Character Series, Part 9: Courage

Taking initiative when you’re scared.

Showing respect for someone when it’s not the cool thing to do.

Being grateful in the midst of bad luck, setbacks and hurt.

Being honest even when it might get you in trouble or be uncool.

Making a responsible decision when you so badly want to be irresponsible.

Remaining appropriately confident in the face of unwarranted criticism or failure.

Showing compassion when everyone else refuses.

Making an independent choice when you’re terrified.

As with ALL of our character traits, courage takes practice.

Mrs. Kay always says “Practice makes easy.”  I love this so much. It is infinitely better than practice makes perfect, because we are not aiming for perfection (and those who do will only face disappointment).  We are aiming for habit. We are literally paving little roads in the brain, whether it’s the motor skills to play a note or the courage to stand up to our peers. The more we practice, the more the pathways between the neurons myelinate, aka pave a road that becomes easier and easier to travel.

We talk of building character–it’s a slow process that takes years.  When our kids don’t show character, we should hold them accountable, but not be too surprised.  After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are upstanding, kind, successful adults.  We practice, we have setbacks, we practice more, and gradually we bloom.

Character Series, Part 7: Respect

Respect comes in two forms, an external form and an internal form. Our children learn the external form of respect (how they react to people, how they handle authority, how they treat strangers) from our expectations.  This is also known as manners, but I prefer to use respect because it is tied to our beliefs about others whereas manners often don’t have explanations or meaning.  Showing someone respect is pretty straight forward teaching; you tell them what you expect, and they need to meet your expectations. In this case more than any, they will rise to meet your goals for them and over the years their habits will reflect your requirements.

The internal form of respect is much more difficult and much less straightforward.  Here you will teach your children your own personal concept of respect.  What beliefs are at the heart of your respect for others? Do people have to earn it or do they receive it simply because they are human? Does your behavior change when someone loses your respect? What does someone have to do to lose it?  Do you show respect to people you don’t actually respect, and if so, why?  This won’t be one discussion when they’re 5 or 8 years old, this will be 18 years of discussions and role modeling and reactions to positive situations and challenging situations.  The more aware you are of your beliefs and actions, the more intentional you can be as you pass them on.

It works well to have a moral definition of respect, admit to your children that you don’t live it out as well as you would like, and then ask your children to help hold you accountable when they see you falling short.  This is a great way to counter-balance your own weaknesses and team up with your children in search of a higher good (always a great way to teach!).

Character Series, Part 6: Honesty

Honesty is not the black-and-white topic we learned about in after-school specials growing up.  It is actually really complex and abstract once you throw intentions, compassion, passivity, and self-awareness in the mix.  It will take conversations, role-modeling and accountability for kids to navigate, and the conversations will evolve as they get older and situations grow more complex.  When kids are young, it can feel like a lie to say something to make someone feel good, and not feel like a lie to tell a tall, entertaining story. Their emotional perception of a situation may be factually inaccurate, but true to their experience.  As they get older, should they tell the truth even if it sells a friend out?  Should they lie to get someone off their back?  We tend to send pretty mixed signals to our children, most of which are unavoidable.  So how do we teach them?

First, getting caught is always the best thing for the child!  Trust, but verify anything you get a sneaking suspicion about. The more often a child lies without being discovered, the easier it becomes to lie and the harder it is for them to sort the truth from the alternate story.  When they are caught, they are more likely to assume they will get caught the next time and it becomes a deterrent.

Whenever they are caught red-handed in a self-serving lie, they need immediate and proportionate consequences.  They need to feel the significance of it.  The act of lying is usually a bigger transgression than the act they are trying to cover up and the consequences should indicate that.  They should receive consequences for the initial misbehavior, and then additional consequences for the lie.

When the situations are gray, harsh consequences may not be appropriate, but softer, logical and natural consequences might be in order.  If a child doesn’t have the strength to be honest and stand up to a friend, maybe they shouldn’t be hanging out with that friend until they’ve developed more courage. If a child tells lots of tall tales, then folks are likely not to believe a truly amazing story, and when that happens, you can gently connect the dots for them.

Lastly, you will need to be a role model and discuss your choices with them.  Are you willing to call them in sick to school when they’re not?  Have they seen you fib to a policeman when you have been pulled over or to a friend when you want to avoid a situation?  Do the lies that you tell show compassion for others or do they save you from inconvenience?  Do they fit your code of ethics or do they allow you to avoid consequences?  This is worth pondering because your kids will notice, even if you don’t.

There are layers and it’s complex, so talk it through and ask them to hold you accountable too, as they get older.  It’s a great opportunity to share your values and pass on your beliefs.

Character Series, Part 1: Initiative

At The Fulton School, we believe character traits are like muscles–you have to practice them to get strong. We have identified nine key character traits that we look for daily in the kids:

Initiative
Independence
Confidence
Responsibility
Compassion
Honesty
Courage
Respect
Gratitude

We believe these traits are both timeless and timely, and we know that the children’s lives will be more fulfilling and more successful (on many levels) if they are well developed. But how do we develop these traits in our children? I will spend the next nine weeks exploring what research and literature say about developing these traits in our children.

INITIATIVE
Many of these nine traits overlap substantially, as you will see in the coming weeks.  They feed and reflect each other. Initiative, independence, and confidence are like three points of a triangle; today I will hone in on one point of that triangle.

The tricky part of encouraging initiative is that the child has to start it–you can’t!  We develop initiative in our children most directly when we implement a new idea they have. If your child suggests a change in the bedtime routine and you think it’s a good suggestion and you implement it, you have just sent her the message that her ideas are contributing to positive change. It’s rewarding and stimulates more growth in initiative. If your child gets up to take his dishes to the sink unbidden, state your appreciation; if he does his homework on his own, tell him you’re impressed; if she puts away toys or gets dressed before you ask, tell her you like her initiative. You are encouraging something that is undervalued in adults. Sometimes we hover so much, we don’t give our kids the chance to stretch these muscles.

If you have a child who shows little initiative, have a conversation with him at a neutral time in a neutral way to let him know you would like to see more initiative. Depending on the child’s age and why you think he resists, you can brainstorm ways for him to take more initiative. If he follows through on it, practice it, acknowledge it, and go with it! Sometimes you may need to set the stage for him and let others know that this was difficult for him in order to pave the way. When he experiences success a few times, he will continue taking initiative on his own and hopefully it can take root as a habit.

What do you do when your child has a lot of initiatives that you cannot or do not want to implement?  Thank her for her creative thoughtfulness and explain why her idea won’t work. Or maybe take part of the idea and tweak it.  Here at school, we will go some distance to give an idea credit and action–whatever morsel of productivity we can find in it.  We believe deeply that in doing so, we are nurturing initiative in our students.

Screen Time Series, Part 3

The Benefits

Last week was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of reasons for minimal screen time, but there are wonderful benefits for the screen time that we do allow.  As with most things in life, the benefits increase the more proactive we are about them. The internet brings infinite opportunities for research and learning to our fingertips.

There is a wealth of informative videos (informally on sites like YouTube or formally on something like Khan Academy) that we can use to teach kids. The opportunities are mind-boggling. From how car engines work to what happens when you drop a ping pong ball three stories into a pool, this is all content that can support curiosity and learning.

Watching a show or movie with your child and discussing it together is a completely different cognitive experience for a child than watching something alone.  Such shows provide great content for discussing your values, social situations, and decision making.

Apps and websites can make rote drills more fun — typing programs, math facts, names of countries/capitals, etc. through websites like JetPunk, Sheppard Software or Quizlet.

Connecting with friends and family is amazing (this just needs to be supervised and limited with kids).

There are options to organize kids who aren’t naturally organized (take pictures of assignments, homework apps, Google Docs).

And there are great coding practices for kids headed into STEM. The list goes on and on.

Back to my dessert metaphor: there is SO much good and joy and, better than dessert, really constructive uses of screen time.  We don’t need to stay out of the candy store, we just need guidelines about how much we’re going to eat and how long we’re going to be in there (and who’s going to enforce that).

Screen Time Series, Part 2

The Challenges

Many parents worry about screen time, but don’t necessarily understand all of the threats.  I’m going to talk through four major categories for parents to consider.

1. Biological – Screens affect the brain and eyes primarily through the blue tint of the back light.  This is changing all the time as new screens come out, but be aware that the light is extremely (unnaturally) stimulating and disrupts sleep and blinking significantly.  Even sleeping near a screen changes our sleep patterns, as part of the brain appears to keep “one eye open” in case a message comes in.  Experts recommend that children don’t use screens an hour before bedtime and do not sleep with screens in their rooms.

2. Chemical – This is more complicated, but screen addictions are real and chemically measurable.  This is mostly associated with gaming, but we all experience slight stimulation when we see the little red dot indicating a notification and we all release endorphins as we tick off the checking of those dots–reading our texts or clearing our notifications.  Adolescents are particularly susceptible to social media which imitates an addiction (adults report this too), but the chemistry here gets mixed in with social pressures and they are hard to separate.  Lastly, due to their addictive nature, or how easy it is for us to pay attention to our screens, our concentration and attention when we’re NOT looking at a screen has suffered. This is a huge problem at school, obviously, where teachers and texts cannot compete with the entertaining nature of a device.  Our devices are absolutely affecting our brain chemistry and we are only beginning to learn the ins and outs of it.

3. Social – Two dangerous elements of social interactions on our devices are that it’s virtually unsupervised and it never turns off. So imagine allowing your 14 year old to go to a large party in a warehouse with 50,000 other teenagers and then leaving them there for days without any adult around.  Except it’s worse than that–since it’s virtual, everyone can craft their own brand or narrative. People can make themselves seem perfect, popular, skinnier, happy. They can make others feel awful in very subtle ways (I would argue that this is much more hurtful written down for some reason than when the same thing might happen in the hallway). Kids feel left out, uncool, unloved, behind on the latest news, etc. (they may *feel* isolated but they won’t look like it). And it never stops unless a parent stops it. It is VERY hard for kids to manage all of this without adult help. Also, the false sense of anonymity makes almost everyone (adults and kids alike) bolder on the internet–almost everyone will say things in a comment or text or even an email that they would never say to someone’s face.  I predict that there’s some sort of neural inhibitor missing when you’re not looking at someone face to face (my own surmising, not research).  It’s just kids being kids (impulsive, a little egocentric, and fighting for a sense of emotional survival) without adult supervision. They NEED adult supervision to coach, warn, provide perspective, call other parents, and periodically absolutely forbid something.

Secondly, screen time can stunt kids who are awkward and truly isolated because it gives them an excuse to avoid interaction. Much of socialization involves surviving awkward conversations, learning how to approach a group of kids and join in, and grinding away slowly at the process of building relationships.  Kids who aren’t as good at this use screens to avoid these situations, so they are even less likely to develop these skills.

4. Self-Regulation – Devices give us all a way out when sometimes true growth or character is developed by not having a way out.  While it’s fantastic that they have made our lives easier, we are learning that children benefit a lot by NOT having an easier life in many ways.  The confidence and grit and independence that we want them to have can only be developed through actual practice, working through discomfort, fear and insecurity.  Constantly having a lifeline to parents, or to avoidance/escape, or to entertainment leaves kids vulnerable to anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and helplessness.

Was this too depressing? Part 3 will be the benefits of screen time!

Montessori, Part 2:  How Do We Engage Students?

Theoretically, every educator wants to engage kids, so how does the Montessori philosophy do this differently?  It starts with a deep knowledge of child development.  We build the educational environment around a scientific understanding of the child’s needs. Most traditions are based on the institution’s needs historically (schools have been factories that take a group who are the same age and do the same thing with them, test them, then move them on). While today’s trend is to focus more on a student’s needs, this is difficult to do well without changing the fundamental structure of the classroom–and sometimes even the standards in the classroom.

At Fulton School, when we focus on the developmental needs of the students, the classroom looks different than a traditional classroom. Students of all ages need choice, personal responsibility, opportunities for exploration and mastery, emotional nurture, and freedom to move within the classroom. They need to be able to learn on their own time table and in their own style.

Our youngest students can learn much more than our culture gives them credit for if material is presented in concrete, small chunks. Our elementary students will burst with enthusiasm if they are able to chase their passions and research their curiosity. Everyone doesn’t have to be on the same page of the text book or spend the same amount of time on every concept—especially as material grows more complex. But to do this well, that is, purposefully, carefully, and methodically, schools and teachers have to be willing to rethink classroom structure, schedule, and assignments.

Here at TFS, we have much more freedom to do this culturally at the youngest ages. We can teach three year olds to read and do math in ways they love, which is impressive, but we can also teach them pour water, to zip their coats, and to prepare their own food, which is extremely valuable to their sense of self worth.

As they get older, we have more cultural pressure to cater to the college preparatory environment, so we have to get creative if we are going to engage them!  PreCalculus and long historical research papers may not fit the developmental needs of many adolescents, but practically speaking we need to include them so our graduates are prepared for the challenges that await them in college. We look for ways to include choice, movement, individual rhythms and learning rates, personal responsibility, relevance, and a breakdown of concepts in classes that may not be naturally interesting to the older students in the hopes of engaging them in a curriculum we can’t necessarily control.

While we engage toddlers and preschoolers differently than 6-12 year olds and 12-18 year olds, the key is being willing to take risks, allowing for some flow and some uncertainty, and watching for the student response at every age group.  Dr. Montessori said that the work should call to the child and that is our goal: that our students are drawn to what they need to learn rather than be pushed, bribed or threatened.  This is no easy task and is much more of an art than a formula, but we are committed to doing it every day in every class. This is what makes us different.

Montessori, Part 1: What’s All the Hype?

As a parent of a child who attends a Montessori school, you might get asked, “What is Montessori? What’s all the hype?”

The Montessori Method is the pedagogy (pedagogy is a fancy word for “how we teach”) that sets our school apart from others. There are different ways to summarize Montessori, but here is our core belief: Kids are natural learners and we must work with their desire to learn rather than against it.  At The Fulton School, we strive to create an environment where kids can learn to their hearts’ desire.

The most fundamental characteristic of a Montessori classroom is engagement. Kids who are engaged when they’re learning will learn deeper, will learn faster, and will love learning. These three results multiply and develop into increased self confidence, higher self efficacy, and of course, a self-perpetuating desire to keep learning.

At the youngest ages (toddler and preschool), the difference between a Montessori environment and a non-Montessori environment is astounding. In addition to the academic pride and ability that our kids develop, their ownership in the classroom, their emotional and academic maturity, and their responsibility for their own actions stand out as incredible life skills for all kids to learn — no matter their age.

No one else is doing anything like this in early childhood. Most day cares are working to get kids to sit quietly on a line, share, and not fight with each other. That’s what we would be doing too if Dr. Maria Montessori hadn’t created another option that we at The Fulton School have all discovered in some way or another.

SEE US IN ACTION AT THE FULTON SCHOOL
Do you want to learn more about Montessori? Do you have a friend who wants to see — really see — how differently a Montessori classroom works? We’d love for you to set up an Observation Day — your own window into a Fulton School classroom.

Homework, Part 4: The Parent Partnership

Homework makes some families absolutely miserable. (I don’t mean eye rolling and sighing because it has to get done — that’s good frustration to barrel through in order to develop grit, self-discipline, and time management.) I mean regular melt downs, tears, lying, yelling (parent AND child) — complete disruption of the household because of homework.

One of our philosophical premises here, based on Dr. Montessori’s work and much more research in the century following her, is that all children want to please the adults around them and they are doing the best they can with what they have.  We also believe that every sincere feeling is involuntary.  Staunch, stubborn, regular refusal is therefore likely not misbehavior, but rather a symptom of something else.

If misery is part of your homework routine, then we need to partner together to tackle it.  Your child is not learning constructive coping skills or building academic skills in that environment.  When we partner together, we will try to figure out the root of the problem. Often there is some cognitive obstacle and the resistance is just a symptom.

We will talk through your observations and the teachers’ observations. Testing may be appropriate to identify some hidden obstacle in the way your child processes. Maybe he/she is overscheduled.  Maybe the homework assigned is overwhelming, and we need to back off.  Whatever the situation, we will analyze it (and change it if we have to) together until it has improved. This is what the TFS parent partnership is all about–working together to make sure each child is growing up in the environment he/she needs in order to thrive!

Homework, Part 1

Homework is perhaps one of the most dreaded concepts for most kids (and many of their parents). There is a lot of research out there about the effectiveness of homework and it’s pretty mixed, but I believe that it’s mixed because not all homework assignments are equally valuable, and different kids learn with different rhythms (some absorbing everything during the day and shutting down at night and others needing to revisit concepts and practice later when it’s quiet).  

At TFS we believe that homework has a place, but it is not a measurement of how academic a program is or how successful a student will be.  Here are a few of our guidelines.

1. Homework does NOT need to start early.
Young children have such absorbent minds, if they are stimulated, they are soaking it up.  They also have concrete minds, so they need materials to accompany most conceptual work.  Until they have truly internalized abstract concepts (around 3rd/4th grade) they shouldn’t be doing work that isn’t concrete.  Their “homework” is to read with you, play, create, and engage in concrete chores and work at home.  Many schools have started giving homework as early as preschool, but research shows that kids who have such homework don’t perform any differently on developmental benchmarks than kids who had no homework.  Anecdotally, many of them just grow to hate school and hate “learning.”

2Homework should be purposeful.
We do not believe busy work is good for anyone, especially when it takes away from downtime, jobs, or other enrichment activities kids may have after school.  Once we start giving homework, it should be providing students with practice as they develop a particular skill, preparation for class, such as reading ahead of time, or projects and papers that are too lengthy to finish within the class time.

3. Length of time varies.
We don’t want anyone spending every waking minute doing homework, so we try to curb the amount of work to 40-60 minutes in 4th, 5th, and 6th grade, and 30 minutes per class on average in Upper School, but this will vary. Students who get more accomplished during the school day will have less than kids who need downtime and play time during the school day.  Kids who work slower will spend more time on homework than kids who work quickly. As they get older and homework is more project-based, students will have nights without work between units, and then nights with more work as a deadline approaches (much like the professional work place).

On balance though, we believe that seven hours of school plus some extra work many nights to practice or prepare or complete a project (for our abstract thinkers) is plenty of work for a student to achieve and excel in college and beyond.  We’re aiming for a sweet spot between pushing them outside their comfort zone and burning them out in their stress zones.  Fill the extra time with other wonderful activities for their brains (like boredom and chores!) and time with you (even if you parent adolescents!).

Kara Douglass
Head of School