Back to School
With “back to school” in full swing around the country, most of us are busy checking off the last few items on our children’s school supply lists. Yet, we can sometimes forget the school supplies our children (and students) need most.
These supplies you can’t buy in Staples or pick up in Target. These are school supplies for life.
This article will reveal the top 5 “supplies” to last a lifetime, as illustrated by the latest research. It will teach you how to equip your children and students for life, through practical exercises for home and school:
- Take “note” of our feelings and thoughts through practicing mindfulness.
- “Highlight” the good to create a positive atmosphere with the gratitude attitude.
- “Cut” through challenges in life with grit.
- “Build” a tower of natural talent through signature strength character development.
- “Erase” the ego by developing compassion for others and oneself.
What runs through our minds when we pick up the latest BIC mechanical pencil for our kids? Perhaps, they will be writing an essay on slant rhyme or using it to figure out quadratic equations.
Yet, what if they were using this pencil to take note of their emotions? Perhaps, it can become an instrument of mindfulness and perspective-taking.
Encouraging children to find quiet time to reflect on their feelings and thoughts without judgement helps to cultivate self-awareness and emotional intelligence. These are key survival skills for life.
Whether they use that pencil literally by keeping a journal or figuratively by meditating on their mood, they will be developing an important trait. Isolating negative feelings and thoughts is the first step toward making space for positivity.
Studies show the many benefits of practicing mindfulness, especially for students. It helps students learn how to focus, balance their emotions, improve memory, limit distractions, and eliminate disruptive behavior issues.
Kids can begin to practice mindfulness through short 10-15 minute exercises. For instance, one can use the Mindful Breathing Exercise as a quick way to start becoming more observant of their subconscious thought-patterns and underlying emotions.
This exercise helps us to see the big picture and “look” at our feelings and thoughts. This shows us that our feelings are not necessarily our essence–they are what we observe from outside of our selves.
Therefore, we learn that a bad mood and negativity isn’t a character trait, it is a product of uncontrolled emotions and recurring thought-patterns. These are things that can be changed for the better.
A teacher can start class with a 3-5 minute version of the Mindful Breathing Exercise. This will give students perspective and a way to cope with difficulties that may arise during the school day.
Highlight the Positive
Just as we use a highlighter to pinpoint the most important words that we want to remember, we can learn to highlight life through the gratitude attitude.
In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz tells us that people tend to compare themselves to others. Furthermore, they tend to focus on what they are lacking in comparison to others, as opposed to where they supersede. We can reverse this phenomenon.
The Best Self Company uses the gratitude approach in their Self Journal, which focuses on goal-setting and achievement. Similarly, by using a gratitude journal, students can list three things they are grateful for every morning, following up with the same exercise at night.
Making gratitude a mindset has been shown to improve physical and emotional health, self-esteem, sleeping habits, and mental fortitude. More importantly, it leads to positive emotions, fostering a healthy outlook on life.
Developing positivity through the act of expressing gratitude also leads to healthy relationships with others. For children this is extremely important, as developing a healthy social life tends to be a central focus.
Writing a letter of gratitude to someone is another exercise for students to practice. This exercise doesn’t just nurture a positive attitude, but it also helps students to develop healthy relationships.
As teachers, we can give time during class to develop these skills or follow up on exercises that students will be working on at home.
Cut Through Challenges
Scissors are an indispensable item in our pencil case. They serve the purpose of cutting through tough material. Not only that, but they also cut through the unnecessary to reveal the essential.
Grit acts as our scissors in life. Angela Duckworth defines “grit” as having “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.” During her time as a math teacher, she noticed that grit was the common denominator of success among students, more so than IQ or family income.
Grit is not just resilience in the face of adversity. It is resilience in combination with a fiery passion for achievement. The stretching of potential is a major feature of grit.
How do we encourage grit as teachers and as parents? The first thing would be to instill a growth mindset in our children. Once our children understand that their brain can change–that they have the ability to grow and achieve without limits–they will be less hesitant to challenge themselves and less afraid of failure.
One option for students would be to keep a growth journal, where students set goals for themselves and practical steps for achievement. Then, students reflect on their progress. Teachers and parents can also comment back within the journal, asking questions and providing encouragement.
As an alternate exercise, students can think of a time when someone they know used grit. They should interview their very own grit hero and write an essay on the results. They will analyze how grit may have helped this person during a difficult situation, and how they may have reached a higher potential due to exercising grit.
Every adult knows that grit is indispensable not only for material success, but for living a happy and fulfilling life.
Build A Tower of Talent
The VIA Institute on Character identifies 24 signature strengths that are inherent within us. These strengths need to be nurtured in order to bring out our greatest potential. Signature strength development comprises the building blocks of a person’s character:
One of the key findings about character is that each human being has a constellation of character traits (character strengths) that make him or her distinct or unique…. character strengths are idiosyncratic and expressed in degrees and combinations based on the context one is in.
Research proves that people who uses their inherent strengths are happier and less stressed. They also have higher life satisfaction and well being. When students use their signature strengths, it has been shown to increase their engagement and hope.
How do we help our students to develop their signature strengths? For one, all of our students should take the free 15 minute VIA Youth Survey. This will identify the top five signature strengths of each student.
Now, we are ready to help them develop their strengths. One example activity is the Secret Strengths-Spotting Exercise. A student secretly follows a fellow student for one week to focus on spotting his/her strengths and how they are practiced. This helps students learn to identify strengths and see them in action. At the end of the week, students present on what they found and hear about their own strengths from a fellow classmate.
Another exercise involves a strengths challenge, originally created by Michelle McQuaid for adults in the workplace. Participants are encouraged to identify their top strengths through the VIA Survey and then select one strength to develop. They spend 11 minutes per day for one week cultivating a “strengths habit.” Outcomes show more energy, positivity, and productivity. We can use this same strategy for our students.
“Is what I’m about to do a reflection of who I am and who I want to be?”
Erase the Ego
Adults know that life requires flexibility. Sometimes difficult situations arise and plans do not always work out how we would have liked. Nevertheless, flexibility allows us to trudge forward without getting lost in a whirlwind of regret.
In order to develop flexibility, we need to erase the ego. Our ego is usually associated with all of our preconceived notions of others and unrealistic expectations of ourselves. Once we have managed our egos and developed flexibility, we are ready to learn compassion.
Compassion means developing empathy for another’s pain and emotions, while also desiring to help. It is important to note that compassion is not just a feeling, but it is an emotion that leads to action.
Self-compassion is compassion that is directed toward oneself and acts as the first step toward compassion for others. Uncontrolled and overly harsh self-criticism only serves to further erode oneself, not build oneself into the person one desires to become. Instead, we can learn to nurture a healthy attitude toward our shortcomings, which will allow for growth.
Acting with compassion slows the heart rate and activates the reward system in the brain, thus mitigating worry. Additionally, it has been shown to increase friendship through the release of oxytocin.
Compassion is slowly becoming recognized as a pivotal skill to teach. Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism provides an 8 week compassion training program for parents, educators, healthcare professionals, business executives, and leaders.
We can help our students develop both self-compassion and compassion for others through expressive writing. Ask students to write about a trying emotional time in their lives. They should write about their deepest emotions, how it affected them, their relationships, and life at school. After writing from their own perspective, they should write from the perspective of another person involved in the situation.
Packing Up Our Pencil Case
When we send our children off to school with the right supplies in their pencil case, we feel relieved knowing that they are prepared. Similarly, when we send our students off to life with the right supplies, we feel a sense of accomplishment at a job well done.
Remember we should always take note of our feelings and thoughts through mindfulness, highlight the positive with the gratitude attitude, cut through challenges with girt, build our character through signature strengths development, and erase the ego to make way for compassion.
Once our youth integrate their school supplies for life, we know we have given them the tools to succeed not only in school, but in the future: at work, with a family of their own, and through life challenges.
*Thank you to Mr. Ari Finkelstein for the idea to develop a “school supply list for life,” which grew into this article.