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Learning To Care

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Louisville, Ky.

Heather and Larry, two upper-elementary students at Hazelwood Elementary School, are at the age when boys and girls don't pal around together. Today, though, both are working busily on a Venn diagram that shows how they are alike and how they are different.

One circle is labeled "Heather" and the other "Larry." In the outer edges of those circles, the classmates have scribbled a few of their individual preferences. Heather has written that she likes cats. Larry's tastes run to sports. But the space where the circles intersect is crowded with entries--swimming, rap music, hot dogs, snakes, pizza, school, and the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" television program. There is no more room to write.

"Hey," Heather says as a look of surprise spreads across her round face. "Look at all the stuff we both like."

Making these kinds of discoveries happen is what the Child Development Project is all about. The project, a 14-year-long research-and-development effort, is in its final year of piloting here at Hazelwood and at 11 other primary schools across the country. And the educators and researchers taking part in the project say the results so far are encouraging.

Like a lot of school-reform efforts, the aim of the project is to improve children's learning. It uses real and compelling selections of children's literature, for example, to interest pupils in reading and to spur them to think critically. It advocates teaching strategies designed to help students build their own knowledge much in the way they create houses out of Lincoln logs, and it encourages them to work cooperatively in groups.

But the Children's Development Project also goes contemporary school-improvement efforts one better: It seeks to teach children like Heather and Larry to care about one another. And it does that by creating "caring communities" like the one at Hazelwood, a school that serves some of this city's most disadvantaged children.

Seeking a Better Answer

There is not much research on how to teach children to care, according to Nel Noddings, a Stanford University professor who has written several books on the subject. Of the studies that do exist, some of the earliest produced dismal results. For example, one showed that children in such groups as the Boy Scouts would demonstrate more caring behaviors when adults were present, but they behaved no differently than other children their age after the adults went away.

Up until the 1990's, Noddings says, the dominant strategy for teaching moral behavior in classrooms was the so-called Kohlbergian model. Under this approach, named for the late Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, students were given moral dilemmas to discuss. The trouble was that no one could prove that the ability to reason morally would lead to improved moral behavior.

Schools that didn't use that approach--if they taught values at all--did so as an add-on to the regular curriculum.

In 1981, the Menlo Park, Calif.-based William and Flora Hewlett Foundation began looking for a better answer.

What they had in mind was a program that could address the whole child. That meant nurturing children's ethical and social development as well as their intellectual growth. It also meant making character education an integral part of the curriculum and the climate of schools.

What's more, the program had to be backed by studies to show that it could improve the learning and behavior of real children in real schools.

To put it all together, the foundation chose a California-based research organization called the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. At the time, the institute was developing and evaluating programs aimed at preventing delinquency and drug abuse among teenagers. However, the new project quickly became its major focus, and the institute was recast as the Developmental Studies Center.

"This seemed to us to be a much more meaningful and productive kind of work rather than working later with problems that arise from inadequate development," says Eric Schaps, the center's president.

The center's research scientists sifted through all the available literature on children's development to put together a program. From Jean Piaget and L.S. Vygotsky, they gathered developmental theory. Studies on cooperative learning provided strategies for helping children learn to work together. They borrowed from cognitive psychology, research on children's motivation, and psychological studies suggesting that children thrive when they're given a sense of having a say in their lives and a sense of belonging to a group.

Testing the Waters

The program was tested first in three elementary schools in San Ramon, Calif., a middle-class suburb in the Bay Area.

"We wanted a district that was large enough to accommodate the research well but small enough that the project wouldn't get lost," Schaps recalls. "We also wanted a district that was not experiencing declining enrollment because that causes a lot of financial and political problems, and we wanted a district where there was considerable support to do this."

Teachers in San Ramon were given curricular materials and intensive training that took place in weeklong summer sessions, in monthly workshops during the school year, and in individual coaching sessions.

To gauge the program's success, the researchers tracked children at the three schools from the time they entered kindergarten until they reached 6th grade. They then compared their progress with that of students the same age at three local control schools serving the same kinds of student populations.

Observers who had no idea what the program was about were sent to classrooms in all of the schools for eight two-hour periods to record what teachers and students were doing. Researchers also interviewed students annu- ally, giving them hypothetical moral dilemmas to solve and analyzing their responses.

They found that children in the experimental classrooms behaved more considerately toward their classmates and worked better together. In interviews, they showed a better understanding of others' perspectives and a greater ability to solve interpersonal conflicts.

And, on questionnaires, they were more likely to report that they saw their classrooms as communities.

Academically, students in both the experimental and the control groups scored about the same on standardized achievement tests. But the program students scored higher on another measure designed to assess their higher-order thinking abilities.

Two years later, after they left the program and went on to junior high school, the students were still showing positive effects from the program. In comparison with their peers in the control group, for example, program students were more involved in extracurricular activities, and their teachers rated them as more assertive and popular.

The program was tested again in much the same way in nearby Hayward, a poorer, more ethnically diverse school district that at the time was undergoing considerable upheaval. Implementation of the program was spottier there and, although the effort produced similar positive effects, they were somewhat weaker. One point, however, was clear: Classrooms that observers judged to be implementing the program extensively had students who showed more prosocial behaviors.

"It wasn't the kind of kid that made the difference," Schaps says. "It was whether the program happened or not that made the difference."

Encouraged, project developers in 1991 raised more than $14 million from several foundations and expanded to six more districts. They targeted two program schools and two control schools in each one. Jefferson County, Ky., where Hazelwood is located, is one of those districts. Others are in Cupertino, Salinas, and San Francisco, Calif.; Dade County, Fla.; and White Plains, N.Y.

The center has not yet released the findings from the second-year evaluation of those districts, but Schaps says the program is showing promise in those communities.

"What we've seen are the kinds of changes happening that, in all our prior research, are correlated with positive student outcomes," he says. The organization is already making plans to disseminate parts of the program more widely.

After 14 years, Schaps says, "we think we're ready now."

Putting the Program in Place

Of the six districts involved in the effort, Jefferson County was the only one to produce positive changes in students in as little as a year.

That's the sort of thing that is not supposed to happen in a place like Hazelwood, the school that Heather and Larry attend. Only a rusted chain-link fence separates this school from the largest housing project in Kentucky. Three-quarters of Hazelwood's 600 students go home to those projects every afternoon. In all, 93 percent of the school's students come from families poor enough to qualify them for the federal subsidized-lunch program.

"I can tell you that teachers were lined up at the door trying to find other places to go," says Brenda Logan, who became the school's principal barely a year before the project started there. "You're in a high-risk area, and you're dealing with poverty and difficult parents."

For the most part, teachers say they kept order in their classes by using assertive-discipline techniques. They would, for example, put check marks on the board next to the names of students who were behaving well, or they handed out stickers and marbles. It didn't work.

"The first year I came, there were monumental numbers of students being referred to me from teachers--for everything from chewing gum to major fights," Logan says. "It was almost like in any of those situations where kids had to work with one another or play with one another they just didn't know how to do it."

When the Child Development Project arrived, teachers had mixed reactions. Some thought to themselves, "This is just what this school needs." Others were more skeptical.

"I thought there's that red-hot word 'values.' Whose values?" recalls Marcia Davis, who teaches kindergarten and 1st grade at Hazelwood. "And I thought, 'They're from California. I wonder if I'm going to find out I lived another life or something.'"

What Davis soon discovered, however, was that the values the program stressed--fairness, helpfulness, responsibility, and concern and respect for others--were the same values that she wanted for her students.

The project also arrived at Hazelwood just as the state was embarking on what is probably the most sweeping education-reform effort in the nation. But educators at Hazelwood say they found the parallel efforts had compatible goals.

"When the Kentucky Education Reform Act came we kept asking, 'When is the training going to take place? What does the primary program look like?' No one gave you any map to get to that point," Logan says. The Child Development Project provided the map.

In the training sessions, teachers were taught to reflect on their own practice, to ask the kinds of questions that elicit students' thinking, and to give students responsibility for their own learning. They learned ways to maintain order without using extrinsic rewards or punishments.

"People started thinking, 'What did I accomplish with the old classroom-management approaches?"' says Sheila Koshewa, who coordinates the program for the district. "They realized, 'I want my students to be able to manage themselves, to learn to get along, to realize they make choices in how they behave."'

Now, in many classrooms at Hazelwood, students set their own learning goals and rules for classroom behavior early in the year. And they hang them up on blackboards, walls, and doors throughout the school.

"How we want our classroom to be," the lists begin or "What we want to learn this year."

Class meetings are held to resolve problems that come up on the playground or anywhere else. And cooperative-learning lessons serve a twofold goal: They teach students both academic content and techniques for getting along.

Creating a 'Family'

"Does anyone have anything to say about the activity?" teacher Dana Shumate asks her 1st graders after one such session. Her class has been working in pairs, drawing pictures of things that once frightened them. They have just finished sharing their drawings with the class. This comes after they have read Alfie Lends a Hand, a book about a young child who overcomes shyness at a birthday party.

"Were there any problems and what did you do to resolve them?" Shumate asks. "We had problems. I couldn't hear him say if he was scared of a shark or an airplane," one boy says of another boy at his table. He says he resolved the problem by asking his tablemates to talk quietly.

The character-building lessons are also reinforced in the literature students read. The center provides a list of more than 200 books chosen first for their literary quality and second for the values they address.

The Venn diagram activity Heather and Larry completed is what Hazelwood teachers call a "unity builder"--an exercise intended to promote the sense of caring and community at the school. Heather and Larry will be reading partners this month, taking turns to read aloud to one another and helping each other make sense of what they have read. The exercise is also designed to smooth the way for that partnership.

Some teachers at the school have also arranged for their younger students to have older "buddies" in other classes who meet with them once a week to have lunch together or work on an activity.

Hazelwood also sends home "family activities" several times a year. The homework assignments are intended to involve the whole family. Students might be asked, for example, to interview their parents and ask them how their family came to settle in the area.

Grandparents are invited to visit the school and have lunch with the kids during grandparents' week, and families are invited to come to the school for supper and reading activities with their children on the school's annual "family night."

"You weren't allowed to come into the school before, and now you're encouraged to come in," says Doris Jeffries, a parent of three Hazelwood students who now works as a classroom aide there. "There's more caring and nurturing."

The school also abandoned its traditional practice of handing out ribbons on field day only to those students who jump the farthest and run the fastest. Now the event is decidedly less competitive, and all students can participate in every event.

Gradually, all of the changes began to add up and to make a difference. The number of discipline problems referred to the principal's office dropped from roughly 50 a year to 12. Teacher requests for transfers to other schools practically halted, and the school became one of only four schools in the district to meet its target achievement goals under the state's school-reform law.

"Our class feels like our family, and the whole school is like a family," says Judy Vowels, an upper-elementary teacher. "It sounds corny, but it does."

Spreading the Word

Word of the success of the project at Hazelwood and at the other local pilot school, Auburndale Elementary School, has spread. Now, district officials plan to start disseminating pieces of the program to 26 other schools.

"I think we could replicate much of the process without all the intense connectedness we had with the Developmental Studies Center," says Freda E. Merriweather, who oversees the district's elementary schools.

Nationwide, the Child Development Project plans to try a similar strategy.

"I think we want to make it much more broadly useful to schools," Schaps says. "We want to open it up by making the work more widely available, and we want to write about the work for practitioners and policymakers."

"We also want to make linkages to other reform efforts," he adds.

There is some wariness, however, that conservative parents will see the program's emphasis on ethics as a threat to their authority over their own children--even though the values instilled through the program are presumably not much different than those parents would want for their youngsters. Should that happen, the educators in the program say they are ready with their defense.

"Maybe the best way is to use this example," Koshewa, the district coordinator, says. "We would tell them: 'If your child drops a box of crayons, wouldn't you want someone to care enough to help your child pick them up and not kick them away?"'

"People are not going to argue with that," she says.

Further information on this project is available from:

Developmental Studies Center
2000 Embarcadero, Suite 305
Oakland, Calif. 94606-5300

Battistich, V., Solomon, D., Watson, M., Solomon, J. & Schaps, E. (1989). Effects of an elementary school program to enhance prosocial behavior on children's cognitive-social problem-solving skills and strategies. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 10, 147-169.

Lewis, C., Schaps, E. & Watson, M. Stopping the pendulum: creating caring and challenging schools. Phi Delta Kappan, (in press).

Solomon, D., Watson, M., Delucchi, K., Schaps, E. & Battistich, V. (1988). Enhancing children's prosocial behavior in the classroom. American Educational Research Journal, 25 (4), 527-554.

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