A student transitions into the Otters when they start to notice that there is more to life than just their best friend—there are, in fact, quite a few people they would like to play with. They start to experience the complexity of a small group. This is the first taste of Rule-Conformity, when they know they can use the rules to make the world work better for them. This is a scary new perspective as for the first time they realise that others are looking at them and see them differently to the way they see themselves! They also discover that there are rules that go beyond what they have experienced directly before and they come from people they have not met. The world expands and the Otter will often panic, falling back to Rule-Oriented: “just tell me what is the right thing to do!” The Otters is a transition class group: when feeling safe and secure they can be working in the Rule-Conformist space like that of the Dolphins BUT when stressed or tired they fall back into Rule-Oriented like that of the Penguins.
The Focus of the Class
As the Otters still love sitting in the past when things go wrong, they will bemoan past wrongs and deceptions. It is very difficult for them to move out of this perspective when they are tired or overly emotional. When the Otter is feeling positive and confident they can begin to focus on the immediate future. This means that when they are emotional they are difficult to reason with but when they have calmed down they are happy to consider future solutions. This is a valuable insight for the adults working with the Otter as you need to help them calm down first when stressed as rationality leaves them. Don’t try and force them to “think” when the rule-based world has collapsed around them. It’s a waste of time!
The teacher has changed from being the arbiter of taste. The Otter asks “Is it good?” to the small group instead. They are branching out into using the rules they have been learning (spelling, grammar, maths, friendship, handwriting, drawing, etc.) to create something different… as long as someone in their tribe likes it! Unlike the Dolphins who are interested in group response, the Otters are desperate for their small group reward.
This means that the teacher needs to take into account two key and sometimes conflicting points:
Importance of Small Groups
Accepting that Otters are at a point where they want to focus on the immediate impact of their choices on their small group of friends. They will focus on rules and working to them as well as extending the rules to suit their needs. This is the stage when they start to argue with you about their rule divergence being “right” through their personal logic system. They need a classroom that allows them to discuss the rules and talk about them in their group—rules that can be actively used on each other.
Wider World - Concrete Rules
The Otter is starting to see the world beyond their immediate experience, but it is still based in the concrete world of their mind. When you talk about another country they start, for the first time, to perceive the value in difference because they understand the rule systems to describe it, not just the novelty of it. An Otter classroom must provide children with the chance to explore these concrete systems to test the “rules”. This is the time for bicarb volcanoes, dances and plays based around the rules of the shows they watch and construction that “looks” right… even if it falls apart later.
Developmentally the Otter student is able to remember well what happened at break but they are still dogged by an obsession with the past that is drawn out in moments of stress. Truth is incredibly important and they value honesty and trust. Lying will often be a useful practice for any child who fears exclusion by friends or significant others… which is all of them! They really want to “fit” with their little group and they try to get the same things as the little group. The complexity of these small group dynamics often exhaust them and they start to dislike the long-winded nature of the conflict resolution process with the teacher, preferring to try and work it out themselves. They are able to take another’s perspective with limited support from the teacher. Using the same example as we used for the Penguins:
James: “She thumped me on the arm and grabbed the ball!”
Jill: “ We were just playing a game with the ball and I tagged him!”
This time the teacher’s role is still to facilitate empathetic listening and perspective taking by asking questions about their perspectives.
Teacher: “So did you set some rules around playing the game?”
Jill: “No, that might have helped.”
James: “Yes it would! I just had no idea what was going on.”
Jill: ( to the teacher )”Should we write it down?” (still checking what is right/good)
Teacher: “How about you ask James?” (Re-framing Jill back to to thinking about James)
Conflict negotiation is still very important at this developmental level as it is a very effective way for the students to learn to “step into another’s shoes” and empathise but they are starting to get frustrated with the time it takes. The teacher must still ensure that everything is “fair” as under stress they still feel passionate about fairness.
Completing Focused Tasks
The Otters are interested in learning about the rules of the “world” as presented by the teacher but also beyond the teacher, in the world beyond. They enjoy non-fiction books at this stage and the draw of imaginary universes. The big wider world is the scary one. They will hold firm to the ‘right and wrong’ of their Rule-Oriented perspective. They find it very difficult to follow through with goals over more than two days, and they find it hard to live beyond the immediate future. We don’t expect the Otters to be able to work their way through their weekly goals alone, but the beginning of self direction is emerging. The Otters enjoy working in small groups and need help to have the opportunity to learn to move away from the group to get their work completed. OMNI projects (own choice projects) tend to always be small group ones or individual ones for those Otters moving further into Rule-Conformity.
However, the bulk of learning happens in small groups or individual lessons. The Otters don’t want anyone to know that they are not coping with situations, that they can’t achieve the same as others. They often start to hide their confusion in case the “others” see, in case the “others” judge. The Otter learner is losing their eagerness for feedback, unless it is done subtly and without everyone knowing. More than any other time the teacher needs to ensure that the classroom environment remains emotionally safe for students to share confusion or lack of understanding as at the first sign of judgement they will often withdraw.
Transitioning to Caring and Sharing
The Otter student is really starting to explore empathy. They get an active reminder of it when looking to see the feelings on other people’s faces or in learning to listen to their stories—they remember how they felt, how this person might feel. The need for conflict resolution morphs more into a need to be heard and to hear the other. They are eager to know what the other person was thinking or feeling. Self protection is still well and truly in place for the Otters as they will fall into the Rule-Oriented perspective frequently during stressful interactions so the teacher still needs to help them relax, calm and listen with an open heart and open mind.
Leadership plays an important role in building the Otters confidence in the group. By organising and planning for that developing skill the teacher can help the Otter find a role to play in the widening world view they are becoming aware of. It can be so difficult for the Otter to realise that the world they thought was set, actually has wider edges to it than they have ever previously perceived. This stage struggles with seeing the wider group, so much so that they may start to get a bit over vigilant, watching the others before answering or taking part. By rotating leadership roles the students are able to take on the role at the centre of the group at nominated times, to remember that power is not held by the group, they have their own power. This strategy persists into the Dolphins.
A Snapshot of the Otters Base Camp
Every morning at BIS starts with a morning meeting. For the Otters it is an opportunity for the day’s plan to be shared, recorded and discussed. The agenda is written up on the board for students to track, and referred back to throughout the day in their goal books. Like the Penguins the agenda also includes lunchtime club events, extra-curricula opportunities and any self directed learning goals. At least once per week this is also time for “show and tell”. Students practice being silent during this agenda setting so everyone can jump into the morning Lab Session quickly, and the Otters really relish the leadership opportunities this provides. At every transition point in the day the Otter teacher will use the meditation bowl to bring the class into focus and deep breathwork to calm their mind and body.