We’re well into week three of our holiday “gift giving” projects and during this time students complete a different garden-themed craft each week. This weeks project: soap, along with a mini-lesson on essential oils and aromatherapy! Before we begin every assignment, I am very clear with my students that upon completion, their creations will stay in the greenhouse until the week before our winter vacation. At that time they will receive a bag of four fantastic gifts, made by their own hands.
Why do I stress the fact that the students will need to leave their projects with me for the next few weeks? Because, inevitably, despite my warnings, one or several students will become upset and/or confused at the end of class when they are leaving empty handed. If you know kids, the probability of them hanging on to their projects, and keeping them in good shape for the next 2-4 weeks, is almost zero.
In reality, the reason I have this “policy” is not because of my fear that the state of their projects is in potential peril. The reason for this approach is it gives my students an opportunity to work on building their power of self-control. Children with behavioral problems, like low impulse control, for example, often have a difficult time not getting immediate gratification. Studies have proven that teaching self-regulation is not only possible, but it can lead to real, long-term benefits like; academic success, physical and psychological health and social competence. On the surface, we’re simply making soap, but what the hidden curriculum teaches softly in the background is powerful! Our students learn how to deal better with stress, they build strong feelings of self-worth and they learn how to participate successfully in a group, strengthening their social game.
At Green Chimneys School, our classes range from K-12. Because of the vast age range, there are different strategies for different age groups. Here are a few grade-specific insights into how I encourage the gift giving project waiting game:
- For our youngest students, they are still generally rule followers at heart. And while they may not like my rules, firmly restating what I announced at the beginning of class will usually get us out of sticky jams.
- The middle school group enters the stage of questioning authority and wanting to assert themselves, so rules aren’t as easily adopted. For this group, negotiating works like a charm. I always try to give my students (and my own kids) a choice. Okay, so, you absolutely must take this tea bag home today? Okay, take it. But, since I see that you will not abide by my policy I will find alternate assignments for you for the next three weeks. So, be penny-wise and take the tea bag today, or be pound-wise and take four amazing projects in a few weeks. You choose.
- Generally high school students tend to think they’re slick, clearly way slicker than their gardening teacher. Right? Wrong! I cut my teaching teeth in the South Bronx. What these kids don’t understand is that I don’t only have eyes on the back of my head, I have them all over my head! This older group can be pretty easily disarmed by the fact that they can’t pull one over on me and I tell them so with a big smile on my face.
- Caveat: Sometimes I am not successful with any of the various strategies and once in a while a student will leave class upset. Though honestly, and thankfully, the disappointment never lasts too long, and the following week offers us another opportunity to continue to build on our powers of self-control. Growth does not occur in an instant, but gradually over time.
As a child, when acting impatiently, my mother would tell me the story about how when my father was a youngster in school, his teachers would drop a box of pins on the floor and his task was to pick them up. This was to teach him patience. Now, I don’t want to see any of my students on the floor picking up something I intentionally dropped, but I will store their individual projects from week to week in the month before winter recess! And while this delaying of gratification might create immediate, small amounts of discomfort for some, once they receive their big bag of accomplishments, all of my students will be awash in feelings of success, their self-esteem glowing in the smiles on their faces as they peruse their work. I’ve seen it, it’s pretty great!