Sep 232011

Last Sunday’s New York Times cover story, “What if the secret to success is failure?” spread quickly among the educational community. In fact, given the magic of online publication, I received my first link to the article on September 14 (four days before it was “published”). Since then, I’ve lost track of the many e-mails I have received encouraging me to read it and the many retweets that have appeared on my Twitter account.The story focused on the efforts of one independent school – Riverdale Country School – and one public, charter school operator – the KIPP schools – to focus on the importance of teaching and fostering character. In an age of accountability narrowly defined by standardized test scores, these schools are making the argument that we are focusing on the wrong thing. As Riverdale Head of School Dominic Randolph noted, “This push on tests is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.”

The schools identified seven traits – zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity – that have been shown to be good indicators of lifelong success and happiness. Of particular note, these character traits focus on what researchers refer to as “performance character” versus “moral character.” While moral character – fairness, generosity, integrity – is certainly important to teach, studies have suggested that the presence of these performance character traits are strong indicators of a person’s lifelong success.

At the heart of the article – and what, I think, generated so much interest among parents and educators – is the question of how we can teach and foster these performance character traits. That is where the provocative title question comes from – is it possible to be successful without experiencing failure?

The question echoes the conversation we have been having as parents and schools for the past 10+ years about the need for students to experience setbacks, struggles and failures in order for them to develop the resilience they need to be successful in life. Books like Wendy Mogel’s Blessing of a Skinned Knee, Madeline Levine’s The Price of Privilege, and Carol Dweck’s Mindset all explored slightly different parts of this equation, but all came to similar conclusions, namely that as adults we need to create opportunities for children to face trials and challenges without overprotecting them.

Reading the article last weekend, I found myself seeing much of what we strive to do at Hillbrook reflected in the advice. “Take risks,” we tell students on a regular basis, establishing the expectation that learning involves pushing outside your comfort zone. Our Social Emotional Learning program focuses on teaching students to be reflective young adults with a high EQ (emotional intelligence) to complement their academic skills.

At the same time, I had to pause when I read the following quote from Dominic Randolph, “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure. And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

How often do students at schools like Riverdale or Hillbrook truly experience failure? As parents and educators we would be well-served to keep Randolph’s question in mind.

A final thought. Monday night my 1st grade son, Jackson, learned to tie his shoes. I wish I could say it was one of those magical parent-child moments, where we showed him what to do and after a few tries he figured it out and triumphantly tied the shoes.
On the contrary, it was a messy, emotional, roller coaster ride. Each time Jackson failed to figure it out, he fell apart, throwing himself on the floor, saying he could never do it, tears flowing. Finally, after 30 minutes – which felt more like three hours – he figured it out. Through his tear-stained face a big smile emerged.

It was a powerful reminder of what learning looks like. Carla and I can’t take any credit for making it happen – while we showed him what to do, he was the one in the end who had to figure it out. And he did.

The experience is one I hope to remember for a long time. If it at first you don’t succeed……

Sep 022011

Hear about the Flash Mob at the end of Flag on Wednesday?

Inspired by an independent school in New York City that had done a similar performance at the end of last year, our faculty and a small group of parents embraced the opportunity to infuse the opening day with a sense of possibility, a dash of risk-taking, and a healthy sense of play. If the reaction of the students was any indication, I think we hit the mark. A special thanks to faculty members Paige Campbell, Roberta Lipson, and Brian Ravizza for spearheading the effort.

The Flash Mob is an apt metaphor for the start of the year, as it represents the sense of possibility that comes with a new beginning. As an educator and a parent, I always see the start of school as an opportunity to start fresh and make this year even better than the year before.

Excited about the positive response to iPads in the 7th grade last year? Let’s implement across the Middle School. Frustrated by the clothes strewn all over the campus at the end of each week? Here’s the chance to create a new lost & found system. Tired of morning battles with my own children to get them out of bed, dressed, fed, and on the road? Let’s find a way to make them increasingly responsible for their own morning routine this year (I’ve got my fingers crossed on this one).

With this strong sense of the possible in mind, I want to offer several pieces of advice that you might consider as you and your children embark on the school year. It is no accident that our faculty spends significant time the first week of school clarifying expectations, establishing routines, and modeling behaviors. I encourage you to think with your children about how you can create the conditions to ensure a successful school year for your family.

1) Help your child develop a growth mindset.

A few years back, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck offered the following somewhat counterintuitive finding – telling children they are smart can actually cause their performance to decline. In her bestselling book, Mindset, Dweck pointed to studies that showed children who are told they are smart are less likely to challenge themselves or take risks, choosing instead to play it safe out of fear that making a mistake will disprove the “smart label.” On the other hand, children who are praised for effort and perseverance are eager to take on increasingly difficult tasks and challenges.

Dweck compared a “fixed mindset” to a “growth mindset.” People with a fixed mindset are convinced that they are what they are. The path to success? Focus on the things you already know you can do. Why risk doing something that will make you appear dumb or unskilled?

People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe that there is always an opportunity to grow and change. People with a growth mindset are willing to try something new and potentially fail, because they don’t think it defines them forever as a failure. They are focused on effort and always thinking about new ways they can approach a situation or challenge.

How do we help our children develop a growth mindset? Recognize effort, creative problem solving and perseverance and comment upon it. When working with your child on homework instead of saying, “Great job with that problem. You are so smart,” you might comment “I’m so impressed with the creative way in which you approached that problem.” In the car after a soccer game, you might comment, “You were really working hard out there today. I noticed how you tried those new moves you learned in practice the other day. Way to take a risk and try something new!”

Here are a few questions you might ask at the end of the day to foster a growth mindset in your child:
What was the most difficult thing you did today?
What mistakes did you make today? Any failures? What did you learn from those challenges?

In short, celebrate risk taking and applaud mistakes. Children notice what we focus upon. If we only reward success and most of our praise sounds like, “you are smart” they will focus on doing things they know they can do so they are seen as successful. Emphasize effort and perseverance and children are much more likely to take on new challenges and realize their highest individual potential.

2) Maintain balance – don’t let your child’s life become over-scheduled

As we all know, activity creep can happen even to the most vigilant family. Soccer and music on Monday, Taekwondo Tuesday, Girl Scouts, tutoring and soccer on Wednesday….. it’s no wonder that the entire family reaches the weekend ready to drop. Of course, we then find ourselves running around attending various games, competitions, birthday parties, and more.

Child development experts consistently lament the loss of unstructured playtime for children today. Too much time spent in adult-directed activities can prevent children from developing essential life skills – problem solving, conflict resolution, resilience, perseverance, and creativity to name just a few. In addition, too many activities can leave us quickly feeling like we are running non-stop.

Let me be clear – there is no right answer for all children and each family needs to determine its own threshold. I would guess, however, that we all would benefit from taking a step back and really thinking about the schedules our children are undertaking this year. What is the purpose of each activity? Are there any activities that might be worth reconsidering? There is no better time than the beginning of the school year to have this conversation.

I should also quickly add that this is one of those “easier said than done” experiences. As a parent, I find myself struggling to find the right balance. The important thing? Pay attention and don’t be afraid to limit the number of activities.

3) Allow your child to experience the blessing of a skinned knee.

One of my favorite education books of the past 15 years is The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel. Dr. Mogel was one of the first people to write about the growth of “helicopter parents” – parents so focused on their child’s “success” that they hover at all times and never allow children to experience life on their own. She recounted story after story of parents who believed that their job was ensuring outcomes and keeping their children from experiencing pain or disappointment.

Colleges now struggle with this, as parents who supported their children 24/7 in high school are now pushing on to college campuses and trying to manage everything from getting their child into the right class to ensuring they have a good roommate to pressuring professors to reconsider their grades on papers. Behavior that would have been considered incomprehensible twenty years ago strikes some as perfectly natural.

As parents, we need to remember that our job is to prepare our children for life – not shelter them from it, which means that we need to help them develop the skills to be independent, confident, and self-reliant. We can’t always solve their problems.

Every day children come into the office with splinters, scrapes, and, yes, skinned knees. As all of us know, a little ice, an occasional band-aid, and a little TLC is all that is needed to get most of them back out there running around on the playground in just a few minutes.

Next time your child comes to you with a problem – “so-and-so was mean to me on the playground”, “Mrs. X was completely unfair because she wouldn’t accept my late homework”, “my life is over because I didn’t make the A team in soccer” – remember the skinned knee and think about what your child really needs to get back out there. It can be tempting to step in and call the teacher or coach and demand something be done, but in most cases this intervention is a missed opportunity to allow a child to solve their own problem. In addition, we need to remember that some situations won’t end well and that it is important that children realize life is not always fair or easy and they won’t always get what they want.

Keep these three things in mind – develop a growth mindset, maintain balance, and honor the blessing of a skinned knee – as you and your family embark on the coming year. Most importantly, remember, while we often find ourselves measuring life by how we feel at the end of each day, the true measure of success for our children and ourselves can only be measured by taking the long view. We are a life preparatory school – focused on raising confident children who love learning and who have the skills and knowledge they need to allow them to reach their highest individual potential in school and in life. It is a marathon, not a sprint. I look forward to joining you for an important part of your journey.