Without the ability to navigate their emotions and the social climate in which they live, my students will struggle in academic and professional settings.
The thought of Derrick* throwing chairs and upending desks with rage made my heart sink. He is a beloved former student—one with whom I spent countless lunches talking, drawing and dancing, tutoring in the afternoons, and thinking about at night. When Derrick completed my kindergarten class last year, he could read at a first-grade level, write a persuasive letter and argue his point of view, and demonstrate sound mathematical understanding. Academically, he was prepared for success.
Emotionally, he was not. This year, Derrick succeeds not at writing the creative stories he tells in his head or at reading or math—he succeeds at temper tantrums and fist fights. Often, Derrick is not in class but in the school office or at home as a punishment for his misbehaviour. As a result, he is in remedial reading classes and struggles academically. There are systematic issues in the United States that need to be addressed on a national level for Derrick’s sake; but we—as teachers, administrators, parents and school leaders—must also re-evaluate the skills we teach and foster in our classrooms. Derrick had the academic skills to thrive. But academic skills alone are not enough to succeed. I succeeded at teaching Derrick how to read and write, but I failed to help him develop the non-cognitive skills all students need to pursue their dreams in and outside of the classroom.
Evolving my vision to influence my planning
My vision for my kindergarteners profoundly changed after reflecting about Derrick and our class, and reading Paul Tough's How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (read my summary here). I am convinced that it is not enough for my kids to succeed on tests and to write, read and reason at high levels. Without the ability to navigate their emotions and the social climate in which they live, they will struggle in academic and professional settings. Research from diverse academic fields—psychology, economics, education and neuroscience—shows that non-cognitive skills can help students overcome the institutional barriers such as racism, classism or poverty, as well as the resulting stress in their lives. In fact, such non-cognitive skills—or character traits—predict success better than cognitive excellence.
And the good news is that character is not permanent. It can be cultivated—and it must be for students to have truly transformational learning experiences.
Putting my planning to work
The evolution of my vision prompted the evolution of my planning. Scientific research shows that a number of character traits can be path-changing for kids: grit, self-control, the ability to work in a team, optimism and zest. I set these as long-term goals and planned backwards in order to give my students opportunities to build these characteristics in themselves. I asked myself what each characteristic would look, sound and feel like in my class, and then thought of specific indicators to track. I created measurable steps to help myself implement routines and activities which integrate character development. I raised money to purchase materials that would foster this integration in a powerful way, including a class set of digital cameras.
In order to ensure my five year-olds exhibit grit, self-control, teamwork and zest, my classroom utilises the Toolbox Project into our everyday learning and interacting. There are 12 tools such as the Breathing Tool, Quiet/Safe Space Tool, Using Our Words Tool and the Apology and Forgiveness Tool. I taught these tools through role plays, skits, children's books and by modelling them myself and putting them into practice every day. My students carry each of these tools inside themselves; they know that no matter where they are they have the choice to use them. Students can use their Taking Our Time Tool when they are frustrated with an assignment. They can use the Breathing Tool and Using Our Words tool to calm themselves and reach out for the help of a partner. This helps them exhibit self-control and grit.
What’s more, character development is not divorced from the academic activities we do every day. Every successful collaboration, conflict and challenge requires using one's tools, which in turn fosters the development of character. My role is to coach when certain tools might be useful and give students structures for reflection. For example, when we debrief team workshop time, students talk about tools they used. They praise their teammates. In times of conflict in or outside of the classroom, students discuss how a tool could help solve the problem. These days I often hear parents ask their children, “What tool can you use?”
The importance of results
I know that my students’ pathways have been transformed from this approach. How? They can stick with an assignment even when it's hard. They can tell themselves, “This is difficult, but I am smart and I CAN do this.” They can breathe and think before they act—throwing a hurtful comment away, speaking up and telling their stories, patiently pointing each word in a book while their partner reads. These are the daily indicators of grit, self-control, zest and teamwork in my students. * name changed
- Academic skill is not enough to succeed; in order to thrive, students need character traits that will help them emotionally, too.
- Work backwards from the character traits you've chosen; envision what they'd look like and sound like for your students to exemplify them, then plan opportunities into your daily routine that help students progress towards those goals.
- Give students tools they can use to understand and express their emotions. One helpful resource for Rebecca has been The Toolbox Project.