding activities are ropes course, tarp flip and of course gutters. The following are key SEL practices to utilize during the facilitation and debrief of the lesson.

Build Emotional Literacy

Student behavior ties into their emotions. If a student it unable to articulate how they are feeling it becomes challenging for them to solve their problems. Educators can help students construct emotional literacy by verbally identifying the emotion the student is trying to express. For example, when I told Cameron it sounded like he was feeling frustrated. This acknowledged his emotion and provided him the opportunity to talk about it.

Recognize Strengths

Recognizing strengths of students not only builds rapport but it helps students better understand their abilities. To be successful educators must be explicit when recognizing strengths. For example, when I reminded Cameron that his voice was helping guide his peers to a more successful gutter run. By connecting actions to results students are able to construct a strong understanding of how they are achieving these abilities. Another great strength recognition practice is asking students to share out skills they noticed of their peers. This cultivates a positive group dynamic and gives students a well-rounded view of their strengths.

Identify Growth Areas

Asking students to analyze themselves to identify their growth areas is difficult. To ease this process, ask students to scale back and look at what was challenging for the whole group. This can be done aloud with the whole group present. Next, ask students to identify their own areas of growth. To make it the most comfortable this can be done as a written activity. Make it clear if other students will or will not be reading this information. In the case of Cameron, it was easy to identify responding to frustration as a growth area. Constructing a plan for addressing future frustrations provided him with concrete next steps.

Social and emotional development is a crucial component of student success. When self-awareness if focused on students are empowered to be mindful of their behavioral choices. By helping students build emotional literacy, recognize their strengths and their areas of growth instructors are preparing students for real life situations beyond the classroom.

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development,82(1), 405-432. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01564.x

“Can you hear the silence? Our ancestors taught us to listen to the silence. It is beautiful to teach our minds to turn everything off, then mentally listen to the lessons that present themselves through this way of allowing silence to teach us.”

-Vi Hilbert, Upper Skagit Elder, Cultural Teacher, circa 1980s


At the beginning of any teaching week, I receive a list of my future students with their names, important medical information, and any other notes written by the parents and/or classroom teacher.  Although I value this information, I often take the notes with a grain of salt; learning in an outdoor setting allows students who struggle to be successful in a classroom to channel their energy or think in other ways, so the notes often seem irrelevant. On one particular Monday, I received a lengthy paragraph about one student with autism, who I will call Wayne. I prepared myself mentally to make some slight changes to my instruction and speak very literally. When the students arrived and settled into the group, I noticed that Wayne was high energy and needed boundaries, both personal and physical, and for these boundaries to be drawn out explicitly. The students in that week’s field group seemed to keep about a 5-foot distance in between themselves and Wayne. He was very kind, but had a hard time knowing when someone was trying to communicate that he had crossed a line. After making these observations, I took a deep breath and channeled some extra calm and patience to get me through the week.

The transition from classroom teaching to environmental education was challenging for me. At IslandWood, I work with the same 8-12 students all day long, rather than with 30 for an hour at a time. My classroom is 250 acres of forested land, rather than contained by 4 walls. The weather affects the mood of my students more than ever (it was a soggy winter.) But more than anything else, my biggest challenge has been adjusting to having a group of students for just four days, rather than a year and beyond. Each week, it gets harder and harder to say goodbye to my students, but I have learned how to hyperfocus my teaching on just a couple of main objectives and connect them to all that we do. At the beginning of every week, I ask myself: What do I want these kids to leave here with? What skills need to be practiced so that we can come together as a team? and, What problem do we have in our society that I would like to address through my teaching? And I keep coming back to the same theme: Listening.

An outdoor classroom lends itself well to practicing listening. At any given moment, there may be a woodpecker pecking, a coyote howling, or the wind rustling through the trees. At any given moment, I can pause the lesson and have my students listen. At any given moment, there is magic to be heard, but it is not that kind of listening that has brought the most magical moments.

The goosebump-inducing moments come from when my students listen to the land, listen to the plants, listen to the animals through what they notice. I ask them to think about what we can learn from the behaviors or growth patterns that we observe. Through one lesson in particular, each student becomes an expert in a plant and teaches the rest of the students about that plant. After everyone has taught, the students take what they learned about the plant and transform it into learning from the plant in an arts-integrated lesson I call Lessons from the Forest. For example, a Big Leaf Maple provides a habitat many plants and animals, so a lesson that could be learned is to be welcoming. This challenges students to take characteristics of a plant, build a relationship with them, and be open to listening to the earth’s lessons.

Trailing BlackberryThe first time I did this lesson was the same week that I had Wayne as a student. In the past, students with autism that I have worked with have had challenges with more abstract thought, which led me to believe that this activity would be a challenge for Wayne. After I rolled out the lesson, I immediately checked in with him. When I asked him to explain something he learned about his plant, Trailing Blackberry, he said, “Native Americans use it to purify. Can I write ‘be pure of heart’?” Instant goosebumps! I think Wayne might have gotten a little bit creeped out as my eyes opened incredibly wide and my face beamed with pride and excitement. I had been completely wrong about Wayne. He took the time to create a beautiful page about the Trailing Blackberry and all we can learn from it.

Wayne took the lessons on listening seriously that week, with some occasional resistance. By the end of the week, I had noticed a change in him. It was as if he had slowed down and really tried to understand what others were saying. On the morning of their departure, I heard Wayne talking to another student in the group, “I didn’t know I was going to make new friends when I came here.” As if it were a movie, the other student smiled and put his arm around Wayne’s shoulders and said, “Me either!” The other students learned to listen to Wayne and Wayne learned to listen to them. The simple act of listening brought Wayne into the group in a way that he may have never been brought in before. Listening made our group a place of acceptance, understanding, and love.

In western culture, true listening comes few and far between. We are constantly in a hurry, have too many things on our to do list, have too much to worry about in our own lives to worry about what is going on in someone else’s life. The kids that come to me are the future teachers, politicians, lawyers, activists, doctors, environmentalists, leaders and so much more. If we can teach them to slow down and listen to each other, to the earth, to themselves, the future will be filled with peace, acceptance, and equity.


There is a certain emphasis I have experienced as an outdoor educator on the importance of community. Maybe it is the setting in which this type of learning takes place, or possibly the influence of the field itself, but the forest, in my case, lends itself to discussing community. When my group of students and I gather along the edge of a trail on our first day together, we are not forming a community among four walls, but a community amidst a larger ecological context. This year, I focused on using the practice of arts-based teaching and learning to help build community amongst my groups of fourth through sixth graders. In an interview in 2017 in Sciart Magazine, Harvey Seifter describes Arts Based Learning and Teaching as, “...the instrumental use of artistic skills, processes, and experiences as educational tools to foster learning in non-artistic disciplines and domains” (Ferguson, J., 2017). As an artist and science teacher, I find myself integrating not only the artistic practices I know well and enjoy, but the thinking practices that are cultivated in the arts. In the context of this lesson, how watercolor images can be used represent the qualities each of my students brings to our field group.

Incorporating some of this research into my practice, I decided to use my understanding of the practice of arts-based teaching and learning for community building. As a residential environmental educator, I receive a new group of 10-12 student each week. I find the use of community agreements to be essential to a successful week in the field and am continuously thinking of how I can improve my process in this area. This week, I choose a visual arts integration to help my students express the qualities that they were bringing to the group. This idea was loosely based off of a deck of feeling cards I have used in the past. The cards have images on one side and words on the other. I typically place the images face up after team building in the center of our debrief circle as a way to help students tap into the emotions they experienced during the activity. Students can select an image and explain how they felt. I began to wonder if my students could make their own images.

I began this teaching week with my new group of students by having them participate in a solo walk along a path, as the students arrived at the end of the trail one by one every three minutes or so, they were asked to journal about a positive quality they were bringing to the group. Once all students arrived and had time to journal on the prompt, I handed out small pre-cut squares of watercolor paper. I asked them to represent their positive quality as an image; I had created an example of a coy fish. I told them I would explain later what it meant to me, but I wanted them to do the same. For a few students, representation was a difficult leap in understanding. I presented them with several modifications, one being to select a color that represented the quality, the second, to write the quality in words, then watercolor it. All students were able to successfully participate.

CommunityAgreement TextThe next day, I glued all the images into a circle on a large piece of paper. As students went around and shared what their image represented, I traced the conversation between each speaker. The web represented between all of us that week, represented the strength we have together as a community. The middle of the web was filled with words that defined teamwork. I used the agreement each morning as a tool for goal setting. Students selected one word as their goal for the day. At the end of each day, we debriefed our goals and how we accomplished them.

When thinking about why the incorporation of visual arts was valuable in this lesson, I think about how that week felt with those students. Team building and by virtue of that, teamwork, was very challenging for this group, but individual strengths were mentioned by students in each activity we did. The students recognized that each member brought something different to the community. Additionally, I saw an initial deeper understanding on an individual level from each student as to what quality they were bringing to the group. In comparison, I have had groups select a positive quality without representing it visually and struggle explaining why they choose the quality they did, or what quality to choose. The above experience furthers my belief that the arts helps us as humans make sense of the world around us, help us understand ourselves, and help us represent that knowledge for others.


Ferguson, J. (2017, February). Art as a means to scientific discovery: the work of Harvey Seifter
and the art of science learning. Sciart magazine. Retrieved from sciartmagazine.com


The bottom of my field teaching backpack usually contains a section of rope, a habit that carries over from backcountry trips. Rope is an incredibly versatile tool that can be used for many things, including teaching in the field.

My “teaching” rope has yet to teach any knots. I could, of course, use it to teach students a figure-eight, square knot, half-hitch, clove-hitch, fisherman’s and so on. I’ve taught knots in other settings and doing so can be a great way to break the ice, occupy time with something productive and provide a challenge that involves both the hands and the brain.


Most frequently the rope gets used to teach students about teamwork. One good entry-level team-building exercise involves tying the rope ends together to make a circle and have each student take the rope in their hands. The task is to work together to make a square, a rectangle, a hexagon. Have every other kid turn around and face the opposite direction to make it harder. Or skip the shapes altogether and have the students all lean backwards at the same time so the rope becomes taut and holds them up. This is sometimes referred to as a “yurt circle” and works best with an even number of students.

If the rope is marked in increments it can be used as a giant measuring stick. Stretched out straight it can serve as a transect line, or it can section off a specific area for close study like a quadrat. Want to know how tall something is?  Figure out how long the rope is, then hold onto one end tightly while throwing the other end upwards: you can get at least an approximate idea. I’ve also used it as a human continuum, with students lining up along the rope according to how they feel about something. One end of the rope could be “my favorite food is broccoli”, the opposite end “I consider broccoli evidence of evil in the world”.


I’ve used the rope as part of a ceremony to bookend teaching, inviting students to join me inside the rope circle at the beginning of the week and asking them to step outside the circle at the end of the week. The rope signifies group membership and reinforces a shared sense of language and shared customs. Crossing the rope becomes a symbolic rite of passage.

Orchestrating various lessons is easier with a piece of rope. Making knots in a piece of rope can be used as a mnemonic device for breaking down complex tasks: narrate the individual steps, tying an alpine butterfly as you go, then have the students walk through the steps themselves, tugging on each butterfly loop as they recall the step. You can even leave the rope out and the knots visible as a reminder for students.

Rope can be used in all manner of games, to designate a starting line, delineate a safe area or simply provide a boundary.

Need students to circle up and listen to instructions? Make a circle on the ground with rope and have students line their toes up with the rope.  It’s like wrangling students with the teaching lasso!

Whatever you end up using it for, a piece of rope in your backpack can be an invaluable teaching tool.


A student arrives to their overnight environmental program, a smile beaming from ear to ear with excitement and a camera ready at their hand to take photos- of everything. That student might end up taking a lot of photos during lessons and cameras and that can be distracting for the entire group. For this reason many places have taken the model of ‘leave your technology at home’

Cameras are something that the majority of people have now. Because of this social media sights like Instagram are popping up and encourage people to take pictures of their life and what they are doing, all the time. Some organizations have taken full advantage of these media sights and have photo contests nationwide to get people outside, like the Find Your Park campaign by the National Parks. Environmental educators’ audience have expanded because of social media. But, we have also been ignoring the fact that we’re inspiring people to go outside themselves to get that next epic photo. As an educator, I feel that we need to educate people so they can go out and get that photo in a proper and responsible way.

Due to the lack of education, people are hurting themselves and the place environmental educators are trying so hard to protect. A great time to teach people, especially children, about this responsibility is during an overnight environmental programs, like IslandWood School Overnight Program.

Here at IslandWood, lessons can be done with IPods and cameras with the students to have them take photos while they are in more of a nature setting. Going over a few things will set them up for them later on as they explore with their cameras at hand.

Some possible things to talk about when doing a lesson about responsibility when taking photographs:

1) Do Your Research- Know some background pieces about the subject. Where and when should you go? Is it mating season for this particular species? Is this ecosystem more delicate in some seasons?

2) Cause No Stress- Lack of disturbance must be a priority.

a. Know the proper distances to keep. According to the National Park, a person should stay 25 yards (about the size of two school buses) away from large mammals like elk, moose, etc and 100 yards (the length of a football field) away from large predatory mammals like wolves and bears.

b. Be mindful of not following a certain subject. They might have young they don’t want to lead you to or they might become accustomed to seeing a person and become unafraid.

3) Leave No Trace- Stay on trails, using a quiet voice, camp on durable surfaces, and carry in- carry out. You want to limit your presence as much as possible.

Some questions to ponder before going out:

What is my end goal for this picture? Is it just for me or am I trying to inspire other people to come here? What will happen if a lot of people do come here? Can the environment and wildlife handle it?

As an environmental educator, I want people to interact with nature with cameras in a responsible manner so people and nature stay happy and safe.

When I first brought along the little grinning monkey with long Velcro limbs, I didn't have a lot of confidence in my ability to convince a group of 10-12 year olds that it would be a fun and an important part of our team.  Aren't students that age getting pretty concerned with being cool and not being little kids that play with toys?  After using my now very familiar and very dusty monkey friend over the course of the past several months, I'm totally convinced of its efficacy as a catalyst of positive social emotional development.  Even 6th graders didn't scoff at it.  From observing other instructors and making some of my own additions, I've utilized the following techniques to transform an inanimate object into a tool of positive social emotional growth and to foster a culture of appreciation.

1. Let the suspense build: On the first day, I attach the monkey to my backpack but don't mention anything about it.  There's usually at least one student who asks about it right away.  By the end of the day, several others are wanting to know what's up with the monkey.  Why's it here? Can they touch it?  Does it have a name?

2.Build up to the introduction: On the second day, I usually pull out the monkey and make a big deal of introducing it and let everyone know it will be an important part of our team.  By this point, most of the students have their eyes locked in and can barely stand not playing with it.

3. Naming as a team building exercise: I then hand the monkey over to the students and ask them to go away from adults and come back when they have a name (Bob seems to be a pretty popular one, with creativity award going to Chanjella).  When they come back, the first thing I do is check in with everyone and have them rate 1-5 if they felt like they were heard and respected in the naming process.  If there are a lot of folks rating the process low, we brainstorm how to make the process more inclusive, and then I give them another chance to decide on a final name.

4. How the monkey travels through the group:I then ask everyone to think if there is anyone who they can appreciate for being helpful/brave/generous during the naming process.  Once several students have received appreciations, I hand the monkey to the student who received the first appreciation.  I then explain that every hour or so (when we're circled up and not in the middle of a lesson), the person who has the monkey will pass it to another group member with an appreciation.  Everyone will hold the monkey during our time as a group.  It’s Important to mention that appreciations should be specific, and not only directed at friends that you already know well. When a student first receives the monkey, I remind them that they should be paying attention to other group members so that they can notice when someone deserves an appreciation.  I also give them a few minute warning before a circle/monkey pass so that they can gather their words, and so that no one student has the monkey for too long.

The outcome has been overwhelmingly positive.  In some groups where the interactions are pretty negative, the passing of the stuffed animal really keeps the group morale afloat.  I had one group of students that typically interacted with irritation and there was one little boy in particular that rarely said anything positive to other students.  When someone appreciated him for helping with lunch I saw the first smile of the week.  Although his attitude didn’t completely change, I did notice him interacting with several students in a positive way after receiving that praise. The infusion of structured positive interaction has real potential to support the health of a community.

Other possible adaptations/ideas:

  • have some (or all) of the passing be outside of circling up, more of a private appreciation between two students
  • pass it around at the end of each day for group appreciations
  • come up with a song for the passing/appreciation

When working in the back or front-country wilderness you may find yourself convincing your students or clients about the ease and comfort of disposing of their

human waste in a natural setting. You may have fumbled through a tutorial once or twice about “digging a hole and aiming”, or tried to explain the benefits of using a composting toilet with a seemingly-endless black hole and unfamiliar air currents.

The reality is, once a novice has one positive experience of using an alternative or natural toilet, the task becomes less embarrassing and stressful.

What are the options?

  • Nature pee (and pack it in-pack it out)
    When at a remote campsite or in high-traffic day hike areas, you may find yourself needing to embrace a nature pee. Teaching kids from a young age about proper stance and appropriate locations to “use the woods” will reduce soiling oneself and embarrassment on everyone’s behalf. Furthermore, to be a true steward in high-use areas without other facilities, packing out one’s solid waste in zip-top bags is common practice.

  • Outhouses and Portable Toilets
    External toilets are a part of our national heritage: these toilet systems have been around since the 1940s! They also use 90% less water than traditional flushing toilets. Many state and national parks use portable restrooms or restrooms that are drained throughout the season; while they can be odorous and occasionally soiled, the most effective way to be a steward is to ensure the lid is closed after each use and to have hand sanitizer available once you have left the units.

  • Composting Toilets
    These eco-friendly bathroom alternative use no water and they compost our human waste into a new product: soil! The composting toilet system works through aerobic decomposition of the solid waste and evaporation of the liquid waste resulting in solid garden mulch. Explaining to younger users how the composting toilets work and why they are great for the earth can help to alleviate fears and mistrust of unfamiliar systems!

Why does it matter?

Education Director for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, Ben Lawhon, states that human waste and what we do with it can be one of the most significant impacts that faces lands used by the public for recreation. It impacts disease transmission and health, water quality, aesthetics, and social realms --and it's something that a lot of people just have a hard time dealing with.” As environmental educators and explorers we strive to minimize the impact on our planet and our communities; our waste is certainly included in that impact. Using these three steps, doing your business in nature can become peaceful and stress-free:

  1. Familiarity: Determine the most efficient and sanitary waste system available to you and become familiar with it early on in your adventure. Introducing your friends or team members to composting toilets and how they function will help to alleviate stress; starting a backpacking trip with a hypothetical display of removing excessive clothing, digging a hole and squatting will ease those with concerns about future bowel movements and what to do when they occur in the backcountry.

  2. Promote Sanitation: Determine what materials you will be using (toilet paper, smooth rocks, leaves, etc) and how you will dispose of them. Pack it in, pack it out in sealable plastic bags and/or compostable toilet paper materials. Change into clean clothes as often as possible.

  3. Ask Questions! If you are unsure about the appropriate protocol for your outing, ask a friend or a local guide. Ecosystems are often fragile and susceptible to bacteria from human waste. Ask before you “go”!

Further Resources:





It is a scene that is repeated over and over. A student finds a stick on the side of the trail and soon enough, they are walking towards you as if they have just begun a trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. As an environmental educator, with safety as a priority for my students, I feel myself getting ready to say “Please put the stick down”. However, unless the child is using the stick as a wand, sword, light sabre or other object that needs to waved in the air, I find myself taking a different route now, one that embraces the use of sticks in the field. I have ultimately come to the conclusion that using sticks in our environmental education setting can truly have significant benefits.

Sticks for Learning about Engineering

Incorporating a structured activity using sticks can be an educational and fun experience. Using sticks as a medium, it can be focused on the concepts of design and creation. Students can work in small teams to find a location to build a bridge, shelter, or something else, depending on the prompt. The level of difficulty can be adjusted, even going as far as creating a walkable and sturdy bridge over a puddle. After building and testing out their projects, each group can present their creation, explaining the design, process and complexities of their structure. The process of building will be an experiential learning experience about what works and what doesn’t, as well as offer a small scale glimpse into major concepts that are a part of building anything.

Sticks for Learning about Teamwork

Not only are students learning about different engineering concepts, they are also working as a team in the process. Decision making comes into play as soon as the teams are formed. What location will we pick? Who is charge of what parts? What design should we attempt? What size materials should we use? Team members get the opportunity to work together for a concrete task, all while practicing very important communication and decision making skills. At the very end, students can share about their experience building together and discuss what went well or could be improved.

Sticks for Demonstrating Trust

Whether or not it is a building project, it is important for my students to know that I trust them to responsibly handle large sticks. This element of trust is a huge foundational piece for me, one that is extremely important to weave and communicate throughout any teaching experience. As mentioned before, one situation that comes up often when working with 5th graders is the desire to have a walking stick. I don’t ever bring up the idea of walking sticks unprompted, but as soon as a student inevitably picks up a stick I use it as an opportunity to explain my specific protocol that answers the following questions.

  • When and where will we be able to use walking sticks? This should be very clear. I often pick a trail that is removed from the main campus and doesn’t involve tricky terrain.
  • What does it look like to use a walking stick responsibly? Don’t underestimate the power of modeling this behavior. Pick a student and have them show everyone.
  • How tall can your walking stick be? Below shoulder height is usually easy to manage.
  • Where can we get a walking stick without harming our surroundings and each other? Make sure that getting a stick does not involve stepping into harmful plants or breaking branches.
  • Most importantly, why are you allowing walking sticks when the common expectation is to leave them on the ground? Without this, you may as well not let your students have sticks. I explain that I trust them and know they will show me this too.

There is not denying the magnetic force between sticks and students. The connection is quite real, and I think it is an opportunity to use sticks for good. I have never had any issues with students using sticks, whether as part of a more structured building activity or casually on the trails. When expectations are set high, and it is clear to the students that you trust them, they will rise up. I like to believe that all students will rise up if given the chance. Having this foundation of trust is when learning outdoors truly happens.

Students have a general affinity towards sticks and the potential to use it for learning responsibly, while still having fun, exists. Let’s embrace it.

Teaching in outdoor and informal education settings poses a number of unique challenges for those who choose this exciting and rewarding career. For example, instructors are faced with the monumental task of creating and maintaining a positive learning environment for students that they have just met. Additionally, informal educators must provide students with excellent learning opportunities in unfamiliar, exciting, and often totally distracting places. Finally, informal educators have a limited amount of time with their students to teach new concepts, address alternative conceptions, and stretch student thinking. Whether an educator has only an hour or an entire week with their students, most would agree that time is precious and should be spent learning and exploring.

How do we, as educators, maximize the limited time we have with our students? How do we ensure that we make the most of our instructional time? One strategy to help students transition smoothly from their classroom to a new environment is to set clear behavioral expectations early on and to hold students accountable. Well-defined expectations serve as a reminder to students that they are in a learning environment and that their behavior should align with the behavior expected of them in a classroom setting.

Through a series of trial-and-error teaching experiments, I have created a combination of 3 expectations that have proven to be exceptionally useful in concisely articulating my expectations for my students. It just so happens that they each start with the letter “P”, which works to my advantage, as it allows me to assign a snappy nickname to this grouping of behavioral norms: The Three Ps. The Three Ps are Participation, Positivity, and People Respecting Other People Speaking (otherwise known as P.R.O.P.S).

When used in conjunction, these three expectations address the majority of common behavioral challenges that I face as an outdoor educator. They are fairly straightforward, require little explanation, and, due to their simplicity, are easy to casually bring up when gentle redirection is needed.

I have found it most effective to introduce these expectations shortly after meeting my students and make sure to include my reasoning for each behavioral standard. The immediate presentation of expectations sets the tone for the remainder of an instructor’s time with their students. Once the norms are established and understood, the instructor can reference and enforce them quickly and efficiently. Additionally, a clear explanation of the “why” in addition to the “what” can help students understand that expectations aren’t the same as rules. Instead, they are guidelines intended to promote a successful learning experience for all members of the group.

Just as each and every student has a unique learning style, each instructor has his or her own distinct teaching style. I urge educators to play around with different sets of expectations and see what works for them. When brainstorming expectations for a group, consider how the skills they are practicing can be transferred to their home communities. Participation, positivity, and P.R.O.P.S are behaviors that can (and should) be used in any setting, educational or not. If there are exceptions to your expectations, consider leaving them out. It is confusing when expectations vary based on the setting or context. Expectations are most effective when they are constant.

In sum, here is a recap of how to establish and successfully use expectations in an educational setting:

  • Create expectations that are transferrable and universal.
  • Introduce expectations early on.
  • Explain the “why” of each expectation, not just the “what”.
  • Enforce expectations and provide reminders when needed.