Breaking Educational Norms in Nepal by Putting Students First

Written By: Laura Handy-Nimick

One of the great things about being a teacher and working on Life's Handy Work is that, at times, my day job and non-profit life collide. This is one of my favorite collisions.


Greeting others is a norm at my middle school. Upon arriving at school, students are welcomed into the building with music, a "good morning" and a high five. Dawn, our head custodian, has become our chief door greeter, with students joining her to greet their peers as they enter the building. Then, as students enter their classes throughout the day they are greeted by their teachers. These greetings usually entail a high five, kind words, or in the case of my friend Anna's students, a handshake followed by a silly question like, "dinosaurs or dragons?" Greeting students has become part of our daily routine and part of our culture thanks to the whole child emphasis at Sumner-Bonney Lake School District and implementing strategies from CharacterStrong.

Greeting students seem like "small potatoes" when thinking about the gauntlet of challenges schools and teachers face, but the reality is that time spent making students feel valued and welcomed from the moment they enter school establishes a personal connection, conveys a culture of caring, decreases behavioral challenges and increases learning.

Before traveling to Nepal in July, I reached out to Prashana Bista, director of the Chelsea Education Community Center (CECC), to see if there was anything I could do to support their teachers, some of whom are children of Nepal Orphans Home and whom we've had the privilege of supporting during their time in college.  Prashana was eager to put me to work improving learning for the younger children who were coming to CECC for an extra two hours of school after finishing a full day of learning at their primary school. I knew right away that creating consistent, positive and personal connections with their teachers was group zero for increasing engagement.

Last summer I had the privilege of taking a working road trip with Anna (dinosaurs or dragons lady) to a training put on by CharacterStrong, a company that trains teachers on social-emotional teaching and learning. Throughout the weekend Anna and I solidified what we've always believed about teaching and learning; when we value students as unique individuals and ensure their social and emotional safety, we can do amazing things in our classrooms and school communities. I was eager to take their work international and apply it at Chelsea Center.

After spending some time observing, I met with Sumi, a class ten student who was teaching younger children at CECC after she finished school every day. During our meeting, Sumi expressed frustration that her students were disengaged and had poor attitudes about attending her classes. I explained greeting at the door as the first step towards better attitudes. She seemed skeptical but was on board.


Over the next week Sumi and her students connected each day on their way in the door. She high fived, checked-in and laughed with them as they entered the room and prepared for the next two hours. Their moods shifted and their desire to be there increased with each day she was at the door waiting for them.

A few days in and Sumi and her students were ready for another CharacterStrong strategy. After previewing the day's lesson for students, Sumi took 3-5 minutes to check-in with them by asking about their day. No learning was to take place during this time - just personal connections.


On the first day, Sumi used the 0-5 finger strategy. Nonverbally, students told her how their day way. She followed up with a quick whip around the room for explanations from every student. Students shared their successes, lamented about how tired they were, and confessed that they were stressed about their homework.

The next day she used the thumbs up, down or neutral strategy, asking them to nonverbally share how school went that day (remember, they are coming to her straight from a six-hour day at their primary school), which was again also followed by a quick whip around the room for an explanation. One boy shared about an experience he had being punished in front of his entire class for not completing his homework while others shared their frustration with the monsoon rains or their nerves about upcoming exams.

Even though we'd never talked about how to reply, Sumi responded with empathy, kindness, and concern. Students felt valued, heard and supported in less than 5 minutes.

Then, the learning began.

Throughout the week I witnessed noticeable changes in Sumi's young students. Students who were responding to external stress by acting out or being unable to focus were focused, openly asking for help, and enjoying their time with Sumi even though it meant more learning at the end of a long school day.

In Nepal taking time to connect with students is not part of the educational culture. Learning is rote, students are meant to be seen and not heard and they are often left behind when they don't learn skills fast enough. The teachers at Chelsea Center, including Sumi, are an exception to these norms. They are kind, compassionate, and eager to think outside the box. With a little help from CharacterStrong they are supporting students in Nepal in ways that make them feel safe and valued while breaking unhealthy and restrictive cultural norms.


About the Author: Laura is a co-founder of Life's Handy Work, a non-profit supporting orphaned children in Nepal, and a full-time middle school teacher of 15 years. She currently teaches leadership and language arts while also serving as an ASB advisor at Lakeridge Middle School. In addition, she is on the Nepal Orphans Home Board of Advisors, focusing on improving education and teacher training in Nepal. 

Why getting kids to interact intentionally isn’t touchy feely, it’s critically needed.

Written By: John Norlin

For the past 20 years I have been presenting to students, educators, and parent groups on how to create stronger classrooms and schools by teaching strong relationship skills and the principles of servant-leadership. It has been exciting to see the number of educators and schools who are not only buying into this work, but taking ownership of it as well. However, every once in awhile, we will hear from a school that is experiencing resistance because some staff feel that the work of teaching social emotional learning, character development, and relationships skills is too “touchy feely” and they are having trouble getting “buy-in.” This is troubling to me. Let us take a step back, just for a minute, and see what is missing in our society, what is missing from our schools, and specifically what is missing from our students’ lives. More and more educators that we work with are noting that students are struggling significantly with the skills needed to succeed relationally in today’s world. Here are five reasons why teaching relational skills and character development is not “touchy feely.”

#1 - Anxiety is crushing empathy


I once had the honor of hearing Dr. Tim Elmore speak and was astonished when he shared, “The average teenager today has as much anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the 1950s.” At first I didn’t believe it, but then I started to think about my experiences the past 15 years in education and how I have seen an increase in anxiety in the students I served. The danger is that when anxiety goes up, empathy goes down. We can put metal detectors and increase police presence in schools to address a problem, but if we don’t put a focus on strengthening relationships and teaching strong character and social emotional skills, we will never get to the root of that problem.

#2 - High Expectations + High Supports = Recipe for Success

Too many times I have heard statements from educators that believe you can’t have both high expectations and high supports at the same time. “I don’t smile until the winter holiday and then I slowly ease up,” as if to say the only way to be successful in teaching is to be really hard on your students and not connect personally for a certain amount of time. “I am best friends with my students,” yet when asked more specific questions you learn that students aren’t necessarily being held accountable or held to high expectations daily, as if to say that it’s only about being positive and fun as an educator.

I still remember being a first year teacher, and during my plan period, a veteran teacher taught in the same classroom I would prep in. I remember a 12th grade student in this psychology class breaking down during a discussion and explaining that she thought she had it great because her mom was her best friend and let her do whatever she wanted. Her mom would let her host parties and even would party with her and her friends at times. The girl explained that it was wonderful until she needed her mom to be her mom. When she needed true support, her mom just wanted to be her friend. I believe the true key to success is to be both tough and tender. Hold students to high expectations and be relentless in your approach, but also get to know your students, connect one-on-one, and give students the opportunity to connect with each other. Create a classroom and school environment where students feel paid attention to and appreciated, but also that you believe in their potential. Don’t be confused, tough love is also relational work! Students will thank you for it, even if they don’t verbalize it to you while in your class.

#3 - Soft Skills are the new Hard Skills

We were introduced to a business community that had come together to talk about the issues they were seeing from students coming to them right out of high school, certificated programs, and/or colleges. They discussed how many of them did not have the basic people and character skills to be successful in their organizations. They often had solid technical skills, but lacked the ability to communicate with team members and customers, self-motivate, actively listen, or be disciplined enough to set deadlines and get work done. These business leaders realized that they were spending millions of dollars collectively teaching adults relational and character skills needed to be successful in their business or organization. They realized that these “soft skills” were the new “hard skills” and were committed to helping bring the work of developing these soft skills to 26 school districts across their area to help curb this problem and ultimately create a better upcoming workforce, community, and world. You can read about it here.

#4 - It’s as much for the adults as it is for the students

CharacterStrong provides educator trainings all over the United States and even abroad. We get to see firsthand the power of working with educators on why they do what they do and practical strategies on how they can infuse character development and social emotional learning into the daily fabric of their classrooms and schools. We have also seen the power of what happens when educators in a school intentionally put a focus on relationships with each other and how that translates into better serving students each day.

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I remember speaking with an educator from a school who had experienced powerful results from intentionally implementing our CharacterStrong curriculum as well as having staff go through our CharacterStrong training. He said, “The work we do as teachers is not easy, but for whatever reason this year it hasn’t felt like work. I actually look forward to coming to work each day!” When asked why he thought that was the case, he said the two things that stood out was 1) having a common language as a staff with the work of teaching character and social emotional learning to all their students, and 2) the focus on building relationships with each other as a staff. These are powerful words in today’s school and classroom.

Many times the term “touchy feely” from a staff member is a result of being uncomfortable teaching something that they aren’t use to teaching. This does not make it any less important to teach, but it does mean that we need to support our teachers and give them opportunities to experience it firsthand and learn how to teach it. With our CharacterStrong curriculum, we were very intentional about having teachers who were actually in the classroom help us be content editors. We knew that the lessons needed to be built by teachers for teachers and easy to implement. You can see some sample lessons here.

#5 - Intelligence without Character is a Dangerous Combination

In the book Character Compass by Scott Seider, he talks about how different schools and districts have approached the work of teaching character development to their students. At the beginning of the book he quotes Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard. Dr. Gardner said if you look at the last thirty years in our country there have been many situations where thousands, if not tens of thousands of people, were impacted in a negative way because of a lack of character decision making by people in positions of leadership. Gardner states that negative character decisions were made by our “best and brightest,” and in many cases, Ivy League students. Who needs character development? The answer is everyone! So what are we going to do to make sure that all of our students receive a consistent and viable curriculum, not just for their academics, but also their character and emotional intelligence?

We are interested in hearing about what your school is doing to make the teaching of relational skills and character development relevant and important. Let us know what approaches you are taking. You can learn more about what CharacterStrong is doing to support schools in this area by clicking here.

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

Celebrating Character Day 2018: 8 Days of #CharacterInAction

Written By: The CharacterStrong Team

To celebrate #CharacterDay2018, CharacterStrong is putting #characterinaction! For 8 days, we are working to bring the 8 Essentials (Patience, Kindness, Honesty, Respect, Selflessness, Forgiveness, Humility, and Commitment) to come to life in stories, photos, and videos.

Tag us (@careacter on Twitter and @characterstrong on Instagram) and use the hashtag #characterinaction to win CharacterStrong gear & even registrations to our Educator Trainings!‬


Watch as Houston walks the street near where he lives to try some awkward compliments.


Houston creates some Selflessness sandwiches to give to new friends.


John actually sits still for 20 minutes (which is a supreme exercise of Patience for him!)


Houston does dining right with this exercise in Respect.


John gets asked "Truth or Dare" in a really cute way to practice Honesty.


Lindsay breaks Forgiveness down for us in an exercise of self-care.


Watch Houston getting humbled as he asks for help learning a new sport…basketball!


John and Houston make a CharacterStrong commitment to character in action in 2019!

5 Sentences Your Students Need to Hear From You

1. “I think you’d be good at it.”

In close to 20 years of working with a state student leadership program, I can tell you that the line I hear more than any other on why a student decided to step up and have the courage to get involved or run for office is, “I think you’d be good at it.” There is something about this simple, yet powerful statement that causes people to act and push their comfort zones. Maybe it has something to do with meeting the basic human need that all people have, which is to be paid attention to and appreciated.

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Creating a Culture that Cares - A True Tier 1

Written By: John Norlin

School Climate and Safety have become hot topics in education. Along with helping students pass end of course and state assessments, educators now have to face the daily reminder that school safety is a top priority with the growing number of school shootings across the United States. Schools are investing large amounts of money on security measures, training, and school resource officers to ensure that our students are safe and feel secure in what should be a positive place for them to learn each day.

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As schools ramp up their efforts to create safe schools, it is easy to forget that the number one ingredient to create safe schools is to get laser-focused on creating a strong system of universal supports. Response to Intervention (RTI) is a multi-tier approach to supporting students both academically and behaviorally. Tier 1 of this model is considered the key component of tiered instruction and represents the base and what we are doing for all students universally. Usually a school with a strong Tier 1 behavior support system has an intentional system of supports happening from the school-to-student level, which would be things like explicitly taught positive behavior expectations and ways to recognize students for behaving in those positive ways. Catch them doing good instead of always making sure they don’t do wrong! A school with a strong Tier 1 would also have a strong system of support in place from the staff-to-student level - things like a strong focus on training staff on proactive classroom management, intentional relational strategies, and having a school-wide focus on implementing, with fidelity, key messaging and curricula. These are examples of simple (but not always easy!) components that begin to build the foundation for safer school climate and culture.

Sometimes this work feels like another thing on our plate, but at CharacterStrong, we believe THIS IS THE PLATE! If we recognize that this relational work is the foundation of safety, how can we get even more intentional with our tools, systems, and strategies to build these critical relationships? Not just school-to-student and staff-to-student approaches, but what if we also strengthened the student-to-student, students-to-staff, and student-to-community focus in schools? Instead of just focusing on how we can better react to things that might happen at school, what if we could get proactive to truly create safer schools? To do this, we would have to go to work as a staff to build a strong foundation - a rock solid plate - upon which we do all of our other incredible work.

We have developed a 40 Week Staff CharacterDare that provides practical strategies over the course of your year. We know that when we get busy, the abstract relational and culture-building work sometimes unintentionally falls to the bottom of the to-do list! At CharacterStrong, we like to say, “We need to be reminded more than we need to be taught!” So, our CharacterDare is a simple, weekly reminder to keep a disciplined focus on cultivating a culture of character, compassion, and relationships. Along with the staff CharacterDare we have infused into our advisory curriculum student CharacterDares that start each lesson. We believe that students want to do good, they just don’t always know what good looks like. The CharacterDare process meets students right where they are at by providing examples of what strong character looks like each week and dares them to do it. They are not graded on this, they are just asked to face the challenge. Upon returning to the weekly lesson, students start the class with the question, “Truth or Dare?” This process gives every student a voice. If a student did not do the dare they choose “Truth” and share what they think about that CharacterDare. If a student did attempt to do the week’s CharacterDare then they would choose “Dare” and share something they learned about themselves or others in attempting the dare. Following the dare process students would have a lesson on either a character development topic like active listening or a social emotional learning topic like empathy. Many of these dares and lessons provide students opportunities as well as challenges to connect more intentionally with their peers and staff in the school or even family members and or friends. We call it a True Tier One. Here are a few of our favorite strategies to create an intentional culture of connection and, in doing so, create safer schools.

True Tier One


“The Student Becomes The Master”

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Hand each student a notecard and ask them to write down their name and one thing that they could teach you. Use your new-found knowledge intentionally by asking students about what they put on the card, especially with students whom it has been harder to connect with in a positive way.


“Second Hand Compliment”

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Walk into a colleagues classroom randomly (or intentionally) one day when you aren’t teaching and compliment them in front of their class. Don’t talk to them directly, just talk to their students and let the students know why they have such an amazing educator. Remember that a basic human need that all people have is to be paid attention to and appreciated. We can never go wrong in this area! How powerful is it to brag about your colleague in front of their students? Make it genuine, make it quick, but know that you are not only possibly making someone’s day, but you are also role modeling for students what it looks like to identify good in someone else and have the skill, courage, and vulnerability to tell them about it.


“ET Phone Home”

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Take your class roster(s) and highlight the 3-5 names of students you feel could use some unconditional love and support early on in the year or semester. Pick up the phone and call home either leaving a positive message or telling the parent or guardian how excited you are to have their student in your class and a reason why.

Student to Student

Tier One Character and Social Emotional Development Curriculum

Our Advisory curriculum is designed to be a practical, easy-to-use system to build the social-emotional skills and character traits we want in safe schools. Our lessons span grades 6-12 in a vertically-aligned scope and sequence of over 200 lessons. Combining social emotional learning and character development is critical for engaging instruction at the secondary level and we have seen schools around the country use our Advisory program as the foundation for a True Tier One approach. Why? It creates a common language for staff and students, builds their emotional capacity for community and connection in schools, and gives a space where staff-to-student, student-to-student, student-to-staff, and student-to-community strategies can start to come to life!

If we want safer schools, we must first focus on the plate itself - the relationships in every building that define that building’s climate and culture. When we intentionally build connection, character, and trust, we are setting the stage for emotional and physical safety. When we teach not only academics, but the Whole Child, we are helping to create capable, compassionate young people. Let’s continue to do that incredible and purposeful work, together.

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

4 Ways to Improve Staff Morale at School

Written by: John Norlin

In a typical school year, you will pass by all of your staff at one point or another. Some staff you talk with regularly, whereas some colleagues you only see at staff meetings. It’s possible for an entire school year to go by before you realize that you have barely spoken to each other. In education, we can so easily move into silos that work against creating a strong school culture and climate. Silos bring down staff morale!

Phil Boyte has long been someone that I admire for the difference he has made in thousands of schools and in countless students and educators lives over many years. In his insightful and powerful book, School Culture By Design - Building & Sustaining Positive School Culture, he speaks of Educational Silos through an empathetic lens to understand them and move forward to create an ideal school culture by design. Phil talks about “The Silo (Un)Merry-Go-Round” that includes things like isolation and competition, gossip and hostility, confusion and resentment, and lack of integration. Sound familiar? Phil also talks about the fact that, “there is a reason people disengage from the larger whole,” and that, “every silo has a story. Learn it.” You can purchase Phil’s Book on his website by clicking HERE. It is a must read!

Having seen school through the lens of a classroom teacher, student activities advisor, coach, and district administrator, I have seen first hand what Phil speaks about in his book. It was amazing to me how many times it was the staff to staff connection (or lack thereof) that was a driving force behind a positive or negative school climate in our school. While we are working hard to serve the students as best we can with little time, limited resources, and a frantic pace - we need to remember that we make or break each other’s days more than we might realize. What if we were more intentional with creating an environment where staff want to show up everyday because of the relationships and connections we have with each other?

The following ideas come from our 40 Week Staff CharacterDare (included in our CharacterStrong Gym) that schools have access to when using our school-wide character development and social emotional learning curriculum. For more information you can click HERE.

People support what they help to create, so here are four ways to improve staff morale at your school.

1. Staff Lounge Surprise

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Come up with an idea to enhance the staff lounge by bringing some intentional fun. Create trivia table tens, bring in your old ping pong table, or even your Jenga game with a note that says, “Let the battle begin!” It doesn’t have to be elaborate or cost a lot of money, just be intentional and invite people to connect, laugh, and play. On of our favorite, anonymous quotes: “You can learn more about someone in an hour of play than a lifetime of casual conversation.” We may never have hour-long lunches, but we can be the ones to start improving our school climate and culture by bringing some fun to the staff lounge.

2. 60 Second Kindness

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At the end of each day this week, send one email of encouragement and/or gratitude to one member of your staff. Simply send a sentence or two with your positive thoughts and then hit send in less than one minute. The reality is that we are never going to feel like there is enough time, yet if we are intentional in many ways the time is there if we make time for that which is most important. Taking one extra minute before heading out the door to send a simple positive statement to a fellow colleague could go a really long way. How many times do you send an out of the blue compliment or note of encouragement and the person responds with, “How did you know that I needed that?” The fact is that we don’t always know and yet what did it cost...60 seconds or less of intentional kindness.

3. Sneaky Stickies

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Take 5-10 sticky notes and write a short, encouraging message that would inspire, remind, and/or positively challenge any staff member in your school. Put them in random staff mailboxes in the office or staff lounge area or directly on their door. We need to be reminded more than we need to be taught and it is easy to be reminded of the difficult times that we experience during the day. We need to work hard to bring in positive reminders. The work educators do is positive, powerful, and purposeful for creating a better world through our students. Let’s remind each other of that influence and opportunity we have each day.

4. Second Hand Compliment

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Walk into a colleagues classroom randomly (or intentionally) one day when you aren’t teaching and compliment them in front of their class. Don’t talk to them directly, just talk to their students and let the students know why they have such an amazing educator. Remember that a basic human need that all people have is to be paid attention to and appreciated. We can never go wrong in this area! How powerful is it to brag about your colleague in front of their students? Make it genuine, make it quick, but know that you are not only possibly making someone’s day, but you are also role modeling for students what it looks like to identify good in someone else and have the skill, courage, and vulnerability to tell them about it.

I firmly believe that every staff member in a school is an educator. We all teach every day through our interactions with others, how we treat them, how we respond to them, and how we carry ourselves moment to moment. Sometimes we need practical ideas and reminders on what we could do to positively connect with and impact others around us. All members of a school community are responsible for the culture and climate of that community. What are you going to do today to improve the staff morale of your school?

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

Research Behind First Impressions and Why They Matter in the Classroom

Written by: John Norlin

Everyone of us can remember a really positive first impression that we have had of someone as well as a really negative or bad first impression that we have had of someone. What made it so positive? What made it so negative? First impressions matter, a lot, yet it is so easy to lose sight of how important our actions are right from the start with those we lead and interact with daily. In education, we have the opportunity everyday to make a positive first impression, not only to start the day, but many times hour to hour with different students coming and going from passing periods. Common sense tells us that first impressions matter because of our own experiences, but research also backs up how important they are.

Do first impressions really matter?

Research shows, in fact, that first impressions have been shown to last for months (Gunaydin, Selcuk, & Zayas, 2017) and impact personal judgments even in the presence of contradictory evidence about the individual. (e.g. Rydell & McConnell, 2006) As educators this matters. As months easily become a large part of a semester and even year with a student. If we don’t get the first impression right, it would be very easy to lose that student from the very beginning of the year. As one of our CharacterStrong presenters and outstanding high school educator Bryan Slater always says, “It is hard for a student to learn from someone that they don’t like.” Right behind that he also says, “It is hard for a student to learn from someone they feel does not like them!” Those statements are so true. The scary thing is that I have known many solid leaders who have a great heart for those they serve, but people think that they are always mad or angry simply because of the non-verbals that they display. So many times these non-verbals are the first impression that colleagues and students see. What would someone see if they approached you for the first time?

How long does it take to make a first impression?

In Eric Wargo’s Association for Psychological Science article titled, How Many Seconds to Make a First Impression? He speaks of a series of experiments by Princeton psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov that reveal that it takes only a tenth of a second for someone to form a first impression of a stranger simply from their face. The experiments also showed that longer exposures to someone doesn’t significantly alter those first impressions, however it may boost your confidence in your previous judgements of that person. Given this information, schools would be very wise to take a deep look at reflecting on and committing as a staff to some keystone habits to make a positive first impression with their students, not only at the beginning of the year, but day in and day out. Not only do the first minutes and seconds matter, but tenths of a second. Did you have a warm expression on your face that extended a welcome feel? Did they see you looking to connect? Were you starting to say their name as they approached you or ask their name if you did not. How could you be more intentional with that first tenth of second starting today?

What can teachers do to start intentionally this school year?

At CharacterStrong we have created a 40 Week Staff CharacterDare that schools can use to remind their staff members of different ways that they can infuse strong relational and leadership practices into the daily fabric of their classrooms, hallways, and even the staff lounge. We presented this tool at the National Principals Conference in Chicago in July and many administrators were asking how they could implement this into their schools. You can implement it with your staff by ordering the CharacterStrong Gym and we will also be sharing some out each week to our blog subscribers. Here are two example Staff CharacterDares that could help you start with a solid first impression this year.

Dare One - Names Are Important

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To start the year, give each student (or a parent if it is a younger student) a notecard and ask them to write  out their name phonetically and turn it back into you.

Instead of guessing how to say certain names and having some students experience their name said incorrectly, which may happen to them often, get it right the first time by being intentional. Sometimes it is not that the student’s name is even hard to pronounce, but maybe they go by something different than what their name says on the roster. One of my good friends goes by their middle name and I never knew it until I saw his name down on a roster and it wasn’t what I was used to seeing. Remember that names are the beginning of a relationship. What kind of impression does it make when you take that first step that tells them that they matter?

Dare Four - E.T. Phone Home

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Take your class roster(s) and highlight the 3-5 names of students you feel could use some unconditional love and support early on in the year or semester. Pick up the phone and call home either leaving a positive message or telling the parent or guardian how excited you are to have their student in your class and a reason why.

Making phone calls can seem like a daunting task, but think about the power of that 3-5 minutes when you flip the script on what someone thinks is coming when they answer to hear the teacher’s name on the other end, and instead of hearing something negative they actually receive a compliment! I still remember the time when a new colleague of mine approached me and said, “You don’t remember me do you? About 7 years ago my daughter was in your 9th grade class and you called me during the school year to compliment me on raising such a wonderful daughter and gave me specific reasons why. When we hung up I cried for thirty minutes straight. My daughter was not the top student in the school, and she also was a student who never got in trouble, she was just right in the middle. Did you know that was the first phone call that I had ever received from a school about my daughter?” I have never forgotten those words. Not only are our positive phone calls home powerful seeds planted for a student who we know might be a bit more difficult during the year, but also for our students who show up every single day, do the work, and then go home and repeat again the next day. Let’s not forget to make time to acknowledge and start the year off on a great first impression with them either.

Best wishes for a great start to the school year!


Gunaydin, G., Selcuk, E., & Zayas, V. (2017). Impressions based on a portrait predict, 1-month later, impressions following a live interaction. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 8, 36–44.

Rydell, R. J., & McConnell, A. R. (2006). Understanding implicit and explicit attitude change: A systems of reasoning analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 995–1008.

About the Author: John is a co-founder of CharacterStrong, 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 and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years. 

Make Patience Normal

Written By: John Norlin


At CharacterStrong we focus on teaching what we call the 8 Essentials. These are eight different character traits that include patience, kindness, humility, respect, selflessness, forgiveness, honesty, and commitment. Over the course of the year I will be writing on each of these character traits more in depth. With each post I will breakdown the character trait and provide practical ways in which to make that trait more normal in your life. This week my focus is on patience.

To make patience more normal we need to first understand that it is more than just waiting in line or allowing someone else to talk first. The root of patience is pati, coming from the Latin word patientia, meaning "suffering”. In fact, in Latin, the word pati means to suffer or pain. In a society that pushes the message in Western Culture that it is all about me, it makes sense that patience would be connected with the word suffering. It could easily feel like suffering to intentionally choose against your urge and or impulse for personal gain or attention. In our CharacterStrong curricula, we teach students and educators that patience is head (values), over heart (emotions). This means that anytime that you choose to be the person you want to be and live by your values, over what you feel in a moment, that is patience. We define patience as, “to show self-control or impulse control”. Quoting one of our favorite authors James C. Hunter who wrote an amazing book on servant-leadership titled, The Servant: A simple story about the true essence of leadership, “Patience and self-control are about being consistent and predictable in mood and actions”.

Some key questions to ask yourself connected to patience are:

  1. Are you a safe person?

  2. Are you easy to be with?

  3. Are you approachable?

  4. Can you handle contrary opinion?

  5. Can you handle criticism?

Patience and self-control are both choices and if we are going to develop the habit of patience we must learn to respond from our principles rather than our urges in order for us to be effective as leaders and in our personal relationships. It is interesting how with certain people we can be incredibly patient but with others have a short fuse. Why is that? Do we see them as more important. Either way it shows that patience is a choice.

Here are five ways that we can practice making patience normal in our lives:

  1. Each time you get a text or notification today, wait at least one minute before you check and respond.

  2. During a 24 hour period, each time someone speaks with you, stop what you are doing and give them your full attention.

  3. Intentionally start each day of the next week by choosing to treat the first person you meet with a smile and a positive greeting.

  4. For the next 24 hours each time that you pass through a door, instead of walking through, stop and see if anyone is coming and hold the door open for them.

  5. Intentionally put the focus on others today by asking them questions instead of talking about yourself.

We challenge you to be mindful and aware of your ability to be patient in key situations this week or with different people in your life. Remember, we all need character development, and that often times starts with being more aware of our choices and behaviors and working in small ways to continuously fight the battle between who we know we want to be, and what our emotions and urges pull us to do.

About the Author: John is a co-founder of CharacterStrong, 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 and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years. 

3 Words That Need to Be Taught to Make Your School (and the World) Better

Written by: Houston Kraft

Words are important. I’ve always believed in their ability to change the way we interact the world around us by unlocking a new understanding or perspective that, previous to having language for it, we couldn’t fully comprehend.

Words have the power to ignite change, break hearts, start revolutions, and lift spirits; words have an equal ability to help and to hurt. Words can help clarify - I revel in great words that help deepen my understanding of something that was in my heart, but not yet in my vocabulary.

So, here are 3 words that you MUST share with your students (and staff!) that we believe provide powerful conversations and activities! They come from different religions, cultures, and backgrounds and, when combined, create a rather beautiful recipe for a better world.

  • Muditā (Pāli and Sanskrit: मदिता): Vicarious joy. Pleasure that comes from delighting in other people's well-being. “I’m happy because you are.”

There are two important conversations to have here. The first is about how we define “happiness” and where we find it. One of our favorite educators, Brent Grothe, wrote a beautiful post about the 4 Levels of Happiness here. The second conversation is about how to create joy in others so that you can regularly experience muditā yourself. If you are talking about creating a positive school culture, student leadership, or putting together a Kindness assembly or week - a conversation about muditā is a great foundation to build from. Learn more about the word and its history here.

  • Agapè (agápē, Greek: ἀγάπη): Unconditional, selfless love. Loving others regardless of circumstances. The capacity to choose to love someone even when we don't feel like it.

One of our favorite words at CharacterStrong is agapè. For many students, the whole concept is a huge paradigm shift because 1) they’ve always thought about love as a feeling and 2) they unconsciously allow their feelings to control their actions. A simple exercise to walk students through:

  • Have them fold a 8.5x11 piece of paper into 4 columns

  • Have them list some feelings they experience on an average day in the first column (stressed, excited, anxious, grateful).

  • Have them list how those feelings might have them act in the second column. For example, when I am feeling tired, I sometimes act grouchy or short with my peers or teachers.

  • In the third column, have them articulate choices they could make in spite of those feelings. For example, even though I am feeling excited, I can choose to have self-control in class and pay attention. Even when I am feeling tired, I can choose to exercise Kindness and smile while walking down the halls.

  • In the final column, have them go back through the list and rank which feelings they struggle to overcome the most.

  • Explain that agapè is our ability to choose against even our biggest, most challenging feelings to show up for people with love, compassion, and care even when it’s challenging, inconvenient, or scary.

Agapè is a skill that can be taught. In my recent blog about being Nice versus being Kind, I shared that Kindness is proactive - it is agapè in action! Learn more about agapè here.

  • Ikigai (生き甲斐, pronounced [ikiɡai]): "A reason for being." The source of value in life or the things that make one's life worthwhile.

The word translated to English roughly means "thing that you live for" or "the reason for which you wake up in the morning." Ikigai is personal to every person and, when what we pursue is in alignment with our purpose, it allows people to feel and act at ease (an anecdote to our culture of anxiety!). Angela Duckworth, expert on grit and resilience, says there is a direct correlation between grit and the clarity and depth of one’s purpose. In other words, purpose fuels resilience (and resilience fuels success in and out of school!) Use the following image as a guide for some powerful conversation about purpose, need, and ikigai! Learn more about ikigai and it’s history here.

Find your Ikigai. Bodetree, Adapted from Francesc Miralles

Find your Ikigai. Bodetree, Adapted from Francesc Miralles

Let’s equip students with a powerful vocabulary of character, compassion, and change. If we want to make ourselves, our school, or the world a better place, we have to be able to define what that looks like first!

What’s your favorite word to teach?


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.

Creating Ubuntu

Written by: Amy Stapleton

In the summer of 2017, I had the privilege to travel with a group of educators to study the culture, history and meet the people of South Africa.

We, a group of mostly white educators from all across the US, who met each other for the first time on the plane from Amsterdam to Cape Town, were welcomed on our first day in the Bo-Kaap neighborhood of Cape Town by local families. They taught us how to make traditional Cape Malay fare like samosas. The women laughed at our clumsy ways of rolling the dough out and gave us polite and confused looks as we likened the folding method to making paper footballs. That afternoon, over a floury table in a cramped hot kitchen, a group of American and South African strangers laughed together as we tentatively stuffed and folded samosas in slow hesitant steps over this first shared experience, breaking the ice and starting to break down walls.


This is the idea of Ubuntu which is seamlessly woven into every part of the country, from the cities to the townships to the countryside. There are many different — and not always cohesive — definitions of this feeling, even among the South Africans. But a common thread that can be seen amongst all of them is “humanity to others” and a correlated saying “I am who I am because of others.” Ubuntu values the community above self interest and a sincere warmth towards strangers is infused throughout and respectfully demonstrated. Ubuntu drives community and business relations alike, building diverse partnerships where all parties collaborate and contribute.

And as I looked around the faces of the people in the kitchen that day, my dusty, floury hands covered in sticky chicken curry filling, I realized something. This was what I wanted my classroom to feel like. A place where all parties felt welcome, felt like they were important, where they were contributing and felt like they were known — not just by me but by their peers.

So how to do it? How can we welcome our students with sincere warmth and to foster the feeling of Ubuntu in our classrooms and schools? How can we create the feeling of belonging and accepting community so that all people present are free to be themselves?

  1. Shared experience create bonds. A goofy icebreaker. A fun team building activity. A potluck meal. Students who can engage with each other in meaningful ways start to learn about their peers and see them in new light.

  2. Focus on relationships. Encourage them to use their webby, to introduce themselves to their peers and that names are important, because not only do I know their names, they should know each other’s names to foster the feeling being valued.

  3. Buy in. Taking time to create norms or house rules that every student and staff member will agree to follow in that classroom. Taking a different tack to the conversation such as “what behaviors does a good friend display?” could encourage a fresh perspective to the conversation. By taking this and connecting with the students that normed classroom behaviors could bring everyone on board to recognize the humanity in all would bring the activity full circle back to Ubuntu.

  4. Shared knowledge. Have students recognize the wealth of cultural and interpersonal knowledge in the classroom and foster a place where they are willing to share it. Going beyond “jigsaw” lessons to where students truly are the expert at something that they are passionate about where they can share it and practice cultivating Ubuntu by “hosting” others in their metaphorical kitchens.

About the Author: Amy Stapleton is a leadership teacher, Spanish teacher and ASB adviser at Yelm High School 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.

3 Ways to Practice Living Intentionally

Written by: John Norlin

I believe that we all want to be a part of something purposeful and leave an impact on this world. Some call it making a difference, others call it leaving a legacy, and some call it living a purposeful life. To be able to do this however, we need to focus on other people and learn to meet other's needs, thus leaving them better than we found them each day. This requires us to look beyond ourselves and be intentional when it comes to the choices we make and how we interact with others each day.

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In James C. Hunter’s book The Servanthe states Intentions - Actions = Squat. Isn’t that so true? We can have all the positive intentions in the world, but if we don’t actually put them into action it doesn’t amount to much. In fact, we all have fallen short when it comes to aligning our intentions + actions. This is our will and each one of us can strengthen our will the same way we strengthen our physical working it out. How have you intentionally worked out your will today?


When I was in high school my student leadership adviser, Brent Grothe, once told me that the eighteen inches from your head to your heart is the longest journey that you will ever take in your life. At first I did not fully understand what he meant, but as I matured and developed in my own leadership and experience it became more clear. The battle is in the mind. We constantly are being influenced by outside forces in our world that are vying for our attention. Some of these things are true and many of these things are not true. Messages like, “Buy this and you will be popular,” “Wear this and you will be beautiful,” or “You are enough or aren’t enough”. The battle is whether we choose to believe these messages or not. This is the eighteen inches from the head to the heart. We hear and see daily messages all around us and they enter our mind (head). We then choose whether to believe (heart) those messages or not. When we believe that the world does not revolve around us and that we were built to make a difference and leave people better than we found them we can be freed up to be intentional in choosing against the negative messages, thoughts, and lies that prevent us from living intentionally.

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Here are three ways that you can practice being more intentional in your life. Over the past twenty years of working with schools and students, organizations and teams, as well as individual leaders working in a variety of different environments, I have found the following to be true regardless of age, experience, or position.

Big Idea: Put your focus on the little things and the big things get better.

#1 - Be Intentional right where you are

I once read an article written by Kenneth V. Lundberg titled, “My Twenty Foot Swath”. The article struck me because it posed a thought that I believe many grapple with in life. What do I as one person do when the world seems to have so many overwhelming problems and I am only person? What kind of difference can I actually make? Well, from what we know about influence a lot more than we sometimes realize. In author King Duncan’s book, The Amazing Law of Influence, he calls it “The Rule of 250”. He shares that if you have just 50 friends, and each of those friends has 50 friends, you have 2,500 friends of friends. If each of these 2,500 has 50 friends, you have 125,000 friends of friends of friends, and, if each of them has 50 friends, you now have 6,000,000 friends of friends of friends of friends. Obviously there would be some overlap, and that number would be slightly smaller, but Duncan reminds us that we did start with just 50. It may be that we are only 6 levels of contact removed from everyone on earth. The Twenty Foot Swath article went on to talk about how the author had gone through a time in his life where the daily morning walk from his car to his office caused him to pass by a grassy area approximately twenty feet wide, next to some tennis courts on a college campus. He would regularly get frustrated by the garbage that was left behind by the athletes and spectators and would call and complain constantly to the university, but nothing would ever happen. Eventually he decided that if change was going to happen, it would need to start with him. So, the journey began to take care of his Twenty Foot Swath. Each day on his way to and from his office, he would pick up as much garbage as he could and throw it away. He was amazed that after taking care of this twenty foot area for a few weeks, one day some new trash and recycling bins were set out where they had never been before. He was amazed at how others started to jump in and help once he stopped complaining and started acting. He later learned that this was a metaphor for his life. When we are intentional about taking care of that which is right in front of us, each day, we do in turn change our world one small bit at a time.

#2 - Be Intentional with one thing, but be consistent

For over a decade I worked daily with high school aged students on improving the climate and culture of our school and community in my classroom. We knew that by focusing on the little things connected to our everyday relationships, that our families, our school, our community, and ultimately our world would improve day-by-day because of the collective influence we had. We also knew that there would be many distractions and obstacles that could prevent us from being intentional to accomplish these little things that make such a big difference. In fact, the first thing that goes away when times are difficult, adverse, and stressful are the little things. We need to be disciplined with our everyday actions to be able to be intentional and act from a strong will and not emotions, which are up and down constantly. The strategy that we used each year was to make a Character Card each week that included a consistent overall character goal for the year, a way that we were going to serve our school (organization) and lastly a way to serve at home that week. Each week the school/organization and home goal changed, but the overall goal always stayed the same. This overall goal is essential for effective leadership and organizational change. Leaders need to be consistent and predictable in mood and action to make a lasting difference. One administrator I worked with for a decade that oversaw the student leadership program that I advised was my accountability partner each week for ten years. Her overall goal was to right five notes of appreciation or encouragement to students and/or staff each week. I always ask, “Do you think she wrote five notes every week?” Of course not, some weeks she wrote less and some weeks she wrote more than five, but the better question is, “Do you think that she wrote more notes over the ten years than she would have if she hadn’t intentionally created a process for aligning her intentions + actions?” How are you going to be consistent in your role as a leader? What kind of accountability system are you going to put in place to make this goal as important as anything else on your "To Do List"?

#3 - Be Intentional with your everyday interactions

In education we teach reading, writing, and math skills amongst many other core subject areas, but what about the relational skills that make emotionally intelligent young people? We know that these “soft skills” are really the new “hard skills”. We know that they are actually higher indicators of success than the academic ones we focus on so heavily in school. Of course these academic skills are incredibly important, don’t get my wrong, but they aren’t the only thing. We need to teach our students how to be intentional with their everyday interactions. The number one way that we are going to teach them is by role modeling these skills ourselves. Two simple examples of how I taught young people to be intentional were to:

1. Ask the second question
2. Stop to open doors

Think about it, there is potential to have so many interactions everyday and walk through so many doors that these are perfect opportunities to practice being intentional! The next time that you greet someone and ask them how they are doing, instead of just moving on, ask a second question. It costs just a few extra seconds but it makes a huge difference in the quality of your connection and practice of being intentional. Each time you pass through a door, just spend an extra couple seconds to check and see if someone is coming behind you and hold the door open for them. This gives you an opportunity to smile, greet someone, or even compliment them. Each time you do this it is practicing living intentionally and thinking of others instead of yourself. What an important habit to create!

About the Author: John is a co-founder of CharacterStrong, 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 and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years. 

Freedom to Choose

Written By: John Norlin

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As July approaches each year, the thought of freedom comes to the forefront of my mind. Yes, one could think of the freedoms connected to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness and there is much debate around these topics right now in our country. Many people when they hear the word freedom think of the soldiers that have fought for the freedom to live in a democracy instead of dictatorship. These freedoms are definitely something to not be taken for granted, nor kept for oneself, but instead used to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to live free regardless of belief, race, gender, or political views. When I think of freedom though, one of the first things that comes to mind is our freedom to choose.

As a high school teacher for a decade I taught an elective course called ‘Principles of Leadership’ each day. The class focused on teaching strong character and relationships skills through a servant-leadership model that came from a book called The Servant: A Simple Story about the True Essence of Leadership by James C. Hunter, which changed my life. Mr. Hunter’s servant-leadership model became something that we could hang everything off of. It provided a common language and clarity on how you could build influence in the lives of those around you. It was upside down and countercultural compared to how I was taught leadership growing up and I loved it. It made so much sense to me, yet I couldn’t figure out why more people did not utilize the principles and practices of servant-leadership. Eventually I figured out the reason why.

As I taught students the topic of servant-leadership and continued to practice the principles in my own life, I quickly learned one of the big misconceptions of servant-leadership. Many times when I would choose to put a smile on my face, greet people each morning with positivity, or give an out of the blue compliment, people would tell me later in our relationship that at first they thought I was “fake”. This confused me at first until I started to ask questions and then it made sense. People informed me that they thought I was “fake” because “nobody can be that positive each day”. This was not only false, but sad. Of course someone could be consistent and predictable in mood and action each day if they chose to be. The disappointing part was that so many people, including myself, are controlled by their emotions on more days than we would like to admit, that the belief from many people is that “nobody can act in patience and kindness each day consistently, so it must be fake”. I started thinking of all the times that my feelings controlled how positive or negative my day was and then it made sense to me why a specific part of the servant-leadership course always ranked so high when students would identify the most important things they learned over the semester.

In the servant-leadership model that we taught each semester we would talk about leadership being defined as influence and that the way to build positive influence was through service and sacrifice. The model then talked about the way one serves and sacrifice and that the answer was love. Love? Seriously? Yes, but not the type of love that many of us think of when we hear the word. In fact, we have been totally cheated in the English language, because they only gave us one word for love. I can be holding hands with my wife and walking downtown where we live and look over and see an ice cream shop and say, “I love ice cream” and then ten steps later look over at my wife and say, “I love you too!” Is it the same thing? I hope not, because tomorrow I may not FEEL like I want ice cream, but I still hope I love my wife! So many times we get confused in the English language because the word love is associated with emotions or the FEELING of being in love. The Greeks got it right though. They used multiple words for love.

Storge - Love of Family. Affection.

Philia - Love of Friends. Commonality.

Eros - Romantic Love. Attraction.

Agape - Unconditional. Deliberate Choice.

In each of the first three types of love, feelings are involved, but then there is the last one which is uniquely different. It is an unconditional type of love and a deliberate choice. In a world that says, “I will love you if I feel like it or if it is convenient”. Agape love says, “Actions first, let the feelings follow”.

This is real freedom instead of being controlled daily by your emotions. Real freedom is acting in patience toward others, even when they are really hard to deal with. Real freedom is being kind toward others by paying attention and giving encouragement, even though you don’t feel like you have the time or energy. Real freedom is forgiving others by letting go of resentment towards them because you have the humility to realize that they make mistakes just like you and you are capable of separating the person from the behavior and treating them with respect the next time you see them. Real freedom is not letting your emotions control the mood of your day but instead your attitude, which you can choose each hour and each moment with people you like and people you don’t like. When we intentionally work on choosing to be the person that we want to be when interacting with others, instead of basing our actions on how we feel, we begin to discipline our character, even in times of difficulty and adversity. This is real freedom, this is what it means to be CharacterStrong.

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. 

10 Tips on Raising CharacterStrong Teens

Written By: Enterprise Middle School Parent

The teenage years are a time of tremendous learning and growth for pre-teen and teenage students - not only academically, but physically, emotionally, and socially. These years can be some of the most challenging and turbulent ups and downs for kids, and for parents. My husband and I are both teachers in CharacterStrong Schools in our district, so we see this each day in our schools and as parents at home with our 14 year old daughter and 17 year old son. The highest of peaks and the lowest of valleys can occur for teens within the span of weeks, days, or sometimes in just hours or minutes...

The highs and lows of middle and high school years are filled with growth opportunities, successes to celebrate, and challenges that shape our character as individuals. There is the push and pull of independence, the growing importance of friends and social approval, and still a need for comfort and support from home. It is a balancing act!  There are several key factors in finding the balance when raising teens with strong character. Building these routines and expectations early makes them an established practice as your children enter into these sometimes exciting, sometimes frustrating, and often unpredictable teenage years. After all, kids these days are going to change the world with their passion, purpose, and perseverance.

  1. Stay involved through the middle and high school years.
    This one is for both parents and teens. Parents: Know who your kids are hanging out with. Get to know those families. Take advantage of the networking that can happen at school parent nights and sports practices, offer to drive your kids and their friends to activities, or host an event at your house so you can get to know the friends and their families. It takes a village to raise our kids, and you want to know who is in the village that surrounds you!  Teens: Get involved with the various clubs, sports, and activities that are available in your school and community. Being connected with people is an important part of your CharacterStrong development. Jump on in!

  2. Give opportunities for independence and choice making, but within safe boundaries.
    There is a sweet spot of balance between being a “helicopter parent” and having a “you’re on your own” mentality. Our children should not be protected from all that could harm them, but they should also know that you are there if they need you. Teens need to learn to make decisions, handle tough situations, and recover from failures. The goal is to raise them to be able to succeed on their own outside of your arms of protection. They need opportunities to spread their wings, fall down, get back up again, and fly.

  3. Technology has a time and a place, but nothing replaces in-person interactions.
    In our family, cell phones have never been the private property of our children. They know that it is a privilege to have a phone, and I have the password at all times to be able to check up on them. This usually doesn’t need to happen, but there were periods of time when it was something I did pretty regularly (through middle school) to keep my finger on the pulse of what was going on. Again, find a balance between meddling, being informed, and being naive. Our family rule about social media is that you should feel comfortable to say out loud whatever it is that you are posting online. And lastly, everyone’s cell phones are docked in their charging stations in the kitchen when it is time to go to bed.

  4. Responsibility is doing what you have to do before you do what you want to do.
    My dad’s favorite saying when I was growing up was, “Plan your work, and work your plan.” It is a theme that resounds in my life as I help coordinate the busy schedules of our family. Teens are growing up in a world of instant gratification. They don’t have to wait for a song - it’s on their playlist. They don’t have to wait for a TV show - it’s on a streaming service. They don’t have to wait for a phone call from a friend - they have texts and social media at their fingertips. There is value in having a plan that is organized and establishes a priority for the “have-to’s”. Teach them that commitment and patience are qualities that will serve them well in their lives.

  5. Goal setting: Be your own best self. Perfection is not the goal.
    Comparing yourself to others is not the goal. There are always others who have more (talents, resources, etc…) than you. There are always others who have less than you. In track and field, victories are measured by improving upon one’s own personal record. The athletes don’t have to finish first to be successful. Help your kids to find what they love, work hard to build on their own skills, and achieve that personal best in all areas of their lives! Growth Mindset!

  6. Gratitude is important.
    There aren’t enough “thank you’s” in the world today. It is important to teach our kids to appreciate and value the small things and the big things that others do for them each day. Writing a thank you note, giving personal words of encouragement and gratitude, a smile or high five in the hallways, spreading joy through kindness. These acts of gratitude mean so much, and often take just a little time and thought.

  7. Give to others.
    Some of the best experiences my teens have had were when they served others. When we facilitate and encourage our kids to demonstrate humility by being willing to serve someone else, that’s when personal growth can reach epic heights. The saying “what you give, comes back to you” was realized when they volunteered their time and talents. Service can be achieved through a leadership project at school, helping with a fundraiser walk, finding a community service project that speaks to your heart, being a part of a mission trip experience with a church, or even helping a friend, teacher, family member, or neighbor. Remember, sacrifice and service is simply about putting others’ needs ahead of our own.

  8. Find the good.
    On those days that aren’t the best, find the lessons within the challenges. There are going to be those days when things just don’t go well. It may be that there are situations that are out of our control, or perhaps choices are made that were not well thought out. We can help our teens cope with difficulties by supporting them through these lessons. We all grow through the positive and negative experiences that we encounter in our lives. Help them to find the purpose in their pain…move beyond the disappointment to focus their energy on something positive. Control what you can control and build resiliency through the adversity.

  9. Don’t hold grudges.
    Forgiveness is a gift to yourself. This is a tough one, but so valuable to relationships and inner-peace. Holding a grudge is a burden that weighs on a person and holds them back in so many ways. Forgiveness allows someone to take control of their own feelings. Author Celeste Ng says that “Anger is fear’s bodyguard.”  Whether it is for others or ourselves, forgiveness is freedom from anger and bitterness, and replacing those feelings with grace and peace in our own hearts.

  10. Listen to your teens.
    Spend time with your teens. Love your teens.  Be involved and interested in what your kids are involved and interested in. I have found that time in the car is valuable talk time. There doesn’t have to be uncomfortable eye contact and conversation seems to flow more easily when positioned side by side. If your teen likes to “plug in” to their device when in the car, invite them to take the earbuds out and play their music for both of you to hear.  Make a date for some one-on-one time with your teen - take them out for coffee, a special dinner, a shopping trip, or just a drive in the car. Find out what is important in their lives and be GENUINELY INTERESTED in what they think.

They grow up way too fast, and before you know it, they will be off to adulthood - heading out into the world with the strong character that you helped to shape in them.


 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.

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.