Lessons from Denmark

Over Thanksgiving break 2017, I was fortunate to be in Denmark to visit my daughter Emma. A college junior, Emma is studying in Copenhagen for the semester.

Emma is an education major at Denison University in Ohio and she is studying education overseas. Not only is she learning about the Danish way of educating children, she has traveled to Helsinki, Finland as well as Norway and Sweden in order to gain a bigger picture of education across Scandinavia.

As her father, and someone who has been passionate about learning and education since before she was born, I am quite envious. I want to know more!

I am grateful for the few days I had seeing the sites of the Danish capital with my daughter as tour guide, but I would love to have the hands-on opportunity to learn about Scandinavian schools for a few months.

There have been a number of articles in the American press in recent years extolling the virtues of education in Finland, Denmark and other countries. Their kids consistently rank at the top of the international test scores and their people are always at the top of the happiness charts.

In American Kindergartens, in recent years, particularly in public education, there have been huge shifts towards a heightened focus on academics, especially literacy. Most American schools are teaching hard skills earlier and in a more structured way than ever before, and often before children are developmentally ready. And while time spent on literacy in American Kindergarten classrooms has gone up, time spent on arts, music, and child-selected activities (like choice time) has significantly dropped.

In Finland, kids start school at age 6 and Finland’s Kindergartners spend a sizable chunk of each day playing.

When children play, they are developing their language, math, and social-interaction skills. Play benefits cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. When play is fun and child-directed, children are motivated to engage in opportunities to learn.

In Denmark, the intentional teaching of empathy is considered as important as teaching math and literacy, and it is woven into the school’s curriculum from pre-school through high school.

The Danes’ highly developed sense of empathy is one of the main reasons that Denmark is consistently voted one of the happiest countries in the world (this year it is once again number one). Empathy plays a key role in improving our social connections, which is a major factor in our overall happiness.

Teaching empathy has not only been proven to make kids more emotionally and socially competent and greatly reduce bullying, it can also help them be more successful and high-functioning adults in the future.

In all Scandinavian countries, the concept of joy is woven into the school day. Early-childhood education programs place a heavy emphasis on joy, which along with play is explicitly written into curriculum as a learning concept. There is an old Finnish saying: “Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.”

Choice. Empathy. Play. Joy.

The Scandinavians have figured out the recipe for success. At my school in America, we focus on these concepts every day too.

Springsteen, my buddy Jamie, and the Shortest Day

One of my favorite places in the whole world is Denver’s Tattered Cover bookstore. Over winter break, two of my heroes have performed readings there.

One was my good friend Jamie Horton, a long-time actor with the Denver Center Theatre Company, who is now an associate professor of theatre at Dartmouth College. Jamie is in town playing the role of George Bailey in a local production of It’s a Wonderful Life. Almost every year, for the last eighteen years, Jamie has presented the annual Holiday Reading at the Tattered Cover. It’s a firm favorite in the Denver holiday calendar.

My other hero who stopped by the bookstore is a brand new author who just published his first book. However, you might know him for his rock and roll: Bruce Springsteen. The Boss was in the same event space a few days earlier reading from his new autobiography, Born To Run.

I have learned a lot from these two men over the years: one I’ve never met, one I meet for breakfast every time he’s in town.

Springsteen gave me the soundtrack of my high school and college years. He gave me lyrics that taught me the rhythms of my adopted country. He suffuses his songs with an understanding that life’s a tough road to travel, but hope is real, and redemption is available for everybody. I listen to his music regularly on my commute to Friends’ School.

Horton gave me my first glance behind the scenes of professional theatre. In the few short comedy skits that we performed on stage together, he gave me confidence in my ability as an actor and a director that inspired me to found a children’s theatre program. I have now directed hundreds of children over the years in over forty full-scale productions – and I know that theatre will always play an important role in my life.

At the Tattered Cover on Monday night, Jamie read a couple of children’s favorites: The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and The Polar Express. He read a story by Pearl S. Buck and poems by Maya Angelou and Howard Thurman. There was one poem in particular that truly caught my ear.

This poem, The Shortest Day, by English author Susan Cooper, is a moving commentary on the winter solstice. It reminded me of why, at my school, we honor the cycles of the seasons through our rituals and celebrations.

The Shortest Day
by Susan Cooper

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.

Developing personal spirituality is a lifelong journey and a natural aspect of childhood. I have always encouraged children to have open hearts and minds as they grow, explore, and share traditions, developing self-awareness and understanding of themselves as part of the bigger world.

As we gather with family and friends during these short days and long nights, I wish for you and your family that you:
dearly love your friends,
and hope for peace.
here, now,
this year and every year.

Wherever, whatever, and with whomever you are celebrating at this time of year, may you enjoy!

A Passion for Social and Emotional Learning

As a head of school, it is not everyday that I receive a note like this from one of my teKF1wYtMNachers: “This is my passion, and the reason I am teaching. I am glad it is helping so many families understand what we do at this school. I truly believe this is the best place a parent can find to support their child in developing a strong social and emotional foundation.”

For 2nd grade teacher Caroline Long, teaching is indeed her passion (well, teaching, dogs, and skiing!) I recall her saying at her interview how excited she was at the prospect of teaching 2nd grade, because her own 2nd grade teacher had “changed my life”.

Caroline wrote me that note after I had asked her if I could share a simple email that she had written to parents in her class.

In response to the email, a long-time parent wrote to me: “ I swear, this email that Caroline just sent is the most information I’ve ever heard about what is happening on a day-to-day basis at school re the social/emotional inner workings/teachings!! And it is hugely reassuring, and I am incredibly grateful that she took the time to write it. I honestly have never seen everything laid out so explicitly.

Everything she’s doing makes a lot of sense, and I agree with it both philosophically and pragmatically.  And I can see how for an outside person wouldn’t make as much sense, given that Caroline is holding the whole context and using events of the day to create learning opportunities.

Perhaps it boils down to that crucial piece of how to communicate what is actually happening in its fullness and entirety — on top of one’s full teaching load!!”

As a head of school and a writer, I share my thoughts about my school’s social and emotional learning frequently.This is a portion of her note to parents:

“I have had many questions recently about our social and emotional curriculum, BrainWise. It is a supplement to the work I am already doing with your children. BrainWise focuses on the individual child. The focus of this curriculum is on critical thinking and decision making skills. Here is a link to this curriculum if you would like to read more: http://www.brainwise-plc.org.

The second component of our social/emotional curriculum focuses on knowing yourself, your impact on others, and communicating with friends.  These skills are incorporated into our daily schedule in many different ways. I tell stories and lead meetings based around conflict that the whole class can relate to (ie- feeling left out, talking behind each other’s backs, etc.). Interweaving social emotional curriculum into our daily schedule is the most effective way to capitalize on “teachable moments” that occur naturally in the children’s day.  As research has shown, and I see first hand, the most important thing we can do as adults is support children after conflict arises. The truth is that conflict will happen everyday, in someway, for each child. Providing them with the tools to cope with this conflict and giving them the skills to become more and more independent are the best gifts we can give them. Some broader skills we work on are:

  •  Cooling off when upset-taking a minute but returning to the conversation
  •  Speaking directly to each other in a respectful tone
  •  Speaking honestly and kindly with a goal of solving the problem
  •  Listening carefully to others and paraphrasing their words
  •  Proposing solutions
  •  Agreeing on a solution
  •  Shake, hug, high five it out

The third component of supporting children socially and emotionally is through small group conversations. I meet with small groups to talk about specific conflict and have what we call “Circle of Friends” conversations. I also meet with children one on one to talk about conflict, word choice, friendship challenges and individual needs. When we notice behaviors are becoming
ad habits we often set up a behavior plan with individual children and their families. Behavior Plans are kept confidential and are not discussed with anyone besides the child, their family and admin

Here is a link to an article that talks more about supporting children with conflict: http://www.kidshelpline.com.au/grownups/news-research/hot-topics/dealing-with-conflict.php

I’m proud to work with teachers like Caroline. She and others are helping students become better people.

Social Emotional Learning Is Essential

file_87344Let’s start with the belief that social emotional growth is essential for young children.

Children and teachers deserve experiences that allow us to create community, follow our passions, solve problems, impact others, ask new questions and see ourselves in a new light. Connections give us purpose for caring about that with which we come in contact; we become more intentional about how we interact with the world when we have reason to care. Meaningful, purposeful connections are motivating and engaging, naturally engendering, and they extend the joy found in the learning process.

More and more, the traditional educational establishment is beginning to catch on.

Last week, I was in Boston presenting to the National Association of Independent Schools. My topic was the role that gratitude can play in school culture, and how the intentional teaching of gratitude in schools can make a huge difference to children’s lives. I wasn’t sure if this would be of interest to the more traditional schools that make up the bulk of NAIS membership. I was expecting 20 people to show up. More than 130 educational leaders from across the country came to my talk and exhibited a keen desire to learn about what we have been doing at Friends’ School. We’re still talking about it on Twitter.

This week a new study was published by Teachers College at Columbia University,which proves not only the human worth, but the financial worth, of teaching social emotional learning in schools. It’s not only the right thing to do to help children become better people, it pays the bills too!

The study is nicely summed up (and a little more digestable) in this week’s Education Week:

For many years, growing numbers of scholars and educators have been exploring the ways in which emotions and relationships contribute to learning. Under the broad umbrella of “social and emotional learning,” hundreds of researchers, teachers, administrators, and policymakers around the country have been trying to promote the social and emotional development of children and adults. At the same time, these pioneers are working to improve the culture of schools, the expectations of adults, the ways in which discipline is meted out, the mind-sets of learners, and the opportunities for young people’s expression, service, and aspiration.

 Most people, when introduced to these kinds of social and emotional strategies, assume that they’re “nice”—maybe even “important.” But few think that developing healthy emotions and social connectivity is really a good return on investment.”

 The new study’s “findings are striking: Each of the socially and emotionally focused programs showed significant benefits that exceeded costs. In fact, the average among the six interventions showed that for every dollar invested, there is a return of more than 11 dollars.

 Social and emotional learning has a powerful combination of evidence and support: teachers on the front lines of learning, research on its power to promote improved test scores, policymakers frustrated with the toxic environment in education today, and now a strong economic case for change.

 The tide is finally shifting. The head and the heart are headed for a reunion in the classrooms of America. It can’t come soon enough.”

 At outstanding schools, great care is taken to teach and practice the skills needed to be a member of a community. This begins with knowing our own emotions and needs, and how to express them appropriately. It includes recognizing and responding to the needs and emotions of others through empathy and perspective-taking. Ultimately, having effective strategies for listening and speaking with one another develops an ability to problem-solve in all kinds of situations, often leading to inspired conclusions and stronger interpersonal relationships.

We need to prepare our students to be successful as they navigate their world – and we need to give them the tools to improve that world.


**Thank you to Shelby Pawlina, Co-Director of Friends’ School’s Teacher Preparation Program, for portions of this essay.

Finding Gratitude

Before leaving my Colorado home to head to Boston for the NAIS annual conference, I’ve been reading about the monstrous snow in New England.

Ironic – because the weekend before my trip, it’s the long President’s Day weekend, and I’m doing what a lot of Denver/Boulder people do when there’s a day off school. I’m heading up to the Colorado mountains for some powder. The ski resorts here are crying out for snow. The streets of Vail and Breckenridge are dry. There is enough snow on the slopes, some of it man-made, for a good day’s skiing, but not too much around town. I think Boston has grabbed it all.

That’s ok with me because I’m grateful. Grateful to be coming to Boston and to be presenting at NAIS for the first time. Grateful to have a day off school. Grateful to live in a place where some of the world’s best skiing is a short drive away – the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships are being held in Vail this week. Grateful for the famous Colorado blue skies under which I skied this weekend.

Gratitude is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. There is a growing body of research informing us that the intentional and frequent practice of gratitude makes a real difference in our lives and in the lives of our students. This is no longer considered a soft science. Leading researchers in this area, including Robert Emmons (UC Davis), Giacomo Bono (CSU Dominguez Hills) and Jeffrey Froh (Hoftstra University), have shown us that the active practice of gratitude can lead to:

  • increased self-worth
  • higher GPAs
  • improved self-regulation
  • more positive emotions
  • heightened trust in others
  • more positive relationships
  • greater desire to give back to the community
  • enhanced physical health
  • better sleep
  • improved psychological health
  • higher empathy
  • decreased aggression
  • additional resilience
  • reduced materialism and envy

At my school in Boulder, CO we spent a full-year focusing on the positive power of gratitude, something we called The Gratitude Project.

At the NAIS annual conference, I will be sharing the story of the Project and the lessons that our school community learned. If you’re attending, I hope you will join me. These lessons included far-reaching associations with the leading gratitude researchers and a school community transformed by the power of gratitude.

The Gratitude Project was a multi-faceted endeavor that spanned the breadth of my school’s community and curriculum.  Our faculty developed a gratitude curriculum and discovered many of the huge benefits listed above.

Gratitude is becoming widely accepted as one of the key ingredients to raising children of character.   That is something that independent schools have always been excellent at. We’re now learning about new ways to do an even better job of raising kids with character. And for that, I’m grateful.