Addressing the Best in Each Child

By Living Wisdom School director Helen Purcell. Originally published in Clarity Magazine.

Girl and boy during recess at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, CA
Each child has strengths. Understanding the child as an individual is the first step to help the child express and develop his/her strong points. In this way, the child acquires the confidence to “tackle” any weaknesses. (Click to enlarge.)

Recently, a mother visited our school to see if it was the best choice for her child. After observing for several hours, she told me, “Every private school in the San Francisco Bay Area promises to help children develop in body, mind and spirit. They all promise to create moral, ethical people and to work with the students’ emotional and social challenges. But you’re the only ones who seem to be doing it.”

It may have been a slight exaggeration, because other schools do make a genuine effort to develop well-rounded students. But I believe she understood something unique about Living Wisdom School.

Another parent, a professional who specializes in assessing children with learning challenges, told me, “I visit all the schools in the area to test the kids and talk to the teachers, and I believe your school is providing the best learning environment.”

She couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was about the school that inspired her, but she saw the results – happy children who were growing in every area of their lives – physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.

During a tour of the school for prospective parents, a young woman asked me a series of unusually penetrating questions that dug into important issues in early childhood education. Later, after the other parents had left, she said, “I have a confession. I’m not a parent, I’m really a spy.” She explained that she was working on her doctoral dissertation in education and child psychology, and that she was visiting the schools in the area as part of her research.

She said, “I knew this place was different from the moment I stepped on the grounds. But I didn’t know exactly why until I had spent several hours watching the kids. Your kids smile a lot. They’re laughing. They’re exuding joy, and it’s something you just don’t find in other schools.”

I believe that what inspired these people was a quality that lies at the foundation of our school. Our premise is that the central purpose of life is to develop the mental, emotional, and spiritual skills that enable us to experience greater happiness, and to avoid suffering. More deeply, it’s based on the idea that, behind our body, mind, and personality, our deepest inner nature is our soul’s joy.

Our job is not to “fix” them

When I talk to parents of prospective students, I tell them, “What we’re doing at Living Wisdom School may appear on the surface to be routine classroom-based education, but in fact it is a radical approach that will challenge your traditional notions about child-raising and education. It’s radical, first and foremost, because we’re addressing the original goodness in children. And when you do that, the entire educational scenario becomes positive and affirmative.”

We accept that the children who come to our school are souls – they are expressions of the Divine who carry within themselves their soul’s perfection. Our job is therefore not merely to tinker with them in a superficial way – to “fix” them, or “prepare them for the new global economy,” or even focus too narrowly on academic success – although all of those things do happen, often spectacularly.

Our job is to give children the tools they need to express their unique gifts, and to succeed in their own way. And to do that, we have to define education in terms of life’s true goal, which is to find happiness in every area, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.

We’ve applied this approach for more than forty years, during which it has more than amply proved its worth.

Our children thrive under Education for Life. An example, by no means unique, is a boy who came to us from a private school with a reputation for its high-powered academic focus. The emphasis at the school was entirely on getting the students admitted to a premier university, so that they could get a premier job, make lots of money, and be happy. But experience tells us that this is a false equation, because the accumulation of money, by itself, almost never yields happiness. We see too many successful, highly educated professionals who are desperately unhappy in their personal lives.

The point of life is to find genuine, enduring happiness. With that goal clearly in mind, we are unlikely to impose on children this other, false equation. Instead, we see the children for who they are at a deep level, and we support them in finding success in their own way. It doesn’t mean that we turn away from their areas of weakness. But it means that we don’t define the child in terms of their weaknesses, as some overly academically focused schools can do.

When this boy came to us, he had certain difficulties in academics. But we quickly realized that he was exceptionally gifted, though not in ordinary ways.

At my first conference with his parents, they were focused entirely on his deficiencies. Finally, I interrupted and said, “What do you see as his strengths?” And they began to delineate them. But they were all within the paradigm of what would work for him when he entered college. Yet I knew that this boy’s talents lay outside convention. His artistic sensibility was verbal, and profoundly comic – he had an amazing talent for making people laugh. And so we decided to work with is strengths. We supported him in expressing his unique talents, and we give him a stage, within reason. In the end, he came into his own in the academic fields where he had been challenged previously. The story has an inspiring ending: this boy was accepted at Stanford, where he thrived.

“When I help these people, I’m happy”

One of our students accompanied her classmates on a school service project to a shelter in San Francisco that offers suppers to the homeless. The philosophy of the shelter is to remind the guests of our shared humanity. So the homeless people are honored at a weekly sit-down dinner, with multiple courses, served by volunteers.

This girl tended toward a pessimistic view of life – her glass was always half-empty. One night after serving at the shelter, she remarked to her teacher, “My parents are trying to talk me into therapy, but I tell them all I really need is to come here and help. When I’m helping these people, I don’t even think about myself, and I’m happy.”

When the teacher told me that story, I thought, “There’s no way in the world we could have taught her that lesson – she had to experience it for herself.”

That’s a large part of what Education for Life is about – giving children direct experiences that allow them to experience the thoughts, feelings, and actions that give them greater happiness.

Teaching meditation

Our children are in a school environment where meditation is a central practice. They see it modeled by the teachers, and most students want to experience it for themselves.

We begin by helping the children understand the importance of the breath, and how our breathing reflects our emotions. When the children are overly excited or upset, we help them experience the connection between calming the breath and calming their minds and feelings. For example, we’ll let them practice calming their breath before they take a big test, or play a baseball game, so they can experience for themselves that it works.

An academic track record

Inevitably, there are the parents who tell us, “I know this is a magical school. But the magic stops at 5th grade and then we have to get serious about academics, right? We have to prepare the children for the real world.”

It’s why I’m grateful to be able to point to our solid, forty-year track record of success.

Graduates of Living Wisdom School have made their way through high school, college, and into careers, and the evidence clearly shows that when a child is affirmed at the soul level, everything else naturally follows, including academic excellence and personal success.

Our graduates who take the national entrance exams for private high schools score on average above the 90th percentile, across the board. Our students with greater academic ability are testing in the top first and second percentiles nationally.

Our students who have learning challenges leave us with their self-worth intact, and affirmed as artists, technical whizzes, athletes, and writers. The admissions officers at premier private schools characterize our graduates as independent thinkers who are poised and self-possessed, mature, positive, thoughtful, energetic, and creative.

Living Wisdom School is academically rigorous, though not in the same mold as schools where academics is the sole focus. One parent told me, “I got upset because I thought the kids weren’t getting enough homework. Then I realized that, gosh, my son was doing three hours of homework a night, but he was so happy about it that I hadn’t realized it.”

When a school’s priorities are right, placing all-around development of the child first, revolutionary success becomes possible.