Kindergarten at LWS — Portal to Lifelong Happiness & Success

Why Kindergarten Counts

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

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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 primary 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 taught most effectively through 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 methods accordingly. In ancient Greece and Rome, in India and China, and in Europe throughout the Dark Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, teachers adapted their approach to the student’s age and natural tendencies.

I believe that in our attempts to improve schools today, we shouldn’t overlook the reasons this system was so widely and successfully adopted. Wise educators have always recognized that it’s 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 student’s needs.

They knew that to ignore the child’s developmental stage would be disastrous, and that forcing a child of 6 or 8 into an overwhelmingly academics-oriented curriculum would do far more harm than good. It would risk stunting the children’s emotional growth, killing their enthusiasm, stifling their curiosity, and greatly reducing 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 inner 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, encouraged by 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 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 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 realities
  • A poisonous belief that life has no purpose, and an accompanying 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 exciting 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 where unbridled social and academic competitiveness is the rule
  • Illiteracy and underachievement – a sense that what’s being taught has little relevance, and that it holds no promise of satisfying the individual’s longing for 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, regardless of their natural talents and inclinations, should be encouraged to compete for acceptance at 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 that have found real, working answers to educating all aspects of the child, by implementing an educational philosophy that, far from lowering the child’s chances of being accepted at 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 haven’t actually been tested. Some schools simply “fake it.” Hoping to ride the bandwagon of school reform, they spout nice-sounding phrases like “joyful education,” “well-rounded curriculum,” and “educating the whole child.” But when we look at their actual classroom 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 glimpse by considering the qualities that enable adults to be highly successful in today’s world. 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.)

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 that 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 the insights Google gleaned 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 the best ways to prepare our children to succeed and be happy in school and beyond?

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 help each other.

The personal traits that the researchers identified as furthering success at Google and at other top companies are precisely the same qualities that the teachers at Living Wisdom School devote tremendous energy to fostering 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 appropriate attention to emotional needs, consistently produces the greatest success not only in high-tech companies but at Harvard, Stanford, and MIT, and in business, sports, and the military.

The qualities that contribute to success at Google, Harvard, and Stanford are the same qualities that we cultivate, starting with each four- or five-year-old child’s first day at school.

Let me hasten to dispel any fears parents may have that our school overly emphasizes these “soft” abilities. 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 given 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 after. It’s why we are tremendously focused on kindergarten as a critically important gateway to give the 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 the children at age 4 to 6, and if you can continue to build upon those qualities throughout their elementary years, it’s a gift that will bear powerful rewards in high school and college.

I’m thinking of one of our students, Hazemach Munro. Hazie entered LWS in preschool and recently earned his master’s degree in astrophysics from the University of Bremen in Germany. Hazie now teaches math 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 taught at Living Wisdom School High in Nevada City and now serves as ambassador for Education for Life in India, as that country begins to develop its own Living Wisdom Schools.

Kshama Kellogg spent most of her elementary years at the Living Wisdom School in Nevada City, aside from 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 is now the School Director at our Living Wisdom High School.

In 45 years we’ve gathered a growing reservoir of knowledge and experience for translating our Education for Life philosophy into practice. Our 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 it’s only within such a safe and happy environment that the children can experience the undistracted joy of mastering challenges every day.

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

Play & Learning – Essential Partners

When we’re talking about a four- or five-year-old, the first thing we need to take into account 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 now and in the years ahead.

Once we have that playful, happy foundation, we find that the children feel inwardly free to achieve amazing things. For example, it enables our kindergarteners 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. Learning is reduced to something incredibly formulaic and dry, even at the earliest age. And because it isn’t creative, it utterly fails to produce learning in the most efficient and natural way, because it doesn’t make use of the child’s natural enthusiasm. It’s pounding information into their young brains without opening their hearts to receive it.

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 it runs completely against the way they can best be 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!

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 New York Times columnist and feature writer, laments the tragic failures of the traditional approach of forcing children into a system that ignores the way they are made. He excoriates today’s approach which is oriented toward improving the children’s high school grades and SAT scores and preparing every child to be accepted at Harvard. I think it’s a wonderful sign that St. Francis High School has made Bruni’s book required reading for every parent.

I often talk with parents of kindergarten-age children who are deeply concerned about this very false and misleading kind of rigor, which fails to tune into the child’s actual needs at each developmental stage, and 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 that learning is fun. At that age, they do not need to understand that learning, in later years, may require hard work to reap the joys of mastering academic challenges.

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, loving 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-acceptance competitors. Quite the opposite, as a direct result of the playful approach, they are able to absorb concepts at the third and fourth grade curriculum level.

I’m sure that most 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 confronted with a 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 development, they become deeply engaged. Thus – believe it or not! – you will find four or five tiny tots working silently together, heads bowed in deep concentration.

We are intent on helping each child be comfortable and happy within the school environment. With this goal in mind, a practice that helps us greatly is the inclusion of yoga and meditation at the start of the school day. If you can help children discover an enjoyable state of calmness and concentration within themselves – a state of happy, relaxed mental attention – they will be gaining a powerful tool that will help them be successful throughout their school years.

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, a great deal becomes possible in math, phonics, writing, art, and science. Anything is possible when the children’s hearts are open and eager to dive into the day’s lessons.

The Incalculable Benefits of A Stress-Free Learning Environment

When you can give a child 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 will never have to fend off the distractions they would find in schools that are focused entirely on academics, and that spend little time creating an optimal learning environment.

Most schools do little, if anything, to steer the kids away from forming cliques and treating each other badly, with the upshot that each child must deal with these extremely negative and harmful factors that can make school too stressful and tense to give full attention to their studies.

It’s well documented that generalized stress at school 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 we devote to creating a calm, peaceful, joyful, accepting classroom and school 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 have daily successes that will give you a joyful experience of learning. But if you’re just trying to meet somebody else’s rigid demands and requirements all the time, at somebody else’s level, it creates a tension that prevents learning by shutting down your energy and enthusiasm.

As a teacher for more than fifty 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 and extremely helpful experience for the child.

In our school, we achieve that freedom by combining learning with play, and by making sure our kids have exposure to free time. We fight against the misguided compulsion to structure every minute of the child’s day. It can create a very stressful situation for a kindergartner, when their teachers and parents 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 experience in schools today, 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 walk into the principal’s office, not at all intimidated, and say, “Helen, I need an ice pack.” Somebody was hurt and they are eager to help, and there’s no fear or hesitation. Or they’ll come in and 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. 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 get to 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 confidence-building practices the children experience every day.

Young elementary children dance during a Theater Magic performance.

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

I’m thinking of a child who was extremely fearful at the start of the school 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 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 clearly 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 two rules define the culture of the school. If you choose happiness, it means that you don’t have the right to take out a bad mood on anybody – you have an obligation to use your will power and your understanding to turn the energy around, with the ready and willing help of your teacher and classmates.

It’s amazing to watch the rules in action. A child will come to school, and maybe they aren’t feeling well. Maybe they’re feeling a little moody or snarky, and everybody is sympathetic. The teacher says, “I’m so sorry you’re not feeling well. Go over 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 they’re shown how to do it. They are given the specific steps they can take to be kind and choose happiness. And when you articulate the 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 longer term. 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, and 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. Especially when they’re kindergarten age, it’s all about them. They need to grow into a sense of the other, and to be able to learn how to do it at a 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 an invaluable foundation for acquiring the maturity that we must all achieve to be successful at every level, and it’s an awareness that we’re instilling in them starting on the first day of kindergarten – the awareness of another’s reality.

Does Living Wisdom School Over-Emphasize Soft Skills?

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

In our book Happiness & Success at School, there’s a wonderful account 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 highest success. We were able to show how, at Harvard, Stanford, and 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 in the real world. The interplay of happiness and success is a real-life experience at our 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 recently from a parent of a fifth-grade boy. It was very unfortunate that the class was full and we weren’t able to take him. The parent was sad because the child’s predisposition is to self-judge himself to an extent that he becomes paralyzed – he’s afraid to try anything new 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, a professor of computer science at MIT, Seymour Papert, published a book called Mindstorms in which he pointed out that the most wonderful lesson children can take from learning to program computers is that mistakes are a natural and necessary part of the process. He pointed out that professional programmers make, on average, at least 10 mistakes per hundred lines of 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 competitive and comparative emphasis in the typical approach to learning, where you’re always wondering if I’m 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. But the fact is that we constantly celebrate their small, daily, individual successes as the most important kind of success. We are celebrating their small experiences of mastery as artists, poets, singers, scientists, dancers, and mathematicians.

There isn’t a child in our school who doesn’t have an area of success that we can celebrate. I’m thinking of a boy who had some very significant challenges at school, until he began rehearsing for the all-school play, whereupon he 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’s experienced what it feels like.

Each of us 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 inflow 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 failed to take account of the link between learning and happiness. Children are so elastic, and so ready to learn, including learning which thoughts and actions will give them joy. And instead, they suddenly 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 the earliest age, and then 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 first grader who has artistic ability beyond all imagining. He made several sketches of a ship, beautifully executed with lots of fine detail, and we put them on the cover of our annual 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 pretend that his work isn’t exceptional.

Everybody in the school acknowledged and celebrated the boy’s talent. The older kids were saying, “Whoa, who did that?” But the truth is, we celebrate every child’s successes, and we ensure that there are plenty of successes to celebrate, by having them operate at the tip of their ability, mastering challenges at their level.

A girl who came to us in the fall absolutely flourished in the school play. She took to her role and developed 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 realized that she could let loose and be as creative as her abilities allowed.

This morning I spoke with parents who are brain researchers at Stanford. They chose our school because they have friends whose children go to our school, and they recognized the level of acceptance and individuality that exists here, and the happiness of the children. But, more than anything else, they simply want their children to be happy during their time in school.

The father was educated at a school in Israel that was very progressive, but the mother had a more standard 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 third or fourth grade, they’re tempted to buy into the culture that is constantly pressuring them to think, “Oh my God, how am I going to get my kid into Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, or MIT?”

The parents I spoke with this morning understand the theoretical and practical aspects of our system, but they really didn’t want to talk about that side. They wanted to tell me how the families of children in our school had 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 schools 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 leverage 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 with 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 factor that makes our kindergarten so special and powerful is that from the 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.

If a kindergartner gets to someplace first, it’s their nature to let everyone know that 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 a wonderful learning environment. It’s a learning that may take people a lifetime to acquire. But whether it’s in the sandbox or on the tricycle, it’s something that they’re learning here every day.

Two kids were arguing over a bike. We did a conflict resolution, and 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 about it 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 can be creative and take it a lot farther than we might imagine.

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 they become very expansive.

I was talking with one of the eighth graders here in my office, when he suddenly said, “Oh, hey, 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 so connected with the younger children. They are these tiny 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’ll have to find it.

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

“No Bullying!” – More than Just Empty Words

I talked yesterday with the principals of two of our local high schools. They were asking me about the culture at our Living Wisdom High School, because I’m on the school board and we’re up for certification.

When the conversation came around to what makes our school different, I very boldly said, “We do not have bullying at our school.” And I noticed a sudden change in the atmosphere. The men sat quietly and had nothing to say, and I knew why – because they couldn’t say the same about their schools.

I said, “It’s not allowed, and it’s not that we have to come down punitively in order 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 who sit in this office who are looking for a suitable school for their children are trying to escape bullying.

And, well, don’t you think that it comes from the extremely one-sided, 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 there’s a constant, brutal sense of competitiveness that permeates the social culture in schools today. The culture, particularly in high school, can be cruelly competitive and stratified.

Many parents in Silicon Valley have had to struggle to get to where they are, and they naturally value material success. And when you can have an efficient and balanced environment such as we have here, 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 initially, 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 were not able to thrive in the highly competitive cultures of other schools, and who 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 wake up to the simple truth that we have 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. 17: A Conversation with LWS Kindergarten Teacher Lilavati Aguilar

Although Lilavati now teaches kindergarten, she is intimately familiar with the needs of children throughout the Feeling Years, having taught first grade and yoga and Spanish at Living Wisdom School. Before coming to LWS, she taught for seventeen years at a public middle school.

Lilavati Aguilar

Q: Can you tell us about your background, perhaps going back as far as your childhood?

Lilavati: When our sixth-grade teacher asked us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I remember how I unhesitatingly raised my hand and said, “A teacher!”

I loved school, not so much for the school itself but for the learning, and I deeply wanted to be a teacher. I got sidetracked for a while working as a bookkeeper, but when I had kids of my own, I decided that I didn’t want to be a working mom, so I got a daycare license and started caring for a half-dozen kids in our home. When the kids reached preschool age, I started a preschool that ran for three and a half years, and I loved the experience so much that I returned to school for a teaching credential. And that’s how I came full circle back to my dream of being a teacher.

Q: Where did you start teaching?

Lilavati: I liked being with the little kids, so I taught kindergarten, then I spent several years as an ESL teacher (English as a Second Language). I eventually decided that I would prefer something a little more focused, because running around teaching kids from kindergarten through eighth grade was a bit hectic. For the next four years I taught seventh grade at Half Moon Bay, then I moved to Castro Valley, where I taught middle school for seventeen years.

When I heard of Education for Life, about five years ago, I was immediately intrigued. I took a wonderful workshop with Nitai Deranja, co-founder of the Living Wisdom. And I remember thinking, “I believe this is how education should be. I wonder if I can apply these ideas with the thirty kids in my public school classroom.”

I realized that there were parts of Education for Life that you could apply very effectively in public school. For example, EFL is very direct and experiential—it’s not only about learning by reading a book. My classes became more hands-on, with activities that helped the kids experience how the concepts they were learning would apply in real life.

For example, if we were studying the archaeology of Early Man, we would make tools and bows and arrows, and we would bury them so that another class could come along and do an archaeological dig and excavate them.

It was very motivating for the students, and the learning became deeper and more memorable, because kids always learn more deeply if they can experience something directly, instead of just studying it in the abstract.

In Education for Life, we’re constantly focusing on the child’s highest potential, and figuring out how we can help children realize their best self. As teachers, we’re always asking, “What does this child’s best self look like? What is their
highest potential as a human being?”

Lilavati and kindergarten teaching aide Aram Magholi support a student while she gives her
Qualities speech during the LWS End-of-Year Ceremony.

I was teaching sixth grade, where the Feeling Years end and the Will Power Years begin, at around age 12. I could see that the kids were starting to make the major transition from being these idealistic little kids who loved stories and fantasy play and art, to kids who were becoming more interested in challenges to their will power. And, you know, that’s why middle school can be a rough ride, because they’re in that major transition. (laughs)

At any rate, even though I was teaching a big class in public school, I found that I could encourage the higher qualities of the kids, like kindness and even-mindedness and courage, that are essential features of a refined human being.

That’s a very strong part of the Education for Life curriculum, where you’re looking to foster and nurture and encourage those higher qualities. It’s a very powerful way to teach, because it makes the children feel that their needs are being met on every level, and that we aren’t just trying to fill their heads with facts. We’re bringing their hearts into the educational process, and it’s profoundly motivating for them.

The experience of bringing EFL principles into a public school classroom showed me how helpful it is for kids when you can give them the nondenominational spiritual tools of meditation and yoga. With the backing of the school administration, I started a middle school yoga club. We meditated in class, and it was immediately obvious how it was helping them. If you teach kids how they can take a deep breath and relax for as little as a minute, and get focused and calm before they take a test, they actually do better. The kids could feel the difference, and they loved it.

The parents were supportive, though there was some initial concern about whether it was “spiritual,” which you have to avoid in public school. But they were won over when they saw how it was helping the kids.

When I came to Living Wisdom School, I was a little worried about leaving the excellent yoga program we had put in place—they had started calling it Mindfulness in the Public Schools, and it was going really well. But they brought in somebody to carry it on, and I could see that they were doing a good job, so I was able to let it go.

I have to say that I’m much happier at Living Wisdom School, because everything just makes more sense. I don’t have to be so careful with the vocabulary, because meditation and yoga are embraced as an accepted part of the curriculum, and as useful tools for helping the kids.

At LWS the older and younger kids mix freely
and play together as friends.

Q: Can you tells us about your experience making the transition to teaching at LWS?

Lilavati: One thing that stands out for me is that there’s a great deal of collaboration among the teachers. As part of my preparation, I took the online Education for Life program, where you can talk with EFL teachers worldwide. You can try an aspect of EFL in the classroom, and you can talk about it and receive suggestions for improving it.

There’s a ton of online conferencing, and it’s a great way to connect. When I came here, Helen, our director, told me she was looking for someone to co-teach first grade with Danielle, so that’s how I started. I’m now teaching kindergarten full-time, but my first year was a bit of this-and-that. I taught Spanish and yoga to all the kids in the school, from kindergarten through eighth grade. I introduced some yoga sequences into our annual school play, on the life of Paramhansa Yogananda.

The variety made for an interesting start, but I love teaching more than ever since I’ve been here. I like the kids, and I have a lot of energy for what I’m doing. And even though the first year was a bit of a scramble, I had lots of support, and it was fun to get to know all seventy-plus students and their teachers.

Q: Having taught in public school and at LWS, you’re familiar with what it’s like for the kids in each system.

Lilavati: One thing that struck me right away when I came here is that all of the kids, especially those who had been with the program from kindergarten, but also the kids who’d come more recently, were kinder. Also, they were more focused. But it was the kindness and openness that really struck me about the kids.

In public school, everyone’s a little bit guarded, and the students have to hold their energy back. You hear about cliques, and the kids will have their safe groups, but at LWS you can see that their hearts are open, and that they know how to get along together regardless of the differences in age. The middle schoolers really do take care of the younger ones, and the little ones feel that they can go to the older kids for help or support or fun.

During the year that I taught Spanish to all of the kids in the school, it struck me that they really knew how to be focused, and that they could pay attention, and that they were more centered. I think it’s partly due to meditation, because the kids have time every day to settle down and get centered.

Q: I’ve noticed the quality of kindness in the kids, how they cooperate, and how there’s an absence of putting people down. I’ll see them working together in pairs, and it’s remarkable how focused they are. Teachers with big classes in public schools will often have to spend a lot of time on behavioral issues, but the learning here seems to go more smoothly and efficiently.

LWS Science Fair

Lilavati: Yes, because each child gets to go at his or her own pace. If they’re advanced, they don’t have to wait for the whole class to catch up, so they aren’t spending long periods sitting there getting bored. And if they’re struggling and need attention, there’s a teacher or a teaching aide or another student who’s more than happy to help. But if a student has the ability to race ahead in math, they won’t be held back, because there’s support for them to learn at their level.

We had some amazing children when I co‑taught first grade with Danielle. One little girl was starting fourth-grade math, and one of the boys was doing third-grade math. He was into inventions and figuring out how things work, and we were able to give him time to explore on his own or with the other students, with plenty of support from the teachers.

Q: How do you make connections with the kids so that you can start to help them individually?

Lilavati: You start making connections from the very first day. Eye contact is very important—making sure that when they come into the classroom they’re acknowledged. It might be with a hug, a handshake, or something else that says, “You’re here. I see you. You see me. We’re connected. Let’s have fun today.” It happens at the start of every school day.

As teachers, we’re given the time and freedom here to observe each child and see what sparks their interest. And when you see that twinkle in their eye, you have the freedom to notice it and encourage it.

Q: Can you describe a typical day at the school?

Lilavati: Kindergarten is quite a bit different from the other grades, because the kindergarteners haven’t really entered the Feeling Years. They’re still in the Foundation Years from birth to age 6, when they’re working on their gross motor skills, gaining their balance by playing on the jungle gym, and so on. So they require a lot more play time. At this age, they learn by playing in the sand, building things with blocks, digging in the dirt, and running around.

When I co-taught first grade, we would start with a fun activity to raise the energy and get the children focused. They could decide if they wanted to play with Legos or draw, so we gave them some choice, but with an underlying structure. Then we would have Circle Time and sing a few songs and chants, and we’d meditate a little and do a little yoga and stretching. It was a time for everybody to get centered and connected at the
start of the school day.

Recess.

After Circle Time we would go for a walk to get some fresh air and oxygen into their brains before we settled down to do math. All of the grades do math first thing in the morning, and you can feel the math energy running through the school. (laughs) Then it’s time for snacks. And, again, everybody’s on the playground together—the kindergarteners are right there with the eighth graders. And yes, they really do play together. It’s fun to see a giant eighth grader and a tiny kindergartener playing basketball, and to see how the eighth graders are supporting them. We’ve had some really good basketball players among the little guys, and it’s amazing to watch them. (laughs)

After snacks, we usually have language arts. In kindergarten we emphasize reading and phonics, but we also do Writer’s Workshop, where the kids can write about something that interests them. They write some amazing poetry and stories, and their best work is published in the school literary magazine at the end of the year. So they get to experience what it’s like to be a published author!

In the afternoon, they’ll have electives like Spanish and singing, and core subjects like science, social studies, and art.

Q: We haven’t talked about the Feeling Years specifically. What are your thoughts on teaching kids at that stage of their lives?

Lilavati: I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to this. At around age 6, sometime between kindergarten and first grade, the children are transitioning from the Foundation Years to the Feeling Years. As I mentioned, kindergarten needs to be very playful and physical and hands-on, but in first grade they’re starting to awaken to their social world. At the start of kindergarten and earlier, there’s a lot of what I call “parallel play,” where they’re playing together, but they’re really just sitting side by side and playing.

But also in kindergarten they start to interact a little more, and you can see how the social-emotional component begins to come in, and how they’re playing together in a more meaningful way. I spend lots of time thinking about how to get the kids to connect in positive ways, and how to encourage that.

One of the key things we do at LWS to encourage cooperation, kindness, and helpfulness is to notice it and point it out to the children. If a child is doing something that expresses a higher feeling, showing kindness or being helpful, we’ll point it out so it doesn’t go unnoticed, and they’ll learn
how these positive attitudes work and how they feel.

Kindergartners read before a Theater Magic dress rehearsal.

I might say, “You put away the blocks after you were done! That was so helpful!” During our summer camp I watched two little boys who wanted to use the drinking fountain. It was a great big concrete thing with a water spout on top, and one of the boys climbed up so he could reach the water, but then he couldn’t push the button to make the water go. When the other boy pushed the button for him so he could get a drink, I walked up and said, “Wow! You pushed the button so he could get a drink! That was so helpful!” They both smiled real wide, and then the little boy got down and gave the other boy a great big hug and said, “You’re a good friend!” It was so adorable—you could feel the warm fuzzies all around. (laughs)

When they help each other, if you point it out they will notice how they’re feeling and learn that it makes them feel happy. Or you can ask them, “How did that feel?” so they can articulate it themselves.

If they grab a toy and the other child starts crying, they might be surprised. “Why are you crying? All I did was grab the toy!” You can ask them to stop and think about it. “How did that feel? That didn’t feel so good, huh? Well, how can we go back and make it better?”

Just as you have to teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic, you have to teach them how kindness works. How it feels when you’re kind, and how it feels when you’re not kind. So there’s a lot of teaching that needs to happen, beyond the academics.

Q: Does it create a better learning environment, when you’re addressing issues of feeling that could otherwise become a distraction in the classroom—if they’re arguing, getting angry, or just wanting to act out, and they don’t know how to manage their energy in a positive way?

Lilavati: Yes, that’s exactly why you need a school like this, where everyone feels safe and connected. Because it frees their brains so they can use what we call their “executive skills” in the prefrontal lobe. If children feel safe, connected, and loved, they’re much more free to learn.

Q: Do these behavioral things weave together with what you’re trying to accomplish with the kids in math and science and language arts?

Lilavati: They do. It’s something I’ve definitely noticed here. We’re always devoting a great deal of attention to helping the kids get back to a place where everyone is feeling positive. If there’s some kind of kerfuffle between the kids, an altercation of some kind, you make sure to address it right away, and you make sure it’s a learning experience, not a punitive experience, so they can see what doesn’t work and how it feels. Then you can help them correct it and understand how that feels.

You might say, “Let’s rewind the situation. What could you have said? You wanted the block. Okay, instead of grabbing, what could you say?” And if you do it every time something comes up, you end up with a safe, connected environment, so that when math comes around the kids feel completely free to concentrate.

Q: How does learning take place at Living Wisdom School? In math, for example, what is the instruction like? How is it different from what would happen in a classroom with thirty kids?

Middle school teacher Gary McSweeney tutors sixth-grader Vinca.

Lilavati: In math class, again, there’s constant individualized learning. Also, we make it very experiential, so it’s not just all workbooks and lecturing. You have to make it more than a brain exercise; you have to make it a positive experience that engages them fully.

When I taught first grade and the kids were learning about money, we had them make art that they could sell. We invited the kindergarteners to come in and buy the items, and we gave them real money. The first graders had to tell the customer how much it cost, and accept the money and make change. So they were learning about money, but they were also learning math. It was an experience that was fun and real for them, and they learned a tremendous amount because it was very hands-on. There are lots of activities that we do to make the learning a real-life experience.

Q: Mahita, the former LWS kindergarten teacher, described how the kids were using fourth-grade math concepts in kindergarten.

Lilavati: Yes, because it’s allowed. At Living Wisdom School they can go as far as they want to, and they don’t have to wait for the other kids.

Q: What are your connections like with the kids?

Lilavati: When I taught Spanish to the whole school, it was a wonderful way to make connections, because I met every one of the kids, and now they all know me.

I was impressed by how open the students were toward me, even at the beginning. They are so open to people. “Oh, here’s a new person. I wonder what they’re like.” Rather than, “Oh, here’s a new person—better watch out until I know what’s going on with them.” Which is what you’ll often get in public school.

Q: Is there a different feeling between public school and Living Wisdom School, in terms of not having the state looking over your shoulder and expecting you to meet a set of prescribed standards? Obviously the kids need to be achieving at a certain level in academics, but how does it compare with the pressures of teaching a state-mandated curriculum?

Lilavati: We have very high expectations around academics. We look at the Common Core standards, to make sure the kids are keeping up. But so many of our kids are going way beyond Common Core because of the individual instruction. We make assessments, but not with a nervous feeling of “Oh, gosh, how are they going to do on the test?” Because most of them will be going so far beyond the test standards. The focus here is on “How high can they go?” As opposed to “Are they going to meet the standard?”

Paula and Milan.

We’re constantly looking at their highest potential, and finding ways to encourage them to push their limits. How high can they go and still maintain a certain comfort level? Again, rather than “Oh my God, we have all these tests we have to give them.”

Q: If a child is working at the upper level of their comfort zone, how would you work with that child?

Lilavati: Again, it’s completely individual. I’m thinking of a little girl who’s in first grade, but doing third-grade math. She was working with measurements and pushing her edges, because she’s very interested and loves math, but she wasn’t comfortable with measurements. She had to measure her classmates to see how tall they were and then make a little graph. And because she wasn’t sure how to use a yardstick or a tape measure, it was pushing her limits. But she really wanted to go there, and because we had two teachers in the class, I had the freedom to spend a whole period explaining tape measures and yardsticks.

Socially, she was fine with going up to the other kids and saying, “Can you come over here so I can measure you?” The kids thought it was great fun. But she was at the edge of her learning when it came to converting inches to feet, and dealing with the tools that had metric measurements on one side and inches and feet on the other.

At Living Wisdom School the children push their limits, not because we’re pushing them but because they want to learn, because it’s so rewarding for them when they’re able to go at their own pace. And as teachers, it’s a matter of helping them. That’s true for Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies—we’re constantly challenging them, but it’s completely individual, so they’re eager to learn because we’re helping them at their own level and it’s very rewarding for them.

Q: Are you saying that your role is to help the kids have success experiences?

Lilavati: Yes, that’s my job! (laughs) Really, that’s what I think a teacher is supposed to do.

In many schools you’re restrained from doing that, if you’re with thirty kids, or you’re in middle school and seeing ninety to a hundred and twenty kids every day. You do your best, but you can’t possibly give your complete focus to each child in that kind of situation.

Appearances can deceive! These children are not just having fun putting on the annual all-school play. They are deeply engaged with lessons in history, geography, language arts, communication skills, presentation, self-control, concentration, diction, public speaking, acting, singing, memorization, and not infrequently, math and science.

As a teacher you have time, in our school, to get to know each child and make a connection, and realize what brings their energy up, what they’re interested in, what their passion is, and what their talents are. And then you can help them build on their talents and their inclinations and help them overcome their particular challenges.

I remember a little girl in first grade who was very much into princesses. She was a fantastic artist and she made beautiful drawings—but math? Not so much. But you could say to her, “The princess had six shoes, and she bought four more shoes. How many shoes does she have?” You could bring her interests into the part of the curriculum that was challenging for her.

The Feeling Years are a very open time for learning, especially about higher values. We’re very careful when it comes to the books we choose for them to read—we’re always picking books that are going to be uplifting and support their positive feelings. The Theater Magic program very powerfully fulfills that need for them, because it’s about an inspiring person or a saint whose life story uplifts the children.

In my first year, we produced a play about Paramhansa Yogananda. It was so much fun, and of course the kids are amazing. Every child in the school plays a role in the play, and their maturity really shines. Even the littlest ones are so professional about what they’re doing—they want to know their lines and their cues, and they’re very serious, because they want to get it just right. Their enthusiasm for it comes from deep inside them. It’s not something we have to press on them.

With the kindergarteners, it’s a little different. At that age, it really is more like herding cats because they’re still focused on learning to deal with their bodies and senses. But with the first graders it’s a little easier, because they’re entering the Feeling Years. They can be more focused on their interactions and the inspiration of the play. And by the time they get to middle school they’re completely focused and very receptive to the learning that comes from such a big experience.

I just want to add that I feel immensely blessed to have found Education for Life, and to be able to work at Living Wisdom School. I go to work every day knowing that all of the teachers are not only trying to help the students be their best selves, but that they are bringing their own highest self to their role as teachers, and into every part of their life.

It helps that every teacher, no matter what their background, has a spiritual practice of some kind, where they’re learning to center themselves so they can teach from a deep calmness.

LWS is a safe environment for the teachers as well as the children. We can seek help if a lesson plan doesn’t work, or if an encounter with a student needs more attention. We can go to one another and know that we’ll be supported and connected. Because, just like the kids, we also need to feel safe and loved so all of our creativity and wisdom flows into our teaching. We are very fortunate to have this jewel of a school in our area, and I hope that more and more families will find us and recognize what an exceptional place for learning and growth it is.