Categories » ‘Character Education’

Big Kid, Little Kid

October 17th, 2012 by

Here is a recent article I wrote for our after-school center’s newsletter about mixed-age groups:

One of the questions I am asked most frequently about the philosophy at our after-school program is centered around the fact that we allow age groups to mix freely during the day.  Kindergarteners can freely mingle with the 4th and 5th graders, and it’s not uncommon to see a 3rd grader playing with someone either 2 years his/her junior or senior.

Of course, there is a valid concern that younger children are at risk of being bullied by older children in a relationship where there is a “power imbalance”.  This is, of course, a possibility (as it is in any relationship – even into adulthood)… but it is a possibility of which our qualified and caring staff members are aware, and proactively seek to prohibit.  The emotional and social safety of all the children are major pillars of the work we do in our after-school program.

With that in mind, it’s important to look at the major benefits reaped through mixed-age play.  One of the major precepts of our center’s philosophy is that School-Age sites are, in the end, miniature societies, complete with their own unique patterns of relationships, values, and ethics.  Through our emphasis of the Character Counts! pillars of character (Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Citizenship), we are creating the kind of social “fabric” in our group that helps pave the way for positive, beneficial relationships between all ages.

According to a study by South Dakota State researcher Marilyn F. Rasmussen, children who are routinely a part of mixed age groups after school consistently experience “positive social interactions…such as cooperation, nurturing, inclusion, and sharing.”   Rasmussen continues to expand on the learning of cooperation:

 

            In a mixed-age group, mutually reinforcing perceptions
come together to produce cooperation. Young children
look to older children to provide leadership, helpfulness
and empathy. Older children perceive younger children as
in need of guidance and help. A collaborative spirit
replaces the competitive tendency frequently found among
same-age mates. Cooperative actions and reactions bring
out a sense of caring in older children, and they typically
accept the responsibility of being a role model.

 

In my 20+ years of working with mixed-age afterschool groups, I have found that older children identify with roles that encourage the growth of responsible behavior; that older kids receive “hands on” experience in being the nurturer, caregiver, resident expert, and “big brother/sister”.  The younger kids benefit by having accessible role models, and learn that older friends can become allies; I’ve also seen that children who develop relationships with older kids are more confident and less susceptible to bullying as they grow.

In the end, a mixed age group more closely represents what children will find outside the gates of the school – in “real life”, if you will – and having experience and comfort in negotiating such situations can build confidence, empathy, and living skills for all involved.

The Primal Question

September 28th, 2012 by

Before we can even begin to discuss what needs to change in our system of education, we need to take a long, hard look at our raison d’etre for education in the first place.  Our cultural subconscious has been branded, as it were, since the 1950′s with the idea of what success looks like: more money, more power, more prestige.  And that is the ethic that we mindlessly hand down to our children: stay in school, even if it sucks, stick it out, get good grades, go get a “good” job, work your butt off for someone else’s profit for 50 years, retire, and hope you’ve socked enough money away that you don’t starve in your old age.

But what we are finding through the generations since the end of WWII is that having this “more” mentality has had some adverse effects.

People doing unrewarding, personally meaningless work because it pays well or because someone along the line told them they “should” pursue a certain career.  Important, necessary work falling to the wayside or relegated to the underclasses (or socially masochistic) because it has not been glamorized by our culture.  A subculture of people who will disregard ethics, principles, and even the rule of law if a certain activity will fill the “more” mold set forth by society.

As Brendon Burchard has written in his latest book, The Charge, Maslow’s hierarchy is now turned on its head.  In today’s uber-connected, sped-up, and super-informationalized society, our base needs have pretty much become a given.  Today, the poor of our country aren’t those who can’t afford food- they’re the ones who can’t afford cable TV and cell phones.  And behind this fast, profound change that we find our society amidst, is our human search for meaning… our drive to be fulfilled and live lives of purpose.

So… what does this have to do with education?

Today’s education model is still trying to turn out, assembly-line style, “workers” for the old economy.  People who will go accept any job to grab hold of a rung to try and climb to “the top”, wherever that is.  Children are told to sit down, shut up, and listen; the single most valued character trait in today’s schools is compliance.

Rarely are our children given any tools to understand, much less seek, fulfillment.  Rarely do our schools speak to children about meaning and purpose.  Yet new psychological studies are showing that children who do understand and have intrinsic representations for purpose and meaning are more apt to learn and contribute (See William Damon’s book “The Path to Purpose”).

So the question that must be asked is this: at the end of our kids’ compulsory education, do we want factory-ready worker drones, or do we want thinking adults with an intrinsic link to the meaning of being human?

I realize that it is not as simply dichotomous as presented above… but I do know that if we are to evolve as quickly as our technology is moving, we need to start questioning the foundation – the reasons – for our educational systems.

Finding Purpose and Meaning
It’s time for schools to foster the incubation of little humans’ search for meaning and purpose

Men In Black: Violence is Just Alright With Me!

July 17th, 2011 by

The Supreme Court has recently ruled that a California law restricting the sale of violent video games to minors is  unconstitutional (Story and commentary here).

I have to admit that the libertarian in me agrees with this decision.  Which makes the internal struggle all the more poignant.

Mainly because the libertarian in me is a purely logical, black-and-white, take-no-prisoners idealogue.

The other part of me- the parent, the educator, the one who works with kids forty hours per week- is horrified.  I would rather have my kid be able to walk into a store and buy a Playboy rather than a game that included the above scene of gristle (of course, logically, a false dichotomy, but emotionally powerful enough to make the point).

I posted my thoughts on this on my facebook page and got replies from all my smug libertarian friends about how it is the parents’ right and responsibility to choose, so, the Supreme Court, was, of course, correct in their decision.

The problem is, in twenty years of working with kids and families, I know that there is a percentage of parents who abdicate that right and responsibility.   Over the past year, I have overheard conversations of 2nd and 3rd graders talking about the carnage they create playing such games as “Call of Duty”, “Assassin’s Creed”, “Halo”, and other such games.  And while the studies around violent TV and video games’ effect on the psyches of impressionable youth come down solidly on the side of “not a good idea to let them play these”… like global warming, there’s just enough wiggle room for the other side to cry that their rights are being infringed.

While the solid empirical evidence is unclear, I suppose that what it comes down to for me is – do we want a world where kids are given scenes like the above as a “plaything”?  Are we ready to deal with the potential consequences ten years down the road?

Yes, I do understand that this is not Armageddon.

It is not the end of humanity as we know it.

But it is one small, tiny, almost subconscious step away from a world of peaceability, community, and non-violence.  We have enough violence and carnage and insensitivity in the world already.  My question is, are we ready to tolerate more for the sake of entertainment?

Restarting the Conversation

August 31st, 2009 by

Over the summer, we let the ball drop.

We have spent the past three (really? has it been three?) years working with the kids in our afterschool program in the context of the Josephson Institute’s CHARACTER COUNTS program.   At times using curriculum from the Instititute, and most of the time crafting our own relatable curriculum around the six pillars (Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Citizenship), we’ve spent a fair amount of time engaging the children in the meaning and import of these abstract ideas.cc-bnr-6pillar

Then, for some reason… call it laziness, failure to plan, summer overwhelm, whatever… we stopped talking about the pillars this past summer.  And guess what?  The ideas and behaviors that had become a daily “given” at the site (older kids helping younger, sharing, and a sense of community) simply fell out of existence.

The beautiful thing is, now that the school year is underway, and we’re back to a more normalized (ritualized) schedule, the pillars have once again become part of the conversation.  We opened with our first “Word of the Week” (WOW) and we chose the one word that sums up what it is we’re up to as a group:  COMMUNITY.

Lo, and behold- as if a magic switch were flipped, the kids are back in the swing of things.

Or, I should say, the kids are back in the conversation.

Not a casual, one-on-one conversation, but the conversation.

The conversation is made up of all the hundreds (if not thousands) of smaller daily words, actions, and conversations between the teachers and kids (and the teachers and teachers and the kids and kids as well).

I once took a course that tantalizingly held out the maxim that “the only way to transform an organization, is to raise the level of the conversation.”  When we talk with kids and keep them in THE CONVERSATION, we keep our community in existence.  Instead of looking to find ways to make children “behave”, perhaps we should be looking for ways to raise the conversation.