One such program – Heartstrings – is devoted to character development and wellness, helping students develop strategies to deal with academic and emotional challenges, manage their own learning, and help their peers.
Taught year-round by Karin Mitchell, School Counselor and Character Education Coordinator, Heartstrings is a series of classes designed to teach students strategies within three key areas: empathy, problem-solving and impulse control, and emotion management.
“These social skills are just as important for this age group – I’d argue possibly even more important – than reading, writing and arithmetic,” said Mitchell. “The ability to get along with other people is connected to our overall happiness, and that’s a big part of what they’re learning. These are skills they will use for the rest of their lives.”
Character Development in the Classroom
During the entire academic year, Mitchell spends about 30-45 minutes every other week with students in all classes, from prekindergarten through 5th grade. The lessons are tailored by age group but grounded in the same principles and always with the goal of developing the non-academic skills that children need to thrive and grow as happy, well-rounded individuals. For example, a recent lesson for the 5th graders was around resisting revenge, while another lesson in 2nd grade was on managing anger. And in the 1st grade classes, Mitchell used puppets and video clips to talk about what it means to be worried and strategies for dealing with this type of strong feeling.
To introduce the lesson on worrying in Grade 1, puppets Puppy and Snail made an appearance at the start of class and had a conversation about how Snail had been asked to take a paper down to the 4th grade hall and was worried. What if she got lost or ran into some big kids?
Mitchell then asked the class, “Is this a strong feeling that Snail is having?” They solemnly agreed that yes, it was. Snail’s friend Puppy then reminded her to do some belly breaths and some positive self-talk to help make herself feel better.
With the topic introduced by the puppets, Mitchell then told the class that today they’d be talking about worry and how to deal with that feeling. Over the next 15-20 minutes, the class talked about what it meant to worry – they thought it meant to be scared, comparing it to a feeling you feel about seeing someone new – and watched a video about a boy named Shane whose father was late to pick him up.
They talked through the verbal and visual cues that revealed Shane’s emotion – for example, his forehead was wrinkled up and his mouth was in a straight line – followed by ideas about what Shane could do next to help calm down. Mitchell used a few avenues to reinforce the three strategies for calming down a strong feeling, which include counting, deep breathing and positive self-talk.
She gave examples, referred to the poster that hangs in the classroom, had students to a Think, Turn & Tell exercise, and finally, a role-play exercise where students came to the front of the class, were given a scenario, and had to show first what it would look like to feel worried and second, what they could do to calm down. “They love to do role plays, so as much as I can, I incorporate that into the lessons,” said Mitchell. The students did in fact enjoy it, with most of the volunteers having a hard time pretending to be worried because they were smiling and laughing too much.
This particular lesson also touched on who they can go to for help, including teachers, older siblings, other family members and Mrs. Mitchell. “Remember that I’m always here to help too!” she told them.
Mitchell wrapped up the class by encouraging students to find ways to practice positive self-talk in their real lives, because that strategy can be harder to master than the other options but is ultimately very helpful.
“I love to teach them how to solve problems, and I believe all problems can be solved if you find different ways to look at them,” said Mitchell. Sometimes solving it means asking for help, so I am trying to teach them that they don’t have to do it all alone.”
Lessons in Mindfulness
In addition to the regular social-emotional curriculum, Mitchell also wrote and is now teaching a dedicated Mindfulness class to grades 3-5. Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where they are and their actions, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around them.
“The value of this type of learning is it helps students understand their mind and how thoughts effect their emotions and subsequent actions or behaviors. By practicing being more mindful, students are learning how to bring their mind to the present moment; essentially how to tame all the inner chatter,” says Mitchell.
“We talk deeply in mindfulness classes about happiness and connection,” she added. “The kids get it too, which is awesome. I talk with them about how connected we are to everything, and that what we say and what we do has an impact beyond us. When I started teaching this curriculum six years ago, I wasn’t sure if children this age would comprehend some of the material. But not only do they understand it, they also add their own insight and ask very good questions that demonstrate deeper levels of thinking.”
This was evident in a recent lesson with one of the 3rd grade classes, where Mitchell reviewed three questions around mindfulness with them – what is it, why should they be more mindful, and how can they improve their mindfulness.
Students were eager to volunteer their thoughts on all of these, shooting up their hands and bouncing around in their seats in hopes of getting called on to share. And their answers were both earnest and articulate, shouting out that mindfulness is talking about your feelings and working on their emotions.
After getting a sampling of spirited input from around the room on what mindfulness is, Mitchell helped to reinforce the meaning by repeating it back in a new way. “So, what we’re saying is that mindfulness is being in the present moment without judgement, so that even if you’re angry or sad, you just accept it as how you are feeling?” she asked the class. The students enthusiastically agreed.
She repeated the process with the other two questions, this time hearing from students that the reason they should be more mindful is so that they don’t say mean things to their friends, and to have deeper bonds and improve their relationships, as well as being calmer. A student who was sitting close to Mitchell spoke softly and told her that it means being grounded and not wandering into our thoughts. “That’s right,” said Mitchell, smiling and nodding with encouragement. “So, what does being grounded mean?” she asked the whole class. On this topic, she answered for them, adding, “It’s to sit in the present moment, keeping our thoughts right here. We aren’t worrying about tomorrow. How does this help us? Does it maybe help us to improve our focus and pay attention to what’s happening?” Again, the class agreed.
After some more discussion about how to improve their mindfulness – through meditation, breathing and being alone and relaxed – Mitchell introduced the lesson of the day, which was on mindful eating. This involved pretending to be an alien from Mars who was visiting Earth and had never seen or eaten a raisin. They then used all 5 senses to evaluate the raisin. The meaning behind this exercise was to look at a known object in a new way, to bring a ‘beginner’s mind’ to it. The energetic lesson that followed included descriptions like “mushy”, some strong opinions about raisins, and a homework assignment from Mitchell, who asked them to eat one part of their lunch mindfully every day for the next two weeks.
Within the school community, there is a strong sense that children are integrating and using these skills, tools, and knowledge to help them in their daily interactions with peers and family members. Mitchell often hears from both parents and teachers that they observe the changes in their kids and the use of strategies.
“My generation didn’t have classes like this,” said Mitchell. “For some people, these skills come naturally, but for others they need to be learned. The notion that ‘this stuff can’t be taught’ or ‘you either know it or you don’t’, doesn’t apply here, because this stuff can be taught, learned, and integrated into one’s life. I know, because I teach it every day!”