April 15, 2013

The ABCs of self-control help spell success

Schools are seeing the benefits of new approaches to education

By ANDREW REINER The Washington Post

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Christopher Rios, left, and Kenneth Scott line up at D.C. Prep in Washington, which places an emphasis on teaching children self-control.

Matt McClain/The Washington Post

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The school’s walls are plastered with motivational posters.

Matt McClain/The Washington Post

One worrisome fallout of lack of self-control is cheating. A 2012 study of 23,000 high school students found that 51 percent admitted to cheating on an exam. Conducted by the Center for Youth Ethics at the Josephson Institute, a nonprofit group that oversees the widely used Character Counts curriculum, the study also found that 20 percent admitted to stealing from stores and 76 percent said they had lied to parents about "something significant." But that's not the worst of it. In a 2010 version of the study, which is conducted every two years, 57 percent agreed with the statement that "In the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating."


For many educators, the straightening of such disturbing swerves in integrity is found in character-based education. Once the philosophical flesh of Catholic and fundamentalist Christian schools, character-based education is creeping into the public sector.

At schools such as D.C. Prep, whose classrooms are largely filled with at-risk students, risk-taking means creating an environment where students start thinking about college in fourth grade. DCP administrators are too aware of the alarmingly high numbers of poor students who make it into college only to drop out. To this end, DCP has recruited teachers from middle- and upper-middle-class backgrounds who know what it takes to make it in college. This translates into a school day that runs from 8 to 4, teachers on call until 8 p.m., and resources for graduates that few middle schools provide. Graduates can return for evening study halls twice a week, as well as counseling for college and financial aid applications.

This rigor also means behavioral expectations tinged in a Puritanical scarlet. Or green, in this case. Remember those students wearing green pinnies? They were suspended and still had to attend classes. They could not utter a word the entire day -- nor could anyone speak to them -- as they were banished to the back of the classroom and to the end of the hallway line.

Such measures surely seem extreme. But Ibby Jeppson, DCP's director of resource development, insists that the school teaches students an "agency over their own lives" and a better understanding of the "expectations of the broader culture" they hope to someday enter. "Yes, we sweat the small stuff around here," Jeppson says.

In an e-mail, Jeppson says that the message needs to be clear to students and parents alike: "The small-stuff expectations are linked to important life skills: being on time, being dependable and being there every day, dressing appropriately."


Perhaps the fastest-growing technique in classrooms for teaching self-control begins with "om": mindfulness.

Mindfulness uses meditative breathing and focus to increase awareness of body and mind, and to decrease stress. The technique, borrowed from Buddhism, shows up in classrooms wearing sunglasses: Both actor Goldie Hawn and director David Lynch fund nonprofit organizations that bring mindfulness into schools, and the 2012 documentary "Room to Breathe," about the struggle to save a dangerous San Francisco school through mindfulness, has drawn national attention.

Mindful Schools, an Oakland-based nonprofit, is featured prominently in this film. The group has introduced 30,000 schoolchildren to this practice, defined on its website as "sustained attention and noticing our experience without reacting."

Mindfulness teaches children how to focus their attention, manage their emotions, handle their stress and resolve conflicts through deep, purposeful breathing and reframing their thoughts in a nonjudgmental way.

It teaches empathy, as well, critical in a world of increasing intolerance, violence, bullying. "The more familiar a kid becomes with his or her own feelings, the more easily you can recognize and tolerate those feelings in someone else," says Amy Saltzman, director for the Association for Mindfulness in Education.

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