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Expanding Our "Circle of Concern" to Build Empathy
By Laurie Wolke

At Laurence, we celebrated Random Acts of Kindness Week with special activities designed to help students focus on the many ways to be kind. While we put additional emphasis on kindness this week as part of this national movement, we celebrate and promote kindness every day through our Character Education Program. Just ask our students about how they "Keep Kind in Mind!"

This past fall, Harvard Professor and psychologist Richard Weissbourd, co-director of the Making Caring Common Project, spoke to our parents about raising kind and caring children. One key take-away that has been particularly inspiring to me is the concept of expanding our students' (and our own) "Circle of Concern." He explained that children tend to be naturally empathetic toward their own friends and parents, but they need to learn how to develop empathy for people outside their "circle" – empathy for a waiter, their school bus driver, and people of different backgrounds.

We do a lot here at Laurence to help kids develop this type of empathy through our Global Education Program, service learning activities, and daily classroom discussions. I came across an article on the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation's blog that I thought was especially helpful in giving you, our parents, some concrete ideas for what you can do at home to expand your chrildren's "Circle of Concern." The article also points to great resources from our all-things-media-partner, Common Sense Media.

Click here to read "5 Ways to Help Children Care More."

Holiday Cheer, Holiday Perspective

By Laurie Wolke

With winter break just around the corner, I think back on years when my children were small and winter break was a time for all of us to slow down and be together. I am filled with all of the warm memories we created during those years, as I anticipate, with excitement, making new memories with my children.

But it is also easy to idealize this time of year, placing overly high expectations on ourselves to make the holidays perfect. We also tend to transfer those expectations onto our children, who are bound to spill chocolate on their impeccably selected outfits or become tired and cranky from the change in routine and whirlwind of events and visiting relatives.Children also absorb the stress of the adults around them.

So this is an important time of year for perspective and practicing some of the mindfulness techniques our Laurence students have been learning. Remind them to do their belly breathing when tensions get too high, and while you're at it, remind yourself! Take a short walk together when the house feels hectic. And remember that what is most important to your children is the time you spend with them and the traditions you create for them – those are the building blocks of warm memories that they will cherish for many years beyond this season's batch of toys.

For suggestions about how to make lasting memories, you might want to take a look at a recent article from The Washington Post's "On Parenting" column, "What children need even more than presents this holiday season."

Here's to making lasting memories this December!

Kindness vs. Achievement and Happiness

By Laurie Wolke

The 2016-2017 school year at Laurence is progressing beautifully and it brings me such joy to see how our Character Education program is unfolding. This year's "Keep Kind in Mind" sequel, "Follow Your Inner Compass," is reinforcing last year's lessons and taking them to a deeper level.

One of the most important tenets of our theme is encouraging our students to value being kind and good person as a measure of success in addition to valuing achievement and happiness.

Last year, Parent Education speaker, Dr. Robin Berman, talked about the importance of focusing on kindness rather than happiness, reinforcing the concept behind our "Keep Kind in Mind" theme. And this fall, Professor Richard Weissbourd, our kick-off speaker for 2016-2017, spoke to parents about the importance of being deliberate and intentional about helping children develop a moral sense in the same way they are deliberate and intentional about teaching them to achieve and be happy.

Here at Laurence, we are very deliberate and intentional about everything in our curriculum, and our Character Education program is no exception. From a multitude of service learning projects to our "Compass of Choice" conflict resolution guides, to our gratitude journals and morning class meetings, we make learning to be a good and kind human being a part of the daily learning process.

A fascinating takeaway from Professor Weissbourd's talk was the result of one of his studies in which he asked students to rank what they thought was most important to their parents: achievement, happiness or caring. Fifty percent of the students answered that they thought their parents cared most about achievement. The study then posed the same question to parents, and a majority of parents said that what was most important to them is that their kids are caring.

Professor Weissbourd attributed the gap between what parents are espousing and what children are hearing to hidden messages. For example, dinner conversations may be focused on achievement topics, or children might observe parents maneuvering to make sure their children are on the best sports teams. He emphasized the importance of making sure that conversations focus not only on personal achievement, but also on the importance of responsibility toward something larger than themselves.

I found this aspect of Professor Weissbourd's talk so interesting that I have been challenging our Laurence parents to pose the question to their children. During our 6th Grade Thanksgiving Feast, one parent told me that she accepted this "Laurence challenge." She asked her daughter, "What do you think is most important to dad and me? That you achieve, that you're kind, or that you're happy?" The daughter responded that she believed her parents cared most that she was kind and happy.

I hope you'll take on this Laurence challenge and ask your kids what they think is most important to you!

I touched on these themes during my Back-to-School Night speech in late September. Many of you asked me for a copy this speech, so I thought this blog post was the perfect opportunity to share it with you. Please click here to read it any time.

I hope that you and your children are enjoying this school year's journey!

Summertime is Family Time

By Laurie Wolke

As another school year comes to a close, I have been reflecting on our school's "Keep Kind in Mind" character education theme. All year, our students have written in journals about what they are grateful for and kind acts they performed and received. They have also learned mindfulness techniques to help them handle stressful situations, remain calm when upset, and act with increased kindness towards classmates, friends, and loved ones.

I've heard from many of our parents that your children have been incorporating these concepts and words at home. Students are reminding their parents, "That's not 'keeping kind in mind,' Mom," or "This is how to 'keep kind in mind,' Dad." Our kids have proudly run up to me around campus, letting me know how they are teaching their parents to "Keep Kind in Mind."

It is wonderful to see these character lessons in practice and hear firsthand how students have applied these ideas throughout the year.

As we get ready for another summer of camps and vacations, I'm also thinking ahead for what's to come. In our world that's increasingly dominated by digital devices and technology, it is more important than ever to be deliberate about teaching our kids interpersonal communication and connection skills. The ability to interact positively and collaboratively with others and create meaningful relationships is key to ensuring the success of our kids in our modern world. We will be working on this in the fall, but you can get started this summer.

While your kids are home with you, try disconnecting a little, through device-free dinners and family activities. Summer vacation is a perfect time to read together, engage in discussion, take walks, spend time at the beach, and spend some quality, focused time together. I will be working on this too, and reminding myself to put my phone down!

Thank you for a wonderful year together. Wishing you and your family a relaxing, enjoyable summer! I hope to see many of you at camp this summer.


Teaching Resiliency

By Laurie Wolke

As an educator of young children, I have long believed that one of the most important skills we can teach them is resiliency. And in keeping with the "Growth Mindset" theory of learning by one of my favorite researchers, Carol Dweck, Ph.D., I believe that resiliency is a skill that can be learned and a strength people can develop.

One of our goals at Laurence is to teach children this critical skill. We encourage our children to take risks at a young age, while they are in a safe and supportive environment in order to learn that falling is a learning opportunity.

Researchers of resilience are in agreement. Studies by several psychologists have found that perception of an intense event or chronic stressors greatly impacts whether the event and stressors are ultimately traumatic.

Students at Laurence have the opportunity to: explore their extracurricular interests during electives and after-school classes; participate in interscholastic sports at all levels of skill; create robots and invent games in the Tech Lab; stand up in class and give presentations; stand up in front of the whole school to talk about their community service at RWB&G assemblies; test their theories in science class; and express their emotions and thoughts in classroom discussions as part of our character education program. These opportunities, among others, let our children dip their toes or go full force into new activities and experiences that can feel, at times, a little daunting. But our students know they are in a safe place to try and if they fail, our faculty and their classmates are here to help them learn to perceive a misstep or failure as a stepping-stone to learning and growth.

Techniques for developing resiliency that can be taught include: "positive construal" – reframing an event in positive or less emotional terms; shifting "explanatory styles" – understanding that one bad event is not an indication of an overall problem; and developing an internal "locus of control" – an internal belief that one affects his or her own achievements, not the circumstances.

To learn more about the psychological research on resiliency, read the recent New Yorker article, "How People Learn to Become Resilient."


By Laurie Wolke

A new study from the Harvard Graduate School of Education advocates that college admissions applications should emphasize kindness instead of overachieving. No, I didn't write the study and I didn't participate in it, but I couldn't be more thrilled about the news!

College deans and professors from more than 80 universities, including Harvard, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania, have endorsed the report, entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions. In fact, Yale will be adding an essay question to its application, asking applicants to talk about their contributions to their family, community, or the public good.

Service learning has been an important component of Laurence's Character Education program for many years. From the time our students are in kindergarten, they participate in grade-level and school-wide community service projects, including running the Toy Drive for the Lowman School and participating in our food collection drives for the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry.

These school-initiated service learning projects are intended to not only encourage good citizenship and a deep sense of fulfillment from helping others, but to inspire our students to make community service work an important part of their lives. The results have been incredible.

In just the last year, many of our students have donated their hair to Locks of Love and similar charities, collected food, clothing and monetary donations instead of birthday presents, and taken the initiative to bake and sell goodies on the weekend to raise money for charities. So for all of our parents who struggle with worries about whether their children will get into the college of their choice someday, I hope this news brings you peace of mind!

To read The Washington Post article about this new study, click here.


By Laurie Wolke

This year as part of our Character Education program, our students have been practicing expressing gratitude because when we are thankful for what we have, we are happier, gentler, and kinder people. That's why we not only gave our students "gratitude journals," but sent journals home for our parents as well.

During this time of year, everyone focuses on giving thanks as we celebrate Thanksgiving and the December holidays, which is wonderful! But it's important to be grateful each and every day, no matter the time of year. Among one of the many reasons, is that "gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness," according to Harvard Medical School's HEALTHbeat. "Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships."

In short, gratitude is good for your wellbeing!

If you need a little inspiration on practicing gratitude, I recommend taking a look at this funny and informative New York Times opinion piece, "Choose to Be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier."


Hello! I'm Laurie Wolke and thank you for visiting my blog! Whether this is your first time reading it or you're a frequent visitor, I hope you'll enjoy the ideas, articles, and thoughts I have to share about educating children and raising them to be kind, confident, and life-long learners. I hope you will find some of these posts useful for you - wherever you are in your journey. Please visit often.

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