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Compass Points Intervention – COT Part Five

Compass Points Intervention – COT Part Five

It’s hard to imagine a world without Google Maps.

At our fingertips (literally), we have instant access to navigational systems that step by step tell us how to find our way. But throughout history, before Google Maps, explorers had to find their way to new lands by the use of a compass. For generations, modern day compasses have pointed the way for travelers to explore new terrain, as well as guiding them back home.

As students make their way through the unfamiliar and often rocky hills and valleys of life, a compass point can help them find their way.  This final COT post offers a way to use a specific thinking routine (“Compass Points”) to help us help our students navigate their daily challenges.

Compass Points – A User-Friendly Thinking Routine

As social workers, we often spend time with students helping them evaluate situations and find ways to express themselves. It is sometimes challenging for students to be able to share their thoughts and feelings. The visual thinking routine, Compass Points, is a flexible, user-friendly vehicle which provides a structure to this process.  The process is non-threatening. Participants (students, staff, parents, etc.) engage quickly and are willing to share their thoughts.

Here’s how it works:

  • The Compass Points has 4 sections
    • North – Needs
    • South – Stance, Steps, Suggestions, or my Story
    • East – Excitements
    • West – Worries
  • This routine is used when you want your students, staff or parents to explore and share their thoughts and feeling about a topic. Common examples – 
    • Students transitioning from grade to grade or level to level
    • Before or during an initial or annual IEP
    • Kindergarten round-up for parents and/or students
    • Parenting workshops
    • Staff meeting or department meeting at beginning of school year
    • Any situation where you want students to explore their thoughts on a given topic
  • Often a template is used with this routine to visually represent the different section. You can develop your own template or there are many templates already created on google images. Here is an example of one of my Compass Points templates. As you can tell, the bottom box is empty. “S” often stands for suggestion, steps, or stance. Depending on the specific purpose of the Compass Points,  I change the “S”. For example, when my 8th grade students are creating Compass Points for their transition IEP meetings, they write down important facts about themselves in that box (S = my Story) to share with the new school.

  • Once the participants understand the idea of the Compass Points, you can have them begin to explore one of the quadrants. I usually begin with “E”. What excites you about __________________? This routine is very flexible so you can progress through the different sections in any order. Sometimes I have the participants work on one section and then we discuss it. At other times, the whole Compass Points is completed and then the discussion is at the end. (When working individually with a student, I often give him/her the option for me to write down the thoughts if preferred. Also, with young children or others who struggle with writing, these students can draw out their thoughts)
  • The discussion time is equally as important as the writing time. Thinking routines are designed for individuals to make their thinking visual and act as scaffolds to encourage deeper thinking. As the facilitator of the thinking routine, it is our responsibility to help the participants use the thinking routine as a springboard to the conversation. Ideas to help dig deeper:
    • What makes you say that?
    • Tell me more about that.
    • Where does this fit in the big picture?
    • What’s the message you are sharing?
    • What questions are you thinking?
    • How does your thinking connect with other people’s thinking?

Large Group Compass Points

When working with a large group of students/parents/staff, you can hang 4 pieces of chart paper (instead of the template) to represent the 4 sections of the Compass Points. Hang the chart papers on four different walls of the classroom representing Needs, Suggestions (or whatever you choose for S), Excites, and Worries. Participants can then use sticky notes to write down their ideas and put them up on the corresponding papers. It is an anonymous way to share your thoughts. By using the chart paper, it also adds an element of movement to your routine.

Compass Points are so versatile!

As a school social worker, I love using thinking routines and find that they consistently fit in with what I do. Often I find myself in a conversation with a student and realize that by pulling out a thinking routine template, I can provide a framework to help the student make his/her thinking visible. Compass Points is one of the templates that I reach for the most.

At this moment in time as we are seeing increased anxiety, depression, and overall sadness in society, Compass Points is a vehicle to assist many of our students, parents and staff to express their thoughts so we can move forward together to explore positive solutions.

Here are some examples of different ways to use Compass Points.

Go ahead – Try one out!

Transition Examples:

Every spring our 8th grade students get ready for their transition IEPs to high school. They are often nervous about this transition. With so many adults sitting around the table, it can be challenging to share their thoughts at the IEP. Prior to the IEP, I sit down with my students (either individually or in a small group) and go through the Compass Points with them related to moving on to high school. Then, we have a discussion about what they wrote so I can better understand their current feelings.

  • Excites – What excites you about high school?
  • Worries – What worries you about being in high school?
  • Need – What do you need from your new teachers to help you find success in high school?
  • Story – What are important facts about you that you want your new teachers to know?

Before the IEP meeting I make a copy of the Compass Points page so it can be given to the high school teacher attending the IEP. At the IEP,  the student can refer to the Compass Points to feel confident in being able to express what he/she needs for school the following year. Here is an example of a 8th grade transition IEP Compass Points.


Compass Points can be used for any transition. Here is an example of a student who just transitioned to 3rd grade –

  • Excites – Lunch. Friends. Story writing time in ELA.
  • Worries – Bad grades. People saying mean things. Lots of homework
  • Needs – Different music playing during quiet time. The music right now doesn’t help me.
  • Suggestions – A little less homework!

Example before an difficult IEP:

This Compass Points is from a 6th grade student who shared her thoughts about school before an IEP. The school staff was concerned that the parents had a different view than the staff on how the student was feeling at school. Being able to share the Compass Points allowed the student’s voice to be heard at the IEP.

  • Excites – Not treated as babies in school. Making new friends. Getting to class on time. Lunch.
  • Worries – Grades. Being tardy. Getting in trouble in class.
  • Needs – The teacher talks too fast in math and needs to slow down. More help during tests. Don’t tell me the answer, but I need to know the steps of what to do.
  • Suggestions – After school dance club. Technology club. Names of other audio books that I can listen to at home.

Meeting the social worker for the first time example:

This Compass Points was created by Amy Forsyth who works as a school social worker in the South Lyon School District in Michigan. The purpose of this Compass Points is to give her elementary students the opportunity to share their thoughts and concerns about working with the school social worker. This routine gives her a great deal of insight into her students.

  • Excites – What makes you most excited about working with me?
  • Worries – Do you have any worries about working with me?
  • Needs – What do I need to know about you?
  • Suggestions – Do you have any suggestions about things you want to work on with me?

(Editor’s Note:  At SSWN we are excited to have this final of 5 articles from the mighty Michigan SSW Jennifer Hollander’s Cultures of Thinking (COT) series, drawing on the COT framework and her innovative applications of it in her daily SSW practice.  COT is a still-emerging theoretical framework, mostly supported by intensive and small-scale qualitative research e.g. focus groups, whole-school case studies. For more information on the evidence base for CoT, click here for their site at the Harvard School of Education. Thanks to Jennifer for sharing this 5-part series with us, and please let us know if you have an emerging or evidence-informed intervention you use in your practice that you want to write about for other SSWN readers!)

New Social Emotional Lesson Plan Website!

Looking for more ideas for Compass Points and other Cultures of Thinking Routines, check out the new Social Emotional Thinking Routine website for ideas and specific lesson plans.


  1. Wikipedia – History of the compass
  2. Wikipedia – Compass
  3. Compass Point template – Jennifer Hollander


About The Author

Jennifer Hollander

Jennifer Hollander has over 26 years of experience as a school social worker and is currently employed by the Huron Valley School District in Milford, Michigan. She earned her MSW from Jane Addams School of Social Work at UIC in 1991. Always passionate about discovering new ways to engage students, Jennifer integrated the principles of Cultures of Thinking (CoT) into school social work, combining Thinking Routines and Social-Emotional Learning. She received advanced training in CoT with Ron Ritchhart the founder/author of the model. Since 2015, Jennifer has facilitated multiple Cultures of Thinking presentations in her own district, at the county level, at the Michigan Association of School Social Workers State Conference, and at the 2018 National School Social Work Association of America Conference. Jennifer was awarded the School Social Worker of the Year award in Oakland County, Michigan in 2017.

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