Donna Hicks’s Essential Elements of Dignity

  • Acceptance of Identity
  • Recognition
  • Acknowledgement
  • Inclusion
  • Safety
  • Fairness
  • Independence
  • Understanding
  • Benefit of the Doubt
  • Accountability

Dr. Hicks offers an excellent one-page overview on her website succinctly unpacking each element. She goes into far greater detail in her excellent book Dignity; It’s Essential Role in Resolving Conflict.

The Essential Elements of Dignity offer a brief and powerful vocabulary to discuss and analyze culture, conflict, the needs of a group, and the needs of an individual. Rather than directly teach and unpack each element, we have found it more effective to simply offer the terms to students as a starting point for specific discussions. We read through the list together and ask whether any element strikes anyone as particularly relevant to the question, issue, or conflict on the table. Students offer their own analyses and thus make their own meaning of the elements involved. We post the elements on the wall, and over time they become part of the intellectual furniture of the room.

Validating Universal Needs and Common Frustrations
By directly addressing the Essential Elements as basic human needs, we validate the many frustrations students feel when these needs are violated or are not met. It’s frustrating not to be recognized for your good work and for confronting the obstacles you face. It’s frustrating to feel that you aren’t playing on a fair field – that the teacher (or boss) has favorites and you aren’t among them. It’s frustrating to not to be given the benefit of the doubt when you know you’re intentions were pure, to not be included when the opportunities and means to do so were readily available. It’s frustrating when others have hurt you but won’t acknowledge that they played a role, however unintentional. It’s frustrating not to be heard.

Most of us feel these frustrations regularly, but there are powerful forces keeping us quiet. Perhaps we don’t want to burden others with our problems. Perhaps we feel that we aren’t important enough to voice our needs. Perhaps we risk humiliation by appearing vulnerable, or we figure that we’ll pay some kind of penalty for appearing needy. Perhaps we’d prefer to assume others admire us for our toughness and self-sufficiency. Perhaps there simply isn’t an obvious time or space to speak up.

But what price do our students pay for these frustrations? How much cognitive load is hijacked by the need to process the dangers of the room? How much academic work is done haphazardly within a cloud of unnecessary fear? How many friendships go unmade because there’s too much risk in reaching out? How many friendships break apart under the weight of unspoken but solvable issues?

By addressing these needs and frustrations with the Essential Elements, we acknowledge the high price we all pay by sustaining a toxic culture.

Acknowledging the Forces in the Room
Fear of humiliation, escalating social drama, and labyrinthine power dynamics can dominate the inner-lives of students and keep them from fully engaging in school. Teachers are accustomed to dealing with a long list of forces that impact student performance. We anticipate common obstacles and scaffold our curricula to allow students to incrementally build a given skill, whether it be composition, computation, or shooting a lay-up. We also address a more general set of skills loosely categorized under “student habits,” including time management, reading habits, note-taking, test-prep, group participation, sustaining focus, and knowing when to ask questions and seek help. These skills are at the heart of academic success, but powerful social forces often trump strong instruction.

By beginning the year with an open discussion of classroom culture and outlining our basic needs with the Essential Elements, we can diffuse a great deal of social strife and model an effective approach to conflict – namely offering everyone time and space to speak and be heard. Addressing social forces explicitly validates the complex needs of every individual and offers the opportunity to pull back the curtain on a wide array of complex status hierarchies, entrenched conflicts, miscommunications, and other common social issues that can greatly impact student performance. Without addressing all of this openly, these forces operate and escalate beneath the surface and leave the teacher with little ability to intervene and address the needs of struggling students.

The Essential Elements offer students a means of articulating their needs and inferring the needs of others. The list is not meant to be all-inclusive; there are many things we need that are not addressed, but the range and reach of covers crucial social and emotional territory. Students never cease to surprise me as they find applications in areas that I hadn’t considered. By making room for the Essential Elements, we offer students both a platform to voice their needs and an intuitive vocabulary to approach complex issues.

I have spent most of my time here outlining the role the Essential Elements can play in creating a healthy classroom culture, but we have been equally impressed with the impact that the Essential Elements have had on our students’ analytic ability. By focusing on our own needs and conflicts, the conflicts and needs of others become far more relevant and accessible. We have been impressed by the students’ ability to transfer their insights and understanding to conflicts in history, literature, and current events. Their discussions became increasingly nuanced and sophisticated and their writing soared. (see Testimonials)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.