Art supplies, a cool thumb-drive and a new backpack are nothing short of thrilling in my household. We love preparing for school. And like a lot of parents, I assumed for years that success in school would be a safe route to happiness in life.
But a new study published in The Journal of Happiness Studies that followed nearly 1,000 people over 32 years makes it abundantly clear that preparing kids for academic success does not necessarily lead to happiness. You know what does predict happiness in adulthood, according to the study? Friendship. When kids have a lot of friends in childhood and adolescence, they tend to grow up to be happy adults.
I'm not suggesting we should stop helping our kids with their homework, or that we should casually send them to school unprepared to learn. Obviously not. But this study reinforces the most important thing we've learned about happiness in the last 100 years, across academic disciplines the world over: Our happiness is best predicted by the breadth and the depth of our relationships with others.
All of this is to say that there are a few back-to-school "supplies" our kids need that are not usually on the lists schools send home. They need tools to build social intelligence.
If your kids are lucky, their schools will provide these tools. My own children are blessed to have Dovetail Learning's Toolbox Project curriculum taught at their school. Toolbox teaches a set of 12 Tools -- skills, practices and habits -- that kids can use to forge friendships and navigate the sometimes difficult social waters at school.
Below are three of my favorite Toolbox school supplies, and ideas about how to send your child back to school with them.
(1) The Courage Tool. Returning to school takes courage for many children, especially when they are changing schools or are moving from elementary to middle school. Kids use courage when they do something they know is right, like inviting a new student to sit with them at lunch. They also use courage when they don't do something they know is wrong, even though someone is pressuring them to do it. And they use courage when they express themselves, such as by standing up in front of the class or asking a question they're afraid others will think is stupid.
Here are some ways to send your kids to school with courage:
-Ask them what the word means to them. Talk with them about facing difficult things without fear. Share examples of ways to use courage at school.
-Teach them that courage is like a muscle: The more they use it, the easier it is to stand up for what they know is right. The courage they build now will serve them for the rest of their lives.
-Help them be aware of the thoughts they have that influence their bravery. What can they say to themselves to help themselves feel courageous? (I am strong enough to do the right thing.) What types of things do they say to themselves that make them fearful? (Everyone will think I'm weird if I tell her about that.)
(2) The Garbage Can Tool. Our kids' social lives are full of conflicts, large and small. To help them navigate these conflicts, Toolbox suggests how they can treat "unkind words and actions" as garbage and throw them away. The "Garbage Can Tool" helps kids brush off unkindness, especially slights that were unintentional or not meant as personal injuries, and foster resilience.
Here are some ways to send your kids to school with the Garbage Can Tool:
-Talk with your kids about how some conflicts and unpleasant words aren't worth giving time and attention to. These things are just like trash: stinky, rude or inappropriate. The place for them is the garbage.
-Help them symbolically create a place to put "trash:" Once they decide that something is garbage, or that an unpleasant event is over, they can move on by throwing it away (tossing it aside to get it out of their physical space).
-As Epictetus said: "It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters." Talk about how the Garbage Can Tool can be an effective way to respond to something unpleasant.
(3) The Breathing Tool. If I had to pick only one of these tools for my children, I'd pick this one. It's the tool I use most myself: I use it to diffuse stress, to focus and to keep myself from overreacting. My daughters also "take five" -- five long, slow breaths as described below --before resolving an argument, which makes them seem mature beyond their ages, like little Buddhas.
A lot of good science suggests that focusing on their breath can be powerful for students: It reduces stress, stimulates creativity, boosts test scores, and improves focus.
Here are some ways to send your kids to school with the Breathing Tool:
-Practice this with your kids: Put one hand over your heart and one hand on your stomach. Breathe in slowly through your nose. Focus on the sensation of fresh air coming into your lungs and on how it feels as your belly expands. Pause briefly, relax, and then exhale through your mouth, counting slowly to five.
-See if you can take five or even 10 intentional breathes like this.
-Ask kids to pay attention to how their body feels when they use the Breathing Tool.
Developing tools like these can have a remarkable effect on your child's ability to deal with difficulty on the playground and make friends -- just watch this powerful video of kids talking about how they use their "tools" to deal with bullying at their school (the last minute in particular moved me to tears).
The kids in this video offer clear evidence that children are better served when we prepare them for tough choices they have to make on the playground, not just the tough choices they have to make on standardized tests.
© 2012 Christine Carter, Ph.D.