Different Learners by Jane Healy, Ph.D.

When I was asked to promote Jane Healy’s book, I hesitated because one, I hadn’t read it and two, I have never written a book review. But since I am a huge fan of two of her past books (Endangered Minds and Failure to Connect) I was curious to read a book with a title that is intentionally ‘label free’. Within minutes I was hooked. Jane has done it again. She has the ability to turn science into practical, usable information while she is slowly selling you on a more holistic approach to supporting different learners.

My training as a PCI Certified Parent Coach has taught me to embrace the family as a living systems model and look beyond the child’s behavior (that’s generally why parents seek coaching in the first place), but I look at the whole family, environmental issues, day to day stressors, the child’s learning environment, etc. Jane completely supports that approach when trying to determine if a child has a learning issue and whether it is the result of genes, brain chemistry, environment or lifestyle.

I found myself nodding in agreement with her firm stance on limiting media in a child’s life and how we need to get our kids outside more often enjoying and exploring nature. And stress – painfully I have watched the detrimental effects on my own children. Jane makes several convincing arguments for why we need to slow it down, especially for students who learn differently. So many of them give up.

Jane does an excellent job describing the latest research on the brain in language that even I could comprehend – never did develop that analytical side of my brain! She talks about medication and rightly questions the amount of drugs prescribed to children. As parents we want our children to fit in and find success in school, but often medication is prescribed too quickly as a remedy. As Jane says, “In my opinion, expediency, convenience, or outside pressure are very lame reasons for messing around with your child’s brain chemistry.”

In her chapter “How Your Child’s Brain Works” she devotes the last few pages to motivation. I hear too often, ‘If he were just more motivated . . . “ So we tell our child to get motivated which Jane feels is “a waste of breath”. Jane has a few more thoughts about motivation – this is my favorite:

“One major reason for ‘motivation’ problems is that school curricula are often too rigid to accommodate a student’s need to learn differently and to repeat things for mastery. Policy makers, take note: expecting all students to achieve mastery without adequate support is a recipe for the ultimate motivation problem, dropping out.” (my emphasis)

I particularly liked her chapter on stress. She outlines the stressors our children face in this culture such as school, bullying, and social networking – factors that clearly contribute to an overload on the developing brain. I’m glad she advocates for slowing it down especially for teens. As parents we can become oblivious to what I describe as the silent stressors in our children’s lives such as Facebook, texting, and the Internet. I appreciate that Jane gives parents permission to set appropriate limits on the use of media while providing up-to-date research on screen exposure and guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The Appendices are as important as the rest of the book so don’t overlook those at the end. Jane provides a list of known learning disabilities. And she walks parents through the process of diagnosis with strong recommendations to get second and third opinions if necessary. And if you are like me and have a hard time with ‘psycho babble’ she recommends finding an advocate for yourself and your child.

Parents will find this book user friendly as well as a ‘call to action’. For all of us who are parents with different learners – Jane is our ‘Oprah’. She completely understands what it’s like to both be a child with learning differences and a parent who is struggling to get answers. Here’s one ‘call to action’: She encourages parents to advocate for those parents who cannot advocate for themselves. After reading this book those who learn easily will have a deeper understanding for parents of children who learn differently.  “We say we care deeply about our children’s learning. But do we care enough to do what needs to be done?”

From all of us, . . . thank you, Jane.

The Daddy Brain

In honor of Fathers Day, I thought I would share this article from the Greater Good Center. 

The Daddy Brain
By Jeremy Adam Smith | June 1, 2009 |
Moms aren’t the only ones whose bodies change after having a baby. Jeremy Adam Smith reveals the new science of fatherhood.

Gopal Dayaneni is a stay-at-home father in Oakland, California. He still recalls the first time he gave a bottle to his six-week-old daughter, Ila. “I sat down with her in a rocking chair,” he says. “She totally took the bottle, right up against my body, comfortable and warm. She looked up at me and I was so taken with her.”

This story has a punch line: “After that, she never took a bottle again,” says Gopal. “She screamed her head off every time I tried.”
As infants and toddlers, both of Gopal’s children cried when their mom, Martha, left for work as a teacher, cried when she came back, and talked about her all day in between. This made for some very difficult days.Jeremy__Liko-LowRez                                                                               “They just love their mother more,” says Gopal ruefully.

Famed anthropologist Margaret Mead would not have been surprised by Gopal’s situation. “Fathers are biological necessities, but social accidents,” she once said. Far from an eccentric view, Mead distilled a scientific consensus that prevailed for centuries and persists (as a matter of opinion) to this day: Men are natural conquerors—Lotharios and breadwinners—while women are natural nurturers. As a result, men want sex, women want babies, and babies want their mothers. According to this view, involved fathers are, at best, a happy accident.

For this reason, to many people Gopal’s reverse-traditional family might appear “unnatural,” a word that my desk dictionary defines as “contrary to the physical laws of nature” and my thesaurus says is synonymous with “abnormal,” “aberrant,” and “perverted.” When the children of a caregiving dad like Gopal cry out for their mother, many people would hold this up as evidence on behalf of what some call “the traditional family”—meaning, a breadwinning father and caregiving mother.

But the new science of fatherhood has started to cast Gopal’s dilemma in a new light. In researching my new book, The Daddy Shift, I read every word I could find in peer-reviewed scholarly journals about caregiving fathers, breadwinning moms, and the science of sexual difference. I also interviewed dozens of parents like Gopal and Martha.

Here’s what I discovered: Where once it was thought that the minds and bodies of men were hardly affected by fatherhood, today scientists are finding that fatherhood changes men down to the cellular level. For more than a century, it was assumed that mothers, not fathers, were solely responsible for the care, life chances, and happiness of children. In recent years, however, research has revealed that father involvement is essential to a child’s well being, and that dads provide unique kinds of care and play that mothers often do not.

As a result, scientists and parents alike are developing a radical new conception of fatherhood, one whose role is not limited to contributing sperm and making money. This should be a comfort to us all during a time of economic catastrophe, when 80 percent of people being laid off are men and tens of thousands of fathers are being thrown into new roles at home. Women have been supporting families for decades, taking on breadwinning roles that were once considered impossible. And after 30 years of research and growing male participation at home, we are now also beginning to understand that fathers can also take on roles as caregivers.

Brains of our fathers
In the past, says University of Oregon sociologist Scott Coltrane, researchers looked only at whether the father was present and married to the mother. They did not study how fathers interacted with their children or what impact fathers had on children’s development; no one studied how fatherhood might change a man’s brain and body.

But, says Coltrane, “in the late seventies researchers started saying, ‘Wait a minute, why don’t we measure what the fathers are actually doing? How do they parent?’”
In the decades since then, researchers have made a staggering number of discoveries about how critical father involvement is to child development, and how it can be cultivated. University of California, Riverside, psychologist Ross Parke is one of the pioneers of fatherhood studies. He and his colleagues developed a “systems view” that attempts to describe all the factors that influence a father’s involvement with his children:

  • His relationships with his own parents (did he have an involved father?) and in-laws (are they supportive of him?);
  • The mother’s attitude (does she welcome his participation?);
  • Timing of entry into the parental role (what pressures is he facing, especially at work?); and
  • Informal support systems such as playgroups and friendships (do other parents put social pressure on him to be involved, through example or comments?).

Read the rest of the article here.

The Quiet Power of Parental Love

I am reposting this fantastic article by Dr. Mike Bradley, one of my favorite parenting experts. His book, Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy is a must for any parent with teens. No one knows teens better or understands the dynamics between parent and teen better than he does. Enjoy!!

SUMMERTIME IN ADOLESCENCE: WHEN ONE DRINK IS TOO MANY; AND A THOUSAND IS NOT ENOUGH

Mom and Dad sat stunned on my office couch. They were great parents, appropriately involved in their 15-year-old son’s life, trying not to over control while also attempting to keep him safe, toeing that elusive parental “balance point” the experts are always suggesting. Their son “Myles” also seemed great: good grades in an elite school, talented athlete, lots of friends- he seemed like the kid we’d all want for our son, with one exception: he had been drinking two-to-three times every week throughout the summer.

Their shock only increased as their son “came clean” about his drinking, which he was so at ease in admitting since “everyone does this” in his world. “You guys are the only parents who are so crazy about us (his friends) drinking,” he calmly explained. “Check it out. It’s no big deal, not like we’re doing drugs. The other parents are all cool with this, and some even drink with us. Why do you guys think all the sleepovers are never at our house?” He paused for emphasis: “Every single kid I know from school drinks at least as much as me.

This article’s title is an old adage from the drug rehab community which has now taken on a sobering (pun intended) new meaning for those of us whose hearts are tied to teenagers. It refers to the idea that one drink for an alcoholic can start a never ending binge of drug use (boozing) while chasing a feeling he can never achieve with the drug. We now have science proving that adage can apply to teen drinking as well. A 2012 study from the University of Florida (published in The Journal of School Health) found that alcohol is the feared “gateway drug,” the chemical which whacks vulnerable teen brains to promote other drug use to include heroin and cocaine, all used in succession to achieve that unattainable high. The increased level of risk is stunning: teens who drink have up to a 16-fold increased risk of abusing other drugs. But as Myles pointed out, the irony is that too many parents have a laid-back view of teen drinking, preferring to see i t as a harmless rite-of-passage instead of what it truly is: dangerous drug use. Teen brains simply aren’t equipped to handle the addictive and brain damaging impacts of ethanol (yes, Virginia, there is ethanol in your kid’s alcohol). So much so that a teen who begins drinking at age 14 has a500% increased risk of addiction over someone who waits to drink legally.

A related and dangerous irony is that too many parents who hate the fact that their teens drink have given up trying to stop them, feeling overwhelmed by the drinking culture. As Myles’ father asked, “Well, what can we do since everyone else is doing this? He has to have some sort of social life.” In response I offer two facts: the first is that while many older teens do drink regularly, at least half don’t. Teens tend to segregate themselves into groups of similar interests and attitudes and so it can seem to half of them that “everyone does this.” Of course, Myles’ response is that those sober kids are “dorks and dweebs” with whom he’d never associate, illustrating the problem of how difficult it is for a teen to socially reinvent himself at 15 in order to start to hang out with drug-free kids. So start communicating your drug position to your kid early on, before the teen friend choices get locked in. Researchers are constantly amazed to learn how so many teens (often one-third of them) don’t even know what their parent’s attitudes and beliefs are about teen drinking.

My second helpful fact is that parents who maintain a calm, loving, and firm anti-drug position have kids who tend to avoid using drugs (“Son, we love you far too much to let you do something that can terribly hurt you. We may disagree on this, but our position is firm. We are asking that you not drink until you are 21. You can have your sleepovers but only at our house until we can trust that this drinking has stopped”). A zero-tolerance policy is not a rage-filled police state but is rather a loving belief which, quietly expressed, definitely limits teen drug behaviors.

After a few sessions, Myles became the stunned participant, a teenager who stared in amazement at his parents, people he previously saw as being nice, reasonable folks who now sat firmly united in their “crazy” zero-tolerance alcohol policy, a loving expectation framed by concern for their child. Since these parents didn’t get so heavy about very many things, this “line in the sand” really stood out to their child. In his last session, Myles’ eyes betrayed his thoughts, revealing his worry that perhaps his folks were right, that his friends could be wrong, and that his drinking today might effectively take his life tomorrow. His dangerous belief about drinking was now open to change, setting the stage for healing growth.

And all of that was accomplished without a single shouted word or scary threat. That’s the quiet power of parental love.

Dr. Mike Bradley
Dr. Mike BradleyTelephone Consultations
Just a reminder that Dr. Bradley provides telephone consultations for parents and teen helpers (counselors, therapists, and so on). Dr. Bradley’s wife Cindy (another 30-year veteran in the teen trenches) is also available for consultations. Get details.

Speaking Engagements
Interested in having Dr. Bradley speak to your parent group or professional organization? Find out more.

Q & A Videos on 20 Teen Issues with Doc Mike
Check out Dr. B’s website where you’ll find short videos on many of your sleep-destroying worries about your teen. Watch videos here.

Parents of Toddlers – Perfect Your Ignoring Skills!

pouting-child-girlParents often find themselves in an internal debate between punishment and discipline, especially if they were raised in a fear-based environment that focused on punishment. Many parents today want to do this differently and raise their children in a more democratic environment. In doing so, the pendulum has swung far to the other side and some parents have given the locus of control over to their children. More on that topic another time.

I thought I would focus today on a very effective discipline strategy for your toddler – IGNORING. What I like most about this strategy is how easy it is. And it’s respectful. Over all I think ignoring is a positive way to discipline toddlers. First a few words about discipline. The goal of discipline is to teach children how to be responsible for themselves and how to cooperate with others. It’s our job to show them a different way to behave. As parents of toddlers you are quite familiar with inappropriate behaviors such as whining, teasing, mild crying, power plays, interrupting, begging for treats, arguing, swearing and temper tantrums. Though these behaviors usually are not dangerous to children or other people, I think we can all agree they can be very annoying and generally occur when we have the least resilience to respond with forethought.

The good news is that these behaviors can often be eliminated if they are systematically ignored. (Please note, if your child is hurting someone or is in danger, you can’t ignore that behavior.)

Steps to Remember:
 Avoid eye contact and discussion (and I do mean ALL discussion!) while ignoring.
 Physically move away from your child but stay in the room if possible.
 Be prepared for testing and she will test.
 Be consistent. If you ignore the whining today, ignore it tomorrow as well.
 Combine distractions with ignoring.
 Return your attention as soon as misbehavior stops.
 Give attention to your child’s positive behaviors.

Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems
Ask your child at a calmer time if she would like to learn some other ways to handle frustration. Teach her to tell you in words how she feels instead of using an emotional display. Pay attention to ways you may be setting your child up to have a tantrum. Most kids don’t start off with a tantrum. You may be arguing, demanding, controlling, and fighting with her until she throws a tantrum in exasperation. Ask your child what she would like you to do when she is having a tantrum. Do this at a time when you can discuss it calmly. Give choices like, “Would you like a hug, or would you like me to just wait until you’re over it?”

If at any time you feel you need additional support don’t hesitate to contact me – the first phone consultation is free.

Parents, be proactive! Learn how to set appropriate boundaries before the crisis. Gain the confidence to Parent Well … every day!

Rethinking Family Meetings

I have a lot of respect for the folks at Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life at Berkeley. As you would expect they often report on the positive aspects of parenting. Summer can be a chaotic time without the school schedule. One way to help everyone feel grounded is to have a family meeting once a week. I’m a big fan of family meetings. If you are new to the concept check out the FAMILY MEETINGS PDF I give to my clients to help them get started.

Here’s a recent Greater Good article promoting family meetings by Christine Carter, Ph.D., Rethinking Family Meetings:

Every year I rethink our family meetings at the beginning of the summer, when all of our routines are changing anyway, and this June has been no different—except that I recently read Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families, which puts a big emphasis on family meetings. (read more here)

And a short video:  Rethinking Family Meetings.

Arrowsmith Program for Learning Disabilities

Image
Have you heard about the Arrowsmith Program? Most parents haven’t. Arrowsmith was founded by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young in Toronto over 30 years ago. Barbara has been successfully changing lives of children and adults with Dyslexia, ADD and ADHD. How is this possible? In one word, Neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change.

Barbara’s personal story is one of perseverance. She had multiple learning challenges as a child. As an adult she figured out how to change her brain with cognitive exercises, and went on to identify 19 different areas in the brain that relate to learning. She then developed 19 cognitive exercises to strengthen each area, and in the 70’s opened the first Arrowsmith School in Toronto. Today there are schools throughout Canada, Australia and the US. You can read more about her amazing journey in The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: And Other Inspiring Stories of Pioneering Brain Transformation.

I was curious why I hadn’t heard about Arrowsmith before. If cognitive exercises can change the brain, why aren’t all schools using some form of cognitive training to help children with dyslexia, ADD and ADHD? And more importantly, why are we still spinning our wheels with a learning assisted classroom model when we could be changing brains and lives with a cognitive classroom model? The first time I saw a cognitive classroom in action I cried. I was crying for the years my son lost trying to play catch-up in public school. I was crying for all the shame and heartache I imagine he felt every day trying to do the work designed for a neuro-normal child.

Arrowsmith isn’t the only effective cognitive program. Other established programs include Fast ForWord, Cogmed and Lumosity. But Arrowsmith is the only comprehensive cognitive program that is taught in a cognitive classroom. I believe cognitive classrooms represent the future in Special Education. I see a world where neuroscience and education join together to create a shame-free, independent learning environment for our children who learn differently.

If, like me, you are curious about Arrowsmith and curious about whether the program could help your child, check out their website, visit a school in the states or Canada, talk with Arrowmsmith parents. The Arrowsmith parents I have talked with have convinced me that the program not only works but could change the life-long trajectory of their child. And what parent wouldn’t want that?

Author Madeline Levine on Her New Book and Defining Success for Our Kids

From Make it Better, a Chicago area magazine. Click here to see Madeline speak on child development.

The Ph.D. psychologist has spoken in the area “more times than she can count,” and countless North Shore parents have read her book “The Price of Privilege” (some can even quote from it!). The book, which explored why affluent kids have epidemic rates of emotional problems in adolescence, became a runaway bestseller.

Its broad success made Levine realize that it’s not just affluent parents who are anxious—it’s all parents. So, her new book, “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success,” looks at how parents should define success for their kids, arguing that the current focus on grades and performances is misdirected.

Make It Better sat down with the sought-after expert to get her latest thoughts and advice.

What it is about our cultural moment that has caused all this stress on parents, which then translates to stress on kids?

We’re at a perfect storm right now. Technology has changed things way faster than we can evaluate it and study it. The other factor is the global economy. Parents have absolute fear that if their kids aren’t advantaged, they’re not going to be able to compete. And we’re focusing on the wrong things—content and metrics.

You’re one of the founders of Challenge Success, a research-based group at Stanford that promotes a healthier and more effective path to success in the 21st century. What do you think schools and parents should be focusing on?

I live in Marin County, and I’m at Stanford a lot, so I’m always talking to leaders in Silicon Valley. What they value is collaboration, motivation, grit, persistence and work ethic—much more than straight A’s. We’re still educating kids as if it were the industrial revolution. There should be more project-based learning. You should worry less about whether your child is the captain of the team, and more about whether he or she plays well with others.

Character is what we should be paying attention to. Instead, we’re sending kids to specialized camps and hiring tutors. The greatest thing that will give them a leg up is developing a sense of self and knowing who they are.

What do you think of the “Tiger Mother”?

The media had a field day with that book because it played to the American moms’ fear that they would never be able to keep up with the Chinese. Do I agree with a lot of what she has to say? No. I do like her idea that kids are tough and robust. But you can’t take other cultures out of context, and there are many different cultural approaches to parenting. These opinions should not be taken as fact. I’m interested in what science has to say.

You had polio as a child. How did that experience influence you?

It made me realize that life is really hard and unpredictable. One day, I was a perfectly healthy kid, and the next day I’m in a hospital surrounded by kids with iron lungs and stuff. That’s what life is. For most of us, life is really challenging. I have this really strong feeling about not adding to that. Why would we want to add to that by having kids sobbing because they got a B-? Or they got cut from the team and their father will never talk to them again? Or they didn’t get into the college their parents were hoping for? It feels like a very unfair thing to do to good kids who will have more than enough challenges to face, because that’s the way life is.

Sometimes our kids have to be unhappy. Sometimes they have to struggle. Those are gifts to kids, because they develop the kinds of coping skills they’re going to need in life. Some parents say, “They’ll pick those things up later.” They won’t.

How has your own parenting played a role in your work?

I originally got interested in how we treat kids with different abilities because I have three boys, and my youngest son didn’t get to graduate with anything on his gown. He was a hands-on kid and he used to work construction in the summers. He would wake up at 5:30 a.m. to make sandwiches for everyone on his crew, who were trying to support families on $12 an hour. It killed me that this kid who had so much generosity and kindness wasn’t recognized. There’s no generosity award—only a GPA award. But he did find an environment where his talents were valued. We lose so many kids to depression, drugs, indifference, or anger, because we have this narrow view of success. We absolutely have to open the tent and bring more kids in.

For more information about the book and her speaking schedule go to madelinelevine.com.

Why We’re Getting The Homework Question Wrong

Homework was a constant struggle in our home. As a parent I felt obligated to make sure my children were doing their part to keep up with their school work and that included doing homework and turning it in on time. But when I think of the stress that homework added to our lives, I have to wonder if in the end it was worth it.

I have come to my own conclusion that it wasn’t. Most of the homework in my opinion was just busy work and kept my middle daughter up late into the night. For my son with learning challenges, homework was a joke. And after awhile he lost interest. No matter how long he worked he rarely completed an assignment on time. Even with his accommodations he still had homework expectations and that led to a lot of stress and frustration in our home.

Which is why I am a huge proponent of the documentary and grassroots movement, The Race to Nowhere. Vicki Abeles, the film’s director, has just written the article “Why We’re Getting the Homework Question Wrong” which appeared in the Washington Post. She has launched a national petition on Change.org ”which asks the National PTA to stand behind a set of national homework recommendations that would encourage schools to assign homework only when it advances try learning, encourages a child’s self-direction and curiosity, and promotes a healthy, balanced schedule”.

I agree with Vicki – I think it’s time to ramp up the conversation about homework. I encourage you to read Vicki’s article and if it resonates please share it with other parents.

Use this forum to share your thoughts – what do you think about homework? How does it affect the quality of your child’s life? Your home life? Do you think your school district has a policy that is working? Do you have any recommendations?

I look forward to the conversation,

Sally

The Power of Positive Thinking

By Esther Entin

Jan 19 2012, 2:04 PM ET

New research shows why coaches, teachers, parents, and other role models should consider modeling how to look on the bright side: it provides both emotional and physical benefits.

The power of positive thinking is touted in the popular press and the therapist’s office. Most adults understand that the way we think about a situation can change the way we experience it. But what about children? When and how do they learn about the connection between thoughts, feelings, and experiences?

Research has shown that this awareness evolves in early childhood and matures over many years. When children are three to four years old, they can identify emotions that occur in many typical situations. They know that birthday parties are happy times and scoldings are not. By the time they are five to six years old they have an increased awareness of the connection between thinking and feeling. By age seven many children understand that people can interpret the same situation in different ways.

A recent study investigated whether the developmental changes that take place between ages five to 10 would affect children’s knowledge of the effects of thinking positively, and whether this would in turn affect a child’s emotional response to a situation.

Ninety children were divided into three age groups: five- and six-, seven- and eight-, and nine- and 10-year-old kids. They were introduced to three pairs of characters who experienced a typically positive situation (getting a new pet), a negative situation (breaking an arm), and a neutral situation (meeting a new teacher).

One character within each pair had a positive thought that framed the event in a positive light, and one had a negative thought that framed the event in a negative light. For example, one character with a broken arm thought about having his friends sign his cast, while the other thought about how uncomfortable the cast was going to be.

The children were asked to report on each character’s feelings: How does the character feel right now? Why does the character feel that way? They were also asked to explain why one character felt better than or the same as another character. The children’s explanations were categorized as situation explanations, meaning that the situation caused the emotion, or mental state explanations, meaning that the characters’ thoughts, desires, or preferences were the reasons that the character felt an emotion.

Children in every age group predicted characters’ thinking positive as opposed to negative thoughts would have different emotions even though both characters experienced the same objective event, according to the study. The eight- to ten-year-old kids were more aware that reframing events either positively or negatively could affect a person’s emotional experience, but all the children, regardless of age, seemed to believe that when events were negative, thinking positively was not enough to make a person feel good.

“The strongest predictor of children’s knowledge about the benefits of positive thinking — besides age — was not the child’s own level of hope and optimism, but their parents,'” said Christi Bamford, assistant professor of psychology at Jacksonville University, who led the study when she was at the University of California, Davis.

The findings point to parents’ role in helping children learn how to use positive thinking to feel better when things get tough. Bamford notes: “…[P]arents should consider modeling how to look on the bright side.”

The researchers concluded that children as young as five years old had begun to develop the skills to understand how positive and negative reframing could change a person’s response to a situation. They suggest that training children to recognize the benefits of positive thinking and disadvantages of negative thinking may not only help children feel better emotionally during stressful life circumstances, but may also provide health benefits by decreasing the physical toll of stress. Parents, teachers, coaches, and others who teach and care for children can model positive reframing for children to help them learn this valuable life skill.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

What if the Secret to Success is Failure?

by Paul Tough, NY Times Magazine, September 14, 2011

 

Dominic Randolph can seem a little out of place at Riverdale Country School — which is odd, because he’s the headmaster. Riverdale is one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools, with a 104-year-old campus that looks down grandly on Van Cortlandt Park from the top of a steep hill in the richest part of the Bronx. On the discussion boards of UrbanBaby.com, worked-up moms from the Upper East Side argue over whether Riverdale sends enough seniors to Harvard, Yale and Princeton to be considered truly “TT” (top-tier, in UrbanBabyese), or whether it is more accurately labeled “2T” (second-tier), but it is, certainly, part of the city’s private-school elite, a place members of the establishment send their kids to learn to be members of the establishment. Tuition starts at $38,500 a year, and that’s for prekindergarten.

Randolph, by contrast, comes across as an iconoclast, a disrupter, even a bit of an eccentric. He dresses for work every day in a black suit with a narrow tie, and the outfit, plus his cool demeanor and sweep of graying hair, makes you wonder, when you first meet him, if he might have played sax in a ska band in the ’80s. (The English accent helps.) He is a big thinker, always chasing new ideas, and a conversation with him can feel like a one-man TED conference, dotted with references to the latest work by behavioral psychologists and management gurus and design theorists. When he became headmaster in 2007, he swapped offices with his secretary, giving her the reclusive inner sanctum where previous headmasters sat and remodeling the small outer reception area into his own open-concept work space, its walls covered with whiteboard paint on which he sketches ideas and slogans. One day when I visited, one wall was bare except for a white sheet of paper. On it was printed a single black question mark.

For the headmaster of an intensely competitive school, Randolph, who is 49, is surprisingly skeptical about many of the basic elements of a contemporary high-stakes American education. He did away with Advanced Placement classes in the high school soon after he arrived at Riverdale; he encourages his teachers to limit the homework they assign; and he says that the standardized tests that Riverdale and other private schools require for admission to kindergarten and to middle school are “a patently unfair system” because they evaluate students almost entirely by I.Q. “This push on tests,” he told me, “is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.”

The most critical missing piece, Randolph explained as we sat in his office last fall, is character — those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England and that also have deep roots in American history. “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

Randolph has been pondering throughout his 23-year career as an educator the question of whether and how schools should impart good character. It has often felt like a lonely quest, but it has led him in some interesting directions. In the winter of 2005, Randolph read “Learned Optimism,” a book by Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who helped establish the Positive Psychology movement. Randolph found the book intriguing, and he arranged a meeting with the author. As it happened, on the morning that Randolph made the trip to Philadelphia, Seligman had scheduled a separate meeting with David Levin, the co-founder of the KIPP network of charter schools and the superintendent of the KIPP schools in New York City. Seligman decided he might as well combine the two meetings, and he invited Christopher Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, who was also visiting Penn that day, to join him and Randolph and Levin in his office for a freewheeling discussion of psychology and schooling.

Levin had also spent many years trying to figure out how to provide lessons in character to his students, who were almost all black or Latino and from low-income families. At the first KIPP school, in Houston, he and his co-founder, Michael Feinberg, filled the walls with slogans like “Work Hard” and “Be Nice” and “There Are No Shortcuts,” and they developed a system of rewards and demerits designed to train their students not only in fractions and algebra but also in perseverance and empathy. Like Randolph, Levin went to Seligman’s office expecting to talk about optimism. But Seligman surprised them both by pulling out a new and very different book, which he and Peterson had just finished: “Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification,” a scholarly, 800-page tome that weighed in at three and a half pounds. It was intended, according to the authors, as a “manual of the sanities,” an attempt to inaugurate what they described as a “science of good character.”

It was, in other words, exactly what Randolph and Levin had been looking for, separately, even if neither of them had quite known it. Seligman and Peterson consulted works from Aristotle to Confucius, from the Upanishads to the Torah, from the Boy Scout Handbook to profiles of Pokémon characters, and they settled on 24 character strengths common to all cultures and eras. The list included some we think of as traditional noble traits, like bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity; others that veer into the emotional realm, like love, humor, zest and appreciation of beauty; and still others that are more concerned with day-to-day human interactions: social intelligence (the ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social situations), kindness, self-regulation, gratitude. (read entire article)