Fires in the Mind

“Say please!”

How do we help our own children get really good at things? I’ve been meeting for the past couple of weeks with a group of elementary school parents, to think through the family’s role in helping their children practice the things that matter to them.

“What do you want your child to get good at?” I asked them. “How do you support them in practicing it?”

Their children, these folks told me, were involved in plenty of activities for which they had to practice regularly. Some studied musical instruments; others played on athletic teams. They all had homework to do, which we counted as practice for their academic classes.

At the top of everybody’s list, however, was a different kind of accomplishment. These parents were regularly striving to coach their kids in the everyday skills of managing a productive life.

“At first, I thought I would say sports, reading, piano, those sorts of types of things,” said Nina, the mother of an eight-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl. “But then when I made my list, I really started with the life skills—basic things like being polite, saying hello and goodbye, please and thank you. To me, that’s bigger, even though I do want those other areas too.”

And as we began to look closely at the skills Nina was hoping her children would practice, we realized that common courtesy was only one of them.

Parents wanted their children to develop strength in communication: speaking clearly, making eye contact, using positive body language and appropriate words and tones of voice, listening attentively.

They wanted their sons and daughters to learn to see other people’s perspectives, to stand in others’ shoes. That would involve practice in imagining possibilities, empathizing, negotiating, making compromises, even apologizing.

They hoped their kids would practice self-control—checking their impulsive behavior, managing their frustration and anger, sticking with a task even when they didn’t feel like it.

They wanted children to practice organization—from putting their toys away to knowing where they left those library books. Kids should learn to organize their own backpacks for school in the morning, they said wistfully. And they hoped they would learn to manage their time as well: prioritizing tasks and chores, allowing enough time to get ready for school, for bed, and for scheduled activities.

And self-care made their list of “life skills.” Everybody hoped their kids would get in the habit of good personal hygiene, healthy eating and sleeping, and regular exercise.

As Tom and Huck would say, we’re trying hard to “sivilize” our young. But here’s the funny thing: When we really do practice those skills, we see them showing up in other areas, too.

Piano practice, baseball practice, math homework . . . they all require the habits we listed here. (We’ll look into that more in future posts.) Even more interesting, we couldn’t name any adult activities, work-related or not, that didn’t depend on those “dispositions for success,” as the research community has started to call them.

From a recent Education Week article:

Across education and industry, research . . . shows the biggest predictor of success is a student’s conscientiousness, as measured by such traits as dependability, perseverance through tasks, and work ethic. Agreeableness, including teamwork, and emotional stability were the next-best predictors of college achievement, followed by variations on extroversion and openness to new experiences.

Just how to get our kids to practice such things has been a parent’s challenge well before Tom and Huck came along. Checklists seem to help the modern family. (Look here for how one family gets its 8-year-old twins out the door in the morning on their own steam.) We’ll be generating ideas and posting your own thoughts here regularly, as we develop our upcoming “Family Guide to Practice.”

For now . . . “Say please!”

Fun as serious business

The elementary school teacher who calls for more fun in the classroom in a post on today’s Gotham Schools community blog is talking about serious business–math, reading, science, and history. When children are totally absorbed in their time outside schools–straining to reach the next rung on the jungle gym, or caught up in imaginative play–they may not have happy smiles on their faces, C. W. Arp notices, but they certainly report that they’ve been having fun. More fun than in the classroom, he says:

So here is my radical new way of thinking: The children in my elementary school need to be taught how to have fun. They have not had enough experience with fun. They are too often discouraged from having fun, or even chastised for having fun. I once said to a particularly active student, in my first year, “Do you just come to school to have fun? School is not a playground!” Frequent admonishments at my school: “You play too much,” or “All he/she does is play around.” But the students’ lack of focus is precisely because they are not having fun. Fun is engagement. Fun is interested activity. Fun is very serious business.

I’ll be watching for the suggestions Arp promises to make in future posts about how to help younger students find that sense of absorbed satisfaction as they master classroom learning. Send in yours, too!