Germantown Friends School psychologist Craig Stevens was stumped. He had tried everything he knew to help a fourth-grade student who had some socially annoying behaviors that really distracted his classmates, and was having little success.
So Stevens tried a program he developed back when he was a grad student at the University of Pennsylvania that promoted listening, communication, and patience in a classroom setting and encouraged students to express their feelings in constructive ways. He called it FEEDBACK.
During the first session, the boy was very open and listened to his classmates' reactions about his inappropriate habits. He promised to change and talked to the group about how he wants to have friends, Stevens said. The class and teacher liked the program so much they asked to continue using it during the year.
That was at the beginning of his 30-year tenure at the independent Quaker school. Now, FEEDBACK is a valued part of the GFS culture.
"What I love about that story is less about the one child's recognition of how others found his habits troublesome, it is more about those other kids having the realization he was willing to change when they stated their feelings clearly," said Christy Reardon, head of the Lower School. "He had a desire to engage with them in a positive way, and it shifted who they thought he was as a person."
FEEDBACK, which is now used in the first through sixth grades at GFS, takes place once or twice a week. The kids gather in a circle on the floor and one by one are asked if they want to speak. They can skip, if they do not have anything to say, Stevens said.
"There is huge value in the sharing of the positive and doing it publicly," Stevens said.
The program is based on three rules.
First, those who want to give a comment must ask the recipient if he or she wants to hear it. The program is all about respecting the other's personal space. If the person doesn't want to hear the comments, his or her wish must be honored.
Second, the observation must be constructive. The student must convey something about how they are feeling and use "I" and not "you." For example, "I like how you always play soccer with me."
Third, the student on the receiving end has to listen to what the other person in saying and not interrupt them. He or she has to wait until it is his or her turn in the circle to respond, if he or she chooses, Stevens said.
If students offer more negative than positive comments, it can be a hint for teachers that there may be something bigger to deal with and they need to do some community building, Stevens said.
"It's so simple and inexpensive," said Maxine Field, a child psychologist who has a private practice in Chestnut Hill and is familiar with the program. It also puts in place a structure to discuss any crisis that might come up, such as the death of a student's parent, she said.
The program teaches children respect, restraint, and thoughtfulness in a time when people are generally disrespectful and say all kinds of things, sort of a preservation of older values, Field said.
In Andrea L'Tainen's third-grade class, Adrian Dussler, a big Philadelphia Union fan, had some feedback for Blake Breña.
Dussler had recently shown up at school sporting the letters DOOP for the team cheer as part of his new haircut. He took some heat for it on the playground and Breña stepped up to support him even though the two were not particularly close buddies.
"It makes me feel like you are a good friend," Dussler said.
L'Tainen hopes the kids file away compliments and re-create the behavior that led to them. "My favorite time when giving FEEDBACK is when a kid gives feedback to a kid they don't typically play with," she said.
Although the program is currently only used in the lower grades, its principles have stuck with the older students.
Ninth grader Grace Busser, 15, said FEEDBACK had helped her become more confident.
"Before I came to GFS, I was pretty shy and I really hated conflict," Busser said. Actually, she still hates conflict but using FEEDBACK has given her the skills to resolve any issues she has with other people in a positive way, she said.
Twelfth grader Giza Molenaar, 18, credits FEEDBACK for helping him become a better listener and being able to look at situations from another person's perspective. He is more comfortable talking with friends about serious subjects or addressing any potential issues with classmates before they arise, he said.
It is easy to think that a program like FEEDBACK can succeed because of the Quaker traditions of nonviolence and meeting for worship, where the community gathers and sits in silence unless someone is moved to speak. But would it work in a Philadelphia public school?
Sam Biddle, 29, a former GFS student used FEEDBACK when he was teaching at Frederick Douglass Mastery Charter School in Philadelphia. He found his students were receptive to the idea and far more advanced when using the program than he was at their age, he said.
"Adults are the ones who get in the way of what kids can or can't do," he said. "Kids will always rise to the occasion if we give them the opportunity."
One student even used a version of FEEDBACK at home when she felt her parents were arguing too much. The mother called and thanked Biddle, letting him know it really helped the family communicate better, said Biddle, who now works at the Relay Graduate School of Education and is teaching FEEDBACK in some of his classes.