Kindergarten at LWS — Portal to Lifelong Happiness & Success

Why Kindergarten Counts

Can kindergarten affect your child’s chances of success and happiness in later life? Most definitely! – but perhaps not in the ways you may have imagined.

by Helen Purcell, Director, Living Wisdom School
with George Beinhorn, Author,
Happiness & Success at School

Download the 7,000-word article as a PDF.


What kind of education do you want for your child?

I would like to make a case for a complete, well-rounded approach that takes into account not only the child’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being, but their individuality as well.

Education Through the Ages – A Legacy of Common Sense

For many centuries, educators understood that children’s development occurs in natural stages of about six years. From birth to age 6, for example, the child’s foremost developmental task is to become comfortable with its body. From 6 to 12, feelings come to the fore – this is a time when children can be most effectively instructed using the “tools of imagination” – in particular, the arts. It’s a time that many of us look back upon fondly as the years that most truly defined our childhood.

Helen Purcell, Director, Living Wisdom School
Helen Purcell, Director, Living Wisdom School of Palo Alto

From 12 to 18, will power becomes the primary focus, as young people prepare for independent adult life. And finally, from 18 to 24, the life of the mind takes center stage – think of college students talking late into the night about philosophy, politics, history, science, and the arts.

As I’ve hinted, schools in centuries past took account of these natural stages in the life of a child and adjusted their curricula accordingly. In ancient Greece and Rome, in India and China, and in Europe throughout the Dark Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, teachers adapted their methods to the student’s age and natural tendencies.

I believe that, in our attempts to improve schools today, we should not overlook the reasons this system was so widely adopted and successful. Educators have always recognized that it was much more efficient to align their teaching methods with the child’s nature, and not try to impose adult theories that might have little correspondence with the reality of the students’ actual needs.

They knew that to ignore the child’s developmental stage would be disastrous, and that forcing a child of 6 or 8 years into an overwhelmingly academics-oriented curriculum would do far more harm than good. It would stunt the children’s emotional growth, kill their enthusiasm, stifle their curiosity, and greatly reduce their eagerness to learn.

Equally unfortunate, it would do a very inferior job of giving the children invaluable skills that would help them succeed in high school, college, and beyond – for example, the ability to cooperate happily with others, to consider others’ needs, to communicate well, and to grasp with a sure intuitive certainty the need for personal self-discipline, kindness, compassion, values, morality, courage, and honor.

How Our Thinking About Education Changed

It was only in the 19th century that educators and the federal government began to consider that this system, which had worked so well for so long, was in need of change.

They decided that schools should prepare their students to be employable in the factories of the burgeoning industrial age. To that end, they stripped the curriculum of almost everything except the “Three R’s” – reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic.

This is why, for the last two centuries, our students have been almost completely deprived of an education that addresses the other important aspects of their being: their feelings and will power, and the proper training of their minds.

What results has this stripped-down educational system achieved? I believe it’s fair to say that they have not been attractive:

  • Widespread cynicism and rebellion against a system that fails to acknowledge the child’s inner needs
  • A poisonous belief that life has no purpose, and an accompanying profound loss of motivation
  • A lack of moral education, which can make susceptible children feel free to commit selfish acts without pangs of conscience, including crime and violence
  • Addiction to drugs and alcohol, in an attempt to dull the sense of meaninglessness and the lack of awareness of life’s positive possibilities
  • Over-competitiveness, status-seeking, cliquishness, and bullying as an affirmation of the ego against other egos, due to a lack of proper training during the “Feeling Years” from 6 to 12, and encouraged by school environments of unbridled social and academic competitiveness
  • Illiteracy and underachievement – a sense that what’s being taught has little personal relevance, and that it holds no promise of satisfying the individual’s longing for ever-increasing happiness
  • Depression, suicide, boredom, and aimlessness
  • Failure-consciousness among those less academically gifted
  • Tremendous, oppressive pressure on every child to excel academically – a pressure that can reach completely unrealistic, unsustainable levels for the gifted and the less gifted alike, and that can lead to serious, health-destroying stress and chronic depression
  • A thoroughly unrealistic, terribly misguided, and profoundly damaging belief that every child should be encouraged to compete for acceptance by an elite university

Many parents today have begun to awaken to the need to fix our educational system. Organizations have sprung up to help them in this endeavor. Yet everywhere, well-meaning parents, educators, and reformers are still groping for answers.

The reformers too often overlook what has worked in the past. Nor do they give due attention to the handful of exceptional schools such as Living Wisdom School that have found real, working solutions to educating all aspects of the child, by implementing an educational philosophy that, far from lowering the child’s chances of being accepted by a good college and landing a good job, leads to the highest personal achievement and happiness in high school, college, and beyond.

Instead, the reformers have, in large part, tried to re-invent the wheel. They’ve spun fine-sounding theories that they haven’t actually tested. Some schools simply “fake it.” Hoping to ride the bandwagon of school reform, they spout nice-sounding words and phrases like “joyful education,” “well-rounded curriculum,” and “educating the whole child.” But when we look at their actual practices we find that they are delivering the same old pressure-cooker education that yields one-sided results at the expense of the child’s well-being and overall development, not to mention the health- and happiness-destroying effects of years of unrelenting stress on their bodies, hearts, minds, and souls.

The Answer Is in the Outcome

What is the answer? I think we can gain a hint by considering the qualities that enable adults to be successful. As our first example, I propose that we look at the world’s most prominent high-tech company. (The following account is adapted from our book, Happiness & Success at School A Magnificent Synergy.)

When Sergey Brin and Larry Page founded Google in 1998, they established a policy of hiring only the most brilliant applicants in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Fifteen years later, Google decided it might be a good idea to evaluate the results of this policy.

A Washington Post article, “The surprising thing Google learned about its employees—and what it means for today’s students” (December 27, 2017), summarized what Google learned from Project Oxygen, the detailed examination of its hiring practices.

Project Oxygen completely overturned the company’s assumptions about the qualities that best predict success in a high-tech business environment. Most notably, among the eight standout qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise was dead last.

The top qualities that augured success at Google were all “soft” skills. The researchers found that the most successful Google employees:

  1. Are good coaches
  2. Empower the team and do not micromanage
  3. Express interest in and concern for the other team members’ success and personal well-being
  4. Are productive and results-oriented
  5. Are good communicators – they listen and share information
  6. Help others with their career development
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
  8. Have key technical skills that help them advise the team

A follow-up study by Google of the qualities of its most productive research teams (Project Aristotle, 2016), confirmed these results.

In the Post article, Cathy N. Davidson, a professor in the graduate school at CUNY, described the findings:

“Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.”

Davidson cited a survey of 260 companies, conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The study, which included industry giants Chevron and IBM, found that recruiters ranked communication skills among the top three qualities companies look for in job applicants. “They prize both an ability to communicate with one’s workers and an aptitude for conveying the company’s product and mission outside the organization.”

What conclusions can we draw from these studies, about how we can best prepare our children to be successful and happy?

A common feature of the qualities that set the top Google employees apart is that they are “expansive.” That is, they foster a safe work environment where the employees can feel free to work cooperatively, ask questions, make mistakes, and include the needs of others.

The qualities that the researchers identified as furthering success at Google and at other top companies are exactly the same qualities that the teachers at Living Wisdom School expend tremendous energy to cultivate in the classroom every day, considering them essential for creating a safe, nurturing, joyful learning environment for the children.

In Happiness & Success at School, we present overwhelming evidence that individualized instruction, combined with due attention to emotional needs, consistently produces the greatest success not only in high-tech business environments but also at Harvard, Stanford, and MIT, and in business, sports, and the military.

The qualities that contribute to success at Google, Harvard, Stanford, and at work are the same qualities that we cultivate in the children, starting with the four- or five-year-old child’s first day of kindergarten at Living Wisdom School.

Let me hasten to dispel any fears parents may have, that our school overly emphasizes these “soft” abilities. In fact, quite the opposite is true. In the 45 years of our schools’ existence, we have found that learning becomes far more efficient when soft skills are not simply ignored but are given their due attention.

Discipline problems are greatly reduced and motivation soars, when each child is guided to learn at the upper edge of his or her own, individual capacity. It has been our experience that proper attention to the soft skills powerfully amplifies the amount of learning that can take place in the classroom. Because we are able to motivate and engage each child at his or her own, individual level, the gifted students are never bored, and the less-gifted are never frustrated or infected with a sense of failure, and of being left hopelessly behind.

Because we’ve had 45 years to observe how these qualities help children succeed throughout their lives, we take great care to cultivate them, starting in the earliest years.

We’ve shown that they create the best possible foundation for success in the K-8 grades, in high school, college, and beyond. It’s why we are tremendously focused on kindergarten as a very important gateway to give children the vital skills they will need to be successful throughout their lives.

Kindergarten Is the Portal to Future Success & Happiness

We’ve seen that if you can start developing these expansive “soft” qualities in a child at age 4 to 6, and if you can continue to build upon these qualities throughout their elementary years, it’s a gift that bears powerful rewards of success and happiness in high school and college.

I’m thinking of one of our students. Hazemach Munro entered LWS in preschool and recently earned his master’s degree in astrophysics from the University of Bremen in Germany. Hazie now teaches science in our Palo Alto Living Wisdom High School.

I think also of Bryan McSweeney who spent nine years with us, from kindergarten through 8th grade. Bryan is a talented professional filmmaker who teaches at Living Wisdom School High in Nevada City.

Kshama Kellogg spent most of her elementary years at the Living Wisdom School in Nevada City, except for two years when she attended public school in Italy. A brilliant, inspired teacher, loved by her students, Kshama taught second grade in our Palo Alto Living Wisdom School for many years and now serves in our high school.

In 45 years we’ve been able to gather a growing reservoir of knowledge and experience for translating our philosophy into practice. Our Education for Life philosophy is based, first and foremost, on creating a learning environment where the children can feel safe, happy, and free to interact confidently with the teachers and with each other. We feel that it’s only within such a safe and happy environment that the children can be most effectively challenged at their own, individual level, so that they’ll experience the joy of mastering challenges every single day at school.

When learning happens with joy, the first thing we find, with tremendous consistency, is that every child quickly begins to love to learn. This is why our students, who represent a wide spectrum of native abilities and backgrounds, have achieved an average high school GPA over the years of 3.85.

Play & Learning – Essential Partners

When I speak to parents who are considering our kindergarten for their child, I start with the very important point that in the early years learning and play go together, because of the nature of a young child.

The first thing we need to take into account, when we’re talking about a four- or five-year-old, is that they absolutely need a playful, loving approach to learning. It’s the single most important key to preparing these little children for success in the years ahead.

Once we have that playful, happy foundation in place, we find that the children can feel free to achieve amazing things. It enables our kindergarteners, for example, to happily acquire math concepts two to four years ahead of their grade level.

Many of our parents have come from rigid school cultures where the children were forced to sit at their desks all day, and were allowed very limited playtime. Some of the schools in our area that have adopted that system give their kindergartners just 20 minutes away from the classroom at lunchtime. Even at the earliest age, learning is reduced to something incredibly formulaic and dry. And because it isn’t creative, it completely fails to produce learning in the most efficient and natural way, because it doesn’t leverage the child’s natural enthusiasm.

It harkens to the industrial era when all instruction was directed, even with four- and five-year-olds, to how it would affect their SAT scores in high school. But what unfortunately happens is that it sets up tremendous resistance in the child, because it’s fighting against the way they are made, and the way they can be most naturally and effectively drawn into the learning experience, and the way they can absorb learning most naturally and efficiently.

The day begins with Circle Time, just before math class. The children sing and share, and practice breathing exercises to calm themselves and focus their attention – priceless skills for all of life!

By contrast, when you work with a child’s nature, discipline problems are few and the children become extremely engaged and focused on learning. They learn at a much faster pace, and they look forward to school every single day.

In his wonderful book Where You Go, Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, Frank Bruni, a long-time columnist and feature writer for the New York Times describes the tragic failures of the traditional approach, of forcing children into a system that ignores the way they are made, toward a goal of improving their SAT scores, high school grades, and preparing every child to be accepted at Harvard. I think it’s a wonderful sign that St. Francis High School has made the book required reading for every parent with a child in their school.

I regularly talk to parents of kindergarten-age children who are deeply concerned about this very false and misleading kind of rigor, as opposed to tuning in to the actual needs of the child at each developmental stage, which, in kindergarten, must include play.

In the very early years, they should not be learning, first and foremost, that learning is torture; they should be learning is fun. At that age, they do not need to understand that learning, in the later years, may require hard work to reap the joys that it can give.

At this age, they are very open to whatever is going on in the classroom and at school. And an instructor who can bring together the twin threads of learning and play, and do it in a happy way, will be very successful. As we demonstrate in our book, Head & Heart: How a Balanced Education Nurtures Happy Children Who Excel in School & Life, our kindergartners are not falling behind their Harvard-entrance competitors. Quite the opposite – as a direct result of the playful approach to learning, they are able to absorb concepts at the 3rd and 4th grade curriculum level.

I’m sure that many of us, when we visualize a kindergarten classroom full of four- to six-year olds, imagine a squirming mass of young bodies and a harried, red-faced teacher who’s yelling at them to behave. But parents and educators who visit our kindergarten are presented with a very, very different picture.

During the first months of PreK-K, the students learn that learning is great fun when they are challenged at their own level. At that point, they are able and eager to spend time learning quietly together – a most unusual and happy accomplishment for a classroom of four- to six-year-olds!

First of all, when learning is delivered in a format that matches the children’s natural developmental phase, they become deeply engaged. Thus – believe it or not! – you will find tables of four or five tiny tots working silently together, heads bowed in deep concentration.

A very helpful factor is the inclusion of yoga and meditation at the start of the school day. If you can combine a playful approach with helping children find an enjoyable calmness and concentration inside themselves, you’ll be giving them a powerful tool that will help them be successful at school. This is one reason why we help each child learn to enjoy a comfort with the school environment, and an ability to achieve a deep level of relaxed, enjoyable mental attention.

The kids start the day with yoga and meditation, just before math class. When you can set a tone where they are comfortable and at ease in the environment, anything becomes possible – in math, phonics, writing, art, and science. Anything is possible when they literally open their hearts with enthusiasm for the learning that will take place on that day.

The Incalculable Benefits of A Stress-Free Learning Environment

When a child can have an experience every day at school of being comfortable and relaxed in the environment and with the teacher and the other kids, it means that they aren’t having to fend off the many distractions they would find in schools where they are entirely focused on academics, but spend little or no time creating an optimal learning environment. Most schools do very little, if anything, to prevent the kids from forming cliques, and treating each other badly, so that each child has to deal with these very negative and harmful factors that can easily make them too stressed and tense to give their full attention to their schoolwork.

It’s well documented that stress interferes with learning. In a Washington Post article, “How much does stress affect learning?” (June 10, 2011), education and foreign affairs reporter Valerie Post quotes Catharine H. Warner, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Maryland:

“Our findings indicate that stress in the classroom environment affects children’s likelihood of exhibiting learning problems (difficulties with attentiveness, task persistence, and flexibility), externalizing problems (frequency with which the child argues, fights, disturbs ongoing activities, and acts impulsively), problems interacting with peers (difficulties in forming friendships, dealing with other children, expressing feelings, and showing sensitivity, or internalizing problems (presence of anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, and sadness in the child). These findings suggest that stress – in the form of negative classroom conditions – negatively affects the way children pay attention in class, stay on task, and are able to move from one activity to another.”

During partner walks, the youngest children spend time with the older ones, forming happy bonds of respect and caring. (Click to enlarge.)

The tremendous energy that our teachers expend to create a calm, peaceful, joyful, accepting classroom environment frees each child to be exactly who they are. And who they are will be exceedingly individual. When you’re allowed to be who you are, and you’re challenged at exactly that level, the result is that you will enjoy daily successes that give you a joyful experience of learning, in a natural, unforced way. But if you’re trying to meet somebody else’s rigid demands and requirements at somebody else’s level all the time, it creates a tension that prevents learning by shutting down your energy and enthusiasm.

As a teacher for more than 50 years, it has been my experience that tension is never a positive factor when it comes to learning. On the other hand, feeling free to make mistakes, and to have those mistakes accepted as a natural part of the learning process is an amazing, blissful experience for the child, and extremely helpful.

In our school, we achieve that freedom by combining play with learning, and by making sure our kids have exposure to free time. We fight against the very misguided need to structure every single minute of the child’s day, because it can create a very tough situation for a kindergartner when their parents and teachers are scheduling their every waking moment.

Even during our after-school program, where the kids are mostly working on homework, there’s a relaxed sense of freedom, and the children love being there.

Children Can Be Happy and Successful in School

Krunal focuses on his math classwork. The photographer held his video camera less than a foot from Krunal for more than 30 seconds, yet Krunal remained entirely focused on the task at hand. It was not a rare or a posed event! It is simply part of the natural flow of the day, once the children become deeply engaged with the curriculum. A fringe benefit is that discipline problems become rare, even at this young age.

Parents and educators who visit our school invariably remark on how every child is completely him- or herself, and how they show a remarkable level of maturity and confidence. It’s an extremely rare and extraordinary thing to see how centered they are in themselves, in a natural and real way.

You can see it in their eyes and in how they carry themselves. A child will come to the principal’s office, and walk in, not the least bit intimidated, and say, “Helen, I need an ice pack.” Somebody was hurt and they are eager to help. There’s no fear or hesitation. Or they’ll come in to share a birthday donut with me.

If it’s a difficult situation, where they aren’t feeling well, or somebody needs to call a parent, they’ll come in and have absolute trust in me. And this is true of every adult in the school, including all of the classroom teachers and PE teachers and music teachers and math tutors – because there is a family atmosphere that’s very consistent and that we cultivate very consciously every day.

It happens in every situation – in class, on the playground, and in extracurricular activities such as music and the theater program.

Theater Magic – An Extraordinary Experience of Learning and Growth

Our theater program includes every child from grades K through eight. It creates an extraordinary atmosphere for learning, and for cultivating personal success qualities. The kindergarten children are on stage, rehearsing and performing with the older children, and they develop a level of comfort and confidence that is far beyond what most kindergartners experience at school. It allows them to walk in the world of school in a very different way, when they can engage with an adult or an older child, and they can both be very playful.

Partner reading and partner walks are an extension of the practices that occur during every moment of the child’s day.

For the kindergartners, our methods come most clearly to fruition in spring quarter, where you can watch a child get out of the car in the morning, brimming with confidence, and the same child wouldn’t look at you six or seven months earlier, or they would cringe and hold onto their mother’s hand and be very shy.

I’m thinking of a child who was extremely shy and fearful at the start of the year, and now her father will say, “Have a great day!” and she’ll turn and look at me with a big, confident smile and say, “Good morning, Helen!”

It’s a maturation that is possible because there is no exclusion. There’s a definition of self here that allows for the inclusion of everybody, not just their own classmates and their own classroom teachers, but every single teacher and child.

Choosing Happiness

We don’t have an intimidating or fearful culture. This morning, I was explaining to a parent that the fundamental principles on which our school is based are most beautifully expressed by two of our School Rules: “Choose Happiness” and “Practice Kindness.”

Practice kindness. Learn to practice kindness with one another and to recognize that in doing so you help create a loving and safe atmosphere.

Choose happiness. Learn that you have the power to choose how you will respond to life’s challenges. Learn to focus on the positive rather than the negative. Learn to control your moods and raise your energy to meet difficulties that arise.

These rules determine the culture of the school in a very real way. If you choose happiness, it means that you don’t have the right to take out a bad mood on anybody. You have the obligation to use your will power and your understanding to turn the energy around, with the ready and willing help of the teachers and your classmates.

It’s amazing to watch. A child will come in, and maybe they aren’t feeling well. Maybe they’re feeling a little bit moody or snarky. And everybody is sympathetic. “I’m so sorry you’re not feeling well,” the teacher says. “Go over there to the safe spot and take a moment, and take your teddy.” So there’s sympathy, but there’s also an expectation that at some point, and it should be pretty soon, you need to choose to be happy.

And they do, because it’s articulated to them, and they’re shown how to do it. They are given the very specific steps they can take to be kind and choose happiness. And when you articulate those steps, they learn that they have the power to choose positive feelings and behavior.

Partner reading. All of the children in the school know each other well, and the older ones love to help the kindergartners.

It’s an incredibly valuable lesson for now and for the future. And the other children have the opportunity to practice kindness, because they aren’t going to be saying, “Oh, stop being such a chump.” The right behavior is constantly modeled for them, because the teachers deliberately take time to give them instructions on how to choose happiness, every time the need arises.

Over several months the older children work with the younger children at play rehearsals, and they are very sensitive about their well-being. They want to take care of them, and they’ll help them and guide them. It’s a spirit of friendship that includes a sense of responsibility for the other person, especially the little ones.

It’s so easy for children to be selfish and self-involved. When they’re kindergarten age especially, it’s all about them, and they have to grow into a sense of the other. And to be able to learn to do it at a very young age, and to see it constantly modeled for them by the adults and the other children in the school environment is a priceless gift. It’s a priceless foundation for acquiring the maturity that we must all achieve to be successful at every level, and that we’re instilling in them starting in kindergarten – that awareness of somebody else’s reality.

Does Living Wisdom School Over-Emphasize Soft Skills?

There’s a huge question that parents always ask about our school. “This is a wonderful school culture, but how does it translate to grades and test scores?” And, of course, the proof is there, in our graduates’ high school and college grades, and in their adult successes.

In our book Happiness & Success at School, there’s a wonderful story of how, in the military and in sports, individual attention, individual freedom, individual acceptance, and a culture of what’s best for the individual produce the greatest success. We were able to show how, at Harvard and Stanford, and at Google, happiness and success go together. We are not simply spouting wishy-washy, unrealistic ideas that we haven’t tested, and that don’t work outside of our school. The interplay of happiness and success is an actual experience at the country’s elite universities, at major corporations, and in sports and the military.

Constant individual attention and encouragement help the youngest children learn to love learning. TK-K intern Ava Magholi encourages a young math student.

I received an application from a parent of a fifth-grade boy recently. It’s very unfortunate that we weren’t able to take him because the class is full. The parent was very sad because the child’s predisposition is to self-judge himself to an extent that he becomes paralyzed. He’s afraid to try because he’s afraid to fail. And to build a culture and an attitude toward learning that includes the ability to “fail happily” is a wonderfully liberating gift.

In the late 1980s, Seymour Papert, a professor of computer science at MIT, published a book called Mindstorms in which he pointed out that the most wonderful lesson children can receive from learning to program computers is that mistakes are a natural and necessary aspect of the process. He pointed out that professional programmers make, on average, at least 10 mistakes per hundred lines in their first code drafts.

Papert called it “the debugging approach to life.”  Kids today have so much stress around success, and on getting it right the first time. There’s a tremendous comparative and competitive emphasis in the typical approach to learning, where you’re always wondering, am I as good as somebody else? As opposed to “What am I learning?” And “Was it fun?”

In our school, the kids know who’s good at this or that subject, because we celebrate their successes from kindergarten on. But the fact is that we are constantly celebrating their small, daily, individual successes as the most important kind of success. We are celebrating their small experiences of mastery as artists, poets, skateboarders, mathematicians, scientists, and singers.

There isn’t a child in our school who does not have an area of success that can be celebrated. I’m thinking of a boy who had some very real challenges, until he began rehearsing for the school play and flourished amazingly. The success he enjoyed in the theater program translated to an ability to self-regulate in class, where he now wants to do well because he knows how it feels.

Every human being has an inborn drive to experience happiness and to be free from suffering. And the universal spiritual law is that whenever we expand our awareness by learning something new or by overcoming a challenge, we experience a corresponding little extra shot of joy. And if you’re having happy learning experiences every day, you’re going to want more and more of them.

The Straitjacket of Modern Education

I often wonder how our culture went wrong when it didn’t take account of the link between learning and joy. Children are so elastic, and so ready to learn, including learning all about which thoughts and actions will give them happiness. And, instead, all of a sudden they find themselves bound in straitjackets of expectations that may or may not be realistic. And it’s tragic.

Learning by rote, and learning by drill no longer needs to be the foundation of a child’s school experience. What is necessary is to cultivate imagination, resourcefulness, and creativity starting at a very early age, and remove the limits. We need to support the children who are learning at the bottom end, and take the limits off each child’s horizons so that they can surprise themselves and keep growing every day.

We have a boy in first grade who has artistic ability that’s simply beyond all imagining. He made some sketches of a ship, beautifully articulated with lots of detail, and we put them on the cover of our school literary magazine. We had a choice – we could celebrate excellence, or we could impose some false standard of egalitarianism. But it’s absolutely clear that what that little boy has achieved is not equal, and we feel that it’s a false imposition to imagine that his work isn’t exceptional.

Everybody in the school acknowledged and celebrated the boy’s talent – the older kids would say, “Whoa, who did that?” But the thing is, we celebrate every child’s successes, and we ensure that there are lots of successes to celebrate, by having them operate at the tip of their ability, mastering challenges each at his or her own level.

A girl who came to us in the fall absolutely flourished in the school play. She took to her role and was able to develop it amazingly. That little girl, who has so much talent, was very unhappy in her former school, until she came here and felt embraced by the energy, and she realized that she could let loose and be as creative as her abilities allowed.

This morning I talked with a mother and father who are brain researchers at Stanford. They chose our school because they were friends of parents whose children go to our school, and they recognized the level of acceptance and individuality that exists here, and the happiness of the children. And more than anything else, they want their children to be happy while they’re in school.

The father was educated at a school in Israel that was very progressive, while the mother had a more standardized education, and they both just want their children to be happy while they’re learning.

One of the biggest tests for our parents is that when their children reach 3rd or 4th grade, they’re tempted to buy into the culture that’s constantly pressuring them to think, “Oh my God, how am I going to get my kid into Harvard, Stanford, Yale, or Princeton?”

The parents I spoke with this morning understand the theoretical and practical side of our system, but they really didn’t want to talk about that. They wanted to tell me how the families of children in our school told them that their kids have never been happier, and that a great deal of learning goes hand in hand with a great deal of happiness.

It’s really that simple. And what parents everywhere need to realize, and our government and school systems need to realize, is that happiness and school success are not mutually exclusive – that, in fact, the opposite is true: happiness is indispensable for the most efficient learning to take place.

We need to help children learn by leveraging their natural gifts. And maybe the process won’t be as linear as our culture would prefer, and maybe we won’t always be able to quantify it in numbers. But our successes have proved our methods year after year, in terms of our graduates’ high school and college grades and their adult successes.

Learning Priceless Personal Success Qualities

Another thing that makes our kindergarten special and powerful is that from the very first day we practice leading with the heart. We teach each child what it feels like to appreciate another person’s reality, and how happy it makes them feel.

Kindergartners, by nature and development, if they get to someplace first, it’s their place. They are very territorial, and it’s all about “mine.” My toy, my place, my pencil. Yet they also have very open hearts, if they’re allowed to. And it’s bringing those two together, by showing them that the greatest happiness comes from being unselfish, that creates such a wonderful learning environment. It’s a learning that it can take many people a lifetime to learn. But whether it’s in the sandbox or on the tricycle, it’s something that they’re learning every day at our school.

Two kids were arguing over a bike. We did a conflict resolution. One child said, “Okay, how about five minutes for him and five minutes for me?”

The teacher said, “That seems reasonable.”

The other child thought for a moment and said, “Well, what if we had it at the same time?”

The teacher said, “I don’t think that’s possible.”

He said, “Oh, yeah, it is, because one of us could drive and the other could stand on the back and then we could switch places.”

It’s a defining story, because it illustrates how, once they understand the principle, they’ll be creative and take it much farther than we might think.

We help them have many experiences of happiness, and we teach them how to find it for themselves, and they begin to look for it all the time. And then they become very expansive.

I was talking with one of the eighth graders when he suddenly said, “Helen, I gotta go!”

I said, “Well, I’m not quite finished.”

He said, “I know, but the younger kids are about to show up and they want me to hide the ball for them.”

What’s interesting is that RJ is connected with the younger children. They are kindergartners and first graders, and RJ is a big, hulking kid, almost six feet tall, who’s very strong and buff and athletic, and he’s wanting to play this game with the little ones where he’ll hide the ball and they have to find it.

For an older child to hide the ball might be considered hostile, but what’s actually happening is very different, and in this environment everyone knows that it’s an expression of great friendship. Those little kids adore RJ, and he was willing to break off a conversation with me to go and help them.

“No Bullying!” – More than Just Empty Words

I happened to be talking yesterday with the principals from two local high schools. They were asking me about the culture at our high school, because I’m on the school board, and we’re up for certification.

When the conversation turned to what makes our school different, I said very boldly, “We do not have bullying at our school.” And I noticed an immediate change in the atmosphere. The men sat quietly and had nothing to say, and I knew why, because they could say the same of their schools.

I said, “It’s not allowed, and it’s not that we have to come down punitively to enforce it. It’s that we teach a culture of kindness, and our children understand from the inside that it gives them the highest happiness.”

I would say that 75 percent of the parents that sit in this office when they’re looking for a suitable place for their children to go to school are trying to escape bullying.

And, well, don’t you think that it comes from the very one-sided and highly competitive atmosphere in the schools at all levels? I’m not talking about sports, I’m talking about grades and social advancement and test scores, and how a constant, very brutal sense of competitiveness permeates the social culture at school today. The culture in high school today can be cruelly competitive.

Many of the parents here in Silicon Valley have had to struggle to get where they are, and they naturally value material success. And when you can have an efficient and balanced environment such as we have, and a culture that  brings the whole child into the educational process, and not just their will power and their brain, it can look a little suspicious to them at first, if they’re consumed by anxiety about the child’s chances of getting into Harvard – even though we can hold our heads high when it comes to our graduates’ successes.

Our supportive culture frees a child to do extraordinarily well. I’ve seen kids who were extremely introverted and fearful, and who weren’t thriving in the highly competitive cultures of other schools, come to us and blossom, to a point where they are respected, accepted, and naturally part of the group.

I’m sure that we will reach a tipping point in this country where parents will awaken to the simple truth that we’ve demonstrated for 45 years, that kids can be highly successful at school and be happy at the same time.

 

Happiness & Success at School

Living Wisdom School of Palo Alto is overjoyed to announce the publication of a new book: Happiness & Success at School.

Our director, Helen Purcell, says, “It’s a wonderful book and fun to read. I hope that all parents who are seeking an education for their children that includes a balance of academic excellence and the development of indispensable personal qualities that will help to ensure their success in school and for all their lives will read this book.”

How to Read Happiness & Success. You can read the chapters online (see table of contents below), download the book as a PDF (62mb), or purchase a copy on Amazon.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Happiness & Success at LWS: Grades Tell the Story
3. Happiness and Success at Stanford and MIT
4. Happiness and Success in the History of Education
5. Happiness and Success at Harvard
6. Happiness and Success at Google
7. Ancient Secrets of Happiness And Success
8. Happiness and Success in Math Class
9. Happiness, Success, and the Science of Positive Feelings
10. Happiness, Success, and Feelings: a Brief Photo Essay
11. Happiness, Success, and the “Social Brain”
12. How Raw Emotions Interfere with Learning
13. It’s Time We Started Raising Organic Children
14. The Super-Efficient Classroom
15. Two Kinds of Feelings
16. A Conversation with LWS Second Grade Teacher Kshama Kellogg
17. A Conversation with LWS Kindergarten Teacher Lilavati Aguilar
18. How to Improve Schools Using Coaching Principles
19. Bill Aris’s Truth: Happiness and Success in Sports & the Military
20. Success and Happiness: the Love Plant Approach
21. Final Thoughts: On Choosing Your Child’s School
Appendix 1. Education for Life Resources
Appendix 2. Education for Life and the Living Wisdom Schools
Appendix 3. Research that Supports Education for Life

About the Author. George Beinhorn serves as our school’s web content manager. A graduate of Stanford University (BA ‘63, MA ‘66) he has been associated with the Living Wisdom Schools since 1976. George has enjoyed a long and fruitful career as a writer and editor with clients in technology, publishing, and academia. (Among his more interesting projects, he edited the “Best doctoral dissertation in computer science in 2008 at Stanford University.”) He is the author of The Joyful Athlete: The Wisdom of the Heart in Exercise & Sports Training.

Appendix 3: Research that Supports Education for Life

To obtain a PDF copy of this book with clickable hyperlinks, visit the website of the Palo Alto Living Wisdom School: www.livingwisdomschool.org. Follow the links to articles that support the principles and practices of Education for Life.

Most education research focuses on how teaching methods affect academic performance. But forty-five years of experience have shown us that practices that enhance a child’s inner development can powerfully contribute to their academic success.

(If you come across supportive research, please let us know. You can send us a message through the contact form on the website of the Palo Alto Living Wisdom School: www.livingwisdomschool.org.)

 

Teaching/Academics

Education for Life online teacher development: http://edforlife.org/courses/. For teachers-in-training, and for continuing teacher education.

Active Focused Learning Approach. Quotes: “I’m not really held back anymore, just sitting in class waiting.” “There’s not a lot of lecturing, which makes it easier to stay focused.” “I really like working with other students.” Students spend more time working in groups. The strategy is getting more students to achieve better in class.

Longer school day and year failed to improve test scores.

Task to Aid Self-Esteem Lifts Grades for Some.

Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play In School (PDF)

The Heart in Holistic Education. (PDF) Educational programs based on new scientific discoveries about the heart lead to improved emotional stability, cognitive functioning, and academic performance.

Tutoring Tots. MSNBC News feature.

10 Ways to Improve Schools Using Coaching Principles. An important article by Tony Holler, a public high school honors chemistry teacher and football and track and field coach (Plainfield North HS, IL). Living Wisdom School has followed Tony’s 10 recommendations throughout its 40-plus-year history. And because we’re very clear that they’ve played a large part in our success, the principles are engrained in our school’s philosophy.

We’re destroying our kids — for nothing: Too much homework, too many tests, too much needless pressure. A Salon article argues that we’ve gone overboard on academics, destroying the enthusiasm in kids that’s essential for academic success. The result? “Children are born curious, and it’s pretty easy to facilitate that, to groom it,” says Vassar College neuropsychologist Abigail Baird. “We’re doing the opposite. We’re squishing their desire to learn new things. And I think that’s a crisis.”

Impact of Homework on Academic Achievement (PDF).

Going in circles puts students on path to better choices. Quotes: “The goal is not so much to punish as to get students on paths to make better choices, to understand the impact of what they do, to deal with people better”… “We’ve become more like a family and not just kids who go to school together,” said freshman Leah Brito. “We’ve grown up big time in the last few months.” “One result of the new approach is that kids are giving more thought to the effect what they do and say can have on others,” she said. “In eighth grade, the he said/she said stuff was horrible when many of the students were together at Audubon middle school,” Brito said. “This year, there is much less of that.”

Is Test Prep Educational Malpractice? In many elementary schools there is little or no time for non-tested subjects such as art, music, even science and history.

Preschool Controversy – Academics or Play? Quotes: “People who attended play-based preschools were eight times less likely to need treatment for emotional disturbances than those who went to preschools where direct instruction prevailed. Graduates of the play-based preschools were three times less likely to be arrested for committing a felony.”

Why I pulled my son out of a school for ‘gifted’ kids. In this Mashable article, a mother tells how her son thrived after she transferred him out of an elite academically oriented elementary school in New York City. “If you are privileged enough to be selective about what schools your children attend, please consider how they are learning and not just what they are learning. School isn’t only about cramming as much as possible as quickly as possible into their little brains.”

Pressure Cooker Kindergarten. Quotes: “Kindergarten has changed radically in the last two decades in ways that few Americans are aware of. Children now spend far more time being taught and tested on literacy and math skills than they do learning through play and exploration, exercising their bodies, and using their imaginations. Many kindergartens use highly prescriptive curricula geared to new state standards and linked to standardized tests. In an increasing number of kindergartens, teachers must follow scripts from which they may not deviate. These practices, which are not well grounded in research, violate long-established principles of child development and good teaching. It is increasingly clear that they are compromising both children’s health and their long-term prospects for success in school…. Kindergarten has ceased to be a garden of delight and has become a place of stress and distress…. Blindly pursuing educational policies that could well damage the intellectual, social and physical development of an entire generation…. There’s ongoing concern about American children catching up with their counterparts in countries such as Japan and China. Specifically in areas such as science, math and technology, schooling in those countries before second grade is “playful and experiential.” And youngsters in Finland, where teens consistently score high academically, also attend play-based kindergarten and start first grade at age 7 rather than age 6.”

School starting age: the evidence. An article on the website of Cambridge University. “In England children now start formal schooling, and the formal teaching of literacy and numeracy at the age of four. A recent letter signed by around 130 early childhood education experts, including myself, published in the Daily Telegraph (11 Sept 2013) advocated an extension of informal, play-based pre-school provision and a delay to the start of formal ‘schooling’ in England from the current effective start until the age of seven (in line with a number of other European countries who currently have higher levels of academic achievement and child well-being).”

What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success. The Scandinavian country is an education superpower because it values equality more than excellence.

One in Five Girls in Upper Secondary School Suffers From School Burnout. Quotes: “A sense of optimism during university studies along with high self-esteem tend to predict job engagement ten years later on, while an avoidance strategy tends to predict work-related burnout…. The more encouragement the students got from their teachers, the less likely they were to experience school burnout.”

Explaining Math Concepts Improves Learning. Quotes: “Teaching children the basic concept behind math problems was more useful than teaching children a procedure for solving the problems – these children gave better explanations and learned more,” Rittle-Johnson said. “This adds to a growing body of research illustrating the importance of teaching children concepts as well as having them practice solving problems.”

Social Skills, Extracurricular Activities In High School Pay Off Later In Life. Quotes: “High school sophomores who … [had] good social skills and work habits, and who participated in extracurricular activities in high school, made more money and completed higher levels of education 10 years later than their classmates who had similar standardized test scores but were less socially adroit and participated in fewer extracurricular activities…. “Soft skills” such as sociability, punctuality, conscientiousness and an ability to get along well with others, along with participation in extracurricular activities, are better predictors of earnings and higher educational achievement later in life than having good grades and high standardized test scores…. Schools are increasingly cutting…activities that foster soft skills in order to focus almost exclusively on achieving adequate yearly progress on state-mandated standardized tests.”

Students Benefit From Depth Rather Than Breadth. Quotes: Teaching fewer topics in greater depth is a better way to prepare students for success in college science. Teachers who “teach to the [standardized] test” may not be optimizing their students’ chances of success in college science.

Task to Aid Self-Esteem Lifts Grades for Some.

Teacher Teaming. (Teachers routinely engage in “teaming” at Living Wisdom School, thanks to the integrated curriculum and school environment that encourages teacher collaboration.)

Teaching Resilience With Positive Education.

Ten Steps to Better Student Engagement. Quotes: Students who have been shamed or belittled by the teacher or another student will not effectively engage in challenging tasks. To learn and grow, one must take risks, but most people will not take risks in an emotionally unsafe environment.

Creating Positive Classroom Management. (A teacher developed creative ways to encourage positive attitudes and behaviors in younger students. The method and theory are very similar to the “Rocks in the Basket” game used at LWS and described in this video.) Quotes: “I’d spent years offering students rewards (stickers, tickets, tangibles, intangibles) for good behavior and I’d come to realize how they were often self-defeating…. One change I had already made was … I would celebrate ‘great work’ by reading aloud the child’s name and stating what they had done well. Often their classmates would give an actual round of applause – which was lovely.”

Learning and Motivation Strategies Course Increases Odds of College Graduation.

Recess Makes for Better Students. Quotes: Study finds getting enough of it [recess] each day helps kids perform better in classroom…. Children learn as much on breaks as they do in the traditional classroom, experimenting with creativity and imagination and learning how to interact socially…. Conflict resolution is solved on the playground, not in the classroom…. The more physical fitness tests children passed, the better they did on academic tests…. Walks outdoors appeared to improve scores on tests of attention and concentration.

Algebra-for-All Policy Found to Raise Rates Of Failure.

Lectures Didn’t Work in 1350—and They Still Don’t Work Today. A conversation with David Thornburg about designing a better classroom.

 

Physical Education

Physically fit students do better on tests. Quotes: “Physically fit students … are more likely to do well on … tests and have better attendance…. Fit students are less likely to have disciplinary problems.”

Schools use mind-body relaxation techniques to help kids fight anxiety. Quotes: “Mind-body relaxation, including yoga, can improve self-esteem and boost grades and test scores…. Regular exposure to the [relaxation] training boosted students’ work habits, attendance, and academic performance.”

Physical Activity May Strengthen Children’s Ability To Pay Attention. Quotes: “Following the acute bout of walking, children performed better on the flanker task…. Following acute bouts of walking, children had a larger P3 amplitude, suggesting that they are better able to allocate attentional resources…. The increase in reading comprehension following exercise equated to approximately a full grade level.”

A Fit Body Means a Fit Mind. Quotes: “Cardiovascular exercise was related to higher academic performance…. Regular exercise benefits the brain, improves attention span, memory, and learning … reduces stress and the effects of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder…. Aerobic exercise pumps more blood throughout the body, including to the brain. More blood means more oxygen and, therefore, better-nourished brain tissue. Exercise also spurs the brain to produce more of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which Ratey calls ‘Miracle-Gro for the brain.’ This powerful protein encourages brain cells to grow, interconnect, and communicate in new ways. Studies also suggest exercise plays a big part in the production of new brain cells, particularly in the dentate gyrus, a part of the brain heavily involved in learning and memory skills…. [Many] schools are cutting back on PE and reducing recess hours. It’s a huge challenge with budget restraints and No Child Left Behind.”

 

Joy in Learning

The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland (The Atlantic),  by Tim Walker, a former teacher based in Finland. He now cares for his two young children and writes regularly at Taught by Finland and Papa on the Playground. Research and school experience show that play time is crucial for children’s academic and social development.

How Positive Psychology Can Improve Student Success. An Illinois school district uses a program that encourages a positive outlook to improve academic performance.

How to Parent Like a German. German students excel, yet in German schools academics are balanced by other kinds of learning.

Stay Focused: New research on how to close the achievement gap (The Economist, UK). A review of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, by journalist Paul Tough, a former editor at New York Times Magazine.

Psychologist explores how childhood play influences adult creativity. Sandra Russ’s new book, Pretend Play in Childhood: Foundation of Adult Creativity reveals how high-achieving innovative adults use methods learned in childhood play to help them achieve success.

Most 1st Grade Classes Not High Quality. Quotes: “Only 23 percent of classrooms could be judged to be of ‘high quality’ in both their instructional practices and social and emotional climate.”

Happiness Contagious as the Flu. Posted on the LiveScience website. At Living Wisdom School, we create a joyful, caring environment among the students. When a new student arrives, he or she immediately feels supported and positively affected. Parents routinely comment that soon after their children enter LWS they seem happier than at their former school.

 

Meditation, Breathing, Yoga, Affirmations

Meditation Program in the College Curriculum. Quotes: “[Meditation] produced significant freshman-senior increases in intelligence and increased social self-confidence, sociability, general psychological health, and social maturity.”

Self-Affirmation Can Break Cycle of Negative Thoughts. A report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Meditation in the Treatment of ADHD. Meditation-training showed significant decreases in levels of impulsivity [and significant improvements in] selective deployment of attention and freedom from distractibility in the behavior of the children.

How Meditation Can Give Our Kids an Academic Edge

Meditation seen promising as ADHD therapy. Quotes: “The effect was much greater than we expected.” – lead researcher Sarina J. Grosswald, a cognitive learning specialist in Arlington, Virginia…. The children also showed improvements in attention, working memory, organization, and behavior regulation.

Faith rites boost brains. Even 10 to 15 minutes of meditation appear to have significant positive effects on cognition, relaxation, and psychological health.

Schools use mind-body relaxation techniques to help kids fight anxiety. Quotes: “Mind-body relaxation, including yoga, can improve self-esteem and boost grades and test scores. Regular exposure to the [relaxation] training boosted students’ work habits, attendance, and academic performance.”

Silence is Golden Mindfulness Meditation study).

Smacking Hits Kids’ IQ.

Smiles Predict Marriage Success. (Many parents report their children smile more after attending Living Wisdom School.)

Vedic Science based Education and Non-verbal Intelligence. (An increase in student problem-solving ability was found.)

Meditation and Assertive Training in the Treatment of Social Anxiety.

Meditation Effects on Cognitive Function. Meditation practice produced significant positive effects.

Meditation Program in the College Curriculum. Quotes: “[Meditation] produced significant freshman-senior increases on intelligence and increased social self-confidence, sociability, general psychological health, and social maturity.”

Meditation Improves Leadership Behaviors. Quotes: “Subjects who learned [meditation]… as a self-development technique improved their leadership behaviors.”

 

Social Skills

UCLA neuroscientist’s book explains why social connection is as important as food and shelter.

Psychosocial stress reversibly disrupts prefrontal processing and attentional control.

 

Music

Adolescents Involved With Music Do Better In School. Music participation has a positive effect on reading and mathematics achievement for both elementary and high school students.

Adolescents Involved With Music Do Better In School.

Music Education Can Help Children Improve Reading Skills. Quotes: “Children exposed to a multi-year programme of music … display superior cognitive performance in reading skills compared with their non-musically trained peers.”

Music Training Linked To Enhanced Verbal Skills. Quotes: “Music training … may be more important for enhancing verbal communication skills than learning phonics…. potential of music to tune our neural response to the world around us…. Music training may have considerable benefits for engendering literacy skills…. (Musicians have enhanced subcortical auditory and audiovisual processing of speech and music.)”

 

Other Articles and Papers

It’s Official: To Protect Baby’s Brain, Turn Off TV (from Wired online). Quote: “A decade ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that parents limit TV consumption by children under two years of age. The recommendations were based as much on common sense as science, because studies of media consumption and infant development were themselves in their infancy. The research has finally grown up. And though it’s still ongoing, it’s mature enough for the AAP to release a new, science-heavy policy statement on babies watching television, videos or any other passive media form. Their verdict: It’s not good, and probably bad.”

The Human Brain: Wired for Values? This article was published as a sidebar to an article in Mothering magazine that strongly praised Living Wisdom School.

Lack of Playtime Killing Joy of Learning.

Smart and Good High Schools. A “Report to the Nation” from the State University of New York)

The Heart in Holistic Education. (PDF) Quotes: “Educational programs based on new scientific discoveries about the heart lead to improved emotional stability, cognitive functioning, and academic performance.”

After Abuse, Changes In the Brain. Quotes: “Affectionate mothering alters the expression of genes in animals, allowing them to dampen their physiological response to stress. These biological buffers are then passed on to the next generation. [There is] direct evidence that the same system is at work in humans.”

Loneliness Spreads Like a Virus. (At Living Wisdom School, feelings of connectedness and joy spread like a virus.)

Positive Action Program. (The program focuses on helping students be aware of which behaviors are positive and will increase their happiness in the long term.)

National education standards can end up hurting students.

Self-Control Is Contagious.

Nature Makes Us More Caring.

College prep math failure full study. (PDF) Quotes: “This study indicates that artificially pushing children beyond their current capability is counter-productive.”

Studies Reveal Why Kids Get Bullied and Rejected. The researchers’ recommendations for teaching children social skills uncannily reflect how LWS teachers practice conflict resolution during playground time.

Mothering magazine praises Living Wisdom School.

Education in the Age of Energy. Human awareness is becoming less materialistic and more energy-aware. How will schools adapt? Living Wisdom leads the way.

National education standards can end up hurting students.

Nature Makes Us More Caring, Study Says.

When Friends Make You Poorer. Quotes: “Students tend to gravitate to a major chosen by more of their peers. And the students whose choice was driven by their peers were then more likely to end up in lower-paying jobs that they didn’t like.”

Kids Get Worst SAT Scores in a Decade.

APA review confirms link between playing violent video games and aggression.

Exposure to TV violence related to irregular attention and brain structure.

School Starting Age: The Evidence.

 

 

Ch. 20: Success and Happiness — The Love Plant Approach

By George Beinhorn, Palo Alto
Living Wisdom School web content manager

In the late 1980s, I wrote a short article about an experiment by the elementary school children at the original Living Wisdom School near Nevada City, California.

Here is the complete thirty-year-old article. I present it with two thoughts in mind: as an example of how the LWS teachers encourage children’s expansive feelings, and as a reminder that love is the ultimate key to helping children thrive, both personally and at school.

 

The Love Plant

The primary school children of Living Wisdom School, age five through eight, have scientifically investigated the power of love.

In an experiment suggested to them by their teacher, Peter Kabir MacDow, the children planted five seeds in each of four pots.

In one pot, the “Dark Plant” received only water and was kept in a closet with no exposure to sunlight.

In a second pot, the “Too Bad Plant” received sunlight and water, but no extra soil nutrients or other attention.

A third, the “Everything But Love Plant,” got sunlight, water, and soil nutrients—the normal care a good gardener would give it.

The Love Plant got the same care as the Everything But Plant, plus the added ingredient of love.

It’s 9:30 in the morning. The children are working quietly at their desks. Peter asks them to bring the four plants to an open area on the rug. The children respond eagerly, smiling as they gather in a circle. It’s obvious that this is something they’ve been looking forward to.

First the plants are watered, then the Dark Plant is returned to the closet, and the Too Bad Plant is taken back to the window sill. The Everything But Love Plant is fussed over amid a discussion of the nutrients a plant needs to grow.

Peter: We’re going to focus our attention on the Love Plant now. This is the one we want to give our attention to. I’d like someone to explain what this experiment is all about—someone who’s been centered this morning. Tara, would you explain what the experiment is?

Tara: It’s to watch the plants grow and see what they do when you put them in different places, like put them in the sun, and put them in different kinds of soil, and put them in the dark.

Peter: None of us can really grow without all those things—the water and the sun and the air and the good soil—and something special is there, too.

(Several children begin talking at once.)

Peter: Let’s sit up, please. Sit up nice and straight. Now look at the plants. Look at them closely. You can see how well they’ve done. We’ve started these plants from seeds, and they’ve depended on us to take care of them and help them grow. Now, the plants that we gave a little bit to, they grew a little bit. The plants that we’ve given a lot to, they’ve grown a lot, they’ve grown a lot more than the rest of them. What we give is what has helped this plant; and we’ve been giving our love, which is one of the most important things that it could have. So we want to give it some more right now.

We can start by sitting up. Close your eyes. Inside of your mind, try to see the plant. Do this: Try to see the plant inside—it’s green, and it’s leafy.

As we sing, we’re going to try to feel that it’s pulling the plant up, making it great and big. All the leaves are spreading out and branching out and getting big. The blossoms are starting to come out on the plant, and the flowers.

(The children sing to the plant while projecting loving feelings toward it.)

The flowers this plant has are its gift to us. We give it love, and it gives us its beauty. Ready? Have the plant in your mind. As we sing, we can feel that we’re bringing it up. We can even bring our hands over it. Here we go, just bringing our energy up as we sing.

(The children sing again, then Peter leads them in a prayer. The quality in their voices is startling—it’s as if they are praying with one voice—vibrant, rich, enthusiastic. No voice wanders or lags; the children’s full attention is on what they’re doing.)

Peter (followed responsively by the children): Bless this plant. Fill it with Your love. Help it to grow strong. And beautiful.

 

The Love-Plant Model for School Success

In education, the worst mistakes generally begin with a tiny brain hiccup. Instead of nourishing the Love Plant in children’s hearts, we ignore its needs—we put it in the dark, in a feverish obsession with test scores and grades. We burn its joyful fronds with a deadly-boring standardized curriculum. Or we ignore the quiet instinct of our hearts that is telling us what the individual children in the class need in order to thrive.

There’s a current that runs through the Living Wisdom Schools. It’s a constant theme, that the right thing, in school and life, is to engage with love, and never limit the classroom instruction to force-feeding these young plants with barren ideas. The inborn excitement of math or science or history or English, beautifully taught by teachers who are free to be creative and independent and strong, infects the kids with a love and enthusiasm for learning that empowers them to blossom.

Our students do extremely well when they enter the San Francisco Bay Area’s most academically challenging public and private high schools. Yet parents who inquire about our school are often skeptical.

They worry that their kids will fall behind academically, because we spend so much time cultivating their hearts.

Or they raise reasonable objections.

Surely we’re successful because our students come from smart, successful families. Surely we accept only the top students. Surely our kids do well because of our fabulous nine-to-one student-teacher ratio. Surely our system, which spends so much time on “soft skills,” won’t help the kids compete when they enter the harsh, dog-eat-dog world of high school.

It’s true that many of our kids have highly educated parents. It’s true that our student-teacher ratio is as low as six to one in middle-school math, when the middle school teacher and two adult math aides are present in the classroom. But the truth is, we also accept students who are academically average.

Our successes are not due to those external factors; they are the natural outcome of an approach to working with children that takes account of each child’s hopes and dreams.

The high-pressure K-8 academic prep schools in the area don’t evoke our envy. To put it kindly, their results are no better than ours, because our philosophy is rooted in the Love Plant approach. A saying at our school is “Kids who are taught with love, love to learn.”

Our philosophy is based on the idea that life has meaning, that life’s meaning is reflected in school, and that the principles that work in life—at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, on sports teams, in the military, and at Google and other top corporations—are the same principles that help children thrive from kindergarten through college and beyond. Following these principles gives children two things that all people have craved since the dawn of time: continually increasing happiness, and regular, ongoing experiences of success.

If there’s a single core truth that we’ve learned in the forty-five-year history of the Living Wisdom Schools, it’s that, at school and in life, expansive attitudes of love, kindness, compassion, and joy improve performance, while negative, contractive attitudes and feelings destroy happiness and impede success.

Ch. 19: Bill Aris’s Truth: Happiness and Success in Sports and the Military

In school, in sports, and in the Navy, respect for the uniqueness of the individual opens portals to breathtaking success.[1]

Nobody believes Bill Aris.

People ask Bill, over and over, how his Fayetteville-Manlius High School (NY) girls’ cross country teams have managed to win the Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) an amazing ten times. (NXN, where the nation’s forty best teams compete, is the de facto national high school cross country championship.)

Bill graciously shares his methods. He patiently explains how he trains his runners. And the other coaches suspect he’s signifyin’, as they say in the Ozark mountains.

Surely he’s pulling their legs. At the very least, he’s got to be holding something back.

Coaches fall off their chairs when Bill explains that he spends relatively little time designing his runners’ workouts.

“I spend 80 percent of my time on psychological and emotional considerations of each kid,” Aris says. “I put 20 percent of my time into designing the training. I spend most of my time thinking about and trying to get to the heart and soul of each kid, to both inspire them and to understand them. I’m always trying to figure out what keys unlock what doors to get them to maximize their potential.”[2]

Other coaches believe there’s no way Aris can produce national champions, year after year, without huge numbers of kids trying out for the team, and without recruiting.

In fact, Fayetteville-Manlius High School has 1,500-2,000 students, yet just 25 runners turn out each fall for cross country. And Aris doesn’t need to recruit, because his methods turn talented kids into champions.

Bill Aris. His methods are simple and profound.

Aris’s boys’ teams won NXN in 2014 and 2017. They’ve placed second several times, plus a third and fourth. To put this in perspective, it’s a tremendous achievement just to be among the forty teams invited to race at NXN. Consistently scoring in the top five puts the F-M boys in the absolute stratosphere of high school cross country.

At the library recently, I picked up a wonderful book. At first glance, It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy would seem to have little to do with training high school runners. Yet Bill Aris and former U.S. Navy Captain D. Michael Abrashoff have a lot in common. They’re both renegade thinkers, in professions where the safest path to career advancement is to keep one’s head down and do things the way they’ve always been done.

Abrashoff describes what happened when the Navy gave him command of a deeply troubled ship with bottom-scraping efficiency ratings.

In the Navy, officers are expected to either get ahead or get out. If they aren’t being regularly promoted, they risk being seen as damaged goods—losers—and shunted off to posts where they can’t harm other officers’ careers.

It’s a system that breeds a paranoid management style, where the highest priority is to avoid looking bad. It encourages officers to micromanage their subordinates, to get results that will look good on their resumes.

Unfortunately, it’s an approach that ultimately produces mediocre results and has a terrible effect on a ship’s morale. When Abrashoff took over Benfold, most of the crew members told him they couldn’t wait to leave the ship and get out of the Navy.

What Abrashoff did was amazing. As I read the book, I laughed, smiled, and occasionally wiped a tear. Abrashoff decided to apply the lessons he had learned during a two-year stint as an aide to Secretary of Defense William J. Perry. He would put the crew’s welfare first—just as Bill Aris does with his runners.

Abrashoff spoke personally with every one of Benfold’s 310 crew members, asking them about their backgrounds, their life goals, what they hoped to get out of their time in the Navy, and what they felt was wrong with the Navy’s way of doing things.

Above all, he invited their suggestions for improving procedures in their own departments. And he implemented them, even if it meant bending the Navy’s rules.

Within six months, Benfold was winning at-sea exercises against ships with much stronger ratings.

How did Abrashoff turn Benfold around? By adopting a simple guiding principle.

“I decided that on just about everything I did, my standard should be simply whether or not it felt right. You can never go wrong if you do ‘the right thing.’ ….

“If it feels right, smells right, tastes right, it’s almost surely the right thing—and you will be on the right track.

“If that doesn’t sound very profound or sophisticated, in the Navy, in business, and in life, it really is as simple as that.”

Let’s add: “In sports training, and in the classroom.”

We know when we’re doing the right thing in sports, and when we’re truly reaching the children  in the classroom and helping them improve at their level—because it feels right. And we know, just as clearly, when we’re screwing up—ignoring the child’s reality in a headlong pursuit of test scores—because it feels subtly wrong.

It’s simple. Do the right thing as an athlete and your training will go well and you’ll enjoy it. Do the right thing for every child at school—get to know each student and work with their individual differences—and you’ll find them becoming amazingly enthusiastic and engaged, and loving it, because they feel respected.

Few believed that Abrashoff’s expansive leadership style would work—until Benfold began garnering a reputation as “the best damn ship in the Navy.”

Assigned to the Persian Gulf during the second Gulf War, Benfold became the go-to ship whenever commanders needed things done fast and correctly. When other captains wanted to improve their ships’ performance, they visited Benfold and talked with Abrashoff and his crew.

It’s an incredibly inspiring story. And the principles behind Benfold’s success are exactly the same as those that have brought the girls’ teams at Fayetteville-Manlius ten national championships.

In my working life, I occasionally help Donovan R. Greene, Ph.D., a highly regarded industrial psychologist. Companies hire Don to identify executive candidates who can strengthen their cultures and amplify their success. A habit that many of the best candidates share is “managing by walking around” (MBWA).

That’s what Mike Abrashoff did, and what Bill Aris does. Abrashoff spent countless hours visiting each of Benfold’s departments, learning its functions and where they fit within the ship’s overall operations. He met with each crew member and invited their thoughts on how they could do their jobs better. And he empowered them to make changes. He respected them and tapped their creativity, knowledge, and enthusiasm. Morale soared, and success came quickly.

It was uncannily similar to how Bill Aris guides his high school cross country teams.

Coaches don’t believe Bill because he doesn’t tell them what they want to hear.

They want to hear: “I get results by hard-nosed methods. I work my kids’ tails off, and I’m not above recruiting so long as I don’t get caught. We do huge mileage in summer, and I won’t tell you about our speedwork, because that would be revealing too much. But it’s all in the numbers.”

Bill with his Manlius girls after winning Nike Cross Nationals. Bill’s genius is that he creates happy, tightly bonded teams.

Does that sound like schools today? The obsession with numbers. The “studying to the test.” The government-imposed standard curriculum that leaves one-third of the kids bored out of their minds, another third unable to keep up, and only one-third challenged at their level.

When modern sports scientists from America and Europe travel to Africa to study the world-leading Kenyan elite runners, they bring along their little measuring sticks. They measure the Kenyans’ leg lengths, muscle elasticity, and calf and thigh dimensions. They weigh and analyze what they eat—how much carbohydrate, fat, and protein. They study how many miles they run, and how hard. And they write it all down in a little notebook full of numbers.

Few of them ask the Kenyans about their hopes and dreams. Yet if you invite the Kenyans to talk about what sets them apart from their American and European counterparts, they never mention numbers. They talk about qualities of the heart—not heart volume and such-like science, but the heart’s feelings.

They explain that they run based on inner feeling—they take joy in running together, and if their bodies don’t feel up to running hard on a particular day, they’re perfectly willing to pack it up and go home; whereas an American runner would be much more likely to force himself through the workout, haunted by a need to “make the numbers.”

The Kenyans know that their bodies will tell them when it’s okay to run hard, and when it’s best to knock off. They’ve long since learned to do the right thing.

They talk about how the U.S. runners are so serious about their training, how obsessed they are with numbers and technology, and how it’s all geared toward some feverishly imagined far-off future result. Meanwhile, the Kenyans are intent on maximizing the joys of today.

Captain Abrashoff did a simple thing on Benfold—he created a happy ship. He gave his crew the freedom to enjoy doing their jobs well. Other ships’ officers and crew members were soon seeking excuses to visit Benfold, for the experience of being infected and inspired by its upbeat mood.

That’s the secret of Bill Aris’s success, and it isn’t complicated. Aris creates happy teams. How? By getting to know his runners and helping them realize their dreams. That kind of caring creates loyalty, enthusiasm, and success—on a Navy missile destroyer, a cross country course, and in the classroom.

School administrators and politicians should take a lesson from Aris and Abrashoff. Instead of cramming kids into a lockstep curriculum, thereby demotivating all but the average few, they could empower teachers to institute an individualized curriculum that would take the measure of each kid’s hopes and dreams.

When Abrashoff left Benfold, he studied surveys conducted by the Navy to discover why people weren’t re-enlisting. Surprisingly, low pay was far down the scale, in fifth place.

“The top reason was not being treated with respect or dignity; second was being prevented from making an impact on the organization; third, not being listened to; and fourth, not being rewarded with more responsibility.”

Abrashoff worked tirelessly to reverse these trends. He would not tolerate attitudes in his officers that might risk creating a bossy, feudal culture that would spread poisonous feelings of resentment throughout the ship.

Every crew member’s contributions were to be considered important, and they were to be made aware of their value to the ship.

By treating his crew as if they mattered, and giving them freedom to shine, Abrashoff built the best damn ship in the Navy—just as Aris has built the nation’s best high school cross country program.

Six months after Abrashoff’s departure, Benfold earned the highest grade in the history of the Pacific Fleet on the Navy’s Combat Systems Readiness Review.

Abrashoff tells story after story of how he transformed the culture of his ship, one detail at a time. It’s a deeply moving account. And ultimately the “method” can be boiled down to a simple principle: the best approach to organizational change and individual excellence is the one that creates the greatest fulfillment and happiness for the individual.

“Every year, I look at every kid in our group,” Aris said of his approach to training high school runners. “Number one, I try to find out what’s in their mind and in their hearts. How high is up, in other words. From there I build a training program around that.”

Speaking of the unique culture that Aris has built, award-winning running journalist Marc Bloom says:

“In all my 40-plus years (of being involved with high school cross country), I don’t think I’ve seen anything this extraordinary, at least on the high school level…. If you look at professionals it’s like looking at the Kenyans and the Ethiopians. On the high school level, F-M is so far better than anyone else.

“You say how do they do it?” Bloom added. “You can look at the physiological aspect and the running, but there is also a cultural foundation to it. It’s a different society. It’s a different attitude.”[3]

It’s a culture that engenders good feelings within each runner and within the team. Aris persuades his runners to tap the joy of training for something larger than themselves. And it all sounds eerily like the culture at Living Wisdom School.

“When our kids train or race, they do so for each other rather than competing against each other. When one releases themselves from the limiting constraints of individual achievement alone, new worlds open up in terms of group AND individual potential and its fulfillment…. Each is capable of standing on their own, but when working together so much more is accomplished both for the group and individual. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts basically, nothing new here.”[4]

Why aren’t people more receptive to these radical but exhaustively proven ideas? Why are so few listening—in school, in sports, and in business and the military?

Mark Allen, six-time winner of the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, may have the answer.

Before he began racing triathlons, Allen was a hard-charging All-American swimmer at UC San Diego. Swimmers do intensive interval workouts, and when Allen became a triathlete he trained full-out all the time, whether running, riding, or swimming. Yet year after year he fell just short of winning the Ironman.

Then Allen met coach Phil Maffetone, who had him do several months of easy aerobic training at the start of the season, followed by six weeks of very hard work. Maffetone understood Allen’s individual needs and adapted his training accordingly. That’s when the string of Ironman victories began.

In an interview with Allen, Tim Noakes, MD, author of the authoritative Lore of Running, asked him for his thoughts on why more triathletes hadn’t adopted the methods that had brought him so much success.

“Allen answered that many athletes are too ego-driven. They can’t wait to perform well and will not accept anyone else’s ideas.”[5]

Why are our public schools and our academically obsessed private schools not adopting the principles that work so well in sports and in the Navy, and that have created happiness and success for so many students at Living Wisdom School, because they help each child learn more efficiently than the failed lockstep Core Curriculum, and the equally disastrous No Child Left Behind?

The answer is that politicians and school administrators are too heavily invested in their own ideas and obsessed with numbers—even when the numbers lie.

Bill Aris’s methods aren’t what the politicians and administrators want to hear. And that’s too bad, because there’s solid scientific evidence that the heart and brain can work harder with less strain in the presence of happy feelings. In the classroom, research shows that the brain becomes a more efficient learning machine in the presence of harmonious, expansive feelings—as opposed to the stress and emotional toll of a needlessly competitive, test-focused atmosphere.

Teachers and coaches who support the individual child,  intent on helping them become happy members of a happy team, aren’t just wasting the kids’ time. They’re amplifying the children’s ability to learn, empowering these young learners by tapping the power of positive feelings to make each child’s brain a champion.

Imagine if you were a teacher, and there was a child in your classroom who clearly needed special attention and loving help—would you blithely ignore the child’s needs, prioritizing test preparation and grades? As parents and as a society, would we set up our entire school system so that teachers were forced to ignore that child’s unique circumstances?

Mass education is “dead-ucation.” Teachers who know how to elicit the individual child’s enthusiasm for learning, by giving them daily experiences of success at their own level, are able to educate them far more effectively than teachers who are required by government decree to cram a barely digestible load of facts into the students’ overworked and resisting brains.

(Adapted from The Joyful Athlete: The Wisdom of the Heart in Exercise & Sports Training, by LWS web content manager George Beinhorn. www.joyfulathlete.com)

[1]Adapted from The Joyful Athlete: the Wisdom of the Heart in Exercise & Sports Training, by Palo Alto Living Wisdom School web content manager George Beinhorn.

[2] “The Secret to F-M’s Success: There Is No Secret,” Tom Leo and Donnie Webb, Syracuse.com, December 10, 2010. http://bit.ly/2JT3vnn.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Stotan: The Secret of Fayetteville Manlius,” XCNation/RunnerSpace, September 23, 2013. http://www.runnerspace.com/news.php?news_id=180217

[5] Lore of Running, op. cit.

 

Ch. 18: How to Improve Schools Using Coaching Principles

If teachers were allowed to be coaches, our schools would rapidly become inspiring centers of learning, populated by happy students and their happy teachers.

In Tony Holler’s thirty-eight years as a teacher, he’s seen the best and worst of public education.

Tony teaches honors chemistry at Plainfield North High School, in the greater Chicago area. Tony laments the way teachers today are hamstrung by the mandate for a core curriculum, and by national policies such as “No Child Left Behind” that force them to give their students a standardized, lock-step education that ignores the students’ individual needs.

Tony says, “Schools force-feed the curriculum to students every single day. The political ‘war on education’ has forced schools into an all-consuming quest for higher ACT and SAT scores, disregarding the toll it takes on the students.

“I work at an excellent school. My principal asked the teachers what our school was doing well. My answer: ‘The trains run on time.’

“This was not the answer my principal expected. I would give my school an A-plus for organization and discipline. It’s the education that bothers me…. My own best teachers were artists. They didn’t paint by the numbers.”

Tony’s views on education are biting, but they are fueled by a desire to see young people thrive and be successful and happy, and a distaste for the obstacles that politically motivated policies place in their way.

For Tony, the flipside is that he is intimately familiar with a side of public schools where happy, motivated students learn to perform at high levels of excellence every single day.

Tony Holler with nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis during a training consortium where Tony and Carl were featured speakers. Tony’s ideas on training sprinters reflect his beliefs about learning in the classroom—that it should be challenging and fun but not grimly stressful or drearily mechanical.

The methods used on that side of the school campus look remarkably like the Education for Life approach of the Living Wisdom Schools. The problem is, you’ll rarely find these extremely successful, comprehensively proven methods practiced in the classroom.

Besides teaching honors chemistry, Tony coaches track and field. In sports, unlike academics as taught today, what matters isn’t test scores but solid results. On the football field, there are no test scores to distract attention from the scoreboard. Coaches must either adopt methods that bring out the best in every kid, or risk being fired.

Tony believes that if teachers were allowed to adopt coaching methods, it would transform our public schools overnight into vibrant centers of learning, populated by motivated, happy students.

Those methods are on display every single day, right under the noses of the school administrators and government policy makers—yet nobody is paying attention.

When Tony coached freshman football from 2010 to 2015, his teams went 49-4, averaging 44-plus points per game. When he taught at Harrisburg (Illinois) High School, his track teams won the state title in the 4×100 a remarkable four times. In 2018, his Plainfield North High track team won the 4×100 title in an Illinois state record time of 41.29. An hour later, a 15-year-old PNHS sprinter ran a state record in the 100 (10.31). The team won four gold medals and placed third, close behind two much larger track powerhouse schools.

Tony knows what it takes to nurture winners on the track and in the classroom. What follows is Tony’s overview of the principles that earned him election to the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame, and that he believes should be adopted in school classrooms everywhere.

Sports are not graduation requirements. Kids play sports because they are challenging and fun. Advanced Placement courses should similarly “sell” themselves, and not be forced upon all of the students by government decree.

Coaches don’t spend 80 percent of their time with the 20 percent of kids who can’t do the work. Students should be helped to succeed at their own level. A one-size-fits-all definition of success is ridiculous, and is bound to fail.

Coaches aren’t told how to coach. Schools should give teachers the freedom to tailor the curriculum to the needs of the individual student.

Sports programs are promoted. Kids play sports because they hear rumors about the great team culture on a football, basketball, baseball, or track team. Teachers should be allowed to make their courses exciting and attractive to the students—whatever it takes.

You play to win the game. Too many schools are diploma mills. Schools should set themselves no lesser goal than to help every single student experience the greatest possible success at their own, individual level of ability.

All men are not created equal. Every student is talented, but not in the same way as other students. The obvious fact of individual differences should be given primary consideration in the classroom.

Coaches don’t give grades. Grades are meaningful only as they measure each student’s progress. Grades should not be held up as the goal, or used as a motivator—or, worse, as a punishment.

Failure is not an option. Great coaches make sure that every player has daily experiences of success. This is the way to create excitement and enthusiasm for learning. How to give each student daily success experiences? By challenging them at their own level.

Coaches are leaders, not bosses. Rigid, authoritarian teachers are obsolete. Teachers must have the flexibility, skills, and experience to make learning exciting and to introduce every student to the thrill of overcoming challenges, again and again, every day.

Coaches don’t need advanced degrees. The value of an advanced degree has been artificially inflated in the teaching profession. Good teachers know how to help kids succeed, regardless of their academic credentials.

Tony concludes:

“I’ve spent thirty-eight of my fifty-nine years going to high school and hanging out with teenagers. As I enter the twilight of my teaching career, I dream of better schools. I dream of independent students who are bold and assertive. I dream of students who have the enthusiasm of athletes. I dream of teachers who run their classrooms like coaches, tailoring courses to the talents and interests of their students. If schools were more like sports, maybe kids would love school.”

(Excerpted with permission from “Ten Ways to Improve Schools Using Coaching Principles,” by Tony Holler: https://www.freelapusa.com/ten-ways-to-improve-schools-using-coaching-principles/.)