Gradual Release in Residence Life

written by: Natalie Mays, Associate Dean of Student Life - Campus Programs


Growing up before the new millennium was something particularly special. Before technology was at our fingertips and virtual worlds overcame reality, one of the greatest rites of passage was learning how to ride a bike. Your bike gave you the independence to travel to new places and—even if just for a few moments—control your own destiny. If you are like me, the experience of learning to ride came over many years. I remember starting with my little blue tricycle and then graduating to my pink Huffy, imagining the day when the training wheels would come off and I could ride like the big kids in the neighborhood. Although my parents worked with me for a long time, it was actually the father of one of the kids on the cul-de-sac where I lived who bridged the gap from training wheels to no training wheels. He worked with me one afternoon, running behind me time and time again as I learned the art of balance and forward motion, each time letting me go a little sooner until I finally could do it by myself. There was no greater feeling than making that leap and, as you can see, it’s one that still holds a warm memory in my mind.

Gradual Release in the Classroom

This experience, like many others in our lives, exemplifies the practice of gradual release—a fancy name learning theorists have for the practice of teaching a new concept to a person and slowly providing less and less support (or scaffolding) until they can do it on their own. In the classroom we do this all the time. For instance, when teaching a new math concept or a new reading strategy, we use a practice called ‘I do, we do, you do.”
Release pyramid

In this model the teacher starts out with the full responsibility of completing the task. The teacher models how to complete a new skill while the students watch. Then, during the ‘we do’ phase—also called ‘guided instruction’—the teacher and the students do the task together. Perhaps, when learning a new math concept for instance, the teacher works with students on how to solve a problem together and the teacher shares their thinking with students. When students seem to understand how to do the concept, the student begins to take on more of the responsibility in the ‘you do’ phase where students help each other or work on a task independently. As this follows a typical lesson plan, it makes sense that academic learning often transpires in this way: the teacher models a new concept, students and teacher work on the concept together and then students practice and perform the new task on their own.

If you glance through any teacher preparation program, you will almost always clearly see this gradual release model. In fact, it’s something teachers have been doing for years as they help students understand new concepts. But, in informal learning settings, the gradual release model is often more discrete and nuanced.

Independent Living Skills

Life skills, unlike those in academic settings, are many times interwoven in a complex web of learning processes that can be more difficult to unpack and scaffold. How does one use a gradual release model to teach a teen how to engage in conflict resolution, organization habits or stress relief? Parents of any generation likely recognize that the support in learning these concepts, much like riding a bike, can be an ongoing process that must be supported in different ways depending on situations and maturity level.

In Residence Life, we have the unique ability to work on independent living skills over the course of our students’ high school experiences, changing support levels as they mature and develop. A good example of this is the way we support time management and organization. Eighth and ninth graders come to Eagle Hill oftentimes never having spent more than a week or two away from home and almost always needing significant support learning how to organize their academic and social lives. Residential Counselors provide a variety of scaffolds as students learn to master these skills such as compulsory study halls to ensure academic work gets completed, having assignments checked by a faculty member to make sure they are done to the appropriate level, checklists for room cleaning on a daily basis and repeated announcements to remind students of time points throughout the day—just to name a few.

Similar to classroom instruction, Residential Counselors hold most of the responsibility at the beginning to ensure students are cared for and meeting obligations in regards to time management and organization. As time goes on, however, we want to begin to transfer that responsibility to students, giving them more ownership over independent living skills. We go about this in a few different ways. Firstly, we believe it’s important to talk about things that successful people do in ways that are easily understood by young teens. In our dorms we provide direct instruction on things like making lists to stay organized, how to use a calendar, how to set alarms on your phone, what it means to have a clean and organized room and how to best use time during study hall. Secondly, we believe it’s crucial to model the desired skills, working side by side students to help them develop in needed areas. Instead of giving students arbitrary tasks like ‘clean your room,’ we may go in and work beside them, showing them what a clean room looks like. During that process it also becomes helpful for staff to share their thinking as to how they are cleaning and organizing.

For some students, the gradual release process happens rather quickly. Students easily catch on to what’s being asked of them and quickly develop independence in various areas. As this happens, support from Residential Counselors pulls back and assistance and check-ins dwindle as the student continues to show independence. We may begin to take down check lists, have fewer room checks or even ask students to help others who may be still learning about organization. In the same way, as students develop positive study habits and become academically organized, they may no longer need to have their homework looked over by a staff member. For other students, the mastery of independent living skills simply takes more time. This can happen for a variety of reasons (limited prior knowledge, executive function challenges, lack of maturity, etc) and we never assume that a student will never master a skill; just that they may need increased supports to do so. The gradual release model allows us to focus on manageable skills while supporting those that are still developing.

Conversely to the academic model of gradual release, life skills do not always follow a linear pattern. We cannot assume that because a student is showing conflict resolution skills independently as a Freshman, they will never need to be supported again in this area. The human condition assumes that there will be times when we need to revisit and retool our life skills, even as adults. For teens, particularly as their repertoire of experiences grows through adolescence and they most literally emerge in their twenties with a different brain, they need reminders, refreshers and reframing to continue to exhibit positive soft skill development across the spectrum. Therefore, we often revisit key parts of our residential curriculum with older kids to make sure they are still capable of independence in this area. Something like positive relationship skills may become very different to a Junior in a new romantic relationship compared to an eighth grader struggling with a roommate just as a Freshman who has learned how to cope with stress may need reminders as Junior year ACTs draw near.

As I think back to my pink Huffy and the day I learned to ride without training wheels, I see many similarities in the experience of growing into independent adulthood. They both take a great deal of time and practice. They both take caring adults who have trod the path before and know what advice to give. And they both feel really good when you arrive at the moment you can do it by yourself. In adolescence, using gradual release to teach life skills provides the opportunity to take on increased responsibility as the teen is ready, paying respect to their own unique needs and guidance and giving more independence through thoughtful practice. We must do this work intentionally and meaningfully as we guide our students to be ready for the world that awaits. 
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