Nice vs. Kind (And 3 CharacterDares To Put Kindness to Work!)

Written By: Houston Kraft

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About a year ago, I was speaking at a high school in Texas. After my assembly, a senior boy walked up to me and said, “After listening to you today, I realized I am a really nice person.”

I laughed and told him I thought that was great and was about to move on to engage with other kids waiting in line. Then he stopped me and said, “No, you don’t understand. I realized that I am nice, but I’m not very kind.”

A bit confused, I asked, “What do you mean?”

What he said next has stuck with me. “Houston, everyone thinks they are nice, but that is because nice is easy. It’s reactive. Kindness is way harder - kindness is proactive. It requires intentional work.”

He pauses, tears filling up in his eyes. “Kindness requires work - and I think I have a lot of work to do.”

I nodded my head, hugged him, and said, “Yeah man, me too.”

I think it is easy to confuse Nice and Kind. But the difference between the two is clarifying and motivating.

Here’s the problem: everyone thinks they are nice. And, subconsciously, this gives us permission to settle. Nice is unproductive. It doesn’t move the needle forward. It doesn’t shift the status quo.

Why? Nice is easy - it is reactive at its best and self-serving at its worst. If someone is nice to me, I will probably be nice back to them. If I agree with you, I’ll be nice to you. If you drop something, I might pick it up (especially if I know I might get something in return like a thank you, your approval, or your number).

You get the point. Nice is easy because it is “I”-oriented. Do I have time? Do I like you? Do I feel like it? Do I have anything to lose?

Kindness is different - Kindness is proactive.

Someone doesn’t have to drop something in order for us to lift them up or encourage them. Something bad shouldn’t have to happen in order for us to practice making people feel good!

Where Nice is “I”-oriented, Kindness is heart-oriented. It says, “we all need attention and appreciation. We are all deserving of generosity and hope.” It moves beyond feelings and conveniences. It is a deliberate choice to bring encouragement, support, or appreciation to yourself or others.

When we align ourselves with the deep purpose of Kindness, it motivates action even when we don’t “feel like it.” We extend ourselves beyond convenience and comfort (which happens to be the space wherein we grow).

Nice steps back while Kindness steps up. Nice happens when there is time, Kindness happens because we make time. Nice expects something in return, while Kindness is free from expectation.

To put it simply: Nice people don’t change the world, but Kind people can. So we’ve got work to do!

Here are three things you can do over the next three days to be proactively Kind:

  1. Send an email to a co-worker telling them why you love working with them. Include a gift card for a cup of caffeine.

  2. Send a text to a family or friend who has been patient with you during long hours or busy weeks thanking them for supporting you doing the work that you love.

  3. Pick up the phone and call an old educator in your life. It could be a former teacher, a mentor, or a friend who taught you something meaningful. Tell them you are grateful to them for their wisdom and you’d like to connect sometime soon.

Let us know how it goes!

About the Author: Houston Kraft is a professional speaker, leadership consultant, and kindness advocate who speaks to middle schools, high schools, colleges, and businesses across the country. He has spoken to nearly a half a million people nationwide at nearly 500 events and counting. 

5 Things Every Educator Should Do This Summer

Written By: John Norlin

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Another school year has passed and educators once again are looking forward to the days of being able to sleep past six in the morning, go to the bathroom whenever they want, and actually eat lunch instead of cramming it into a three minute window right before class begins again. Summer is an important time for so many to rejuvenate, continue to learn more about the subject(s) they teach, and reflect and make adjustments so that they can better serve their new students the following year. Here are five things we recommend every educator does this summer.

Immediately take Airborne or Zicam the first 1-2 weeks after finishing school.

How many times as an educator have you gotten sick within days of starting an extended break? Doesn’t it feel like as soon as your body slows down it says, “Something is wrong!” and BOOM here comes the two week cold. Just like with classroom management, let’s be proactive and take that Airborne or Zicam immediately to help ward off that famous start of break bug!

Read a book for work to stay sharp because you finally have a little time to do so.

It is so refreshing to dig into a good book during an extended break and learn more about your subject area, a new topic of interest, or even just for pleasure. If you are not someone who usually can dig into a good old hardback novel, you should check out Audible from Amazon. I have been able to go through more books listening on 2.0 speed then any previous year. Here are some book recommendations for you this summer.

Sleep in for the first few days (if you can) but then start waking up at the same time every morning and do something you normally would never get to do when you are rushing to get to school.

Recently I read a great article from Business Insider about retired Navy Seal Jocko Willink that included a great video interview. Jocko spoke about how since leaving the Navy SEALs he would stay disciplined by getting up every morning at 4:30am to get a jump start on the day. He commented, "Just on a practical side, if you wake up early in the morning — like at 4:30 in the morning — you're going to have some free time to yourself to make things happen, to take care of things that are important to you." As much as 4:30am sounds extremely difficult to do, I love the idea of getting a jump start on your day and doing things that you normally never get to do because of the busy nature of life and work. 

Plan something to look forward to once a week for the entire summer.

What I have learned over my career in education is that when you give yourself something to look forward to it makes things so much more fun! Whether it is big or small, create a fun list of things to do this summer! Here are a few suggestions for your to start the brainstorm. Create your own list and then intentionally calendar out week to week so you can see things coming up.

  • Plan out intentional full day Netflix binge watching of your favorite shows
  • Get a massage on a random day or schedule an appointment with the chiropractor to figure out why that pain won’t go away in your neck!
  • Schedule regular shorts and flip flop days just because you want to.
  • Take a nap in the middle of the day, under the sun, instead of under the famous fluorescent lights of the school building.
  • Setup a dinner date with friends on a Friday night instead of cancelling because you can’t keep your eyes open.
  • Go for a walk and not worry about anyone else but yourself!
  • Plan a zero traffic day, like don’t drive anywhere at all and enjoy the fact that you didn’t have to deal with that.
  • Be a tourist in your nearest city or park! Go at a time when rush hour isn't a problem, because you can!

Commit to something hard this summer so you can share with your students next year.

While attending the National Character Lab Conference hosted by founder Angela Duckworth, she shared how she helps foster grit in her own family. She spoke how they implemented a process called “The Hard Thing Rule” which has three parts. First, everyone in the family has to do something that is hard. Second, you have to finish what you start. Third, no one gets to pick the hard rule for anyone else. What a cool idea to start with my own family. After you pick your hard thing for the summer that requires practice, feedback on how you are doing to get better, and the grit to keep going after that hard thing you have selected, you will now have a great example and most likely stories to share with your students this next school year. Read more about the hard rule.

About the Author: John is co-founder of CharacterStrong as well as the Whole Child Program Administrator and Director of Student Leadership for the Sumner School District, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year and taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School. 

Do You Have A Popsicle Hotline? School Culture and the Power of Moments

Written By: John Norlin


Out of the 356 hotels In Los Angeles California, one of the top 3 rated hotels on TripAdvisor is not the most expensive. Instead, the Magic Castle Hotel is on average half the price per night of the hotels that rank just above and below it on popular travel websites, yet it is a converted apartment complex from the 1950’s painted bright yellow. How would a hotel like this be ranked so highly out of all the different luxury and expensive hotels in this area you might ask? One main reason is the red popsicle hotline that is hanging poolside where any guest can pick it up, order their favorite flavor of popsicle, and within minutes an employee will come out with a silver platter and white gloves on to deliver your popsicle free of charge.

In their book The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath talk about “Defining Moments” and how people don’t remember every moment of their experience, but instead defining key moments. The four types of powerful moments that the Heath brothers identify are elevation moments that transcend ordinary experience, insight moments that rewire our understanding, moments of pride that accompany achievement, and moments of connection like graduations or weddings. It is the elevation type moment that the “Popsicle Hotline” is creating. A guest will remember this powerful moment that transcends an ordinary experience and not remember in the long run that the rooms were average and pool itself was nothing to call home about.

In education, I think we can learn a lot from the ideas Chip and Dan Heath have laid out in their book. Schools can intentionally break through the ordinary that is so common with school to create defining moments. Think about it: most students wake up, go to school, go home, do some homework, and go to bed and repeat the same process over and over again for thirteen years. If you are a relational teacher, you create elevation moments with your energy and intentional ways of connecting daily. But those “kid magnet” teachers are not enough for schools to rely on to create an amazing school climate and culture. What would happen if both school systems and classroom teachers intentionally built in elevation moments that transcended ordinary experiences throughout the year (especially during those natural low points)? Here are 3 ideas on how to create elevated moments in your school and classroom.

#1 - Monday Magic

Mondays are difficult for many people. Even a meta analysis in 2005 showed that sudden cardiac death in adults is markedly increased on Monday. For our students, they are coming off of a weekend that potentially has disrupted their weekly routine of sleep and school work and the idea of going back to school is not always exciting for all. Just knowing this can be powerful for a teacher or school. What is a way that you could elevate the ordinary experience on a Monday? Start at the main entrances of your school. Get some music playing and get admin, counselors, campus security, and student leaders greeting at the door. Pick random Mondays to hand things out that are inexpensive but cool. Teachers also could up their game on Mondays by not only greeting at their door, but also make something exciting to start the week. One teacher I know said they always remembered how their high school history teacher used to get so excited about the “quote of the week” and, although super cheesy, would pull students in because of how passionate he was about this event. The teacher would make a big deal about the quote, who got to read the quote, and how it was presented to the class with a music intro and lead-in introduction. What could you do to elevate Mondays?

#2 - Make the Ordinary Extraordinary

So much of what we do in education can become so ordinary that it loses its impact. Take 2-3 things that you do during the year and intentionally elevate them to move beyond the ordinary. One year in a staff training we were challenged to think about how we celebrate learning in our classroom. That next week I bought a Zildjian Gong and every time a student turned in a paper or assessment that they thought they learned something new and/or worked hard to learn, they would ring the “championship bell” (gentleness was a rule). This became a fun way to celebrate learning and move beyond the ordinary. My wife always raved about her high school teacher Mr. Hoseth who conducted something in his US History Class called “The New Deal Olympics” where he would teach the post-Great Depression era through an Olympic Games activity. This included a running of the torch through the school and team competitions that connected to their learning. She mentioned that it wasn’t just the idea of the Olympics, but it was the little things like the Chariots of Fire Soundtrack he played each day they came in, the Olympic Rings hanging in his classroom, and his overall passion and energy for the unit. Anyone can take a unit and spice it up a bit, but it is going the extra mile with the details and sacrificing your own pride to even be a little silly and over the top to create a memorable moment in your classroom that students will remember.

#3 - Create Community

Most schools have the normal activities that they do every year as a school. Assemblies, Food Drives, and Spirit Weeks are common ways of schools coming together as a community. These are great activities and I absolutely support them continuing, but what if we intentionally elevated our creating of community through an activity that wasn’t the norm. One activity that I was most proud of as a former activities director and student leadership teacher was the annual Community Dinner. The Community Dinner was an event that students planned, fundraised, and implemented. It was a free holiday community dinner that welcomed the mayor, people experiencing homelessness, families from the community, and students from the school. The students knew they didn’t want it to be a soup kitchen experience, so they decorated it like it was homecoming. They got performers to come throughout the evening, had a craft area for kids, and even a gift give away for the young ones who came. There were presents stacked ten feet high! The best part was that students served from start to finish. They greeted people at the door and seated them, served them their food and drinks, and even shared a piece of pie with them at the end of the dinner. Two things always stood out to me after this event: First was the number of kids who said it was “life changing.” Second was the number of students who got involved and served who did not participate in any other school activity all year long. True community was on display and it was the students who created it. People support what they help to create. What could you do to help students create community at your school?

Image courtesy of The News Tribune

Image courtesy of The News Tribune

The change of thinking that the Chip and Dan Heath bring in their book is that you don’t have to get every moment perfect. Instead, be more intentional with a few key moments throughout the year that create defining memorable moments. This is huge because this is doable and with everything else going on at such a frantic pace in education and in life, it needs to be doable for it to actually happen. As another year closes, what could you do to intentionally elevate the school experience for your students next year? Who knows, maybe they will be talking about your influence years later, and how you took the ordinary and made it extraordinary.

About the book: The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, written by Chip and Dan Heath is an incredible book that looks at how we can create powerful experiences in life by being intentional and thoughtful in the planning of experiences. This book would be a great read for any school professional this summer break, not only for guidance in the classroom, but in your personal life as well. 

About the AuthorJohn is co-founder of CharacterStrong as well as the Whole Child Program Administrator and Director of Student Leadership for the Sumner School District, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year and taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School. 

CharacterStrong: A Student's Perspective

Written By: Enterprise Middle School Student

As Mr. John Norlin egged us on, I happily shook the ‘webbys’ around me at Enterprise’s first CharacterStrong assembly, and I knew I would be in for an incredible year.

I’ve been lucky myself, to have seen the growth of the students, the teachers, the school as a whole, from a front seat view through the position of a leadership student and ASB officer.  

With CharacterStrong, I don’t think there’s anyone who hasn’t been changed for the better. In fact, my favorite thing about CharacterStrong is how Enterprise is using it everywhere. As a matter of fact, in my Band class we talked about what we could do as an ensemble to serve our school and community!

In fact, even outside my leadership duties and advisory, I’m still learning about building strong character. For instance, in my language arts class, we recently covered the Holocaust. We learned about Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, and the injustice of World War II. But it was so, so much more than that.  

We talked about how and why we treat others the way we do, what we can take away from our history, and to my surprise, we talked a lot about the lessons we learned in advisory… CharacterStrong.

Through the whole unit, I felt so much more ‘into’ it, because CharacterStrong lessons were incorporated in them. In class, we had many meaningful discussions that started when we saw connections between what we were studying, and what we had learned through character lessons.

For the end of the unit, our essay topic was to apply what we learned from the Holocaust and our lives to the following question: What is our responsibility as humans to other humans? Writing that paper was a liberating experience, because I had the chance to think about all the character dares, all of the advisory lessons, and of course, all of the details of World War II together.

This was the first year in my middle school experience, where the school didn’t feel like it was about to explode! A new middle school opened so Enterprise’s student size decreased quite a bit -but the kindness only skyrocketed! This has, hands down, been the best year of my life, and not just because of the extra room in hallways!

For starters, something that I’ve really enjoyed this year is advisory, it’s always really fun and my teacher never fails to make sure we understand the things we learn. A big change I’ve noticed is how different it is from the advisory-like-things Enterprise used in prior years.

For instance, last years lessons were very reactive centered, but with CharacterStrong I’ve learned so much more about being proactive. For reference, a typical lesson last year would go something along the lines of watching a video portraying a dangerous situation we could find ourselves in, and then talking about what we would do.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it is vital to know how to react in situations but during these lessons, we never really talked about what we can do to stop the situation from ever even happening… By being proactively kind people.

While in a leadership clinic with Houston Kraft, after our second CharacterStrong assembly, I learned the true difference between nice and kind, and it really struck home. Being nice is being reactive, like seeing something and then reacting after seeing it. But being kind, is proactive, it’s doing things without reason, just being a good person by default, and serving others.


I don’t believe I’ve ever felt a better atmosphere than at Enterprise that day… It was like KINDNESS ON STEROIDS, everyone was feeling a little bit more inspired to make a difference, there were high fives left and right, but what I think made the world feel a little brighter and warmer at school that day, were the SMILES.

With all of these new things, in the classroom, in the halls, and in the morning, the ‘welcomingness’ of Enterprises school environment has immeasurably escalated.

For instance, every morning there's tons of kids holding open the front and bus doors, high fiving, smiling, and dancing to the music playing out of the speakers, to greet fellow students as they come inside.

I, personally don’t really get the chance to hold open the doors in the morning because I have Jazz Band zero hour. So one day, my zero hour teacher suggested that we should do something at the door in the morning. Lo’ and behold, a couple days later we were playing our concert set as kids walked in! Which goes to show,  anything you can contribute will make a difference.

Along with the students, I feel the staff members have all contributed to the leap in the positive climate at school. In fact, I don’t think I have a single teacher that doesn’t greet students by the door to their class. It might seem like a pretty small thing, but my day honestly gets 100x better when a teacher says good morning to me, because it feels like I’m more than a blob they’re shoving information into for standardized tests, but a kid who’s ready to learn more. School isn’t a “have to go” anymore, its a “I get to go to school today!”

Over the year, through advisory, leadership, all the CharacterStrong activities, and even just regular school days, I’ve gathered so much more knowledge about pretty much everything; relationships, servant leadership, and the list goes on and on.

I feel I have grown as a person, and discovered more about myself. But possibly most important, now, not just me, but my fellow students, instead of thinking “I DON’T ‘WANNA’ GO” in the morning, we’re thinking “what will I do for others today?”

About the AuthorEnterprise Middle School is located in the Richland School District in West Richland, WA that has 700 students in a growing district. They started using the CharacterStrong advisory and leadership curriculums this year and have become one of our flagship schools, showing what can happen to a building if they put their focus on relationships.

Before bringing the curriculum in, they assembled a rockstar team who did a lot of work to plan out implementation of the advisory and leadership curriculum. Their principal and guidance counselors wanted to train their staff on the curriculum so they hosted a CharacterStrong training at their school also bringing in teachers, administrators and counselors from surrounding schools. 

5 (and a half) Unique Ways to Appreciate Teachers

Written By: Houston Kraft

Student to Teacher:


Use the back of a big or important assignment from this teacher’s class that you feel proud of (and don’t need for class anymore). Write a thoughtful thank you note on the back of it. There is NOTHING BETTER than a specific, authentic note explaining the impact and connection this teacher has with you. Some things you could include:

  • My favorite moment in this class…
  • What helped me learn from you was…
  • This assignment taught me so much about...
  • You connected with me when…
  • I’ve changed for the better because…
  • Not only did you teach me _____, but you also taught me…

Parent to Teacher:

Ask your child about some of their favorite teachers this year and write down a few specific things that stand out from their answers. Write a quick email to the principal first of all thanking them for their work and then specifically sharing the positive feedback you learned from your child about their teacher(s). EVERYONE loves a good news being sent to their boss! Here are some questions you can ask your kid:

  • What is one thing that your teacher does well to help you learn?
  • How has your teacher built a good relationship with you?
  • What do you appreciate about your teacher and why?
  • What makes this teacher different than others to you?
  • In what way has this teacher helped you grow?

Administrator to Teacher:

Option 1: Send out a survey asking teachers what their favorite pen is. Every teacher has a favorite pen brand or type. Hook every teacher up with one or a handful of their favorite pens to show your appreciation. 

Option 1.5: Take time this week to drop by each classroom, even for just a minute, and take note of what the teacher in the room is doing well. Send a short email to the individual teachers in your building saying, “I dropped by your class and I was reminded that you are really skilled at ______. I appreciate you.”

Student Leaders to Teacher:

Set up a free car wash this Friday for teachers! If you want to get extra intentional, ask teachers their favorite song, set up some speakers, and play their tunes while you scrub up their vehicle! Bring a lawn chair or two and some cold sodas and waters so they can relax while you shine up their ride!

CharacterStrong to Teachers:

Keep your eyes peeled on our Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook page for the rest of the week. Over the next few days, we are going to be putting up coffee gift cards to show our appreciation for you!

To all you teachers out there: we fundamentally believe that the pathway to a better future in this world is through Education. You are changing the world every day by teaching the next generation to not only be competent, but compassionate as well. We are deeply grateful for your work in the trenches daily to shape young people into passionate, kind citizens. May you feel appreciated not only this week, but every day that you show up and do your purposeful work to serve kids!

About the Author: Houston Kraft is a professional speaker, leadership consultant, and kindness advocate who speaks to middle schools, high schools, colleges, and businesses across the country. He has spoken to nearly a half a million people nationwide at nearly 500 events and counting. 

3 Steps to Strengthen Relationships in Your Classroom

Written By: John Norlin

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At CharacterStrong, we always start our staff Professional Development Trainings with the line, “It’s all about relationships.” It’s true: we were built to be relational from the time we were born needing human touch, connection, and love. In 1979, Dr. Lisa Berkman of the Harvard School of Health Sciences conducted the Alameda County Study, looking at 7,000 people between the ages of 35 and 65. After studying the group for nine years, she determined that those who lacked social or community connections were three times more likely to die of a medical illness. We also know that there are students in every one of our classes coming in with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). Trauma Informed Practices will tell you that one of the number one things that a student needs to be successful who is dealing with childhood trauma is a consistent, positive relationship. Schools are realizing how critical it is that they focus on teaching not only the traditional academic core classes, but also the social-emotional and character skills of their students. We can no longer wrongly assume that students should “know better.” The fact is that students do not always know what strong relationship skills look like. No matter what social-emotional and/or character curriculum a school may be implementing to support their students, the number one way that we are going to teach students these important skills is by role modeling them ourselves.

Research has shown that building positive teacher-to-student relationships is a highly effective classroom engagement strategy. A few years ago, I was introduced to Dr. Clayton Cook who is currently a professor at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Educational Psychology. He introduced me to a strategy called EMR (or Establish, Maintain, and Restore) as a guiding practice for teachers to create and support effective relationships with their students. The EMR strategy is a specific framework for understanding the teacher-to-student relationship in three dimensions: 1. Establishing the relationship through positive interactions  2. Maintaining the relationships with continued support and encouragement, and 3. Restoring the relationship following episodes of teacher-student conflict. In a practice guide created by Dr. Cook, Stephen Ottinger and Kevin Haggerty from the University of Washington College of Education and Social Development Research Group, they break down this strategy and identify the EMR research evidence as 'strong' and the time each week to implement as 'less than thirty minutes.' This is a high leverage, low time-investment strategy!

The goal of the Establish-Maintain-Restore process is to help you reflect on the status of the relationship you have with each student in your classroom.

  1. Start by taking a class roster and label each name with either an E an M or an R. If you are still Establishing a relationship (E), if you have a positive relationship started and need to continue to Maintain a relationship (M), and if you recently have had a negative or punitive interaction with the student and need to Restore the relationship (R).

  2. Next, pick one or more students that you marked with an (E) to focus on for the next two weeks using 1-2 intentional strategies to build a relationship with that student.

  3. Finally, pick one student that you marked with an (R) to focus on for the next two weeks using one intentional practice to restore the relationship with that student.  

How does EMR work?

Establish: Make time to implement one or more of the following with the intention of having individual time with the student.

1. Banking Time: Finding individual time to spend with a specific student to deposit into the relationship.

  • Asking open-ended questions
  • Validation Statements
  • Active Listening

2. Track Personal Information: Gather, review, and find opportunities to reference important information about a student:

  • Special occasions, pets, family members, hobbies, likes/dislikes
  • Gather information through:
    • Brief conversations with the student.
    • Sentence completion forms (Idea: Give each student a notecard and have them write down one thing they could teach you).
    • Journals
    • Surveys (Written or Electronic) that include questions about interests and passions.

3. Second Hand Compliments - Find something to compliment about the student’s behavior or performance and relay that through another adult rather than delivering it directly to the student.

  • Positive note or call home
  • Positive office referral
  • Telling another teacher and encouraging

Maintain: Teacher continues to engage in positive relationship building with each student through some of the following methods.

  • Teachers use high ratios of compliments or other positive interactions to reprimands or other negative interactions.
  • Teachers use brief relationship check-ins, in which the student is encouraged to share about their lives or personal thoughts, to support the student’s sense of respect and connectedness.

Restore: Conflict, reprimands, or other negative interactions are nearly impossible to avoid. However, teachers follow up each negative interaction with efforts to restore the relationship through specific communication techniques.

  • Taking ownership (e.g., “As your teacher I realize I could have handled the situation better, it’s actually my fault.”)
  • Apologizing (e.g., “I’m sorry we both had a rough day yesterday and for not being able to support you better in class.”)
  • Asking for a do-over (e.g., “I know things got a little rough between us, but here’s what I say. Let’s have a do-over and just try again today.”)
  • Conveying care (“I just wanted to let you know that although your behavior was a bit difficult to deal with, I care deeply about having you in my class and think you are a pretty amazing student.”)

The goal of Establish-Maintain-Restore is to build and maintain positive relationships with all students, and to focus intentionally on those students who may be most difficult for you to connect with. The result should be a better classroom climate and more engaged students because of the positive teacher-to-student relationships being created.

A few years into teaching it became very clear to me that those teachers who were really effective at establishing, maintaining, and restoring relationships had just as much time as everyone else. I realized that they were really good at making time for what was most important and knew that by being intentional with what they were doing related to relationships, that they could improve student engagement as well as decrease problem behaviors in their classroom.

Supporting Research

  • Cook, C., Coco, S. (in press). Cultivating Positive Teacher-Student Relationships: Evaluation of the Establish, Maintain, and Restore (EMR) Method.

  • Cook, C., Coco, S. (in press). Cultivating Positive Teacher-Student Relationships: Evaluation of the Establish, Maintain, and Restore (EMR) Method.

  • Dube SR, Anda RF, Felitti VJ, Chapman DP, Williamson DF, Giles WH. Childhood Abuse, Household Dysfunction, and the Risk of Attempted Suicide Throughout the Life SpanFindings From the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. JAMA. 2001;286(24):3089–3096. doi:10.1001/jama.286.24.3089

  • Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678.

  • Perry, Bruce. “Resilience: Where Does It Come From?” Early Childhood Today, Apr. 2006.

About the AuthorJohn is co-founder of CharacterStrong as well as the Whole Child Program Administrator and Director of Student Leadership for the Sumner School District, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year and taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School. 

The 10 Climandments: Creating a Positive Culture Through Positive Expectations

Written By: Houston Kraft

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In 1963, research psychologist Robert Rosenthal wanted to know how our expectations affected our reality. In one of his earliest studies, Rosenthal brought in experimenters to his lab and had them take rats out of two separate cages – one labeled “smart” and the other labeled “dumb.” They were told that the smart rats had been bred for maze-racing, while the others had been tested as less capable. They had one week to prepare their rats for a maze race.

The “smart” rats outperformed the “dumb” rats by a landslide. It was then that Rosenthal revealed the all the rats, regardless of what cage they came from, were the same, average kind of rat. They had been randomly labeled as smart and dumb.  

So how come there was such a huge gap between the smart winners and the dumb losers? Simple – it was what was expected of them. 

When participants thought their rat was smart, they handled them more gently, spoke to them more kindly, and encouraged them more often. The opposite was true of the dumb rats. There is research that connects the way rats are handled with how quickly they can perform complex tasks. The same is true of people.

I think the expectations we hold for students in our schools are really low. I’ve read through countless student codes of conducts and have found that, almost without exception, many of the rules, guidelines, and expectations for students in our schools are NEGATIVE. Don’t do this, you can’t say this, don’t wear these types of clothes, no ____, no _____, and definitely no ____.

What if, in addition to the basic “rules” of school, we held our students to POSITIVE expectations? What if, in contrast to all the things we discipline for, we hold students accountable to specific, positive actions? Not just reframing rules into positive language - but actually providing structured character consistency in your building. I’ve created a list of my own – feel free to take it or brainstorm one for your school or classroom!


  1. You shall give one genuine compliment per day. The best compliments are specific – requiring active listening and thoughtful observation. “You look nice today” is not nearly as good as “Those blue converse make your eyes pop like a can of Pringles.”

  2. You shall learn one new person’s name each day. Names are powerful – when we take time to learn and remember someone’s name, it gives them value and reminds us of their humanity.

  3. You shall thank one staff member per day for their work. They do not get paid enough to put up with your shenanigans – they do their work because they believe in you. Believe in them back.

  4. You shall hold the door open for people and thank those that hold it open for you. During cold months, you shalt not let in too many breezes. Use your noggin.

  5. You shall attend one event each month that is totally unrelated to your friend group and interests. You might be the next chess grandmaster and not even know you like it yet.

  6. On Mondays, you shall write down one thing you are grateful for. I know it’s a Monday and the last thing you want to do is feel happy, but practicing thankfulness makes us healthier, more positive people.

  7. On Tuesdays, you shall pick up one piece of trash that isn’t yours. Pick up your own trash, too – custodians aren’t your maids.

  8. On Wednesdays, you shall ask one person in your life how you can help them. Your mom may need help with the dishes. Your teacher may need help cleaning up the class. Your coach may need help passing out flyers. Your dog may need help going for a walk.

  9. On Thursdays, you shall write a thank you note to someone in your life. Not a tweet. Not a text. Not an email. A handwritten note that you drop in the mail or deliver in person. Carrier pigeons are allowed if you have one trained.

  10. On Fridays, you shall hug, handshake, high five, or hand hug one person who looks like they need it. Please don’t do this without their consent – that won’t make their day, that will make you creepy.

Download the 10 Climandments Here!

About the Author: Houston Kraft is a professional speaker, leadership consultant, and kindness advocate who speaks to middle schools, high schools, colleges, and businesses across the country. He has spoken to nearly a half a million people nationwide at nearly 500 events and counting. 

5 Things Educators Should Seek Out Every Day

Written By: John Norlin

As testing season for many schools sets in, it is very easy to get stuck focusing on the constant pressures of performance, test scores, and end of the year data. Most of this is a reality for schools and is outside of one’s control on whether it happens or not, but there is something that we do have control over each and everyday as educators and that is the choices we make and that in which we seek out.

When students are being taught character development through the lens of role-modeling strong character by staff, they will see what it looks like to work hard, learn from mistakes, reflect, grow, and encourage each other. As High School Musical eloquently states, “We are all in this together!” In fact, if every educator were to seek out these five things I would predict that school climate and culture would improve, and test scores would go up.

1. Seek out mistakes that you make

Let’s face it, we all make mistakes! We all know it, yet as a young teacher, I would find myself in my position of authority quickly trying to act like I had not made a mistake, not acknowledge the mistake I had made, or even make something up in the moment as to cover for the fact that I didn’t know something. I feared what my students would think if they knew I didn’t do something right or did not have an answer in that moment. In reality, as I matured as a teacher, I learned that when identified big or small mistakes I had made in a lesson or situation, that my students respected me more. More importantly, I was using those moments to teach students how to learn from mistakes, which included the processing, humility, and growth mindset to learn and grow each day to be better. What if we all took this approach in education?

2. Seek out the good in others


I remember once seeing a great presentation by Laura Goodrich who wrote a book called Seeing Red Cars: Driving Yourself, Your Team, and Your Organization to a Positive Future where she states, “Surely you’ve experienced something like this: you buy a red car, and suddenly red cars appear everywhere. Why? Because you’re focusing on red cars—and you get more of whatever you focus on. But much of the time, consciously and unconsciously, we dwell on what we don’t want, and that’s what we get.” We get more of what we focus on and it can be difficult to focus on the positive sometimes. Education is a profession that can be really difficult. You're dealing with people, and sometimes young people can be hard to motivate, manage, and care for when emotions are involved. It is easy to fall into this negativity trap when there is a constant lack of time and resources to do your job most effectively. To see more of the positive we can intentionally practice seeking out the good in others and telling them about it whenever we can. No matter how small it is, people crave attention and appreciation. That five second compliment very well could be one that person never forgets. Compliment a student as they are entering or leaving your classroom, compliment a staff member by telling a student how awesome they are in front of them, tell someone something positive you heard about them recently. The more we practice the more we will see the good in others and the positive around us. We can’t always control the amount of time we have or how much is in our department or school budget, but we can choose to seek out the good in others instead of allowing ourselves to be hardened by the difficult parts of the job. Remember, if it was easy everyone would do it. It is the hard that makes it great!

3. Seek out areas to grow

One of the examples a mentor of mine demonstrated for me as I was developing as a teacher and young leader was the importance of being a lifelong learner by constantly seeking out ways to improve through seeking out feedback, identifying gaps in my character and performance, and actively striving to close those performance and character gaps. Every week I would give out ten quantifiable feedback forms to students and/or colleagues and ask them to rank me on a scale of 1-10 either overall as a teacher, or on something specific like how well I listen, or how good I was as a teammate. I found that by having an intentional process to seek out feedback it showed those around me that I was serious about wanting feedback and they started being more genuine and honest in the feedback they were providing. Yes, at first it would sting when I was told something that I could work on, but eventually I came to the realization that everyone already knew the feedback they were providing and it was no secret! At least I now knew and could do something about it. The best part is that as I worked on closing my performance and character gaps, life continued to get more and more purposeful and my relationships consistently got stronger and stronger with my students and with those around me. We need to teach one of the most important aspects of feedback to our students and that is how crucial it is that we seek it out from others so we can improve and grow.

Download the Quantifiable Feedback Form

4. Seek out quiet time


Let’s face it, we live in a day and age that promotes a non-stop schedule where the most successful are seen as people who work long hours and never seem to sleep. If we are given even five minutes of downtime, many fill it by quickly scrolling through social media, playing a quick game, or even watching a mindless video online. In 2012, researchers found that letting your mind wander now and then can lead to positive results including better creative problem solving. Maybe you have noticed that some of your best thoughts have come while driving to work, taking a shower, or going for a run. Psychology Today writer Amy Fries states, “Daydreaming is how we access our big-picture state of mind.” It’s not that we don’t have the time, even if we just intentionally scheduled 3-5 minutes a day of quiet reflection and let our mind wander about the day, your family, your job, I wonder what positives might come in terms of creative thinking, new ideas, and simply giving your brain a break from the gauntlet of day to day activities?

5. Seek out opportunities to connect


From the time we were born we were built to be relational. Even studies on premature babies by Harlow, Spitz, and Bowlby have shown how important it is that babies experience touch and the power of human contact in a babies early development. Connection is not just nice, it is needed. There are hundreds of opportunities to connect every single day in a school. Educators should set the example everyday for what the ideal school looks like in terms of connection. Get into the hallways and give some hi-fives, fist bumps (or elbow bumps during the flu season), as well as warm and positive greetings that show excitement for the day and the people around you. Ask someone, “How are you doing today”, but then follow it up with a second question that nobody else seems to take the time to ask like, “What are you looking forward to most today?” Stop by the desk of the school secretary and ask how their kid is doing, ask the custodian about the last time they went golfing because you have learned that about them, check in with a new teacher and offer a word of encouragement. When we seek out opportunities to connect we fill the buckets of others and in doing so we fill our own. What if you had a school where people’s buckets were overflowing with kindness?

About the AuthorJohn is co-founder of CharacterStrong as well as the Whole Child Program Administrator and Director of Student Leadership for the Sumner School District, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year and taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School. 

Creating CharacterStrong Athletes

Written By: Enterprise Middle School

As a coach at Enterprise Middle School, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the most amazing students through soccer, volleyball, basketball, and baseball.  Teaching and coaching young people is part of who I am.

At a recent basketball game against our city rivals, we found ourselves at the precipice of a unique CharacterStrong opportunity unlike many others.  On this day, we seemed to overwhelm them in all phases. It felt like it was just our day. EMS was winning big at halftime! Seems like a nice story, if you’re a Wildcat fan.  But at halftime is where this story takes a special twist.


The coach came over to me and asked if I would ask my team to play “fake defense” for one of their players. This opposing team’s player had been with the basketball program for two years and had not scored a single basket during the entire time they played. He was less athletic and coordinated than the other students.  However, you could see that while basketball was not his sport, he was clearly trying his best. Seeing the opportunity to make someone else’s day seemed too good to pass up so I presented the proposal to my team. My players were ALL IN and willing to do something extraordinary in the world of sports.

As the EMS players took the court we noticed the “player” from the other team had taken the court.  In fact, he was in a good spot to score! We played fake defense but he was unable to make the shot. This happened again and again. Finally the time came where he got the ball, the EMS players played great “fake defense” and the kid scored! The crowd went crazy after seeing what was going on.  What a cool moment...but gets better. The player's mother was in attendance that day. I learned later that she generally worked long hours and hadn’t been able to see any of his basketball games. Not only did the Enterprise players provide a moment for this athlete, but he scored again! In the end, Enterprise won the game big, but not a player on either side was worried about the score. This moment that was created is one I hope he will never forget.  And the positive feeling that everyone experienced watching and participating in the game will be with us for quite some time.

I truly believe that intentionally focusing on CharacterStong, teaching the ideas of working on one's character, seeing teachers greeting at the door and having the advisory class contributed somewhere in my player's heads. The students, together, understood that some moments are bigger than a game. That there are times when your character is being tested. Each player out there understood that they had a chance to show their character and came through in a big way. The next day at practice, my players went on like it was any other day. They did not take a moment to bring it up or tell everyone about it, they just participated in practice like any other day. To me, this felt like the ideas of showing good sportsmanship was just second nature to them. Like, “yeah coach, glad we got that kid a basket, it's no big deal.” And while our school took a few moments to recognize the actions of my team, isn’t making kindness normal what all schools should be striving for?

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 About the Author: Enterprise Middle School is located in the Richland School District in West Richland, WA that has 700 students in a growing district. They started using the CharacterStrong advisory and leadership curriculums this year and have become one of our flagship schools, showing what can happen to a building if they put their focus on relationships.

Before bringing the curriculum in, they assembled a rockstar team who did a lot of work to plan out implementation of the advisory and leadership curriculum. Their principal and guidance counselors wanted to train their staff on the curriculum so they hosted a CharacterStrong training at their school also bringing in teachers, administrators and counselors from surrounding schools. 


10 Thoughts on Changing School Culture

Written By: John Norlin

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As a high school leadership teacher and student activities adviser for 10 years, one of my jobs was to work with the students at our school to create a positive culture and climate. To quote author James C. Hunter, “Culture goes much deeper than a mission statement. Culture is how group members actually behave, repeatedly and habitually.” With that climate is, “The product of the attention to those behaviors. It is the school’s effects on its people. It is something you can actually feel.” Many in education know that it is very easy to have your school culture turn into many different silos. To quote from Phil Boyte’s book School Culture by Design (which you should read), “Strong silo programs work against overall culture for many reasons. Lack of integration leads to isolation and competition, which leads to confusion and resentment, which leads to gossip and hostility, which leads to even less integration.”

In my experience working with hundreds of schools over the years, it is not that people don’t believe in the work of creating a strong culture and climate, but instead, I think it is a lack of vision on how to do it, coupled with the lack of focus, time, and energy needed to make it happen. I can tell you it is well worth the investment. Below are ten things that I have learned about how to make a difference in your school to create a strong culture and climate while keeping a strong focus on educating the whole child.

1. If you are going to make a difference in your school, teach your students to BE INTENTIONAL.

Such a simple, yet crucial piece of wisdom to teach our students. If we are going to teach students to have strong character, we must teach them to be intentional with their actions. To do this we need to teach students and staff that the battle is in the mind. In Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism, he mentions that, “One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last 20 years is that individuals can choose the way they think.” Just by being more intentional with our daily actions in small ways, we could greatly impact the culture and climate of our school by breaking through conditioned responses and connecting more with each other relationally. Remember: Sometimes it is not about adding one more thing to our plate, sometimes it is about being more intentional with what we are already doing.

2. If you want to make a difference in your school, teach your students that Purpose > Happiness.

If you ask the average person what they want most in their life, the number one answer is, “I just want to be happy.” When you ask students how they think we are doing as a society when it comes to happiness, they will tell you that we are not doing well. Many students struggle to even share with you one person in their life that they feel is genuinely happy. This past year I was able to attend the National Character Lab Conference in Philadelphia hosted by psychology professor Angela Duckworth who has been the lead researcher on the concept of grit. Professor Duckworth said, “Having a purpose means that, in choosing what to do, a person takes into account whether it will benefit other people. People who have this level of purpose feel a responsibility to make the world a better place, and feel that their lives have meaning.” In my experience when you teach students about purpose by introducing and teaching character and how to put it in action, you give students the opportunity to bring meaning into their life and when they experience meaning, they experience motivation, and when this happens they start to experience a deeper level of happiness that comes from seeing good in others and doing good for others. Remember: Living a life of purpose leads to happiness.

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3. If you want to make a difference in your school, slow down enough to give students your full attention.

One year I gave out ten quantifiable feedback forms per week for the entire year to students and or staff. These forms asked people to rank me on a scale of 1-10 as their teacher, colleague, friend, etc. and then to tell me how I could be a 10 knowing that was rarely if ever going to be the case. I learned through this process that students and staff felt like I was so busy all of the time that I never gave them my full attention. People want to share their stories and passions with you. Students have questions. Friends and family want to connect. One of the greatest gifts we can give to someone else is our full attention. This is where you hear what is really going on in the lives of your students and what is up with your school. Don’t miss it because you are too busy. Remember: People crave attention and appreciation as much as they do bread. -Mother Teresa

4. If you want to make a difference in your school, start each day by holding the door open for people…and while you are at it, teach your students to do the same.

For 10 years at the high school I worked at, students would hold open the doors each morning for students, staff, and community members. None of these students were graded for doing this, they did it because they chose to and because they knew that it was one of the best ways to consistently build positive connections with people each day. As the years went on, I noticed that more and more of the students standing at the door were not apart of our student leadership program, but were just students who wanted to connect and give back to others as well. I’ve learned that it’s not that students don’t want to do good, sometimes they just need someone to do it first. I used to shy away from saying people needed to greet intentionally each day, but now I do because it is one of the simplest (but not easy or everyone would do it) strategies to start improving the culture and climate of your school each morning. Remember: We were built to be relational and connect from the time we were little babies.

5. If you want to make a difference in your school, teach your students to sign up to do hard things.

In a day and age where everything seems to be right at our fingertips and instant, we can easily get into the trap of immediate gratification. If we are going to teach our students about the importance of delayed gratification, we need to teach them to sign up to do hard things. From my experience, when you give students the opportunity to sign up for things that are in service of others and are a part of something bigger than themselves, then they show up to make a difference. Deep down we want to have purpose in what we do and when you bring purpose into what you are doing in your school by taking on projects that serve students, staff, and the community, watch what kind of difference it makes. Remember: It is the things we work hardest for that will reward us the most.

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6. If you want to make a difference in your school, provide cover from above.

One of the things I always told my student leaders who were working hard to make a positive difference in our school was that "When things go well, I will give you all of the credit, and when things go wrong, I will take the responsibility." The goal with this is for students to know that they have a safe space to fail and learn from mistakes. Remember: When you provide cover from above as the leader, it allows your people to do their jobs on the ground.

7. If you want to make a difference in your school, love your students, but make your love relentless.

My students knew that although I would take the responsibility when things didn't go well, it doesn’t mean that we were not going to talk about what needed to change or improve for the future. High supports but also high accountability. When my wife and I were expecting our first born we asked our high school students what advice they would give to us as new parents. It was the specific advice from our most respectful and hard working students that struck us most. They said, “As much as we push back on you when we are growing up, stay on us and hold us accountable because deep down this is not only what we need, but also what we want.” We need to relentlessly pursue our students with not only unconditional love when it comes to kindness, but also unconditional love when it comes to keeping high expectations and accountability for them. Remember: You can love someone and not always “feel like it”.

8. If you want to make a difference in your school, trust the process.

Over the years of teaching a full load of character and leadership classes, I had students from all different walks of life and backgrounds. I had students who wanted to be the next student body President, and I also had the student who was placed in the class because our counselors thought it would be “good for them”. One of the things I learned from my years of talking about Character Development and Social Emotional Learning is that it is not that students don’t want to be good, they just don’t always know what it looks like. I also have learned that some of the most powerful stories of change and impact have come from the students who act like they aren’t interested or don’t want to be in the class. I have also learned that when it comes to culture and climate work with what you are doing to create community in your school, that when your biggest activities are outward focused, to serve the community and each other, that's when people want to be apart of it and contribute. Remember: people support what they help to create.

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9 - If you want to make a difference in your school, role model what strong character looks outside of school.

I still remember every story that my high school teacher told me about his family, including the day he first saw his wife before they were married, running down the road in a red jogging suit near the college they both attended. I remember we were all drawn into these stories because it was something we could all connect with, in that we either had a good home life and knew how important this was, or that we did not have a positive home life and knew how important this was. He was teaching us about strong character through sharing his personal stories of family and community outside of school. We need to make the hard choice to prioritize family and relationships outside of work. Remember the airplane instruction, “Please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others with their own.” If we don’t take care of ourselves and our family and friends, we won’t be able to most effectively serve and care for our students.

10 - If you want to make a difference in your school, keep pursuing your most difficult students.

It is with our most difficult students that many of the most beautiful and uplifting stories come. It can be so exhausting at times to stay with it when holding high expectations and high supports for a student who does not have either of those before coming into your class. I remember a female student once who came into my class and would not give me the time of day, even though I intentionally brought positivity and encouragement unconditionally to her day in and day out. One “battle” we had was that everyday she had the book Twilight out on her desk and I could not get her to put it away. She was glued to it! On a particular difficult day with this student I was determined to change this. I went to the main office after school and asked if anyone had read the Twilight book series. I found an enthusiastic Assistant Principal who had, so I spent the next ten minutes asking questions about the basic plot line, learning names of the characters and asking questions about what happened during the series. The next day in class my student once again had her book out and would not put it away so I shared with the class that I didn’t know why these books like Twilight were so popular because they were so predictable. She immediately was offended and then challenged me to predict what happens. I gradually worked my way through the book by asking one question about who the characters were and the basic plot line and then kept saying, “And then this probably happens…” Needless to say, her jaw was on the floor with how accurate I was. At the end when I had her convinced, I smiled and she knew. For the rest of the semester this student was completely different, still struggled from time to time with content, but when it came to our relationship she knew that I cared enough to keep pursuing her. I still remember the day I received a message out of the blue years later saying how she was doing and that she still remembers what she learned in class and how important it is to her today. Remember: Hurt people, hurt people and every student deserves someone who is crazy about them.

About the AuthorJohn is co-founder of CharacterStrong as well as the Whole Child Program Administrator and Director of Student Leadership for the Sumner School District, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year and taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School. 

Helping Students Discover the "Why Not" To Their "Why Me"

Inspired by Simon Sinek’s "How Great Leaders Inspire Action" the high school leadership theme at Harrison Preparatory is “why.” Why we are leaders. Why it’s important to care. Why it’s important to show you care. Why it’s important to show students what we’re doing and include them in the conversation. Why we do what we do.


Harder though for teenagers is to discover their own individual why for leadership. Some join because they want to serve, participate and plan. Some join because they were told they’d be good at it or their older siblings did it. Others joined because the counselor scheduled them for leadership (because that’s what fit in their schedule). So challenging them to find their own why initiates a deeper conversation into who they are, what they stand for and how they make a stand.

As they work in their journey towards their own individual why, they find along the way what we call the “phrasal whys.”

As in phrasal verbs, a phrasal why is when you add something to your why that changes it.

Sometimes it detracts from it. Introducing the “why me.”

Everyone has a “why me” moment. These are the moments we spin on, the ones that haunt us in the dark, the ones we think about when we’re already low. They are the moments we play the what-if game with.

For a teenager, it could be anything from “why didn’t I make the basketball team” to “why didn’t that guy ask me to homecoming.” Or the profound. “Why did we have to move…again.” “Why did my parents get divorced.” “Why did that person have to die.”

How we move beyond these moments is that we find the light in them. The “why nots.”

Because you didn’t make the team, you got to do a play. Or join a club. Or volunteer. Or maintain a high GPA.

Because that guy didn’t ask you to homecoming, you got to go with a group of friends and have a great time or bond with your family or do something else entirely.

Because of your moves, you have friends all around the nation, or perhaps the world. You have skills from being able to quickly adapt to a new location and maybe can even communicate in multiple languages.


Because your family has been through hard times, you might be closer to your siblings. You have a greater empathy for others going through the same, so you help others cope by lending an ear and a shoulder. Or your family grew twice as large when you realized the amazing stepfamily you have.

Helping students find their “why not” to their “why me” helps them not only to create steps towards a more positive outlook on their situations but also allows them to recognize that their strengths have come from a place of work, of struggle, of adaptation. They can use this to enhance their why and recognize the gifts that life has given them, in turn using those to support others.

About the Author: Amy Stapleton is a leadership and Spanish teacher and ASB adviser at Harrison Prep and constantly challenges her students (and herself) to serve their school, to find light in dark situations and to light the way for others. In addition to working on Mt Olympus camp staff for AWSL, she is also a CharacterStrong advocate and strives to make education about building relationships and teaching the whole child.

Harrison Preparatory is a 6-12 International Baccalaureate school with Clover Park School District in Lakewood, Washington. In a school of 650 and growing across seven grades with a large military population, the leadership classes focus on building positive school climate and culture through hard work, supporting each other with small kind gestures and learning from their own "why-me" moments.

Walking Out and Walking Up - What Are Our Next Steps?

Written By: Houston Kraft

At CharacterStrong, we believe that real impact happens if there is PRACTICE alongside PROTEST. The right to assembly and protest has, and will continue to be, a foundational part of our democracy. The fact that students are engaged enough to organize today’s National Walkout should be a reminder to all of us that student voices are 1) powerful and 2) looking to be heard.


Did some students use this as an opportunity to simply get out of class? Of course. Have there been some challenging political issues to navigate as schools? Absolutely. But in a world where it seems like nothing is “business as usual,” we can anticipate more and more complicated conversations like this to occur. The work of Education is hard and messy because our schools don’t exist in vacuums - they must be responsive to the world and culture around them.

The question we always have at CharacterStrong is: “What happens next?”

How can we take a powerful, emotional experience and create sustained impact? How can we support real change through practical application and exercise?”

So, in honor of the 17 beautiful humans lost in Parkland, we want to share 17 days of practical ways to improve yourself, school, family, community, and world. We are calling it #my17 and we encourage you or your class or your school to create your own.

My 17:

Day 1) I will clarify & write down what I am fighting for in this world.

Day 2) I will meet someone new and I will make sure I leave them better than I found them.

Day 3) I will make sure to thank each of my teachers - even the ones I don’t get along with so well - for their work, passion, and profession.

Day 4) I will put my phone away and engage fully with my family. I will ask them questions about who they are and what they believe in.

Day 5) I will spend an hour alone - away from social media or distractions - to remind that 1) I can be with myself and be okay and/or 2) that loneliness can be brutal.

Day 6) I will write down 10 things I am grateful for and why and put it somewhere I will see often.

Day 7) I will take ownership over my campus and find one way to make it more clean.

Day 8) I will be an encourager to everyone I see. I will lift people up and celebrate people for their talents or their character.

Day 9) I will learn 3 new names. Names are our identity and, when we take time to learn someone else’s name, it reminds us of their humanity.

Day 10) I will show up a bit early and hold the door open for people as they walk into my school.

Day 11) I will find an opportunity to serve my community by working with or learning about a local non-profit.

Day 12) I will create a Bucket List For Others by asking 15 people what would be on their Bucket List. I will save this list for a rainy day (or a sunny one).

Day 13) I will give 5 genuine compliments to people. Compliments can sometimes seem fluffy - but I believe it is the skill of seeing beautiful things in others and having the vocabulary and vulnerability to tell them.

Day 14) I will cleanse my social media of negativity. I will unfollow things that are untruthful or hurtful towards myself or others. I will make sure that what I have posted recently brings goodness, kindness, and positivity into the world.

Day 15) I will get engaged in politics by doing research. I will research how policy impacts my school. I will research who my local and state representatives are. I will clarify where my vote does or will go.

Day 16) I will write 17 Thank You cards to people in my school. Friends, counselors, administrators, teachers, school resource officers, bus drivers, custodians, lunch servers, bookkeepers - the people that make my school incredible.

Day 17) I will reflect on what I’ve done and make a plan to move forward. I will invite other people into the process. I will make a commitment to a time and place where my friends and I will meet and talk about how we can, and must, be better for each other. I will not stop growing in compassion, love, empathy, and kindness because this world deserves the best version of me.

May we all continue to fight for the things we believe in. May we continue to teach young people how and why to stand up or speak out about things that matter in a civil, effective way. And, most importantly, may we all go to work as individuals on making our little slice of world better through our daily practice of character.


If you would like to put this up in your classroom to give them practical ways to make an impact here is a poster you can print out.

About the Author: Houston Kraft is a professional speaker, leadership consultant, and kindness advocate who speaks to middle schools, high schools, colleges, and businesses across the country. He has spoken to nearly a half a million people nationwide at nearly 500 events and counting. 

Getting Gritty in a Middle School Math Class: 5 Ways to Infuse a Growth Mindset

Written By: Enterprise Middle School

As a teacher, it seems like everywhere I turn I hear talk about “mindset” and “grit.”   

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“Don’t praise for being smart, praise for effort.”

“We want our kids to have a growth mindset.”

“Our students need more grit!”

Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth’s ideas & terminology have permeated American school culture.  Trade magazines, internet sites, TED talks, you-name-it, they’re talking about our students’ mindset and the need for us to instill grit & perseverance along with academic content.  

The case has been made & our mission is clear: We need to overcome traditional fixed mindsets & promote grit.

The question is, “How?”

In order for me to actually be able to affect change & go beyond simply championing these ideas with my students, I need ways to intentionally teach “grit” with my content.  My students need skills, not platitudes. And, as their math teacher, I need ways to teach specific skills that make sense to them, that make it practical & worthwhile for them to keep trying with difficult concepts. So, here’s my own personal “hit list” for instilling GRIT:

1. Prepare students to take risks & make mistakes.

Students need to view our classrooms as risk-taking, mistake-making, safe environments.  This requires intentional instruction and constant reinforcement. No one likes making mistakes.  But, students who grow their understanding have learned that mistakes are just part of the learning game.  That’s why our lessons about mindset & character are so valuable. As with all skills, students need to practice taking risks with new information & celebrating productive mistake-making.  In addition to lessons practicing these skills, we need to foster & support the kind of environment that promotes this mindset. Some of the best ways I’ve seen this done and used myself include “My Favorite No,” various growth mindset lessons specific to math - such as Jo Bohler’s “Week of Inspirational Math,” and number talks that focus on peer-to-peer instruction. Students need to hear praise for mistakes that help illustrate, for risking their egos by asking questions and they need to see their teachers champion risk-taking mistake-makers.  

2. Multiple strategies & a plan of attack = perseverance.

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There’s simply no intelligent way to keep trying any tasks without multiple strategies and a protocol for employing them. As a problem solver, I need multiple ways “in” to a problem. These might include guess & check, drawing or modeling, using easier numbers, estimating, listing, organizing with a table, or even working backwards. Additionally, I need a protocol. I need reading strategies to find the important information. I need to find the unknown & discard the irrelevant. I need ways to check my work other than just re-doing a problem. And, finally, I need to use estimation or some other method to see if what I’ve done makes sense.

3. BOTH time alone with a problem AND effective collaboration promote deep think time.


All students need time to consider a problem by themselves.  They also need specific instruction on how to do thisl. They need to identify the questions they have and mark their confusion.  They need to think about restating the problem in terms meaningful to themselves. Then, they need a chance to explain their thinking to someone else engaged with the problem.  In order to be effective, this collaboration needs to incorporate intentionally taught listening skills and academically respectful language such as offered in the CharacterStrong Curriculum. The focus should be on, “What do I know?”  “How do I know what I know?” “What do you know?” “How is what you know different or the same as what I’m thinking?”  Students need to reach the powerful conclusion for themselves that, most of time, we don’t really understand something deeply until we can discuss it and explain it to (and with) someone else.

4. Targeted questions during the process to guide focus and uncover misconceptions.

Novice (and sometimes not-so-novice) problem solvers need guiding questions to stay focused & figure out where their confusion lies.  As a teacher, each worthwhile learning activity or problem I give students to solve needs my forethought in the form of planned questions. These questions are designed with anticipated misconceptions in mind. What do most students struggle with on this? How will this type of misconception look? What questions will put them back in the problem without simply explaining? These questions can mean the difference between students persisting & simply giving up.

5. Personal reflection time focused on effort and effectiveness.

All too often, in our rush to complete our scope & sequence, we teachers forget to give time & space for personal reflection. All of us need time to think about our efforts & even rate our effectiveness. As a problem solver, I need targeted questions that allow me to un-pack how I thought about a problem and how my efforts worked or didn’t work.  Ideally, this involves some planning or goal setting for my next efforts. Often, this might include inviting feedback from a peer, a mentor, a teacher. I want to know BOTH how I did according to someone else engaged in the learning process AND how I felt I did - and I want evidence.

A final word: This is only a general list of things that have worked for me and it’s very incomplete. I'm sure many more great ideas are out there that have never occurred to me. But, I’ll warn the uninitiated. All of these ideas require planning and all require extra effort, beyond out-of-the-textbook curriculum delivery.

Of course, that should make sense if you think about it.  

Shouldn’t teaching grit to our students require using some ourselves?  

About the Author: Enterprise Middle School is located in the Richland School District in West Richland, WA that has 700 students in a growing district. They started using the CharacterStrong advisory and leadership curriculums this year and have become one of our flagship schools, showing what can happen to a building if they put their focus on relationships.

Before bringing the curriculum in, they assembled a rockstar team who did a lot of work to plan out implementation of the advisory and leadership curriculum. Their principal and guidance counselors wanted to train their staff on the curriculum so they hosted a CharacterStrong training at their school also bringing in teachers, administrators and counselors from surrounding schools. 


3 Things We All Should Agree on After Parkland

Written by: John Norlin

Once again our country was horrified to see a mass school shooting in a place where all families should feel safe to send their As the aftermath unfolds it feels different. It feels like there is an increased urgency and heightened awareness for something to change. Maybe it is because students are actually the ones leading the change movement. Maybe it’s because we actually aren’t numb to something so horrific and heartbreaking that it leaves you without words. Maybe it’s because deep down we realize that without change of some kind, we will continue to have these same conversations over and over again. No matter what your stance is on this issue, or what you believe needs to change, I hope that we all can agree on the following three things:

1) We were built to be relational, yet we are more isolated than ever before as a society.


From the time we are newborns, we are seeking connection. Studies done on premature babies show us that babies who are regularly held in infancy compared to those that are not go home weeks earlier, have greater cognitive growth, and are able to cope with stress at a much higher ability. We were built to be relational and we have smart phones, tablets, computers, watches, etc. that have us connected like never before, but we also have a young generation that feels more isolated than ever before. Young people have the promise of connection at their fingertips, yet rarely does that electronic device deliver on the real thing. We need to teach students strong relationship skills including how to deal with one’s emotions, how to reach out, connect, pay attention, and actively listen.

2) We need to stop living for happiness, and start living for purpose.


At the National Character Lab Conference led by Angela Duckworth, Duckworth mentioned that, in her research, the most successful people were those who have a deep “single-purpose why.” They knew why they woke up every day and had a deeper reason for living. It was a goal greater than simply graduating from high school, which was the average response given by a high school student on their purpose for showing up. Duckworth noted that graduating was a good goal, but not a deep single purpose why. When we teach students about purpose we push them to think beyond “me” and to be a part of something bigger than themselves. When asked how to teach purpose to students, Duckworth mentioned two things. First, she said that it is not our job to teach students what their purpose is, but that we should get them grappling with their purpose. One way we can do that is to teach students about character development and putting character into action - relationships naturally foster purpose. The second thing she mentioned is that all teachers should be sharing their purpose with their students at the beginning and midway point of the year. Why do you do what you do? Students learn from our words and most importantly by our example.

3) Everyone needs character development.


If you were to ask the question, “Who needs character development?” sometimes you will see people pause because they think about the most difficult person that they have to deal with each day - a tough student, family member, or friend. In reality, the answer is EVERYONE needs character development. In fact, when I pause to think, I quickly come to the realization that I need character development on more days than I would like to admit. When we create a culture of character and focus on teaching the whole child instead of just test-takers, we will begin to universally address an underlying need that is at the heart of the majority of issues our world is facing. When we put a focus on character development, we begin to address gaps in things like patience, kindness, humility, respect, selflessness, forgiveness, honesty, and commitment. When we focus on character development, we bring back into focus the importance of human connection and dealing with pain in ways that heal and bring us closer instead of ways that tear us apart. When we focus on character development, we begin talking about love - not love based on a feeling, but a deliberate choice that is unconditional. If love was taught intentionally and, as a result, exercised more in the may very well be the antidote we are looking for.

About the Author: John is co-founder of CharacterStrong as well as the Whole Child Program Administrator and Director of Student Leadership for the Sumner School District, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year and taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School. 

It's Not one More Thing On the Plate, It is the plate: Making Time for the Whole Child

Written by: Enterprise Middle School

What are your test scores? How do your students compare to the state average? How do you compare to other schools in your district? How many practice/Interim tests have you given? Did you reteach all the concepts they missed? These are the type of questions teachers receive on an annual basis. In fact, it’s just a reality of teaching in America today. Society wants to have high test scores, because it’s a way of keeping score. Test scores are published every where, including real estate websites, so every district is pushing on test scores and getting as close to 100% as possible. And don’t get me wrong there’s real value in looking at hard data to determine if an educator, school or even district are on the right path.  


As a Language Arts teacher my job is to teach two different test subjects, reading and writing, all in one hour a day. Obviously, I don’t need to tell you that it is really difficult to get all of the content I need to teach done in one hour a day. So when someone brings a new idea to you… just look at them like they are crazy. When am I going to have time to do that?  

After implementing CharterStrong, I believe all educators NEED to make time for this level of Social Emotional Learning. Let me tell you how this story all began. Last year, our enthusiastic counselors came to us and said they had this great program that we could implement in our school. We have all heard that before right? If you’ve been in education for a while, you’re used to one more thing being put on your plate. But with a healthy dose of skepticism, I decided “okay” let’s give this a try. Now, this wasn’t a program, this really was a culture/climate change for our school, so of course we were really interested at this point.  The more we dug into the program the more we realized that this wasn’t one more thing on the plate, THIS WAS THE PLATE.

We decided that we would implement an advisory model at our school and that meant that every Friday we would be teaching a CharacterStrong lesson for 30 minutes. Thus, we would lose 5 minutes from each class on Fridays (which to be honest, middle schoolers have a very hard time holding their attention on Friday’s so the thought of losing 5 minutes of class sounded reasonable). This reduced Friday class time led to them actually being engaged for more amount of time. We started this program and I noticed a difference immediately.


My students were actually paying attention in class, not just during the advisory time, but in my regular classes. I felt like I was actually getting the “WHOLE” child for an hour instead of maybe half them. I was getting them to be more engaged in what we were talking about, the students are really buying into success and what it means to be a student. I began noticing that my students grades were higher. I had never had this many A’s in my 18 years of teaching.  I had students that were helping each other in big and little ways. I was noticing that lessons that usually took 2 days were only taking one, and not because my students who came to me were at a higher academic level than normal. If anything the opposite is actually true. However, it felt like they were higher because they were being more present in the moment and really listening to the content of the lesson because of their increased EQ (Emotional Intelligence). I haven't had any student referrals to the office this year, not one! Considering all the complexity surrounding behavior in middle school it’s truly remarkable that a intentional focus on Service, Empathy, and Leadership can have such a sharp, immediate impact to my student’s success.

So now comes the testing, I was wondering if this new “Whole Child” approach to education would positively affect my students when it came to standardized testing. The simple answer is YES! The students that have me for advisory and have a relationship with me, really wanted to do well on the test. I could tell in their attitude on test day, it wasn’t dread, it was something new...excitement! I knew they were ready and they knew they were ready.  Success seemed inevitable. I tallied all my results on the standardized MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) test and the kids in my advisory class averaged a growth of 5 points (FYI: 3 points is a year’s growth), so they grew almost 2 years on average on the test! Keep in mind, I am not teaching any new content that I didn’t already teach last year.  My Language Arts curriculum is exactly the same, but my kids are improving at a much greater rate!

What has changed in my classroom to make such an impact?  One word: CharacterStrong!  My kids are forming relationships with me that they didn’t have before and it is increasing my ability to teach the content that is required and honestly, it is giving me more time rather than less to do my job.  Isn’t that what we are always fighting for? By focusing on brief character-driven, social emotional lessons while forming real connections with others, my students’ futures are BRIGHTER THAN EVER!

About the Author: Enterprise Middle School is located in the Richland School District in West Richland, WA that has 700 students in a growing district. They started using the CharacterStrong advisory and leadership curriculums this year and have become one of our flagship schools, showing what can happen to a building if they put their focus on relationships.

Before bringing the curriculum in, they assembled a rockstar team who did a lot of work to plan out implementation of the advisory and leadership curriculum. Their principal and guidance counselors wanted to train their staff on the curriculum so they hosted a CharacterStrong training at their school also bringing in teachers, administrators and counselors from surrounding schools. 

Award winning Teacher's Advice on how to change school culture

Written by: Karl Karkainen

“Anyone can step up and lead. Anyone can step back and serve.”

For teachers who are in charge of either creating or developing a student leadership program in their first year as an advisor, it can be an exciting task. But where can a teacher who has the enthusiasm to build their school’s student leadership program get started?

The entire process begins with creating a vision that answers some basic questions:

  • How can all students identify leadership qualities in themselves?
  • Where can students receive opportunities to practice the empathy-building skills learned in leadership class to make their learning authentic?
  • How can students work with school staff to develop a school theme that lasts throughout the entire school year?
  • How can students be encouraged to buy into a vision where every student feels they belong at school?

In our school’s student leadership program, we have developed a vision to empower all students to believe that they are leaders with the phrase that "Anyone can step up and lead, and anyone can step back and serve."

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The goal would be that every lesson and project-based activity in our student leadership classes would relate to this vision as students come to understand the initiative and confidence required to create a positive difference in their world. It is also just as important that students understand that leadership is about empowering others and building influence through service.

Leadership is for everyone, and everyone deserves to feel they belong at school. Student leaders must take ownership in helping to create this positive school environment. In the CharacterStrong Curriculum, students have opportunities to learn about themselves with a personality assessment. Some students at first do not believe they are leaders. But they soon learn that while we are all born with a distinct personality, all personalities can be vehicles for developing the character muscles needed to step into the role of a strong, positive leader. Another component in the curriculum is recognizing conflict, both internal and external, and understanding that there are strategies to show leadership by responding positively in difficult situations.

In addition, there is an emphasis on learning the “Eight Essentials” that are designed to help anyone to build their influence and improve their relationships with others. Examples of these Essentials, such as kindness, commitment and acceptance, are important concepts meant for every student to understand. Being aware of these Essentials also helps keep me accountable as a teacher. Am I showing patience with all students? How about committing to what I say I will do?

There are four words that start with the letter “S” that can help new advisors in organizing their vision for what student leadership activities look like at their school - Service, Supervision, Spirit and Speaking. With each “S” comes a question for students to think about and twenty possible examples of how to answer it:

Service - What did you do for others today?

  • Taking a field trip to volunteer at a community food bank or retirement center
  • Organizing classroom competitions to collect items for a food drive
  • Writing thank-you notes to staff members (especially the unsung heroes)
  • CharacterDares that challenge students to participate in activities such as helping out their parents around the house without being asked
  • Supporting local Special Olympics athletes at a Pack the Gym Night event
  • Creating displays to bring awareness to important causes
  • A global project - it brings the school together when there is a common goal
  • Helping the custodians with clean-up at an event
  • Reading with a first grade classroom

Supervision - How are you taking responsibility as a leader?

  • Taking turns monitoring recycling, compost and garbage bins at lunch
  • Creating a small garden at school and taking care of sustainable plants

Spirit - How can you make everyone feel they belong at school?

  • Choosing one day of the week to greet students at the main doors as they arrive at school
  • Building excitement for a variety of school events (club competitions, sports games, music concerts, dances, etc.)
  • Selecting spirit days that provide all students with opportunities to participate
  • Writing and delivering birthday grams to students
  • Creating a hallway display that features everyone’s name in the school

Speaking - How are you communicating how we should treat each others?

  • Opportunities for students to use their voice in Veterans’ Day and Martin Luther King assemblies
  • Student voice being present in morning announcements with inspirational quotes or references to a school theme
  • Field trip to 4th and 5th grade classrooms to teach a lesson on one of the Eight Essentials and build excitement for middle school
  • One way to create common purpose in our school has been developing a theme for the year. Students this year decided on the theme of Choose Love. They have carried on this theme be presenting monthly discussions to homeroom classes on Eight Essentials topics and facilitating conversations based on impactful videos and how we can apply these lessons into daily life at school. Then, support this theme on the video announcements.
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When students see their peers acting as positive leaders, they will want to join in and experience what it looks like to build influence for themselves - whether by joining the general elective leadership class or by building on these principles during sports, clubs or in the classroom. Ultimately, the lessons that students learn through social-emotional learning experiences both in and out of the classroom help them to understand more about themselves and others better. Since leadership is all about relationships, these lessons will prove to be relevant and valuable to students both now and in the years to come.

Video Resources:

About the Author: Karl Karkainen is a leadership teacher at Enumclaw Middle School in Enumclaw, WA and was the 2015 Washington State Middle Level Adviser of the Year. Karl is constantly challenging his students to be CharacterStrong by serving others in their school, home and community. Karl's students frequently publish videos showcasing how they are choosing to love others in their building, interviewing students on SEL topics and much more. Subscribe to their YouTube channel here and follow them on Twitter @emswolfie to see some of the amazing activities they are doing to serve others! 

How the Character Dare Process Changed My Life

Written By: David Volke, Liberty Middle School

As a teacher newer to the profession, I recognize and accept that I have a lot to learn. I guess it is a good thing that learning has been a friend of mine for decades. Learning has been inspiring but often challenging. There are times when I have felt that a task was simply impossible… until it wasn’t and that “Aha!” moment hit me. Combined with personal reflection, learning can help me grow as an educator, husband, father, leader, and human being. The learning process is a journey. A procession of steps towards a goal that is ever changing or redefining itself as my understanding and personal schema absorb and interpret the new information. One such journey began on a fateful day in the fall of 2016.


Many teachers dread professional development days during the school year. Often they are dictated by the administration at the school or by the district and can be seen as taking up precious time that could be used for planning, grading, communication with fellow teachers or families, and a multitude of other tasks that teachers juggle each and every day. However, this professional development day was different. I was excited about this one. We had a guest speaker coming in whose background was character education and the whole child: John Norlin. When John began his training, I remember being engaged and connected to his stories and message that character education was just as, if not more, important in schools today. His words stuck with me. I literally wrote in my notes, “This is my goal! I want to develop this culture at Liberty.” I remember leaving that training energized and inspired to do great things at my school but I needed guidance on what to do next.

In my quest for learning and self-improvement, I found an amazing opportunity to learn more from John Norlin and the CharacterStrong team. I signed up for the first ever CharacterStrong Educator Summit in January of 2017. I had been filled with so many ideas and a renewed passion from John’s two hour training; I could not imagine being a part of a two-day training! During this process, I learned so many things about myself. I learned that my habit development for teaching character at my school was conscious and unskilled. I knew what I wanted to do but I lacked the practice to be good at it. My understanding of the variations of love expanded as I learned about the Greek words for love and their connections within my life. I saw a lot of work to be done in all facets of my life in terms of character and relationships. What if I didn’t make changes in my life? What if I waited to ask the question that needed to be asked until it was too late? What if, like in John’s story, I lived most my life knowing I gave bad hugs?

One of the most challenging parts of the two-day training was the character dares. Yet, as my grandfather used to say, anything worth taking your time doing is worth doing right. These dares were also the most impactful and resonating moments of the weekend. One of the character dares tasked us with identifying someone in our lives who has influenced us and write out 3-5 traits we learned from them. I immediately thought of my father. My father, who worked two jobs when I was a boy to make sure my family was taken care of. My father, who coached my basketball teams all through elementary school even though he was busy. My father who taught me how to work hard, dedicate yourself to something, and never give up. He is likely the most influential person in my life. Therefore, I wrote down things about him like how he taught me respect, commitment, and honesty. It filled me with warmth to write about my dad, who had done so much for me in my life.

As the training moved on, we were asked to return to that influential person we wrote about, and write out a letter to them about their influence on our lives. Light music played in the background as the 90+ people in the school cafeteria space were quietly reflecting on how to properly thank these people in our lives. I remember writing and rewriting this message to my dad, thanking him for countless moments that I could never repay, and describing the ways that he helped make me the person I grew up to be. So many memories and moments flooded back to me during this time. I vividly remember my father returning home from his graveyard shift, after having already worked his other job during the day, and there I was walking out in my pajamas asking him if he would watch Looney Toons with me. After two shifts, and little sleep, my dad agreed to sit with me and be a part of my Saturday morning experience. I remember the time that I was determined to make my own remote control so that I would be in charge of the TV. When I finished my cardboard remote, I was astounded as I was able to change the channels and the volume. In reality, my dad sat behind me and watched me push the buttons as he mimicked what I was doing on the actual remote. I didn’t find this out until years later. So many stories to share…

On day two of the training, the character dare process truly changed my life. While I can say that my father and I have always been close, for years we have been more like buddies than father and son (mentor and apprentice). When my parents divorced, the relationship between my dad and I changed. Our conversations felt superficial, our discussions were not in depth, and the connectedness we once shared had waned. This was why the final step in the character dare process was so meaningful to me. John Norlin tasked us with calling the person who had impacted us and reading them our letter. He gave us a chance to break apart and make these calls, if we chose to do so, and I resolved to see the process through to the end. When I called up my dad, I was shaking with nervousness. I listened to the phone ring and I was afraid my dad would hear my heart pounding in my chest when he answered the phone.


“Hey dad it’s me.”

“Hey buddy! How’s the training?”

“It has been amazing so far. Some of the activities we are doing are truly powerful.” I paused to gather myself before speaking.

“Hey dad? Do you mind if I share something with you?” I said nervously.

“Sure. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?” He asked as he started to catch on to my tone.

“I think it is a good thing. It’s a letter I wrote to you that I’d like to read to you now… I’m going to try and get through it without crying.”

I proceeded to read him my letter. I got choked up multiple times but soldiered on. Tears streamed freely down my face as I shared so many emotions with him that I had kept pent up for so very long. I could hear my father crying on the other end, at a loss for words, as he listened. My father is a large man. A tough man. I have maybe seen him cry three times in my life. As I finished reading, we both took some time to compose ourselves and my dad was the first to speak.

“Wow son. I don’t know if I deserve all of that. Thank you so very much for sharing with me. Let me tell you what I think of you…”


Another round of sharing and even more tears as my dad, my mentor, my advisor, my coach, my source of wisdom, but also my cheerleader, my supporter, my fan, and my friend opened up to me after so long. He shared how I have impacted his life and how I have been an idol for him. I remember ending that conversation with cheeks still wet but a smile on face. As I walked back into the room with the other professionals, I ran into John as he was preparing to bring everyone back together.

I took a deep breath and told him, “That was rough.”

John replied, “It was worth it though wasn’t it? You’re beaming right now.”

“It was absolutely worth it.”

The character dare process has very literally changed my life and my relationship with my dad. I believe in the character dare process. I believe it can be impactful if you choose to ask the questions that do not get asked. Oh, and the letter that I wrote my father? He framed it and hung it in his home. You cannot tell me that that was not impactful. Trust the process.

About the Author: David Volke is in his 6th year of education having taught in Honduras at an international high school for two years and spending the last four years at Liberty Middle School in Camas, WA. He has taught a technology class, Model United Nations, U.S. History, and AP U.S. Government but currently teaches 6th grade language arts and social studies, as well being the advisor for the school’s ASB program. On top of teaching, David has coached basketball, track, Knowledge Bowl, and MUN, as he believes it is important to work with students outside the classroom. His loving wife of nearly 11 years and two amazing daughters are his guiding force in life, always supporting him in his efforts to improve himself and his understanding. David is a CharacterStrong advocate and is interested in making education about the whole child. 

Building Influence Through Athletics

Written By: Jeff Baines

James C. Hunter said, “Leadership is influence.”  With that, the ultimate question is how can a person in a position to influence, such as the athletic director, impact the athletes, programs, school and ultimately the overall culture?  It all starts with your own purpose and your own “why”.

As an athletic director, coach or any person with the ability to work with and influence others, you must be well-engrained with your own purpose for doing what you do each and every day. Without this foundation and inner purpose, how can one serve and influence in a positive manner? My charge is that you cannot. With this in mind, it is imperative to form this foundation. For me, I define my purpose and then I follow up with a single word that will allow for constant reminders of my purpose and my why. For me, my why is this, “Make today better than yesterday and let tomorrow take care of itself.”  For the last three years, I have adopted my word for the year to support this.  These words have been “intentional” and “finish”, and this year is “courage”. Don’t cheat this step; it is imperative that this be the first task in order to set the tone and get yourself grounded in something you believe in and more importantly in something that will withstand adversity and pressure, including that pressure from parents.  Stay strong and committed to your purpose, your why.  Be genuine in your efforts and consistently reinforce what you stand for.  Jon Gordon said it well in The Carpenter, “People can tell if you have and agenda.  So don’t have one.  Just love, serve, care and build relationships and your influence will grow.”

At Sumner High School where I work, we have built a culture centered on servant-leadership and the eight essentials.  The eight essentials include kindness, respect, humility, selflessness, forgiveness, honesty, commitment and patience.  I use this to drive everything I do as an assistant principal, athletic director and ASB/Student Council Administrator. I am fortunate to be in a community that also embraces these very concepts. It has come with a lot of hard work and effort to bring servant-leadership to SHS. Use the resource you have and plug into the community resources in your area.  Each community is unique and has many great resources available.  Be humble enough to know that you do not have all the answers and there are many that can assist you in this journey.


Perhaps the most influential idea that has developed for me over the years is something that is called “Baines Land”.  It didn’t start out that way, and in fact, the name itself makes me feel a little uneasy.  This idea started with a conversation between my wife, Marguerite, and myself in our garage.  I was sharing with her my desire to get the Sumner High School staff more involved with our students’ extra-curricular lives at Sumner High School.  Our conversation shifted to home football games and my desire to provide an opportunity for staff to come out and support the team, cheerleaders, dance team and band, while they performed at our home games.

The turning came when Marguerite simply stated that the staff has families and to bring a family to a crowded football game is not an easy task, especially the many young families represented by our SHS staff.  She encouraged me to find something for families to do and you can get them there.  With that our brains started churning.  Not long after that I came home to find toys in my garage.  When asked Marguerite simply said, “They've got to have something to do if you want them there!” And on we went, buying as many toys as we could at garage sales to create our inventory of items to have on Friday nights.

That September we began to advertise free food and a place to play for kids so adults could watch the game at each of our home football games. I told everyone, all they needed to do was to show up and come find me in the west end zone.  It all started with a 10x10 pop-up tent and a few pizzas for everyone to eat and some bottled water. That first game, a small crowd came down to enjoy the evening. Kids played on the ride along toys and everyone enjoyed their pizza and the game. The thing that struck me more than anything was the connection our staff was making with each other. There was conversation and smiles, not to mention a great spot to watch the game. 

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As that first year went on, the numbers began to grow. I added pizza, snacks, water and coffee to the menu. As we approached year two, our toy inventory grew and the menu expanded a little bit more. In terms of people attending, the numbers climbed and have continued to climb. The community that was being formed was amazing. The bonds being made to each other, our school and our teams were growing as well. What started out as a small idea has grown into an amazing display of community within Sumner High School. It was at the conclusion of the second year that the term “Baines Land” was coined. This is easily a tribute to my amazing wife and our Spartan Community. What started out on game #1 with one pop-up tent and a few pizzas has grown into eight tents, Jimmy John sandwiches, water, juice coffee, snacks and the ultimate playground for the little ones. Kids enjoy bikes, cars, legos, riding toys, balls, trikes, and this year the addition of a pop-a-shot and inflatable slide!  In the end it’s not about anything other than how my wife and I were able to find a way to serve the community and have a positive influence on so many people that mean so much to us.                  

I hope you were able to get a small sense of my approach to my role as an athletic director and to my approach to influencing my athletes, coaches and parents in a positive way.  When you walk away from your next high school contest or activity, think of those young men and women that competed and participated as amazing young men and women that displayed tremendous courage and left everything out there for their school, their family and more important, themselves.  Be thankful for them and please make sure that you let them know.  Even the biggest, brightest and most expensive scoreboard is turned OFF at the end of the night.  Always remember, “The courage to step into and enter the arena is much more important than any result.  It’s all about the journey.”

About the Author: Jeff Baines has been involved in high school athletics as a player, coach, parent or athletic director for over 32 years. He is completing his 17th year as an administrator/athletic director at Sumner High School. Prior to being an administrator he was a  Math and Physical Education Teacher. He has seen first-hand, the power of servant leadership and the impact that serving others and caring for the whole child can have on a community. He has a daughter and two step sons. He has been married to his wife Marguerite 27 years, he considers her to be his biggest fan and biggest supporter. You can follow Jeff Baines on Twitter @BainesJeff

Mindfulness: To Pay Attention on Purpose in a Particular Way 

Written by: Lyndsay Morris


It’s a skill that is simple to do, yet not always easy to practice in our fast-paced culture. However, through this skill of wiring our brain to focus on one thing, while tuning into our internal GPS system, we begin to develop the capacity to observe our thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness is simply the practice of awareness.

When we expand our awareness and kindness for self, we're able to access awareness and kindness for others. Here at Generation Wellness, we blend mindful practices with the latest research in positive psychology, providing educators simple tools and activities that teach peace.

Shawn Achor, a Harvard Researcher, discovered there are 5 simple habits that lead to more happiness:

  1. Gratitude
  2. The Doubler
  3. Exercise
  4. Stillness
  5. Conscious Acts of Kindness

(For more info on his research, check out this awesome TED Talk.)

Therefore, we believe in teaching these “happiness habits” in our schools. This audio relaxation provides time for stillness, while focusing on conscious acts of kindness. Cheers to healthy, happy, whole human beings who positively impact the lives of others!


About the Author: Lyndsay Morris is a whole child education advocate, the founder of Generation Wellness, the host of the Wellness Warriors Show and co-author of The Mindful Student. Lyndsay is committed to “wellness for all” by integrating movement, mindfulness and cutting-edge social/emotional activities that teach the skills needed to thrive in both school and in life. She empowers students, parents and educators to live a life of happiness, health and success through trainings, webinars, virtual mentoring and the Wellness Warrior Community. 

Quantifiable Feedback

Written By: Houston Kraft

One of the hallmark skills of great educators is the ability to give and receive feedback. At CharacterStrong, we think of feedback as the breakfast of champions — it demonstrates humility and courage and gives you critical data to improve yourself and your relationships. We ALL have blindspots - things we don’t know that we don’t know and things we don’t see that we don’t see. But most people don’t help you see those blind spots uninvited! Great leaders actively seek it out. The only rule? When someone is generous enough to give it (it can be a vulnerable process for them, too!), you cannot get defensive. Humility requires us to hear their feedback from their point of view, thank them honestly, ask for clarification if needed, then get to work.

When we take time to actually act on feedback given to us by intentionally working to close the gaps that have been identified in our actions or our character or our relationships, it shows to the people that we’ve asked that:

1) You care enough to truly listen to what they have to say and

2) You care enough about that relationship to honor their feedback with the hard work necessary to improve.

It is a good reminder that the people who give us this feedback don’t expect us to be perfect. In fact, the simple act of asking for feedback usually raises eyebrows (in a good way) because it is the sometimes scary and humbling recognition that you DON’T have it all together. The further act of following through on that feedback, even imperfectly, is evidence to those that you are trying to serve that you WANT to be better. These are healthy things in our relationships.

Finally, if you ever want to be taken seriously when dishing out feedback to those you care about, it certainly helps to have been proactive in asking for it first. The more you ask for it, the more you build the credibility to give it.

You can download our Quantifiable Feedback Form here. This is one of the many ways at CharacterStrong that we use to gather feedback. This specific technique can be used in multiple ways.


1) Give it out to individuals and use it to address your relationship to them. Use it to ask, on a scale of 1-10, how am I doing as a Sibling/Spouse/Friend/Teacher/Co-Worker/Etc.. Then, what are some specific ways I can be more of a 10 in our relationship?

2) Give it out to multiple people and target something you think you might need work on. Use it to ask, on a scale of 1-10, how am I doing as a Listener/Communicator/Planner/Etc.. Then, what are some specific ways I can be more of a 10 in that skill?

The more of these you give out, the less it stings when you get back the good, raw, real stuff. We always say it is better to know - at least then you can DO something to actively make your relationships and your world better.

Let’s get to work!

About the Author: Houston Kraft is a professional speaker, leadership consultant, and kindness advocate who speaks to middle schools, high schools, colleges, and businesses across the country. He has spoken to nearly a half a million people nationwide at nearly 500 events and counting.