The #1 Question Parents Ask About Living Wisdom School

Kindergarten teacher Suryani Nelson talks with her students before the End of Year Ceremony in Spring 2023 at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, CA
Kindergarten teacher Suryani Nelson talks with her students before the End of Year Ceremony in Spring 2023 at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, CA.

By Helen Purcell, Director
Living Wisdom School of Palo Alto

Living Wisdom School director Helen purcell
Helen Purcell

Confronted with the whole-child curriculum at Living Wisdom School, parents often wonder if getting to know each child individually and helping them develop their unique strengths may waste time that could be better spent on academics.

The short answer is that in the fifty years since the first Living Wisdom School opened its doors, we have found that the exact opposite is true: that learning becomes far more efficient when we bring the whole child into the process.

Here are some of the reasons this is so.

  1. Many schools today operate under a mandate to “teach to the test.” But a one-size-fits-all, rigidly scheduled curriculum leaves perhaps a third of the students challenged appropriately, while a third find themselves struggling, and another third are under-challenged and bored. Large, impersonal classes and a rigid curriculum leave a significant portion of the students frustrated or idle, creating a breeding ground for discipline problems and disengagement, both of which interfere with learning.
  2. When we teach the children individually, each at his or her own level of ability and pace, school becomes a place where the children can enjoy success experiences every day. As they realize that they are understood and that they are able to succeed, they begin to enjoy their schoolwork and become enthusiastically engaged. A happy fringe benefit is that discipline problems virtually disappear.
  3. In a Living Wisdom classroom, the teacher’s first priority is to gain a deep understanding of the individual child, so that they will be able to guide the child appropriately, according to their unique learning styles, interests, and abilities.

A classroom where each child experiences the joy of overcoming challenges and succeeding every day becomes an engaging learning environment for all. It is why visitors to our school are amazed to see children of every age, from kindergarten to eighth grade, enjoyably absorbed in their schoolwork. They see students of all ages working together in small groups, not bored or inciting each other to mischief, but happily engaged in what they are doing, because they find joy in accepting challenges that they stand a good chance of mastering.

  1. There is no bullying at Living Wisdom School. From the first day of kindergarten until they graduate, the teachers are continuously monitoring the children’s interactions. When they observe contractive behaviors, they immediately step in. The teachers are experienced in helping children resolve their conflicts realistically and harmoniously. A school and classroom environment where each child feels safe, acknowledged, and loved is a wholesome incubator for learning.
  2. We approach learning in a spirit of joyous adventure and discovery. We hold high values and are eager to expose the children to academics in ways that they can individually relate to, and that will inspire and engage them for all their lives. We approach books and media by carefully unpacking the positive, uplifting messages behind whatever human suffering is described. We avoid those that offer a cynical response to life.

 An All-Round Education Engages the Whole Child

Parents sometimes ask: “While it seems wonderful to address all sides of a child’s nature at school, doesn’t it place their future success at risk?”

There seems to be a widespread assumption today that school should be only for the brain, and that everything else should be set aside during school hours and addressed elsewhere. This assumption holds that if we focus on training the children’s brains, we can assume that they will be happy and successful at some future point in their lives, after they have acquired financial security, material goods, and social status. But a strong and growing body of evidence, which we will discuss shortly, has clearly shown that the opposite is true – that happy people are much more likely to be successful in whatever they attempt.

The Five Dimensions of a Child

We humans have been gifted with five instruments through which we can perceive and interact with the world: body, feelings, will, mind, and soul. Science today is increasingly discovering how these five instruments are inextricably linked, and how a deficiency or malfunction in one is bound to compromise the healthy functioning of the others. For example, researchers have found that the brain and heart function more efficiently in the presence of calm, harmonious, expansive feelings such as love, kindness, and compassion. When the Institute of Heartmath taught heart-harmonizing methods to students in a Washington, DC public school, their test scores improved significantly. Many similar findings are described in our book Happiness & Success at School: A Magnificent Synergy.

Let us consider some simple examples.


When the body is unwell, we feel less able and eager to attack our challenges, because the supply of energy to our brain, willpower, and feelings is diminished. Conversely, when the body is healthy, we feel wonderful, and we have abundant energy and enthusiasm to greet our life’s tests.


Similarly, if our feelings are compromised – if we are sad, depressed, resentful, or feel unrecognized and unloved – we will be less able to bring our full energy, enthusiasm, and willingness to meet our challenges.

Will Power

If our will power is compromised, due to a lack of strong desire, confidence, or proper training, we will be unable to bring our full energy and volition to our activities.

Mind and Soul

In fifty-plus years in the Living Wisdom Schools, we have seen that children who are healthy, happy, cheerful, enthusiastic, confident, focused, and strong-minded are best equipped to learn at the peak of their individual ability.

Each Child Is Unique: We Must Teach to the Individual

Our philosophy of education is based on an understanding that every child is unique. Each child brings an individual blend of strengths to school that demand appropriate consideration – as the following stories illustrate.

There was a boy in the original Living Wisdom School who had an uncanny, almost intuitive gift for understanding how tools and machinery worked. Unfortunately, he was little interested in the standard school curriculum. Instead of forcing him to learn in a way that was alien and unpalatable to him, the teachers worked with his strengths. They created learning challenges that engaged his mechanical skills and his interest in learning how things worked. As a result, he began to have a happier experience of school.

When he realized that the teachers understood him, and that they were on his side, he was open and receptive when they introduced him to math problems and other lessons that were related to his interests. The boy grew up to be a highly paid, in-demand metalworker and welder.

Middle school teacher Gary McSweeney helps a student with math.
The keys to learning and academic engagement at Living Wisdom School are individual instruction, and challenging each student daily at his/her own level. In math class, the teachers and math aides review every problem with the students to ensure that they understand fundamental concepts and are not simply “studying to the test.”

A young girl in our school dreaded math class, because she associated it with many past failures. Year after year at her former school she had fallen hopelessly behind in math.

When she came to LWS, the teachers worked with her at her own level. Very carefully, they gave her math lessons and assignments that she stood a good chance of “winning.” In this way, math gradually became associated with positive experiences. In the compassionate, loving school environment, her classmates celebrated her successes. She spent so much time working on math with her teacher and the math aides that her book became frayed at the edges and looked very “lived-in.”

Her story has a happy ending – while she didn’t become a world-class mathematician, she was successful in a college major where math was a strong prerequisite: genetics. Best of all, she gained tremendous self-confidence from having defeated the math bogeyman and conquering her fears in a way that was fun, engaging, and personally rewarding.

How Do Our Graduates Perform After They Leave Our School?

A strong proof of our methods is how our students fare in high school, college, and career. Before we look at some broad trends, here are two recent anecdotal examples.

<em>Living Wisdom School graduate Hadley Sheppard earned a PhD in Genetics and works for a major scientific database firm in London, UK.</em>
Living Wisdom School graduate Hadley Sheppard earned a PhD in Genetics and works for an international genetics database firm in London, UK.

One of our graduates, Krishav Gandhi, is now a senior in our Living Wisdom High School. We recently learned that Krishav qualified as a semifinalist for the National Merit Scholarship Program. Just 1% of high school seniors achieve National Merit semifinalist status. Of this group, 95% will attain finalist standing, and half will receive a National Merit Scholarship.

In spring 2023, another graduating senior in our high school scored a perfect 1600 on her college boards. To understand what this says about the quality of instruction and guidance at the school, of the 7 million college-bound high school seniors who take the SATs annually, just one in every 7,000 (0.1%) scores a perfect 1600.

Are these rare exceptions? Of course. Perhaps a better measure of our approach is our graduates’ average high school GPA, which hovers around 3.85. Also worth noting are our graduates’ successes in college and beyond. (See the links below.)

But first, an explanation is in order. Unlike many schools today, we are not focused on training our students to “test and forget” what they learn. We are intent on giving them a solid foundation in the knowledge and problem-solving strengths to find solutions and be competent and successful in high school, college, career, and life. We discover and nurture their unique talents and enthusiasms, and we show them how to bring their best to everything they do. The result is that they do very well when they leave us.

The “Disaster Factor” in Schools Today

In most schools today, the total lack of instruction in life skills has resulted in an epidemic of disconnection, alienation, estrangement, sadness, loneliness, and bitterness – with the unfortunate result that many young people feel deeply betrayed and lash out in rebellion through drugs, violence, cynicism, and self-harm.

The problem is too serious to be lightly dismissed – “Oh well, young people have always managed to land on their feet – life will be their teacher!” Even if our children are not inclined to rebel – how will it help them to keep daily company with those who are?

Rather than toss the dice with our children’s future, it is our strong conviction that we should do everything in our power to offer them a better way.

When we started our schools a little more than 50 years ago, we realized that the solution to the deficiencies of modern “deaducation” was actually close at hand. The question we needed to address was not “How can we force our children to get good grades so that they will be happy and successful in some misty distant future, after they have achieved wealth and status?”

Instead, the questions we asked – and answered – were:

  • “How can we work with our students, by understanding their unique skills and what motivates them individually?”
  • “Once we have gotten to know them, how can we give them the wisdom, maturity, and life skills to be happy and highly successful now, so that they will stand an excellent chance of succeeding at every stage of their lives?”

Education Reform – Baby Steps at the University Level

At America’s elite universities, a new movement has begun to acknowledge the problems in education, and to take tentative steps toward finding solutions.

  • At Yale, students can now take a course called Life Worth Living.
  • Notre Dame offers students a course called God and the Good Life.
  • Harvard offers an online course called Managing Happiness. The in-person version of the course has been astonishingly successful.

Harvard’s Positive Psychology 1504, taught by Professor Tal Ben-Shahar Ph.D., will enter the books as the most popular course in the history of Harvard University.

In the spring of 2006, over 1400 Harvard students enrolled in both Positive Psychology 1504 and Ben-Shahar’s Psychology of Leadership course.

Positive Psychology 1504 consists of 22 lectures lasting around 75 minutes each, with a guest lecture on humor by Harvard graduate and professor Shawn Achor [author of the bestselling book The Happiness Advantage]. The course’s focus is on the psychological aspects of life fulfillment and examines empathy, friendship, love, achievement, creativity, spirituality, happiness, and humor. (From

  • At Stanford, Fred Luskin and Carole Pertofsky teach a happiness course that they created in response to a number of student suicides.

It’s gratifying to see that neuroscientists, social scientists, psychologists, and educators have begun to understand how vitally important happiness is to success in school, career, and life.

But when we view these developments against the backdrop of history, we find that the principles have been known for a very long time.

Ancient Principles for Success & Happiness

Wise people in all ages have given us the keys to a happy, successful life. The first principle is that happiness increases when we live “expansively” – that is, when we use our five human instruments of body, heart, will, mind, and soul in ways that bring us greater health, love, strength, wisdom, and joy, instead of their opposites.

This is our goal for the children at Living Wisdom School – to create an environment where they can thrive in each of the five dimensions of their being.

While academics are an extremely important part of a child’s life arsenal, researchers at America’s great universities are finding that people who are happy, healthy, emotionally stable, mentally focused, and strong-willed are most likely to succeed at school.

Former second grade teacher Kshama Kellogg helps a boy understand a math problem.
Happiness and academics go hand in hand at Living Wisdom School. Former second grade teacher Kshama Kellogg helps Milan understand a math problem. (Kshama is now the director of Living Wisdom High School of Palo Alto.)

A pioneer in the field is Shawn Achor, mentioned earlier as a guest lecturer in Harvard’s Positive Psychology 1504 course. Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, forever changed how we understand the link between happiness and success.

As a graduate student at Harvard, Achor served as a proctor, a role that required him to have hundreds of conversations with incoming freshmen over cups of Starbucks coffee.

Achor soon noticed a surprising difference between the students who thrived and those who struggled. The most successful Harvard freshmen were not, as he had expected, the ones who buried themselves in the library stacks, determined to grind out good grades. They were the students who were happiest and who were most socially engaged. They were enthusiastic. They formed study groups, asked questions, and approached their studies in a spirit of joyous discovery.

Achor’s research revolutionized how he understood the relationship between success and happiness. It seems that our traditional assumptions are wrong. Happiness is not something we can expect to enjoy after we have gained a measure of financial security and status. Instead, the people who are most likely to succeed in life are those who know how to be happily engaged in the present moments of their lives. Achor now consults with corporations to help them create happy success cultures at work.

What Stanford and Harvard Can Learn from Living Wisdom School

While these findings are promising, it is worth noting that the first Living Wisdom School predated the present faint stirrings by a century.

On March 22, 1917, a young monk in India named Swami Yogananda started a school for boys. In his book, Autobiography of a Yogi, published in 1946, he wrote:

“The ideal of an all-sided education for youth had always been close to my heart. I saw clearly the arid results of ordinary instruction, aimed only at the development of body and intellect. Moral and spiritual values, without whose appreciation no man can approach happiness, were yet lacking in the formal curriculum. I determined to found a school where young boys could develop to the full stature of manhood. My first step in that direction was made with seven children at Dihika, a small country site in Bengal.

A generous land grant from a private donor enabled Yogananda to transfer the school to Ranchi, Bihar, where it flourished beyond expectations.

At the end of the first year at Ranchi, applications for admission reached two thousand. But the school, which at that time was solely residential, could accommodate only about one hundred. Instruction for day students was soon added.

Yogananda called his institution a “How to Live School.” Central to the curriculum were skills that enabled the students to be happy and successful. He taught them to meditate and to cultivate positive, inclusive attitudes – life skills that, a century later, are exerting a powerful appeal for unprecedented numbers of Harvard students.

When Yogananda came to America in 1920, he started a second How to Live School, but it failed – not because the children were unhappy, but as he put it, because parents in the 1920s weren’t prepared for his ideas. India had offered more fertile soil, in a culture where instruction in the art of happiness is considered an indispensable part of a well-rounded education.

Fifty-four years later, in 1971, an American disciple of Yogananda’s, Swami Kriyananda, started a How to Live School in Nevada City, California. The school flourished, because the time was right. The first school has since spawned other schools in America, Europe, and India, under a new name, Living Wisdom Schools, and a new philosophical banner, Education for Life.

Education for Life in Action

A shining example of the way we incorporate an Education for Life in the curriculum is our annual all-school Theater Magic performance, where each student plays a role in producing a professional-quality theater event based on the life of a great soul who has blessed the earth by his or her presence.

Subjects of past Theater Magic productions have included the Dalai Lama, Joan of Arc, the goddess Quan Yin, Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Moses, Rabiah (a famous Indian woman saint), Martin Luther King, Jr., St. Francis, George Washington Carver, St. Bernadette of Lourdes, and botanist Luther Burbank.

Students act in a play about the life of renowned botanist Luther Burbank at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto.
Theater participation teaches priceless lessons in self-confidence, projection, concentration, and cooperation, among many other important life skills. A scene from the Spring 2023 Theater Magic production, on the life of the renowned American botanist Luther Burbank.

In twenty-two years of plays, we have found theater to be a powerful medium for bringing history to life in a personally engaging way that stays with the students.

It has been inspiring to witness how the students benefit personally. Theater not only teaches them vivid lessons in history, geography, political science, literature, music, and dance – it offers them opportunities to develop high-value life skills. The children learn to take responsibility and use good judgment, and they develop skills in self-confidence, leadership, cooperation, self-control, and perseverance.

They learn to project their presence through their voice and bearing, and to speak clearly while being respectful of their listeners – for example, waiting for the laughter or applause to fade before resuming their spoken lines.

Teacher Suryani Nelson's kindergarten students take a bow after the 2023 Theater Magic production at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, CA.
Teacher Suryani Nelson’s kindergarten students take a bow after the 2023 Theater Magic production at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, CA.

They learn breathing and self-regulation methods to calm feelings of fear or over-excitement. They experience the fulfillment of supporting each other through the challenges of preparing and performing. Finally, they experience the rich satisfaction and pride of pulling together a project of profound beauty, meaning, and inspiration. The plays draw rave reviews from parents and guests.

We should not forget to mention the many lessons they learn about the joys of cooperation and social engagement.

This is Character Development at its finest. By portraying exemplary lives, history becomes both real and inspiring. Many of our graduates have told us how the skills they developed through Theater Magic helped them be successful in high school, college, and career.

The experience of mounting an event of deep significance every year from kindergarten to graduation is unique in education today. It is a perfect example of how life skills and the academic curriculum can, and should, be melded together.

“What kind of education enables people to be happy and successful throughout their lives, and not just in some far-off, imagined better future?”

The research is clear, and it is growing: people who know how to be happy and successful in the present are more likely to be successful in every moment of their lives.

Love & Success in the Classroom

Science teacher Lana Steuck’s highly engaged third-graders created a popular exhibit for the 2023 LWS Science Fair. Click photo to enlarge.

by George Beinhorn

Recently, I visited the Palo Alto Living Wisdom School in my role as the school’s web manager, to video a pair of talks by the school’s principal, Helen Purcell, and longtime middle school teacher and present school administrator Gary McSweeney.

There’s a strong, growing interest in Living Wisdom School among parents, which is wonderful and reason for rejoicing. Yet Helen and Gary lamented that, too often, parents lose sight of the benefits of an Education for Life and choose a school that feels comfortably traditional and familiar instead.

The sad irony is that traditions are evolving wholesale today in every major field of human endeavor, and most schools are only beginning to catch on.

Since approximately 1900, every significant invention has been based on a growing awareness that the fundamental reality of creation is energy. Think of the marvels of modern technology, and the vast array of devices that aid us in our work and at home. To claim that these changes have taken us backward would label us as unrepentant Luddites.

In education, too, there is a new understanding that each student’s success in school depends to a very large extent on how wisely and sensitively the teachers are able to work with the unique energetic qualities of the individual child.

Happiness & Success at School –
What Did “Traditional” Education Actually Look Like?

In ancient Greece and Rome and throughout the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, and in Asia since ancient times, schools have been divided into the approximate equivalents of our modern elementary school, middle and high school, and college, corresponding to ages 6-12, 12-18, and 18-24.

Educational methods were adapted to the needs of children during each stage of their development, as the primary focus naturally shifted from the body (Pre-K and K), to the feelings (grades 1-6), will power (grades 7-12), and mind (college). Because class sizes were smaller and the grades were often mixed, the teachers were able to get to know the students and work with them individually, often over many years.

It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century that government officials and manufacturers decided that schools should be run like assembly lines to train children to be good laborers and factory managers. Thus, math, science and practical subjects such as wood shop, metal shop, and auto mechanics were to be given highest priority, and other matters, such as the child’s emotional, moral, and spiritual development, were to be eliminated from the classroom, as it was assumed these areas would be adequately addressed at home.

The result of this system is the public school system of today, with its large class sizes, government-mandated, one-size-fits-all curriculum, and heavy emphasis on academics to the exclusion of almost everything else.

The mission of the Living Wisdom Schools is to rescue children from this system, whose weaknesses have become abundantly clear, in the form of pandemic bullying, an alarming number of student suicides, and children rebelling and acting out their frustrations with drugs and violence. Programs such as the disastrous “No Child Left Behind,” which force every child into the same rigid curriculum, have left one-third of the students struggling, one-third more or less keeping up, and another third bored out of their minds.

The Highly Efficient Classroom

Over their 50-year history, the Living Wisdom Schools have demonstrated that educating the whole child – body, heart, mind, and spirit – far from neglecting the children’s intellectual development, actually achieves the opposite effect. By engaging the whole child in the learning process, vast reserves of energy and enthusiasm are released to fuel the highest accomplishment, leading to exceptional test scores and high school and college grades. (See the Addendum below.) Because the children are happy and fulfilled, distracting discipline problems are few, bullying is nonexistent, and learning is more efficient than in “traditional” classrooms.

The changes brought by the new awareness of energy are not confined to the Living Wisdom Schools. As hinted earlier, they are sweeping the globe. Education for Life very deliberately prepares children to live effectively in this rapidly changing new energy-aware world.

Happiness & Success in Academia

At Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and other elite schools today, admissions officers are no longer looking only at applicants’ high school grades and SAT scores; they are also weighing individual qualities of emotional balance, enthusiasm, engagement, happiness, and an expansive ability to empathize, communicate, and cooperate – all of which are important predictors of school and life success.

Happiness, Success, & the Science of Positive Feelings

Science is confirming what the Living Wisdom Schools long ago discovered about the intimate links between happiness and success.

Scientists at the Institute of HeartMath™ Research Center (IHM) in Boulder Creek, California have studied the effects of positive feelings such as love, cooperation, compassion, and kindness on our bodies and brains. Their research supports the notion that it’s important for children’s school success that they learn to “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don’t mess with Mister In-Between.” The IHM research is described in The HeartMath Solution by Doc Childre and Howard Martin (HarperSanFrancisco 1999), as well as in research papers on the organization’s website,

Here are some of the IHM findings:

  1. The heart and brain communicate continually through the nervous system, thus the heart’s powerful positive or negative, harmonizing or disruptive messages are carried instantly to the brain, where they either enhance or interfere with our ability to remain cool and concentrate. (The heart is the body’s most powerful oscillator, sending out electrical signals roughly 60 times as strong as those emitted by the brain.)
  2. Harmonious feelings enhance mental focus, calmness, health, performance, intuition, and the frequency of spiritual feelings. They increase relaxation and alpha-wave output in the brain associated with a calm, meditative state, and synchronize heart-rhythm patterns, respiratory rhythms, and blood pressure oscillations.
Chart showing heart rate variability in positive and negative emotions (courtesy of Heartmath Institute)
Heart rate variability in positive and negative emotions (courtesy of IHM). Click to enlarge.

When scientists from the Institute of HeartMath taught simple methods for harmonizing the heart’s feelings to school children in the greater Washington, DC area, the children’s test scores rose dramatically.

In the Living Wisdom Schools, the teachers lead the students in practicing heart-harmonizing methods daily. In the classroom and on the playground, the teachers pay constant, close attention to the quality of the children’s interactions. The teachers are trained to nurture a harmonious, safe, expansive school environment that is optimized for happiness, learning, and success.

Happiness and Success at Harvard

During Shawn Achor’s time as a Harvard graduate student, he served as a proctor, a role that required him to have hundreds of conversations with Harvard freshmen over Starbucks coffee.

Achor, a psychology major, soon noticed a trait that set the most successful students apart. It was an insight that, in time, would completely overturn his previous assumptions about success.

He realized that the Harvard freshmen who were most likely to excel were not those who buried themselves in the library stacks, grimly determined to grind out good grades. The most successful students were the happiest and most socially engaged. They interacted with their peers, formed study groups, continually asked questions, and approached their studies in a spirit of joyous adventure. They were connected, engaged with their work, and were skilled communicators.

Achor is the author of an influential book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work.

Shawn Achor ended up teaching the most popular course at Harvard, on the principles of positive psychology. Today, he applies his findings about the link between happiness and success to help corporate executives advance their careers and transform their companies’ cultures.

Achor realized that when it comes to success and happiness, our traditional assumptions are backwards. Most people assume that they will be happy after they’ve achieved material success. Yet Achor found that the opposite is true – that people who are happy, here and now, are the most likely to succeed.

Happiness and the Brain

Shawn Achor’s findings confirm a discovery by neuroscientists that people with high levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex of their brains – the brain area where happy attitudes, positive expectations, will power, and the ability to form and persevere in achieving long-term goals are localized – are more successful in their lives than those with weaker prefrontal cortex activation.

Neurophysiologist Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, is one of the world’s foremost experts on the prefrontal cortex. When Davidson studied the brain patterns of college students, he found that those with higher levels of prefrontal cortex activation were uniformly better at setting and achieving goals and had fewer problems with drugs and alcohol, compared to students with lower prefrontal activity.

To put it differently, our brains are wired so that happiness and success go together. The qualities that are essential for success – will power, planning, and perseverance – are localized in the same brain area where upbeat, happy attitudes reside. The very structure of our brains tells us that happiness and success are inseparable.

When Davidson and his team studied Tibetan monks living in India, they tested one elderly monk, a lifelong meditator, whose scores on left-prefrontal-cortex activation were the highest they had ever seen, reflecting the tremendous positive energy and joy his practices had brought him. At Living Wisdom School, the children are led in brief daily periods of meditation, using ancient meditation techniques that are designed to relax the body, uplift the feelings, calmly focus attention, and direct energy to the prefrontal cortex. The children find these practices extremely helpful to keep their outlook positive and cheerful while meeting daily challenges and while preparing for tests.

Shawn Achor would confirm that the happiness principle is not only valid for Harvard students but for successful people in all fields. The traditional expectation that happiness is a reward that we can expect to enjoy after we’ve achieved success, defined as a good job, a beautiful home, an impressive income, a trophy spouse, and a shiny car, was simply wrong. The most successful people are those who are happy from the outset – thus the title of Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage.

If you were to ask school administrators to name the most important factor for school success, many would probably say, “Good study habits.” But a mounting body of evidence suggests that this is only one part of the school success equation, albeit an important one.

The Living Wisdom Schools have shown that the best determinants of school success more closely resemble Shawn Achor’s findings: a happy learning environment, permeated by a spirit of joyful exploration, where each child can be challenged at his or her own pace.

Happiness & Success at Google

When Google decided, 15 years after its founding, to re-examine its practice of hiring only job candidates with outstanding grades from top-tier universities, they were surprised to find that technical knowledge was eighth among the factors that predicted success in a high-tech business environment. The first seven were all “soft skills,” such as the ability to empathize, cooperate, and contribute harmoniously. A follow-up study found that Google’s most successful research teams were composed of people who shared qualities of inclusion, respect, and caring.

Happiness & Success in Sports

In the former age of matter-awareness, which ended at approximately the time Albert Einstein announced that the underlying reality of matter is energy, rigid forms and solid matter were thought to be the ultimate reality of creation.

Thus, in sports training, the needs of the individual were subordinated to rigid, one-size-fits-all methods. Today, in the dawning age of energy-awareness, young coaches and athletes are achieving unprecedented success with methods that put individual happiness and success first.

This should not be surprising, since we perform best when we’re doing something we love. And we all love experiencing success at our own level – as happens daily for each child at Living Wisdom School.

Example: Tony Holler was an honors chemistry teacher and track and football coach for thirty years at Plainfield North High School in the greater Chicago area. When Tony transitioned his teams from old-style coaching methods to practices that emphasized the efficient use of energy and were short, fast, and fun, his teams won the state 4×100 event, the prestige event in track and field, four of the next six years. In the same period, his football teams, similarly coached with short, efficient practices in a spirit of fun, won 44 games and lost 3.

Happiness & Success in the Military

Click to enlarge.

Consider the U.S.S. Benfold, a destroyer that scored bottom-scraping performance ratings under a succession of captains who ruled with a rigid, top-down, micromanaging style in which the crew members were viewed as soulless drones whose purpose was to advance the officers’ careers, and deviations from the Navy’s rules and norms were considered anathema.

Then a miracle occurred, when a forward thinking young captain, D. Michael Abrashoff, took over Benfold and put energy-based principles in place. Abrashoff was convinced that the key to turning the ship around would be the happiness and success of each crew member. He talked with each of Benfold’s 300 sailors and gave them freedom to do whatever it would take to improve their departments, even if it meant bending the Navy’s rules. The result: within months, Benfold was beating the Navy’s best ships in at-sea trials. Abrashoff recorded his experiences in a deeply inspiring bestselling book, It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy.

At Living Wisdom School the teachers have long experience helping each child succeed daily at his or her own level. The result is a very happy school “ship” where the children are enthusiastically engrossed in meeting their academic and personal challenges. After Captain Abashoff transformed Benfold, other ships‘ officers and crews were soon seeking any excuse to visit the ship for the pleasure of spending time in its positive, dynamic, happy atmosphere.

If you are seeking a school for your child, why not arrange a visit to Living Wisdom School? We’re sure you’ll love your time here, as so many other parents have in the thirty-three years of our school’s existence. You can use the Contact form, or give us a call at 650-462-8150. We look forward to welcoming you to our school and giving you a tour of the campus.

Captain Abrashoff’s Operating Principles

1. See the culture through the eyes of the individual.

2. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

3. Discipline and motivation skyrocket when people believe they are doing something important, and they’re given the freedom to do it well.

4. Listen aggressively.

School Choice

In today’s fast-paced, energy-driven world, it’s clear that children’s prospects for a happy, successful life depend far more on their present, daily experiences of happiness and success at school, than on rigid adherence to a set of impersonal, assembly-line educational practices from the past.


About the Author: George Beinhorn graduated from Stanford University (BA 1964, MA 1966). He has published seven books in the last decade, including the following titles which are based on the 50-year experience of the Living Wisdom Schools (the links are to web pages where you can read the chapters or download a PDF).

Head & Heart: How a Balanced Education Nurtures Happy Children Who Excel in School & Life. Based on the experience of the Living Wisdom Schools.

Happiness & Success at School – A Magnificent Synergy: Answering parents’ questions about the surprising links between happiness and high performance in the classroom.

Happiness & Success in High School: Educating Teenagers for Life: Answering parents’ questions about the surprising links between happiness and high performance in the classroom. How positive feelings and individual attention nurture success in high school, college, and for all of life. Based on the experience of Living Wisdom High School in Palo Alto, California.


Addendum: Does Individual Attention Support Academic Excellence? High School Grades Tell the Story

Parents often question whether devoting time to individual attention doesn’t somehow steal energy from the academic subjects. But the EFL teachers have found the opposite to be true.


We present these academic results by graduates of the K-8 Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California as evidence of the validity of the Education for Life approach to learning.

We invited Palo Alto LWS graduates (2011-2014) to share their high school and college grade-point averages. The Palo Alto school has 70-75 students in nine grades, K-8. On average, 4-8 students graduate per year; thus these 20 responses over four years are representative.

Presentation High (San Jose) 4.7
Mountain View High 4.5
Los Altos High 4.5
Harker School (San Jose) 4.18
Carlmont High (Belmont) 4.1
Summit Prep (Redwood City) 4.1
Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles) 4.1
Los Altos High 4.0
Menlo College Prep (Menlo Park) 4.0
Mid-Peninsula High (Menlo Park) 4.0
Palo Alto High 4.0
Harker School (San Jose) 3.9
Woodside Priory School, Bowdoin College 3.825
Menlo College Prep 3.706
San Lorenzo High 3.7
Gunn High (Palo Alto) 3.6
Gunn High, Cornell University 3.5
Summit Prep (Redwood City) 3.5
Bay High School (San Francisco) 3.23
Mid-Peninsula High (Menlo Park) 2.7


LWS graduates’ average high school GPA (2011-18): 3.85


LWS alumni have graduated from these high schools:

Bay School in San Francisco Carlmont High School
Everest High School Gunn High School
Harker School Los Altos High School
Menlo College Prep Menlo-Atherton High School
Mid-Peninsula High School Mountain View High School
Palo Alto High School Pinewood School
Presentation High School San Lorenzo High School
Summit Prep High School Woodside Priory

LWS alumni have graduated from these colleges:

Bowdoin College Brooks Institute of Photography
Cal Poly Columbia University
Cornell University Dominican University
Dublin University, Ireland Georgetown University
Humboldt State University London College, UK
Loyola Marymount University New York University
Oberlin College Portland State University
San Francisco Art Institute San Francisco Conservatory of Music
Santa Clara University School of Visual Arts, New York
Stanford University UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara
University of Bremen, Germany University of Michigan
University of San Francisco University of Washington (Ross School of Business)


LWS graduates’ college majors:

Anthropology Art
Computer Science Culinary Arts
Economics Education
Engineering Film
Genetics Library Science
Marketing Mathematics
Medicine Music

Recent Living Wisdom High School Graduates Received Their Degrees:

Cal Poly (Psychology)

Chapman University (Computer Science, Cyber-Security)

San Jose State University (Marine Biology)

Santa Clara University (Political Science; Pre-Law)

UC San Diego (Psychology)

Graduates of Living Wisdom High School in Palo Alto have been accepted (2018-2021):

Bard College at Simon’s Rock Boston College
Cal Poly Chapman University
Lewis & Clark College Muhlenberg College
New York University Redlands University
Saint Mary’s College San Jose State University
Santa Clara University Sarah Lawrence College
Simon Fraser University UC Davis
UC San Diego University of Puget Sound
University of San Francisco University of the Pacific
Whittier College Willamette University

Test Scores

Living Wisdom High School (Nevada City, California) Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) Score Averages 2004-2021

LWHS Average National Average Above National Average
Language Arts 640 533 +20%
Mathematics 608 527 +15%
Total 1248 1060 +18%

We also assess our high school students’ progress using the Iowa Test of Educational Development. Over the past two years, our students have shown an average gain of 14 percentile points in comparison to other students their age.


The Curriculum at Living Wisdom School


The keys to academic engagement at Living Wisdom School are individual instruction, and challenging each student daily at their own level. Former middle-school teacher Gary McSweeney helps an eight-grader with a math assignment.

by Nitai Deranja, Co-Founder of Education for Life and the Living Wisdom Schools

A question parents often ask us is: “What is the curriculum like in the Living Wisdom Schools?”

I believe a better question would be, “How does Education for Life improve upon the curriculum that has been offered in schools for at least the last hundred years?”

We are living in an age that values mass production and standardization. It’s a way of thinking that began with the Industrial Revolution, when factory owners realized that they could produce goods in mass quantities much more efficiently by adopting assembly-line manufacturing methods.

The new approach worked well for making cars, refrigerators, and other products. So well, in fact, that when government officials met with leading educators to decide upon the best way to prepare workers for the prosperous new manufacturing age, they decided that schools should be operated as efficient, standardized assembly lines for educating factory workers, engineers, and business leaders.

Teachers, too, came to be seen as assembly line workers, tasked with repeating a fixed set of lessons that would move the “product” – the students – efficiently through the system. To facilitate the process, the teachers’ tasks were detailed in curriculum frameworks under which public schools were required to operate – and still do today.

Nitai Deranja, founder of the first Living Wisdom School
Nitai Deranja, Co-Founder of Education for Life and the Living Wisdom Schools

The problem with this approach is that children are not cars. Anyone who spends time with children quickly realizes that each child is unique, with highly individual gifts and enthusiasms, and that attempts to standardize their education will, at best, be stifling.

Instead of cultivating a rich flowering of creative talents that could prepare the children to be successful and help solve the problems besetting our planet today, we now graduate students who excel at memorizing just enough material to pass the standardized tests.

Education for Life pursues an entirely different approach. It shifts the emphasis from a fixed series of rigidly prescribed lessons, to address the interests, enthusiasms, and ever-changing needs of the individual student.

Education for Life requires that the teachers form a close bond with each child, so that they will be able to identify the child’s unique gifts and devise an individualized approach to the curriculum that will build on the child’s natural enthusiasm, while giving them daily experiences of mastery at their level.

Education for Life in Action

I’ll share a brief example. A parent reported that her four-year-old boy wept bitterly every morning as she prepared to bring him to school. In a conference with his teacher, the mother noted that her son had expressed a strong interest in music.

The parents and the teacher decided to create a music unit for the boy. The following day, the boy’s tears vanished, as he realized that school was a place where his needs would be recognized and supported. Encouraged to express his enthusiasm for music, he soon began to find joy in other aspects of the curriculum and school activities as well.

Does Individual Attention Fuel Academic Excellence?

Parents often question whether devoting time to individual attention doesn’t somehow steal energy from the academic subjects. But the EFL teachers have found the exact opposite to be true.

Consider our graduates’ high school grades – see Happiness, Success, and Education for Life: Grades Tell the Story.” Consider also the following sampling of test scores from our high school.

Living Wisdom High School Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) Score Averages 2004-2021

LWHS Average National Average Above National Average
Language Arts 640 533 +20%
Mathematics 608 527 +15%
Total 1248 1060 +18%

We additionally assess our high school students’ progress using the Iowa Test of Educational Development. Over the past two years, our students have shown an average gain of 14 percentile points in comparison to other students their age.

In an Education for Life Classroom, Discipline Problems Are Few

Because the children feel individually supported and engaged, there is an atmosphere of intense, sincere enthusiasm for the curriculum. Thus discipline problems virtually disappear, and the instruction is far more efficient than in a classroom with a standardized, lockstep curriculum.

A New Vision for the Curriculum

In Education for Life, we have re-named the traditional subjects to emphasize their relationship to the students’ personal interests. Instead of dividing them into seemingly unrelated silos of History, Language Arts, Science, English, etc., EFL arranges the same subjects under broad titles that emphasize the interconnectedness of knowledge.

For an in-depth discussion of the six curriculum areas, I invite you to browse “The Curriculum,” from Education for Life, the book on which our schools’ philosophy is based. A brief summary:

1. “Our Earth – Our Universe”

“The Sciences” conjures images of test tubes in a laboratory rather than the wonders of nature. “Our Earth – Our Universe” covers everything now taught under “the sciences,” but includes a suggestion of the orderliness of the universe; an appreciation for the ecological balance of planetary life; and a sense of awe before the universal mysteries, which, as Einstein said, is the essence of great scientific discovery.

“Our Earth – Our Universe” includes physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, general science, botany, geology, and anatomy.

2. Personal Development

Personal Development nurtures each child’s growth in three areas: physical, mental, and spiritual. Personal Development fosters the students’ ability to set and achieve personal goals, as well as personal qualities of perseverance, self-control, and joyful self-discipline. Subjects that foster growth in Personal Development:

Physical education Sports
Health and hygiene Mental skills such as concentration, memory development and organization
Mathematics computation skills Beginning reading skills
Spelling Any subject matter involving memorization
Long-term projects Learning new tasks such as handwriting, CPR, typing, etc.
Developing and using positive qualities such as gratitude, contentment, honesty, servicefulness, and responsibility. (This list could be unending.)

3. Self-Expression and Communication

This category includes, for example, mathematics and grammar, both of which can help the students develop mental clarity. Also included are subjects such as how to develop creativity, and how to be differently creative in a variety of fields. Subjects might include those listed below, as well as instruction in how to develop more mundane but perennially useful skills such as carpentry, or salesmanship. Subjects that foster growth in Self-expression and Communication:

Mathematics Writing mechanics
Creative writing Interpretive dance
Music composition Music interpretation
Computer programming Creative problem solving
Engineering The use of the voice as a means of self-expression in singing and speaking
Public speaking How to develop creativity
Visual arts Drama
Vocabulary development

4. Understanding People

“Understanding People” encourages personal expansion through opening ourselves to learn about the experiences and perspectives of others. A primary focus is on learning about what human beings everywhere want most deeply from life, and what leads to lasting happiness for oneself and others. Subjects that foster growth in Understanding People include:

The study of other cultures, their customs and beliefs Foreign languages
History Geography
Psychology World religions
The study of the lives of great people Travel to other locations

5. Cooperation

“Cooperation” encourages personal expansion by learning how to cultivate harmonious relations with others. The children are given many opportunities to practice the attitudes and skills that contribute to an experience of interpersonal harmony – for example, mental flexibility, a willingness to compromise, and respect for other people’s realities. Subjects that foster growth in Cooperation:

The human realities of political science, economics and business Supportive leadership
Listening skills Etiquette
Historical people and events in which cooperation played an important part

6. Wholeness

Fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Craig Kellogg helps a student during a rehearsal of the annual all-school Theater Magic play at Living Wisdom School.

This curriculum area focuses not on a single aspect of personal or academic development, but on the many ways the various areas work together, each enhancing the development of the whole. Subjects that foster growth in Wholeness:

Music Meditation and other centering techniques
Art Literature
Philosophy Religion
Nature studies

The Curriculum as a Cornerstone of an Education for Life

Education for Life is deeply concerned with helping each student find purpose and meaning during their time at school, and in their later lives. Thus the teachers are granted the freedom to introduce each curriculum category in a way that will help the individual student make a personal connection to the subject.

In Education for Life, our goal for the curriculum is not to dictate what must happen in the classroom during every hour of every day of the school year, but to provide an outline that allows the teachers and students to create a unique school experience that will enrich each child with wisdom, enthusiasm, engagement, proud accomplishment, and joy.

In the first fifty years of the Living Wisdom Schools, we have found that this approach produces excellent results, more efficiently and effectively than the older assembly-line system.

A Conversation with Lilavati Aguilar, 2nd Grade Teacher and Early Education Advisor

Q: You taught kindergarten for five years at Living Wisdom School. Now you’re teaching second grade, and you have many of the same children in your class that you taught in kindergarten. What qualities do you see in them that they’ve brought over from kindergarten, and that have helped them personally and in their school work?

Lilavati: It’s been fun to see how they’ve matured, and how they’ve grown in the behaviors and attitudes we teach all the kids as part of our Education for Life approach.

At Living Wisdom we start giving the children important life skills from the get-go. To give you an example, I taught the kindergarteners basic meditation practices that helped them be calm and focused. And now, in second grade, I’m impressed by how far they’ve come. Of course, it isn’t like we’re meditating for half an hour, but we’ll sit for five minutes, and maybe by the end of the year we’ll meditate for 10 minutes occasionally, and that’s doing very well at their age.

But you asked about the skills that help them do well in school, and the ability to be calm, focused, and cheerful is definitely an important one.

I find that they are able to bring the busy energy of the classroom into a calm, open, sensitive space by practicing the simple meditation tools we give them – I  can feel the energy in the room rise to a more calm, receptive, focused level.

When a child first comes to the school, there’s a brief transition, but they quickly pick up on the quality of the energy here, and the focused time we spend doing our breathing exercises helps them get acclimated.

The middle schoolers do a set of energization exercises for gaining control of the energy in the body as an aid for learning to be calm, focused, and energized at will. Last year, the thought occurred to me that the second graders have such calm energy, and maybe they would benefit from the exercises. So, I began teaching them halfway through the year. This year I introduced them at the start, and it’s been inspiring to see what the kids can do. In kindergarten, they learned about will power, and how they can be aware of their energy. These are important life skills, because they help us be energetic, self-controlled, calm, and centered, but open to the ideas and realities of others.

Our teachers talk often about the energy in the classroom, and the children understand what we mean. The students in my class are seven and eight, and if we aren’t careful, their energy can go all over. But we’ll do some energization, and it’s surprising how quickly their energy and attention gets focused, present, happy, and calm.

We start the day with these practices, just before math, and I find that their energy and attention carries over very directly into academics, and how they’re able to work with good energy, enthusiasm, and concentration. When they run into a difficult math problem, they know how to get very concentrated and work through it. A child will say, “I don’t know how to do this one – it’s too hard.” And I’ll say, “Okay, great, I’m glad it’s hard for you, because now you get to practice your will power. Remember how you focus your attention and use your will power when you energize? Now you can use it and see if you can work on the math problem.”

They know what we’re talking about, because it’s something they’ve experienced with their body and breath, so it’s real to them, and they know how helpful it is.

These are things we teach in the early grades as a foundation for learning to be successful in school and in their interactions with people, including their friends and teachers.

As they start the school day, these practices help them be happy and engaged, and they look forward to the breathing, meditation, and energization.

Q: What kind of meditation do you teach them?

Lilavati: We keep it simple. We work with the breath. That’s another big concept, learning to work with your breathing to calm yourself and get more focused, happy energy.

I tell them to take a big breath and exhale slowly and relax. Big breath – relax. I’ll say, “Now just let your breath flow normally and naturally and notice when your breath goes in and out.” So we take big breaths at the start, and then we notice our breathing.

We have to remind them not to control the breath. It helps them to touch two fingers together as the breath comes in.

After watching the breath for a while, I’ll ask them to close their eyes and listen and report what they hear. They’ll hear birds, traffic, and so on, and because they’re sharing aloud, they pay close attention.

After a few days of this, we’ll bring our attention closer to our bodies. I’ll say, “Can you hear your breathing? Can you hear your heart beating?” It isn’t easy to hear your heartbeat, but they’ll get very, very focused, and sometimes they’ll hear their heartbeat, or other body sounds. They might say, “I think I hear blood flowing,” because they know a little bit about the body from science class.

Next, we’ll put a hand on our heart, and I’ll say, “If you can’t hear your heart, can you feel it?” There’s something about concentrating on the physical body that captures their attention, because it’s a close experience, and we do lots of teaching by giving them their own direct experiences.

Q: Do you talk about the feelings of the heart?

Lilavati: That’s the next level. After a day or two of feeling the heartbeat, we’ll keep a hand on the heart, and I’ll say, “Now think of a time when you felt really safe and loved. Maybe you were hugging your mom or your dad. Maybe you were hugging your cat. Can you sit there and just feel love?”

We’ll picture the feeling, and we’ll keep the feeling of love and expand it. I’ll say, “See if you can have that feeling of love as it goes all around the classroom. See if you can make it go bigger and go all around the school, all the way to your mom and dad, wherever they are, and maybe all the way around the planet.”

We’ll do these heart work exercises, and maybe I’ll say, “Remember a time when you felt lots of happiness, or when you felt joy. Where were you? Try to picture it clearly.” And then we’ll fill the classroom with joy, and the school, and so forth.

So, we’re expanding and extending from something that they’ve experienced and are familiar with, and it’s always based on an experience, and not just talking abstractly about these things.

Q: Some years ago, when I observed in your kindergarten classroom, I noticed a feeling of harmony and an amazing focus that struck me as quite a miracle, at that age.

Lilavati: They are very engaged, even at age four to six. We have visitors coming through the school, because families will visit, or there will be researchers who are interested in the school and want to observe. So, the children are used to having people come in and out, and they might look up and notice, okay, there’s a visitor, but right away they’ll return to what they’re doing.

Q: A former kindergarten teacher here said that she spent the first three months helping the children learn how to behave in the classroom – how to be aware of the other kids, what was proper behavior, how to say certain things, how to listen, and how to treat people. For example, how to ask for things, because you don’t just grab, but you ask for it, and here are the words you can use to ask for what you want.

She said that after the first three months, which required a lot of her energy and attention, it was much easier, because they knew. And what they learned is valuable at any age because we have to be aware— “Oh, here’s how I can say this,” and respect the other person’s realities. We’re making those decisions all the time in a civilized society, and we’re evaluating what we can say to another person, and how to restrain ourselves to give that person space to talk. And it sounds like Civilization 101 starts in kindergarten at Living Wisdom School.

Lilavati: Exactly so, because yes, you do need to teach them these things. We also talk about “using your big voice,” so that you can be an advocate for yourself when you have a need.

You have to be able to stand up for yourself, but at the same time you need to be aware of the other person and their needs. It can take a lifetime to perfect these skills, but it starts in kindergarten, and we give them the words to be able to move around in the world together with other people.

If a child comes up and says, “Lilavati, they took my toy!” we don’t solve the problem for them, but we give them the skills to problem-solve it on their own.

The first question I’ll ask is, “So how did you like it?” Did you like it? “No.” And the way they respond tells you a lot. If they’re quiet and withdrawn and it’s “no,” you might have to help them get their energy bigger before they go and try to problem-solve. But if they’re ready to go over and clobber the other person, you’ll need to help them calm down with some deep breathing, and they’ll learn to take a big breath before they go over and talk about it.

Q: It sounds like you’re creating a happy atmosphere for academics, too. Meditation gives you focus, energization gives you energy, and learning right behavior, and learning at their own pace gives them happiness. You’re giving them skills to find their way around in the world, and I’m guessing that it helps when they’re learning new things.

Partner reading (discussed at end of the conversation). Eighth-grader Tima Steuck and transitional kindergartner Anika Rao share an exciting story. Click the image for larger view.

Lilavati: Yes, it’s true, absolutely. Absorption and focus and paying attention and being enthusiastic, and maybe having little victories every day. Those all start in kindergarten. And, again, I would take it back to how we are always talking about energy. We’re always watching to see, first, what their energy is like. Are they rambunctious and over the top and unable to focus? Then you’ll need to do some calming things like breathing and meditation. Or are they tired and checked-out and uninterested? Then you’ll need to help them lift their energy, maybe by doing the “awake and ready” exercise.

As a teacher, you constantly have to be aware and carefully notice what’s going on with them.

At Living Wisdom, the bonds between the children and the teachers are unusually close, because they are based, first, on the small class size, but also, primarily on the teachers’ deep awareness that they have to cultivate a bond with each child so that they can get to know them at a deep level and adjust the curriculum and guidance to the exact needs of the child on a daily basis.

By getting to know the child at a deep level, we are very clearly aware that one child will need to breathe and get calm and have quiet time, where another child might need the opposite.

When you have those connections, the students are much more open to receive what you’re asking or telling them. If they feel seen and understood and you ask them to stop doing something, they’ll listen. But if there is no bond, and there’s a feeling that the teacher is just saying what she wants, then there’s a feeling that it doesn’t have anything to do with them and their needs, and why should I want it, too?

So, it’s extremely important, and it’s amazing how the kids will develop deep bonds with all of their teachers over the years, and with the whole school, so that they feel safe and able to calm down and take in information because they’re feeling understood.

So, yes, having those connections with the teachers and the other students helps their success in academics big-time. To give you an example, we hear about schools where the students are afraid to speak up in class or talk to their teacher about a problem they’re having in their life, because the classes are large and the focus is on mass education, and there’s no time or energy to individualize the curriculum.

Imagine the effect it would have on whether you would want to study or express your enthusiasm, if you were in an atmosphere where there was much less warmth and love, and more fear. It’s an amazing gift for children to be in this environment and this atmosphere where they feel safe, connected, and understood.

When I worked in public schools, I saw how many kids got lost, and how they had to push for their needs, and how they could get selfish as a result. Whereas at Living Wisdom, it’s so open and expansive that the kids are willing to help each other, because we are a close family, in truth. When there are misunderstandings, it’s unique here in how we’re able to work with them because of those bonds.

There were two little boys in my class who were very good friends, but one of them made a bad decision one day and said some mean words to his friend. We immediately stopped and talked about it, and I asked the little boy who’d gone over the top with his language, “Well, how do you think so-and-so felt when you said that?”

From having worked with his friends this way over the years, and being used to the vocabulary, he was able to think about it and say from the heart, “I think I hurt him. I think that was hurtful.”

When I asked him what he would say, he turned to his friend and said, “I’m so sorry.” And it wasn’t the halfhearted kind of “I’m sorry” where the teacher is making you say it. It was where they could both feel that it was genuine.

For lots of kids today, their lives can be very compartmentalized, and even fractured. But here it’s a whole-person kind of experience for them.

Q: I have to say that the atmosphere in the school feels like there’s a lot of friendship going around.

Lilavati: Some days they’ll get up on the wrong side of the bed, but when they come in you can see them relax because they know how to ask for help, and they can say, “I’m having a terrible morning,” and know that they’ll get help, and sometimes it will be from the teachers, but sometimes it’s from the other students who are understanding and kind.

Q: I saw it happen in third grade when a little girl was having problems and Kshama immediately noticed and started talking to her, and several kids came over, and a little girl made faces at her friend to make her smile.

Lilavati: Yes, exactly, and then each of them will come in with their own interests and passions, and they are validated, because our curriculum is flexible enough that if we see a passion for outer space or dinosaurs, we can support it and adjust the curriculum to include it. It goes back to knowing the students and having a bond, so that we can see how to help them go a little farther with what’s interesting to them.

We learn about their strengths early in their time here, and we figure out what makes them happy and how we can adjust the curriculum to give them what they need to know, in a context that will work for them. “Wow, I love dinosaurs.” They’ll share their love for dinosaurs with the class, and we’ll all learn. We feel it’s very important for each child to be able to express their special enthusiasms, because it carries over into their academic subjects and makes them happy learners and happy people.

Of course, there will be a feeling of, “Okay, this stuff I find incredibly interesting, and this stuff I don’t like so much, but I can use my will power to get through it.”

Q: Is math a big one, since people tend to be either into math or not.

Lilavati: They usually like math!

Q: Really? Have you figured out a way to work with children who aren’t math-talented? In one of the books about Living Wisdom School, Happiness & Success at School, there’s a chapter about a famous math educator at Stanford who found that math instruction needs to be highly individualized so that those who aren’t advanced can take small steps and be enthusiastic about their daily victories, so that they begin to enjoy math.

Lilavati: That’s our approach. We are always watching to see where they are individually, and we adjust the curriculum for them accordingly. There was a little girl who would just sit and draw pictures during math class, and now she’s in second grade and very proud of how well she’s doing in math, and she’s getting ahead of everyone else. It took time, but because we were able to support her and help her work at her own level, she was able to figure it out.

Q: Do you do partner walks and partner reading, where the young children are partnered with the older students?

Lilavati: Now that COVID is winding down, we’re doing partner reading again, because the kids missed it so much. The little kids and big kids both love having partners. If you have a partner for reading and you see your partner at recess, you know them as friends, so the big kids watch out for the little ones.

Our littlest girl this year, just a tiny slip of a thing, as cute as can be, was partnered with our tallest boy, and I have a picture of them, this long, lanky boy and this tiny girl, and they’re poring over a book together.


LWS Theater Director Rose Atwell Helps Young Actors Grow Personally and Academically

Rose Atwell, Living Wisdom School Theater Director

Rose Atwell is tasked with preparing the seventy-plus students of Living Wisdom School for the annual all-school Theater Magic Production in mid-March. Her long experience in theater, and her genius for knowing exactly what each child needs, make her a perfect choice for this very important role.

Q: How did you come to direct the Theater Magic program at Living Wisdom School?

Rose: I was a full-time teacher at the original Living Wisdom K-8 school in Nevada City, California from 2007 to 2015, and I served as the high school drama teacher for part of that time.

I remember when I met with the teenagers to discuss our first performance. They said, “Can we do Lord of the Rings?”

I said, “Oh, no – it’s too big!”

But they weren’t fazed. “What if we write the script?”

I asked them some questions to determine how serious they were. They were very enthusiastic, so I said, “All right, if you write a script, we’ll do it.”

They spent lots of after-school hours writing the script and building the sets, and they put their hearts and souls into rehearsing and performing the play. It really stretched them, so there was lots of personal growth. We had a wonderful time together, and since then theater has become a focus of my work in the Living Wisdom Schools.

One of the great joys of theater is the sense of community that it creates. Working on a play together creates wonderful connections for the actors and the audience, and it gives the children a very valuable experience of being part of something larger than themselves.

When I came to the Palo Alto Living Wisdom School, I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to direct the Theater Magic program. The school puts its whole energy into the plays, and the staff and teachers give the children tremendous support so that they will have a profound experience with lots of learning and personal growth.

All of the students, from the youngest to the oldest, TK-8th grade, take part in the play, and they take it very, very seriously. They bring their best to the rehearsals, so there’s tremendous learning for them.

For example, if a very shy child is being challenged to project their voice and fill the room with their energy, we offer them endless support to grow into their role and discover what they’re capable of.

I love the months we spend together creating the plays, because they give the children so much, including the opportunity to experience the joys of cooperation and community. We have five-year-olds working alongside the eighth graders to perfect a scene. They’ll be working together to perfect a scene, and it’s beautiful to see how they’re helping each other. The middle schoolers are learning to help the younger children, and the little ones are having mature behaviors modeled for them by the older kids. We’re constantly witnessing how those connections inspire tremendous growth.

Rose helps young children prepare for a scene.

In all my years in theater, I’ve seen that the process is more important than the product. During the months of build-up to the performances, we’re focusing on the elements of joy, enthusiasm, courage, and community, because we know that if we can create a happy, safe, expansive environment, the children will thrive and the results will be beautiful as well. The adult audiences love the plays, and the four performances are always standing-room only.

It has become increasingly clear to me that my role is to be fully present with each child, and to help them have the happiest, most rewarding experience possible. I’ve come to a point where I can quickly sense if something is too big a stretch for a particular child  – if it’s too scary at this point in their life.

We do ask a lot of them; for example, we ask them to fill a huge room with their voice and their presence in front of their peers. The plays are very professional, so there’s lots of memorization and lots to learn about polishing their craft as actors.

We spend lots of time helping them go deep in their roles, but if we see that a child is at a point that isn’t comfortable for them, we’ll immediately stop and let them go and be supported and relaxed, and take the pressure off.

In my role as an adult who’s guiding kids from age five to fourteen, I’ve learned that it’s really all about finding those points of personal growth, without ever crossing the line into a situation that would overwhelm them.

We’re always teaching to the individual child, tuning into their special needs and finding out if they are ready to move forward into a little more growth, or if what they need, for now, is more support and comfort.

Both are very valid needs, and we’ve learned to be very good at identifying the edge of what will be fun for the child and a good and appropriate next step, not only for the sake of the play, but for their personal growth and their next step in confidence, creativity, and expansion.

Those are the most important things we’re always watching for. I believe our ability to understand what the children are going through evolves through years of watching how they deal with being challenged at the near edge of their ability. We’re always focused on keeping it doable for them, so that they can feel happy and excited by the experience of discovery, but never swamped.

Q: Do you spend most of your time working with the youngest children?

Rose: No, I actually spend more time with the older ones, because the very young ones can only go for so long. (laughs)

For the kindergarteners, for example, our first priority is for them to be happy, to be having fun, and to feel good about what they’re doing. So we’ll give them something they can accomplish every day, something we know they can succeed at and feel really good about.

If you try to push them too far, the happiness won’t happen. So we’ll give the kindergarteners a little dance, a poem, or a song, and then they can come to rehearsals and be part of the larger process and become inspired by the older kids.

It’s extremely sweet to see the kindergarten kids at recess, acting out everything they’ve seen, including the big kids’ roles. But when we’re working with them at rehearsals, we’re careful to keep it very doable and happy and enjoyable.

As the kids get older, they can take on more acting and dialogue. In the early middle grades, they might have a handful of lines, and they might also be in lots of scenes without saying very much. But they’re getting a feel for it. Then in fourth to eighth grade they can start taking on larger roles, so that they’ll be stretched more with memorization and projection, and holding the play together.

Q: Does the theater experience teach them life skills?

Rose: Yes, very much so. We are helping them learn to relate to people, to speak well and clearly in order to be understood, and to take the other person’s point of view.

Also, the theme of each play is the life of an inspiring individual who has demonstrated positive, expansive values. Beginning at a very early age, the children are living a story that is uplifting, hopeful, and inspiring.

“What we practice, we become,” and the attitudes and values we dwell on, we can expand into. The children are dwelling on stories that offer them beautiful personal traits and positivity. And what could be more important for children than to be absorbing and acting out uplifting values?

Acting-out positive qualities is a very powerful path to personal and academic growth. For each child, it’s an affirmation of positive, beautiful ways of behaving and being. We, as adults, talk about the power of our thoughts, and the children are memorizing lines that are infused with wonderful life lessons. And each year they add to the pantheon of heroes from various cultures.

Back in the classroom, they also get to dwell deeply on the themes of the play and the lives of these inspiring people. Of course, they will bring their own unique values and beliefs to the discussion. We aren’t trying to feed them a narrow belief system. We’re offering them universal, inspirational values of courage, kindness, compassion, and the like.

Q: With every student in the school participating in the play, it must be a lot of young people to relate to!

Rose: We work on one scene at a time. For example, we’ll rehearse Scene 1 from 10:30 to 1130 a.m. on Monday, and everyone who’s in the scene will be on stage. Then the kids in the next scene will come, so it’s always a small group and a mix of ages.

There may be five, ten, or twenty kids in the room, all amazingly well-behaved. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve honed the art of crowd control (laughs), but I will lay out the ground rules. “Okay, this is what you need to do. This is what I expect.” And they do it. The kids are amazing, and I think it’s a tribute to what the teachers are giving them in the classroom.

Individual attention is the key to helping each child achieve the greatest growth personally and academically.

Q: Some years ago, when I filmed video in the kindergarten classroom, I found it amazing to see how the teacher could go off to help another group, and the kids at the first table would be completely engrossed in their work and very polite and considerate. So I’m guessing that you’re blessed to be working with kids who have a certain degree of maturity. How does it compare with the other theater groups you’ve been involved with, in college and community theater?

Rose: (laughs) Well, if you’re majoring in theater in college, you’ve probably going to have some creative energy, but you won’t necessarily be calm. There are wonderful, talented people in theater, but I think that if you’re going to do theater well and be successful, you have to be very solid and mature and aware of other people’s realities. If somebody isn’t respectful and aware, they aren’t going to go very far in a theater production community. It truly is the reality that you have to work with others in a mature way.

Also, to portray a character correctly, you must have empathy. In other words, you have to be able to relate to a reality that isn’t your own, and then share it with the audience. Learning to relate to realities outside of your own is an important element of an Education for Life.

The theater experience gives the children fantastic practice in not taking themselves too seriously; it challenges them to be aware of and examine the habits and thoughts by which they define themselves, and it teaches them that they can choose to change for the better.

Q: Do you work with the other teachers during the theater process?

Rose: Not until the final stages. A teacher will send three or four students for Scene 4, and the other students will remain in the classroom. The teachers are wonderfully supportive, but I don’t spend much time working directly with them until Tech Week, when we’re setting up the sound, the lights, and the sets, and organizing the scripts, and so on. Then everyone is pitching in together, but for a large portion of the rehearsal time, it’s just me and the students.

Q: Did you have special training in child psychology, teaching theater, or anything like that?

Rose: No, it’s all been hands-on. After I graduated with a theater degree from UC Santa Cruz, I spent a year working with Narani Moorehouse, a wonderful teacher at the original Living Wisdom School who has more than forty years of teaching experience, and I learned a tremendous amount from her.

Also, when I was a young person I was a student in the Living Wisdom Schools, and I’m sure I absorbed a great deal from the wonderful attitudes and practices of the teachers. Teaching has felt very natural for me, and perhaps I was born with a certain aptitude for it.

Q: It’s a blessing for the children to be exposed to inspiring people and ideas from an early age, and to have so many valuable learning experiences. Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts with us.

How I Discovered Education for Life Principles While Teaching in a Public High School

A conversation with Living Wisdom School Director Helen Purcell

Helen Purcell has served for more than 20 years as Director of the K-8 Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California. Throughout her career in education she has taught language arts at the elementary, high school, and university undergraduate levels.

Q: Our subject today is your life in education — what you’ve learned as a teacher, and the experiences that persuaded you that it might be possible to help young people in better ways.

First Principles

Helen Purcell, Director, Living Wisdom School
Helen Purcell, Director, Living Wisdom School f

Helen: As part of my studies in earning my credential, I student taught an English course at Santa Monica City College, and among the discoveries I made in that first teaching assignment was that the relationship between the student and teacher is golden.

There was a young man in the class who was extremely bright, but he confided, “I’m not sure I should be taking your class because I’ve been living on a Pacific island for many years, and I hardly know how to speak English anymore.”

I said, “I can tell by the way you’re speaking that you’ll do just fine, so hang in there, and I’ll help you.”

As it turned out, he didn’t need much help, but because I had been so willing to help him, he was wonderfully supportive of what I was doing, and it made me powerfully aware of the importance of the relationship between the student and teacher.

I then taught for several years at a community college near Chico, California. It was in a remote rural area, and it drew many adults who were wanting to have an experience of college for the first time, as well as young people who were just stepping out into the world.

Because it was such a diverse group, I quickly realized that regardless of the subject you’re teaching, you are always teaching to the individual, and you need to consider their individual needs, which may be very different from your own, because if you ignore those differences, you’ll absolutely miss your goal of helping them, with their unique histories and their particular talents and graces.

This is a bedrock principle of the Living Wisdom Schools, where we are profoundly focused on getting to know each student so that we can help them move forward in the best way, starting where they are.

After teaching for several years at Chico, I taught at the University of Portland, and then at a community college in Oregon. I then decided to earn a high school teaching credential, because I felt that it would open a realm of teaching that was extremely interesting to me, and that had always been very dear to my heart. I knew that adolescence is an extremely important period in a young person’s life, and I felt that there were better approaches to preparing teenagers than the common practices in high schools at the time.

The Magic of Mixed Classes

The first high school where I taught was in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. Most of the students came from white middle-class families, and some were just waiting to leave school and get a job, while others were planning to enroll at a community college or a state university, and a handful had higher aspirations.

I taught a combined class that included freshmen and sophomore students, and it was a wonderful experience, not least because the freshmen were learning social skills from the sophomores, and it reduced the behavior problems in my class. I realized that the school had been extremely wise in combining the classes, because a great deal of learning was being transmitted between the age groups, completely aside from what they were learning from me.

Being able to count on the students to help each other was a revelation, and I spent a lot of time thinking about that approach and incorporating it into my teaching. The camaraderie between teacher and students and student and student infused the entire learning process.

In the Living Wisdom Schools, we find that it works extremely well to have mixed classes where students of different grades and ages are learning together, because it creates a sense of responsibility in the older students that helps them develop a mature, inclusive outlook, and it helps the younger students both socially and academically.

It also showed me the wonderful sense of family that can develop in a classroom where mixed ages are learning together, even in a high school with 2000 students.

Growing Together

The high school administrators had been inspired to divide the school population into smaller elements, so that the same students would be learning together for the first two years. It made the transition to high school easier for the freshman, and it allowed the teachers to form closer bonds with and between the students. The older students developed a mentoring relationship with the younger ones.

The administrators were also intent on facilitating communication between the teachers, so that there would never be a student who was having trouble in math, for example, that I wouldn’t know about it, even though I was teaching English. To that end, the high school administrators gave the teachers time to get together once a week to discuss what was working for each of the students, and a staff psychologist would come to the meetings to offer his insights as needed.

This is another extremely strong feature of the Living Wisdom Schools, that the teachers are constantly talking with each other so that we are all intimately aware of what’s going on with every single student in the school.

Being Real

Another lesson I learned while teaching in both college and high school was that the more human and real you are with the students, the less distance there will be between you, and that there’s a quality of naturalness and friendship that is absolutely essential for a teacher to have, if you want to be as effective as possible.

When I was in graduate school, we were never taught how to form a unique relationship with each student, yet it was one of the most priceless lessons I gleaned from my years teaching in high school and college.

In my credential program we were taught about the sociological characteristics of various cultural groups, and so on, but they failed to teach us the most important thing of all, which is how to help the individual student, regardless of the class size.

One of the first things I did to humanize the classroom environment and turn it into an incubator of good energy and open communication was to arrange the desks in a semi-circle instead of in rows. It meant that even though I remained the guiding presence, I was no longer the visual center, and because the students were facing each other it encouraged communication.

One Student, One Voice

I made a special point of encouraging each student to have a voice, and that isn’t something that happens unless the teacher actively encourages it. In most classes, you have the academic superstars who will be engaged and will talk a lot, and you’ll have kids who are natural communicators who’ll enjoy speaking up, but you’ll also have lots of quiet ones — and you must find a way to reach them and give them the energy they deserve.

Going Deeper

At about the time I began teaching high school, our founder published Education for Life: Preparing Children to Meet Today’s Challenges, and I was thrilled to discover that he had put words to many of the lessons I was learning, and that he had built on those ideas and taken them even farther and deeper.

He suggested that, as a cornerstone of our educational philosophy, we should ask the most fundamental question of all: “What is the point of our lives?”

The answer that he offered was: “What all people are seeking, behind the colorful multiplicity of their stated motives, is to experience greater happiness, and to avoid suffering.”

For high school students and for younger and olderstudents as well, finding their own, unique way to be happy will never be exclusively about getting good grades. It needs to include the whole child and all of the ways they are uniquely relating to their lives and to the world. One of the major steps toward learning to be happy and mature is to learn to relate to the realities of others.

When you can help young students acquire those very important interpersonal skills, it changes everything, because being able to relate affects the child’s ability to be happy and to do their best in school.

We Grow at Our Own Level

It wasn’t long before I began to notice that when the students felt that they were being seen and valued and included, the kids who weren’t among the academic superstars began to shine.

When they entered my classroom, they quickly realized that the school equation had changed, and while I don’t think they were always consciously aware of it, I made it a bedrock principle that I wanted to give them a great experience of school, and help them know how valued they were.

One of the ways I invited their participation was by asking the kids to give me their feedback at the end of the year.

I said, “What did you like during the year? What worked for you, and what would you suggest I could do differently that would work better for you?”

They could choose to write their thoughts, but because we were easy with each other by the end of the year, many of them chose to share their impressions verbally.

I would say, “Everything you tell me will be valuable, so go ahead and say it.”

There was a girl in one of my classes who was autistic, and she had two areas that she loved — she knew all about Star Wars and the Bible. So I made her our go-to person whenever we needed information in those areas. It came up surprisingly often, and nobody ever teased or harassed her, whereas she had been treated brutally in the past.

After class, she was afraid to walk down the hall alone, so I would take her arm and we would walk together. In my class she had a special place.

Unlike her other courses, she didn’t need an aide in my classroom, because she had learned to be more independent. I made whatever accommodations I could for her, but she felt thoroughly accepted, because the truth is that the other kids had learned to accept and value her. When I asked for their feedback at the end of the year, the autistic girl spoke up and said, “This is just the best class!”

When one young man in my senior class raised his hand, I said, “I’m so glad you want to contribute, because we don’t hear your voice often enough.” I said, “I know from reading your work that you have good ideas.”

He said, “I would never speak up in any of my other classes.” And when I asked why, he said, “Because no one makes fun of anybody in this class, and in my other classes I wouldn’t get out more than two or three words before somebody would be putting me down.”

I said, “Is that true?” And the whole  class nodded, yes, and it broke my heart, because I sadly realized that in four years he had never experienced the kind of acceptance that empowers kids to grow freely and go far.

Celebrating Successes

Teaching in a public high school, I had many experiences that showed me the worth of the principles we practice every day in our Living Wisdom Schools, and how powerfully those principles can affect the students’ experience of school, and how they free them to do their best, academically and personally.

A prime example of how we recognize our students’ growth is the Qualities Ceremony during our year-end celebration. The teachers honor each student with a positive quality that they have developed over the previous nine months, a quality that reflects greater maturity.

For a child who genuinely understands right and wrong, for example, it might be the quality of Justice. Or it might be Friendship, Kindness, Courage, or any other quality you would wish for the child to develop as part of becoming a confident, happy person. Then at the End of the Year ceremony, the child – even the youngest ones – will say a few words about their quality – how they understand it, how they worked on it, and how they feel about it

I was still teaching in public high school when I decided to start celebrating the students’ successes at the end of the year with a quality. I asked the office staff to help me print the beautiful certificates, and they got into the spirit of it, too.

I gave my students individual qualities of Courage, Joy, and so on. Then, at the final class of the year, I explained what I was doing, and I handed them their certificates.

I vividly remember giving one girl the quality of Delight, and how vehemently she protested — “This isn’t true!”

I said, “But it is! You are absolutely delightful. I always love having you in my class.”

She said, “No, no! This is not true! I am not always delightful.”

I said, “Wait a second, I’m not saying that you’re always delightful. This is saying that you are mostly delightful, and even if you have your off-days, as we all do, I see you as delightful.”

I asked the class, “Am I right? Is she delightful?” And they shouted, “Yes, yes! You are!” And I could see that she was having to take that quality into herself and accept it as a defining part of who she was.

Of course, it was absolutely true, because from the moment she came into the class she had a way of making everything lighter and happier and funnier, and a way of including everybody and being responsive — all of the qualities that make a wonderful member of the community and a wonderful learner.

Later, as I reflected on that first informal Qualities Ceremony, I thought, “It’s such a simple thing, and it took so little time and effort on my part, but I think it was life-changing for her…and for who knows how many others.”

Does Education for Life Work?

Now, some people might say, “These are soft skills, and they are not what’s going to get you through life,” but I would disagree very heartily, because everything I’ve learned as an Education for Life teacher tells me that when you approach children in a way that acknowledges them as whole persons and in their deepest essence as shining souls, they respond beautifully. This became the spirit behind every encounter I had with a new student. My first thought was always, “This is a shining soul.” We must acknowledge them as a unique light, and our job is to help them shine ever more brightly.

And how can we do that?

When a teacher is holding that thought uppermost in every encounter with a student, it gets communicated both subtly and overtly. Then the student feels that their experience of school is much deeper, and more personal.

When I was a little girl, the teacher would give us gold stars for good behavior or for penmanship. It was a formal system of external rewards. You can have a reward system in an Education for Life school, but it will take on a very different meaning, because it’s all about the individual relationship with each child.

One child needs to learn to believe in herself, and another needs to learn to respect and believe in others. Whatever the lesson is, it’s always individual.

I believe this is another major point in favor of our system of education. It’s so real, because it’s based on helping them where they really are, and according to their own nature.

At the big high school where I taught, I was able to accomplish a great deal by teaching to the individual students in my classroom, and yet there were outside forces wanting us to march along in orderly rows.

There was a young girl in my class who was very popular and well-liked. She was a cheerleader and part of the homecoming queen’s court, and she was also very bright. At the same time, her whole life was geared toward getting a super grade-point average and going to a great college. Because she was measuring her success entirely by grades, she didn’t get nearly as much out of my class as the other kids.

For her final exam she wrote an essay which was okay but not great, and after a great deal of careful thought, I gave her a B-plus for the course, although I knew she would be disappointed. And, sure enough, she came to me and said, “I need an A! Why didn’t you give me an A?”

I explained that an A is something you earn by going beyond simply regurgitating the information — it indicates that you’ve engaged with the subject, that you’ve taken it in and made it part of your awareness in a creative way.

But she wasn’t convinced, and I wasn’t surprised when I got a call from her father.

I felt a great deal of regret for her, not for the B grade, but because the other kids had grown so much more, each at their level.

Education for (Real) Life

Our class included students from typical middle-class families and others who had come to America as refugees and immigrants. We were discussing immigration one day, and a boy from a white middle-class family made a negative remark about Asian people who were seeking refuge in this country and taking jobs, and so on.

There was a girl from Laos in the class, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, where am I going to go with this?” But before I could say a word, the Laotian girl spoke up, which was remarkable in itself, because she had never spoken in class.

She said, “For your information, I am a refugee, and I have as much right to be here as you do!” The boy stammered out a response, but the class came together and confronted him with the flaws in his reasoning.

I was so proud of her, that she had felt free and courageous enough to take him on. She said, “By the way, if you go back far enough, you’re an immigrant, too!”

I believe that the freedom to engage with real-life issues is at the core of an Education for Life, because true education isn’t only about mastering information, it’s about mastering how you want to live your life, and how you can be a good person, and how you can be part of a family and part of a workforce.

Of course, it takes a great deal of hard work to master a professional field, but in the end I believe a successful life comes down to certain universal and indispensable principles — that if you want to be truly successful, you have to be honest with others and with yourself, and you have to value others and search for the highest in yourself and others and behave accordingly.

And when you fall down, you have to be able to pick yourself up and try again. And if somebody else falls, you don’t gang up on them, but you go over and say, “Let me help you.”

We see that behavior in our school every day, because the culture is based so completely on being able to tune in to each other’s reality. If a child skins a knee, everybody runs over to help. They use the tools we’ve given them. And then the teachers will come over, and the children will make way, because there’s tremendous respect that’s based on the caring and love the teachers have for the children.

I marvel at the good fortune of the children in this school, because they’re allowed to be who they are, and they are given every opportunity and support to grow into their own fullest nature.

The children in our school are very individual, and they will need this or that kind of special help. And while they don’t always live up to their highest potential, their highest is what we’re always holding out to them.

If children get into it with one another, as they will, we guide them to understand, “That person’s reality is different from mine, and it isn’t necessarily bad.” And in that way they learn to navigate even very nuanced situations on their own.

The teachers have earned the students’ respect, so they are able to involve themselves at a deep level with them, because they are honest with them, and they love them.

If a child feels loved and seen by someone in authority, the defenses around the heart go down, and then that child can take any kind of correction, because s/he knows that it’s offered by a friend who wants to help.

Creating a Safe School Environment of Growth and Joy

Q: I’ve been struck by the atmosphere in the school, and how it seems to harmonize lots of things.

Helen: I couldn’t agree more. When I started teaching here twenty-odd years ago, I met with a group of parents who wanted to learn more about the school. Afterward, a woman stayed behind. She said, “I have a confession. I’m not a parent, and I don’t have a child for your school. I’m a spy.” Of course, she got my attention.

She continued, “I’m a psychologist, working on my PhD, and I used your school as part of my research, but I need you to know that your school is very different from other schools.”

She said, “When I came through the gate I felt a change in the energy, and I didn’t know exactly what it was. But then I saw the children walking between classes, and every single child had a smile on his or her face.”

She said, “Then I understood where the mysterious energy came from. It’s because you have happy children.”

I said, “Well, that’s the truth. The children who are in our school are basically really, really happy.” And she said, “You have no idea what it’s like, by comparison, to go into some of these other schools.”

“Oh, I do,” I said – “from the children who come here from those schools. They share their experiences – the lack of freedom, the bullying, the cliques, the competition, the stress.”

I believe that when you look at children as souls, and not merely as personalities, it instantly deepens and expands the relationship. When you visit the classrooms here, it strikes you that the students aren’t afraid. There will be times when they aren’t able to rise to the highest level they could, but the overarching truth is that they are essentially loved, and when you take fear out of the equation, almost anything is possible.

Encouraging High Aspirations

A keystone of our philosophy is a principle that we call “directional relativity.” The idea is that everyone in the world is looking for happiness and freedom from suffering, and the only way we can get there is by working with ourselves exactly as we are, right now. So we’re all moving in the same direction, toward greater happiness and freedom, but we’re going forward at our own pace, starting from the unique place where we are.

I don’t think I could go into a classroom and be an effective teacher without having that principle in mind, that you’re always looking at the individual child and very clearly understanding where they are, and then you’re imagining where they can go, and you’re helping them go forward in that direction.

So there’s a sense of directional progress but without a fixed timeline, and you’re always tuning into the individual child and evaluating their points of readiness.

A child takes a test, and they’re upset about their grade. We don’t see that as a bad thing, because it signals that they want to improve. So the teacher will give them lots of encouragement and support. “I love the fact that you want to do better!”

It’s the idea that we’re always wanting to move forward, starting where we are, at the level of our own abilities, without the slightest sense of being judged, and we communicate that security to the children through our expectations, our language, and our support. So it all works together in the child’s favor, and when you can communicate that sense of support and faith and promise, there’s no telling how far the child can go.