Thursday, August 30, 2012

Self-Control, Empathy, Respect

Most of you this summer probably saw the video of middle school students bullying and harassing a bus monitor. The video went viral and newspaper articles soon followed bemoaning how cruel and rude students are today.

One of the better articles I read on this topic was in Psychology Today entitled "Teaching Civility in an F-Word Society."

The author, Marilyn Price-Mitchell, identifies the key elements of civility, i.e., how we treat one another, as self-control, empathy, and respect.

As a head of school, I am always looking for a succinct list of skills, habits, attitudes that Orchard strives to develop in children.

While schools have the obvious responsibility of developing students academically, Orchard also focuses on developing students' character, including self-control, empathy, and respect.

According to the author, developing students' character is more important than ever due to the un-civil world kids are growing up in.

What are the causes of this overall decline in civility?
An informal society with vague or even non-existent rules for expected behavior
An Internet-based world where anonymity frees one of personal responsibility
A reality-TV culture where talking behind people's backs and using people in a Machiavellian manner are celebrated and rewarded

As parents and educators, regardless of how we try to shelter our children, they are indelibly influenced by the norms and mores of contemporary society.

The only way to combat these societal influences is through "cognitive dissonance" in class and at home where positive adult role modeling and frequent discussions help children see the value of qualities like self-control, empathy, and respect.

If not at home and at school, where will children today learn that value of being a good friend, citizen, and of having respectful debate and healthy disagreement?

The author ends with a list of ways we can help children learn civility:

1. Lead by example.
2. Think about the impact of our words and actions on others first.
3. Treat children and adults with the respect that we expect them to treat others.
4. Apologize when we are wrong.
5. Disagree with intelligence, humor, and civil discourse.
6. Don’t let anger and emotion get in the way of listening to others.
7. Teach character strengths, like respect and empathy, at homeand in classrooms.
8. Demand civility of our politicians and public servants.
9. Set ground rules for civil behavior at home and in classrooms.
10. Challenge people’s views but don’t attack the person.
11. Be tolerant of people who are different from us.
12. Praise others for their civil behavior, regardless of their viewpoints.
13. Empower children to take a stand against bullying.
14. Remind kids often why we should be civil.
15. Teach kids how to become engaged citizens.

I am very proud to be a member of a school like Orchard that focuses on the development of the whole child--cognitive, physical, social-emotional.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Elementary School Leadership in an Age of Anxiety

I asked parents and faculty/staff to read as a back-to-school assignment the article "Elementary School Leadership in an Age of Anxiety.” Click to read article

If you did not have the time to read the article, below is a summary of its salient points:

In recent years elementary and middle schools have felt increasing pressure to make their programs, including preschool, more "rigorous and academic" in hopes of better preparing students for a more competitive world.

However, numerous research studies show that increasing academic demands, particularly on young children, does not enhance—and often has a deleterious effect—on students.

To the author, this desire for more academics is “fueled more by adult anxiety rather than by an understanding of children and their healthy development.”

And that’s the challenge in elementary school education today: “…engaging parents in an ongoing conversation about the learning process that will help their children develop into successful, engaging, and resilient learners.”

Many (Wendy Mogel, Madeline Levine to name two) have noted that kids today are more stressed. “As childhood today is seen more often as a time to amass as many skills as possible as quickly as possible, children suffer from fear of failure and from fatigue.”

The truth is that kids need more unpressured time to develop properly. Too much stress actually impedes performance and even brain development. At Orchard we refer to this as finding the magic blend of care and challenge. Overly-stressed kids often work hard at first, but ultimately lose cognitive functioning and typically see a decrease in their motivation to learn.

Neuropsychologist, William Stixrud, advocates for “flow experience” in classrooms where kids are highly focused and working hard, but also “experiencing high enjoyment coupled with low stress.”

Childhood cannot be viewed as merely a race toward successful adulthood. “By blocking out opportunities for children to develop spontaneous interests, and by too narrowly defining the benchmarks of success, we deny children both the joy and the growth that comes from learning new skills and developing new capacities.”

So, how can teachers and parents work together to create an optimal learning environment at school and at home for children?

Keep in mind the importance of engaging the child and fostering a sense of enthusiasm in the classroom--provide students with opportunities to be creative through open-ended, authentic projects that require students to use higher-order thinking skills.

Emphasize not just the final product but the effort the child puts in: I’ve written before about the importance of a growth rather than fixed mindset. Developing good work habits and learning to persevere against adversity are crucial habits for kids to develop. When we talk to our children and students, we need to make sure that we acknowledge their work and effort along with the quality of the final product.

While effort is important, it can’t come in the form of too much stress. This extends to homework, one of the most controversial topics in any school. Orchard's position has always been that kids still need time to be kids. Unstructured time is essential. Homework can help a child develop effective study skills, including increased personal responsibility, review important skills and concepts, and help a student demonstrate understanding; yet too much can lead to stress at home and in a child’s life. At Orchard try to keep the 10 minutes per grade rule, e.g., 4th grade 40 minutes, including reading.

Finally, it's vital for the adults in children's lives--parents and teachers--to work together to help make pre--, elementary, and middle school education a strong foundation--in terms of knowledge, understanding, and attitude.

I invite you to share your thoughts on the article and its congruence to Orchard's approach to education.

Click to comment link below to add a comment.