Kindergarten at LWS — Portal to Lifelong Happiness & Success

Why Kindergarten Counts

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

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

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


What kind of education do you want for your child?

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

Education Through the Ages – A Legacy of Common Sense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Our Thinking About Education Changed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Answer Is in the Outcome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kindergarten Is the Portal to Future Success & Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play & Learning – Essential Partners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Incalculable Benefits of A Stress-Free Learning Environment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children Can Be Happy and Successful in School

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

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

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

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

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

Theater Magic – An Extraordinary Experience of Learning and Growth

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

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

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

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

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

Choosing Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Living Wisdom School Over-Emphasize Soft Skills?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Straitjacket of Modern Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning Priceless Personal Success Qualities

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

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

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

The teacher said, “That seems reasonable.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No Bullying!” – More than Just Empty Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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