Teaching Character Strengths: Persee the Perseverant Puppy
By Caren Baruch-Feldman
Volume 46 Issue 3, p. 16
By Caren Baruch-Feldman
It's the day of the state math test at Harrison Avenue Elementary School in Westchester County, New York, and Persee, the perseverant puppy mascot, sits on top of the smart board, a visual reminder to students of the instruction they have been given throughout the school year that “perseverance pays off!” When faced with a challenging question, Persee reminds these third graders to exhibit an optimistic mindset, use flexible strategies in the face of obstacles, and to treat themselves with kindness and compassion.
Understanding and Framing the Problem
Persee is just one part of a transformation taking place at Harrison Avenue, the elementary school where I work as a school psychologist. He is part of a larger, concerted effort to explicitly teach character strengths such as kindness, mental flexibility, grit, and self-control. This year, working together with classroom teachers, we examined what kindness looks like in each grade, why self-control and grit are important, and how flexibility and problem solving can be used when facing an obstacle. This is critical work because, as important as academics are to student success, developing character strengths is just as crucial for today's learners.
This year, as part of a deliberate initiative to teach character strengths, I worked one-on-one with a third grade class. Approximately once a month, the classroom teacher and I taught lessons on kindness, empathy, problem solving, flexibility, self-control, and grit. Each lesson contained a discussion, partner work, and videos to support the ideas. Outside the lessons, the teacher supported the work through literature and by reinforcing the strengths that were taught. For example, when she noticed students being flexible or persistent during testing, she praised the behavior. Before state tests, we placed Persee on the smart board as a visual reminder to the children that persistence pays off. One girl told me that when she was feeling stuck, looking at Persee helped her get over the hurdle. Another student told me that our conversations about kindness and empathy helped her avoid recess drama. During my final meeting with this class, I could see that they had absorbed this material on a cellular level. It was truly a part of them! Other teachers, noticing the positive results we were achieving in this classroom, want to take part as well, so this work will continue to spread throughout the building in years to come.
Linking to Existing Priorities
In addition to working closely with this class, I modified the fifth grade service club to include lessons on kindness, grit, and self-control. Service Club has existed at Harrison Avenue for many years as a way for the school's oldest students to be leaders and complete service both inside and outside of school. What was different this year was that in addition to raising money for charity and participating in volunteer work, the fifth grade students served as teachers, role models, and accountability partners for the younger students. For example, for one project, fifth grade service club students learned about self-control. Then, with my help, they modified the presentation for younger students. Specifically, we adapted Walter Mischel's famous “marshmallow” study in which children had a choice between having one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later. The younger students had a similar choice while listening to the fifth grade student presentation, and I am proud to say that the students all waited! Furthermore, after teaching this lesson, I noticed that the self-control of the teachers (the fifth graders) had also dramatically improved.
Through this work, I have noticed a cultural shift in the building. Students are seeking out opportunities to be kind, greeting each other with warm hellos and smiles, making an effort to hold the door for each other or pick up someone's pencil. Students have shared with me that there is a spot on the playground where you can go if you do not have anyone to play with, and others know to join you there. In this way, students are creating ripples of kindness that affect the whole school community.
They are also being more deliberate and strategic in their use of self-control strategies. They are avoiding temptations (putting away supplies that distract them) or reframing those temptations (asking themselves, “Is it worth it to play with the papers in my desk?”) instead of relying on willpower alone. I love when I go into a classroom and hear students complimenting each other for demonstrating self-control strategies.
Students are learning to be more flexible when it comes to solving academic problems. Teachers are sharing with me that they see students being more persistent and flexible when taking exams. By learning to embrace challenges, our students are becoming more willing to take on hard things. Instead of taking failures personally, they are learning to see them as part of the process that leads to success. A real benefit for me of engaging in this type of work is that students see me in a positive light, which I hope will allow them to feel more comfortable and open to talk with me about their problems. A third grader shared with me that she was struggling to open the door to the classroom. She kept using the same strategy of turning the doorknob repeatedly. However, when she saw me in the hall, she thought to herself, “Maybe I need to try a different strategy.” Sure enough, when she tried something different, she was able to open the door.
Working With Allies
I am fortunate to have the support of my principal, who believes that developing these strengths is necessary for today's youth. By having the blessing of my principal and starting slowly with one teacher, this program is organically growing without any resistance throughout the building. Teachers in my building are noticing the way this class is acting on the playground, walking in the hall, and persisting on high stakes tests and they want to be a part of what is going on.
We are also creating ripple effects beyond the classroom by collaborating with parents. I began the school year with a PTA meeting outlining the importance of character strengths. Throughout the year, I sent home newsletters reporting on what we were doing, and I finished the year with a party that featured a video montage of students sharing how they grew their character strengths.
Future Leadership Goals and Overcoming Barriers
But, just like my student who got stuck opening the door, there were challenges in implementing this work, the main one being finding time to do the work. Because even though I know this work is valuable, it didn't reduce the responsibilities that are associated with being a school psychologist (testing, meetings, IEPs, etc.). My hope is that by doing this proactive and preventive work, there will be less of a need for some of the traditional work associated with being a school psychologist. Another goal of mine is to find time to collect data that will support what I know anecdotally is taking place. Furthermore, now that more teachers want to be involved, I will have to find the time to accommodate this growing interest. A good problem to have, I know, but a challenge nonetheless.
Ongoing Evaluation and Implementation
I plan on expanding this program by working through our existing buddy program. The buddy program gives older students a chance to buddy with and mentor younger students. During buddy time, both the older and younger students can work on building character strengths with the added benefit of a built-in accountability partner. Since the teachers have already planned for buddy time in their schedules, it will be easier to fit this work into everyone's busy day. I hope to collect some data on the effectiveness of this program.
By directly and explicitly teaching the character skills students need to succeed, we are preparing them to be tomorrow's leaders. I am proud to be part of a school and community that is committed not only to growing children's academic proficiency, but to nurturing their character as well. I know that the students, teachers, and the community at large have all benefited from this work.
I encourage other school psychologists to introduce the teaching of character strengths at school next year. To get more involved in the world movement to develop students’ character strengths and well-being, visit IPEN (International Positive Education Network; http://www.ipositive-education.net). IPEN is dedicated to a “character+academics” approach to education around the world. NASP members can also visit my website (www.drbaruchfeldman.com) for more information or to request lessons I used with the third grade class and with the service club students.
Caren Baruch-Feldman, PhD, is a school psychologist at Harrison Avenue Elementary School in Harrison, NY, a private practitioner, and an author