It is important to set up standards and expectations for the classroom early on, and equally important to follow up on them throughout the school year. Encourage students to talk about what behaviors, attitudes, and actions they think contribute to a climate of caring in the classroom, and play games that reinforce these values.

The Peaceable Person Profile

To help students understand what makes a peaceable person, have a volunteer lie down on a 4-by-7-foot sheet of mural paper and ask classmates to trace his or her body. Then ask the class what behaviors, attitudes, and actions they think contribute to a climate of caring in the classroom. Have students take turns writing these positive attributes inside the outline of the peaceable person. (With younger children, do the recording yourself.) As kids write down their thoughts, ask them to give examples of what they mean by helpful, courteous, and so on. If no one comes up with any qualities related to including others, ask, "In our classroom, what would a peaceable person do if someone wanted to play with him or her?"

Now have the group write outside of the outline all of the negative behaviors, attitudes, and actions that they don't want as part of the class. Finally, ask children if they can agree to use the attributes of the peaceable person to guide their behavior. Post the peaceable person as a visual contract for you and students. Whenever a positive or negative behavior occurs, kids can point it out on the outline.

Editor's Note: This activity is adapted from Youth Leadership in Action by Project Adventure.

Playing for Empathy

Musical Chairs

Use this old favorite to raise issues of inclusion and exclusion. First, play the traditional way. When the game is over, explain that you'd like to try a different version — this time the object is to make sure no one is excluded. If everyone has a place to sit, the group wins. If anyone is without a place to sit, the group loses. When playing, eliminate a chair, but not a child, every time the music stops. Students will need to figure out creative ways to pile everyone on one chair.

The Tight Hands Game

This game gives children a metaphor for discussing inclusion and exclusion. Begin by explaining that the class will act as if it is excluding someone. Have students hold hands in a circle. One child volunteer, the outsider, tries to get into the circle through spaces between people, while everyone else tries to keep him or her out. Caution children to be gentle when blocking the outsider. When the outsider gets into the circle, stop the game and ask for another volunteer. As a variation you can have two or three outsiders at one time. After playing several rounds, ask: What did it feel like to be an outsider? Did anyone want to let the outsiders inside the circle? Did you let them slip in? Why or why not? Have you ever felt like an outsider in school? When?

Books That Bind

There are many children's books that address the pain of exclusion and the benefits of inclusion. For younger children, try Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow, 1991) and Oliver Button Is a Sissy by Tomie de Paola (Harcourt Brace, 1979). The themes are explored for older children in The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes (Harcourt Brace, 1974) and Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.! by Eleanora Tate (Bantam, 1992). For your own reading, Vivian Gussin Paley's You Can't Say You Can't Play (Harvard University Press, 1992) is a thought-provoking account of a teacher's attempt to deal with exclusion in her classroom.

One Teacher's Strategies

"In 15 years of teaching I've seen a lot of excluding and a lot of hurt feelings," says third-grade teacher Margaret Bruell of Carlisle, Massachusetts. So last year she made inclusion one of the themes of her classroom.

First, she raised the issue of exclusion in a class meeting. "I had observed a situation in the cafeteria where a second grader told another that she couldn't sit with her. We discussed the incident as a class, then I had children work in pairs to list reasons why the girl might have turned away her classmate. Then we discussed why people exclude others."

Margaret raised the issue in other class meetings, discussing actual incidents of exclusion and inclusion, and she had children write responses to the following:

  • Tell about a time when you were excluded or included at school.
  • Why do you think people exclude one another?
  • Are people more likely to include or exclude others in our school?

Margaret also tried story starters that described an incident in which a child asks to be included. The children shared their stories in class meetings.

"This is not a problem that is remedied very quickly," Margaret admits. "That's why it's so important to keep bringing it up. The more kids think about it, the more likely they are to change." Margaret adds, "Remember to listen to children instead of lecturing. Exclusion has lots of causes and listening to children's experiences can help you get to the bottom of them." Then, she advises, "Have students share their feelings about exclusion and inclusion. It's one way to help kids develop empathy. I saw many of the children become more sensitive to excluded children. One boy who was severely excluded had a couple of friendships by the end of the year."