‘You don’t have to be best friends to be nice to each other’

Students Learn Lessons, Build Climate of Respect

Knapp Forest Counselor Cindi Reynolds role plays as the mean girl in the lunchroom with Ava Hoogeterp, left, and Blake Ford

Cindi Reynolds pulled a miniature tube of toothpaste from her pocket and asked fifth-grader Stella Cummings to squeeze out a big ol’ dollop onto a piece of paper.

“OK got it?” Reynolds asked. “Now put it back.”

As her classmates giggled, Stella did her best to try to shmoosh the paste from whence it came. Reynolds, who is a counselor at Knapp Forest Elementary, was trying to make a point to students that the goopy task was a metaphor for something very serious.

All is forgiven: Fifth-graders Maiya Hunsberger, left, and Stella Cummings hug and make up after a simulated disagreement

“It’s like your words if you say something mean,” she said. “Though you can apologize and try to clean things up the best you can, there’s still a little bit of mess left behind.

“Words are powerful: They can make you feel great or terrible in just a second.”

Reynolds spent the week visiting classrooms as part of grade-appropriate “peacekeeper” lessons. “It’s a term we use here at Knapp Forest, as we want to teach and empower children about their role in helping create a peaceful school,” she said.

Lessons are aimed at building respectful school climates that focus on expectations of behavior, conflict resolution skills, inclusivity and creating a positive culture for all students.​

For Reynolds, that means “deciding what kind of a school we want to have, discussing mean behaviors and what to do if they witness it, (and) how to stand up for yourself and get help,” she said.

Fifth-graders took turns sharing what behaviors they don’t like to see from their classmates — gossip, excluding others from play, making fun of people — as well as what they do like. Talking about those things helped students answer what kind of school they want to have.

Marlina Howell holds a poster that depicts Knapp Forest’s “fish philosophy” of many individuals united by one school

“You don’t have to be best friends to be nice to each other,” said Marlina Howell.

“I appreciate it when there’s not mean behavior,” added KenZen Low.

Those amicable traits align with Knapp Forest’s “fish philosophy,” the idea that being nice and respectful helps all students “swim together.”

“Even though we are all different, we are kind to each other,” said Lily Gleason.

Principal Scott Haid said having a counselor in all buildings at the elementary level “has been so worth the district’s investment.”

“We are teaching students from kindergarten how to have respectful discourse, so that they can have conversations on a level even some of us as adults are not having,” he said. “They learn how ‘I respectfully disagree’ and ‘I agree but’ are valuable, and how they can disagree without being disagreeable.”


Elementary Counselors: ‘The Normal Has Changed’

Can’t take it all the way back: Stella Cummings tries to get toothpaste back into the tube
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them.


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