It is the second day of the state math test at Harrison Avenue Elementary School in Westchester County, New York. Persee, the perseverant puppy mascot, sits on top of the smart board in a third grade classroom, a reminder to students of the instruction they have been given throughout the school year that “perseverance pays off!” When faced with a challenging question, Persee reminds these third graders to exhibit an optimistic mindset, use flexible strategies in the face of obstacles, and to treat themselves with kindness and compassion.
What is happening at Harrison Avenue, the elementary school where I work as a school psychologist? And, more importantly, how did we get here?
Persee is part of a transformation taking place where I work as a school psychologist. Our school has joined a larger movement of schools committed to teaching not only academics but also character strengths like kindness, mental flexibility, grit, and self-control. Together with classroom teachers, I am teaching what kindness looks like in each grade, why self-control and grit are important, and how flexibility and problem solving can be used when facing an obstacle.
As part of the fifth grade service club, our fifth grade students are learning more about service. And what better way to give back than to your own community? For the past few years, our fifth graders have served as teachers, role models and accountability partners to our younger students, teaching them what they wish they knew when they were younger.
Having the older students teach these skills is a win-win. I have found, and the research supports, that older students are often more receptive and willing to change when they serve as role models and teachers as opposed to being passive recipients or beneficiaries of information. It is hard for my fifth graders to exhibit poor self-control after they have just finished teaching a lesson to kindergarten students on how “Good things come to those who wait.” Serving as role models creates memorable experiences for all involved (the teachers, older and younger students).
Through this work, I have noticed students seeking out more opportunities to be kind. For example, while walking in the hall, I see students greet each other with big hellos and smiles. They make an effort to hold the door for each other or pick up someone’s pencil. Students have shared with me that they have created a spot on the playground where you can go if you don’t have anyone to play with, and others know to join you there. In this way, the students create ripples of kindness that affect the whole school community.
Students are also being more deliberate and strategic in the use of self-control strategies. They are avoiding temptations (putting away supplies that distract them) or reframing those temptations (Is it worth it to play with the little papers in my desk?) instead of relying on willpower alone. They are learning to be more flexible when it comes to solving academic problems or taking turns at recess. By learning to embrace challenges, they are becoming more willing to take on hard things. Instead of taking failures personally, they are viewing them as part of the process that leads to success.
By directly and explicitly teaching the character skills students need to succeed, we are preparing them to be tomorrow’s leaders. I am proud to be part of a school that is committed not only to growing children’s academic proficiency, but also to nurturing their character. I know that the students, teachers, and the community at large have all benefited from this work.
If you are interested in joining this world movement to cultivate students’ intellectual minds, as well as develop students’ character strengths and well-being, check out IPEN (International Positive Education Network) https://www.ipositive-education.net/. IPEN is dedicated to a ‘character + academics’ approach to education around the world.
Save the Date & Join Me: Book Launch – July 9th: 4-6 pm at Barnes & Noble, Eastchester, NY. Please see my website (drbaruchfeldman.com/book) for information about my upcoming book, titled, The Grit Guide for Teens: A Workbook to Help You Build Perseverance, Self-Control, and a Growth Mindset will be released July 1, 2017.