The challenge of teaching the Habits of Mind to very young students isn’t the language involved – children love the vocabulary, because they love anything that makes them feel like briefcase carrying grown-ups. The challenge lies in ingraining the meaning of the words. This is always going to be tough, because attributes like “managing impulsivity” and “thinking flexibly” are inherently intangible. One can say and hear “persist” a thousand times, and many adults do, without ever really understanding the practical applications of ‘persisting’ behavior. Teaching what persisting looks like, sounds like, and what it is to practice ‘persistence’ in one’s approach to new challenges—these are crucial elements when instilling habits into young minds.
So when Dr. Art Costa and I were considering how we could make the Habits of Mind more accessible to children in K - 2 grade, it was as though a lightbulb flicked on: “Why not animate?” After all, in our original perspective, children love cartoons. But when we delved into the research on how children learn from educational media, we were simply blown away. Studies prove that children who watch Sesame Street growing up have significantly better social skills than those who don’t—and they receive considerably better grades all the way up through high school. Researchers have seen how the introduction of literacy tech devices to underserved children’s classrooms and homes can narrow or even close the achievement gap between lower and middle income children in a matter of months. Studies attest to the pro-social benefits of interactive media for special needs children, children with social challenges, for English language learners – it was incredibly powerful for Art and I to realize that the medium we chose wasn’t just engaging for students. Animation has a unique power to condition children with empathy, and to provide them shared and equitable learning experiences.
We were inspired. And we only became more so when we actually saw children’s responses to the Habits of Mind Animations—which, I must warn teachers, they will request to watch over and over again. The characters - Peter, Dee, Chris and the rest - are 7-year-olds, which is our sweet spot age. Their personalities and stories are modeled after those of the children who come to know them. As we hoped, the studies proved true; children model their behavior in return. They relate to the characters, trust them, fall in love with them—and in ways that have amazed me, we often see them stop and almost become one of the characters. So strongly have they internalized these lessons, that imitating the characters becomes subconscious; and our intention always was to make these habits instinctive to children while they’re still in this formative age. It’s absolutely remarkable how they engage with the characters and learn from them.
It dives into the heart of that challenge, to make the Habits roundly comprehendible to young children, especially as they apply to real life situations. Equipped with these stories, we have so much more than just labels like ‘stick with it’; we have reference points, strategies we can call to mind. In the ‘Persisting’ animation, the character Chris struggles to learn the xylophone for the school talent show. When he gives up, his friends encourage him to persist, and help him strategize the practice required to accomplish his goal, which he does. Of course, children absorb Chris’ lesson on their own; but the full potential of these visual stories lies in the power of teachers, guidance counselors, the many people who surround students, to extend the story and discuss the lesson with them. Faced with a student who wants to give up on a difficult task, teachers can ask, “What did Chris do to persist? How did he find ways to keep trying? How did he feel when he performed successfully after working so hard? How will you persist through this challenge like he persisted through his?” The animations open so many doors for children to think about their thinking, to carefully consider the choices of these characters in relation to the choices they are making, and the positive behavior they’re striving to practice.
Art and I have always agreed that ‘persisting’ is that foundational habit that runs through all of the others, and upon which so many other habits seem to rely. To be able to stick with something when the going gets tough is a life skill, the development of which vitally influences the potential children have of success throughout their educations and beyond. This is especially important for children who are not given motivation to succeed at home; we have to find ways to ensure that they understand the value of persistence, and that they learn it early, so that by the time they’re in middle school and feeling discouraged—they simply don’t have it within them to give up. Rather, they instinctively feel the urge to persist, because that habit that was so well instilled in them – and importantly, in their peers, in the social classroom environment - when they were still very small. We want students to develop the Habits of successful people. Art and I are so thrilled to see how effortlessly the HOM Animations are giving students the vocabulary and complex understanding of the Habits, as well as the motivation to practice them, and encourage their friends to do so too. There is nothing else like it, and we are very excited to see how far this platform will extend, as we try to impact the lives of as many children as we can.